Amelia Earhart: The woman who dared to touch the stars

By Ken Weyand

At age 10, tomboy Amelia Earhart saw her first airplane — a flimsy biplane, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines — and wasn’t impressed.

In 1920, however, Earhart got a ride with famed air racer Howard Hawks in San Diego, and discovered she loved flying. She took flying lessons, worked several jobs, and purchased a used Kinner biplane.

Six months later, less than two years after her first ride, she set a world altitude record for female pilots, climbing to 14,000 feet.

Amilia Earhart(photo courtesy of Museum of Flight organization)

In 1928, Earhart became part of a three-person flight team to cross the Atlantic, and received national acclaim after the successful flight.

In 1931, she married George Putnam, a publisher who had helped promote her earlier flight and strongly supported her adventurous spirit. The following year she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. In recognition, she was awarded the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross, another first for a woman.

Four years later, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to Oakland, CA.

Earhart wrote about her experiences in the books, 20 Hours, 40 Min: Our Flight in the Friendship, The Fun of It, and Last Flight.

Earhart’s fame grew, partly because she resembled flying hero, Charles Lindbergh, at one point acquiring the nickname "Lady Lindy." She thrilled America with her flying exploits.

She used her fame to further women’s rights. She also served as a faculty member at Purdue University, where she offered career counseling to women.

Earhart once said, "My ambition is to have this wonderful gift produce practical results for the future of commercial flying and for the women who may want to fly tomorrow’s planes."

Home sweet home: The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum

On a high bluff overlooking the Missouri River, Amelia Earhart’s birthplace today stands as a tribute to the plucky aviator.

The house where Earhart spent her childhood was built in 1861 and enlarged in 1873. In 1984, it was purchased and restored by The Ninety Nines, an international organization of women pilots founded by Earhart.

During her childhood Earhart lived in the house with her maternal grandparents, Judge Alfred Otis and Amelia Harres Otis. Her father, a lawyer and railroad claims agent, traveled extensively and was seldom at home.

Its purchase, restoration and continued care are also a tribute to the efforts of The Ninety Nines, who purchased the home through a gift from Dr. Eugene Bribach, an Atchison physician. In 1994, an autonomous Board of Trustees was elected, composed of Ninety Nines members and Atchison residents. They maintain the home year-round.

Although most of the furnishings in the home were purchased to reflect the period, a few are actual Earhart pieces, including Earhart’s hope chest, favorite toys of hers and her sister Muriel, original photographs, paintings and other items. Original furniture includes a drop-leaf table and a chest used by Amelia, and her oak writing desk.

The Earhart Project

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Miami in an attempt to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe.

After completing all but 7,000 miles of the 29,000-mile journey, they disappeared over the Pacific. Although extensive searches were conducted, the pair and their Lockheed Electra were never found.

Their disappearance remains a mystery to this day, and is the subject of many theories.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery is testing the hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan landed, and eventually died, on Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. They have termed this endeavor, "The Earhart Project."

Ric Gillespie, of TIGHAR, will present the program, "Finding Amelia" at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16, at Theatre Atchison, 401 Santa Fe, in Atchison, KS.

The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 913-367-SHOW (7469) or email theatre@theatreatchison.org.

TIGHAR, now in its 23rd year, is also planning a major underwater search for July 2012, the 75th anniversary of the flight.

Ken Weyand can be contacted at kweyand1@kc.rr.com. Rhiannon Ross contributed to this story. She can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com.

(photo courtesy of the Ninety-Nines. Inc.)

Happy birthday, Amelia!

Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum

International Forest of Friendship

About the cover

Illustration by Cheryl Harness from Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women, (HarperCollins, 2001).

Harness is an award-winning, historical children’s author and illustrator who has published 44 books, 13 of which are illustrations only. She produced Cheryl Harness Histories for National Geographic, including The Groundbreaking, Chance-Taking Life of George Washington Carver and Science & Invention in America, (National Geographic Society, 2008). She lives in Independence, Missouri.