- Historic Sites
Seventy-five years ago the "first lady of the air" vanished over the Pacific Ocean attempting to circumnavigate the globe. Today there may be renewed hope of solving the mystery.
Summer 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 2
At 9 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday March 20, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped to a podium in the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Dining Room and addressed a roomful of reporters, federal officials, and a sprinkling of female military aviators. Behind her sat the Secretary of Transportation, the foreign minister of the nation of Kiribati, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, underwater explorer Robert Ballard, and Richard Gillespie, executive director of The Investigative Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
Secretary Clinton began by describing her youthful admiration for Amelia Earhart, “a woman who, when it was really hard, decided she was going to break all kinds of limits—social limits, gravity limits, distance limits. Nobody,” the secretary explained, “was there to tell Amelia Earhart she couldn’t do whatever she wanted.”
And now, perhaps, the mystery of Amelia’s disappearance during a 1937 attempt to fly around the world was close to being solved. TIGHAR was returning to a tiny coral spit in the western Pacific in search of her last resting place. “Even if you do not find what you seek,” the secretary concluded, “there is great honor and possibility in the search itself.”
Seventy-five years after she vanished, Amelia Mary Earhart remains our favorite missing person. Along with her friend Eleanor Roosevelt she is perhaps the best known American woman of the 20th century. Hilary Swank, Amy Adams, Diane Keaton and Susan Clark have portrayed her in films. She continues to grace magazine covers, from Air Classics and Air & Space Smithsonian to Marie Claire. “Amelia Earhart, Even Better Than You Think,” read the banner beneath her photo on the cover of Ms., which offered a T-shirt iron-on of Amelia’s portrait in that issue. When Apple issued a set of “Think Different” advertising posters in 1998, Amelia was the first of the iconic figures selected. Steve Jobs wrote the inspirational copy explaining why Earhart, as well as Einstein, Edison, John Lennon, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama were chosen: “Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.”
Amelia Earhart was less than a month from her 40th birthday when she and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared somewhere over the western Pacific on July 2, 1937. She had catapulted to fame just nine years before, when she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic, making the trip with pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Lou Gordon. In May 1932, she became the second aviator, and first woman, to solo the Atlantic, five years to the day after Lindbergh. She set one aerial record after another, climbing into the headlines and working hard to stay there.
Earhart used her celebrity on behalf of the causes in which she believed. She was a leading spokesperson for American commercial aviation. In 1935 Amelia accepted the invitation of Purdue University to join the faculty as a career counselor for young women, an assignment close to her heart. As a teenager, she had kept a scrapbook filled with clippings about women achievers. Once she had the public ear, she spoke out in favor of equal rights for women at every opportunity. Amelia helped to establish Zonta International, an organization for professional women, and the Ninety-Nines, a society for women involved in aviation.
A genuine progressive, Amelia supported political causes in which she believed. She signed a petition from the American Women’s Committee for the Recognition of the Soviet Union, and announced her support for a campaign by the Women’s Committee for Peace and Freedom to cut military spending in favor of increased appropriations to assist the unemployed. A committed pacifist, Amelia nevertheless argued that women should be drafted. She said it was the only way that the sensible half of the population would get some notion of what war was like and put a stop to the whole thing.
Fame came at a price. In order to maintain her status, there was always another flight. By 1935 she was in search of a new challenge and a new airplane to meet it. That fall, Purdue University agreed to supply its new faculty member with $80,000 for a “flying laboratory.” Her husband, promoter George Putnam, managed the acquisition of a twin-engine Lockheed Model 10E Special, a modified version of the ten-passenger Electra that the firm was marketing to the airlines. Fitted with long distance tanks, twin Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines, and a host of special equipment provided by leading aviation manufacturers, Amelia’s new craft was ready for whatever she had in mind.
What she had in mind was a flight around the world at the equator. Her first attempt ended with a ground loop on take-off from Wheeler Field, Honolulu. Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off on the second attempt from Miami on June 1, 1937, bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, on the first leg of their long flight. Over the next month the pair flew across the south Atlantic and Africa, along the foot of the Arabian Peninsula, down through south and southeast Asia to Australia and on to a landing at the isolated port of Lae, New Guinea, on June 29. Three days later, at 10 a.m. on July 2, 1937, the Electra rolled down the dirt runway with 1,100 gallons of fuel onboard and flew off toward tiny Howland Island, 2,556 miles away.