Born on July 24, 1897 in Kansas, America, Amelia’s interest in flying began after seeing wounded pilots returning from World War I, when she volunteered as a nurse’s aide for the Red Cross. She would regularly spend her free time watching the Royal Flying Corps practicing. Then, at a Long Beach air show in 1920, she took a plane ride that transformed her life, being so taken with the experience that she is quoted as saying, “300 feet off the ground I knew I had to fly.”
In the summer of 1921, Earhart purchased a second-hand biplane, and on October 22, 1922, she flew it to 14,000 feet, which was the world altitude record for female pilots at the time. Shortly after, on May 15, 1923, Earhart became only the 16th woman in the world to be issued a pilot’s license.
In 1927 Earhart became a member of the Boston branch of the American Aeronautical Society. She wrote articles promoting flying in the local newspaper, which gave her a small following some local celebrity.
In April 1928, Earhart received a phone call from a pilot and publicity man named Captain Hilton H. Railey, who asked if she’d like to fly across the Atlantic. She travelled to New York to meet with project coordinators, and though in the event it was deemed too dangerous for a woman to actually pilot the plane at any stage of the journey, it was of no little significance that she had gained enough status to be selected to become the first woman passenger on a transatlantic flight.
Pilot Wilmer “Bill” Stultz and co-pilot/mechanic Louis E. “Slim” Gordon, took off with Amelia on June 17, 1928, from Newfoundland. Then, 20 hours and 40 minutes later, they landed at Burry Point, Wales, in the United Kingdom.
Becoming ever more popular as a celebrity, Earhart set her sights on establishing herself as a respected aviator. Soon after returning from the transatlantic fight, she set off on a successful solo flight across North America. In 1931, Earhart powered a Pitcairn PCA-2 auto-gyro and set a world altitude record of 18,415 feet.
In early 1932, Earhart and her husband worked on secret plans for a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. On the morning of May 20th 1932, Amelia took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, but she quickly ran into difficulty as she encountered thick clouds and ice on the wings. After about 12 hours the conditions got worse, and the plane began to experience mechanical difficulties. Amelia knew she wasn’t going to make it to Paris as planned, so she landed in a field in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
This 15 hour flight, despite difficulties, established Amelia as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She would take several other flights over the next few years, including a solo trip from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California, which made her the first person to have flown across both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.
Sadly for Amelia Earhart, however, perhaps her most famous flight would and will continue to be her last. The mystery of that story will be looked at in a second article, which will appear shortly, also on this site.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.