The most famous female aviator in history, Amelia Earhart’s crowning achievement was her solo flight across the Atlantic in 1932. For becoming the first woman to make the crossing alone – following Charles Lindbergh’s own solo passage five years previously – she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
She became an international icon, and took advantage of her celebrity to advance women’s rights. “Women, like men, should try to do the impossible,” she famously declared. “And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.”
Earhart’s odyssey started in 1904 when, as a seven-year-old girl with a precocious sense of adventure and slim regard for personal safety, she built a ramp from the roof of the family shed and propelled herself down it in a wooden box. The young Amelia Earhart emerged from the resulting splinters and enthused to her younger sister: “Oh, Pidge, it’s just like flying!”
In her 20s, while watching a World War I flying ace at an air show, Earhart was swooped and buzzed by the pilot. “I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by,” she said later. In 1920, racing pilot Frank Hawks took Earhart flying. After 10 exhilarating minutes in the sky, her mind was set: she would learn to fly.
Within months she became the pupil-prodigy of Anita ‘Neta’ Snook, one of the earliest female pilots, and on 15 May 1923, Earhart became just the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license.
By the mid twenties, Earhart held an altitude record for female flyers and had started writing about aviation for newspapers. She was also building the foundation of a support organisation for female pilots.
A surprise phone call resulted in Earhart joining a flight from Newfoundland to Wales on 17 June 1928. The plane was piloted by Wilmer Stultz, with Louis Gordon acting as mechanic and co-pilot. Earhart didn’t touch the controls, but found fame as the first woman to have flown across the Atlantic. “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes,” she said afterwards. “Maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”
Earhart became the first woman to do a solo return flight across North America in 1928, and she took up air racing in 1929, competing in the first Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women’s Air Derby. During the race – which was nicknamed the ‘Powder Puff Derby’ – Earhart sacrificed her chance of victory by rescuing friend and fellow pilot Ruth Nichols, who had crashed during take-off.
By now she was writing for Cosmopolitan and endorsing products from Lucky Strike cigarettes to luggage. All the time her fame was growing, aided by her relationship with publicist George Putnam, who she later married.
Her first solo Atlantic flight attempt took place in 1932, with Earhart taking off from Newfoundland and aiming for Paris. It didn’t go entirely to plan – she landed in a field in Northern Ireland – but she was highly decorated for her achievement.
In 1937, three weeks short of her 40th birthday and while attempting a round-the-world flight, Earhart’s plane disappeared over the South Pacific. On 2 July, at exactly 00:00 hours GMT, Earhart and Noonan left Lae in Papua New Guinea with 1,000 gallons of fuel, giving them up to 21 hours of flying time. They were never seen again.