Monday, July 7, 2014

Amelia Earhart Lives

Above is Amelia Earhart, the pioneering woman pilot, with her Lockheed Electra airplane.  She, her navigator and the plane disappeared mysteriously in the Pacific in 1937, a couple stops short of the completion of an ambitious attempt to fly around the world at the equator.

Recently a piece of manufactured aluminum was discovered on a tiny island.  It is possible the fragment is one that was patched onto her plane during a stop in Miami early in the journey.

This adds credence to the leading theory of what happened to Amelia Earhart -- that her plane, lost in a storm and low on fuel, landed on a tiny unoccupied island and radioed for help.  Over some period, probably weeks, Earhart and her navigator grew hungrier and weaker and eventually died.

(This is not to say the mystery is solved.  There remain ardent fans of other theories:  that the plane dropped into the ocean and sank near its planned stop, Howland Island; that the plane landed on a Japanese-occupied island and the two aviators were executed.  The arguments continue.)

Amelia Earhart was from all reports an average young woman until her father paid $10 for her to be taken on a brief flight at an airshow.  From then on, she was hooked.  She worked several jobs to pay for flight lessons and then to buy airplanes.  She competed and won many women's air races. She was the "first woman to fly to" various destinations.

Her demeanor was quiet but confident.  She took on challenge after challenge with courage and persistence.  Good-looking, she and her husband promoted her enthusiasm for aviation.  She wrote books about flight and her vision of herself as what we would now call a feminist.  (There were many more feminists in the 1920s and 1930s than most people realize.)

All these qualities lent her a charisma that was remarkable in its time and attaches to her still, 77 years after she disappeared.

She will always be a mystery.  Her story is never finished.  We will always be imagining how her life might have played out under different circumstances.

For generations, young women have been inspired by her.  She figures in the early poetry of Patti Smith and the songs of Joni Mitchell.  In 1996, a young woman wrote a book called I Was Amelia Earhart, first-person obviously, about what happened after her plane landed on a small island.

In a movie not long after Earhart's disappearance, Rosalind Russell played Earhart as an American spy seeking information about Japanese actions in the Pacific.  Diane Keaton starred in a 1994 film about Earhart.  In 1009, Hilary Swank put together and starred in an Earhart biopic.

This summer, a young woman named Amelia Rose Earhart (Amelia Earhart had no children) is re-enacting Earhart's 1937 flight itinerary.

Purdue University, where she was a visiting faculty member, has a dormitory and scholarship named for Amelia Earhart.  At least six schools around the country are named for her.  The Amelia Earhart Foundation funds research by 50 professors around the United States.  There is a dam, a bridge, an airport, a park.  Her birth home is a museum.  There is even an Earhart Corona on the planet Venus.

Just about everyone who followed the news of Earhart's career and round-the-world challenge has died by now.  But Amelia Earhart, charismatic and mysterious, will always be with us.

Fred Noonan

Earhart's navigator, seen above with Earhart less than month before they disappeared, was himself quite an adventurer.  He began his career as a seaman on merchant ships.  During World War I he was an officer on ammunition ships, three of which were sunk beneath him by German U-boats.

Noonan learned to fly in the 1920s and became fluent in navigation skills, including the celestial techniques familiar to Columbus and the emerging radio technologies of the early part of the last century.  As the chief navigator for Pan Am Airlines, he mapped the routes used by the airline's planes crossing the Pacific to various destinations.

At the time of the round-the-world flight, Noon had left the airline and was planning to start a navigation training school.  He may have signed on to Earhart's journey to gain prominence for that next plan.

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