Friday, July 17, 2009

Amelia Earhart (1897 - 1937)

In an astounding career of just nine years between 1928 and 1937, Amelia Earhart became America's and the world's most famous aviator. She was an unknown social worker in a settlement house in Boston, and a weekend amateur pilot when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Prior to this, she was also a file clerk, an English teacher, a photographer and a truck driver.

Her rocky childhood included an alcoholic father, whom she adored, but who abandoned his wife and two daughters leaving them in poverty. Nevertheless, both girls graduated high school and went on to college: Muriel, the eldest, enrolled at Smith College, (where Amelia also took a brief course in auto-mechanics); while Amelia opted to pursue pre-med at Columbia, only to leave two years later due to a lack of funds.

In 1928, at age 31, while working as a demonstrator and sales representative for Winfield Kinner airplanes, she came to the attention of George Putnam who had published Charles Lindbergh's story. She agreed to his plan to fly across the Atlantic with two other male pilots. Although nominally captain of the flight, Amelia found herself relegated to passenger, and later described herself as "just baggage."  Nonetheless, this flight launched her career as an aviator and made her an international star. Putnam had created his "Lady Lindy," a title Amelia grew to loathe.

Within weeks, Putnam and Sons published an account of the flight, and she went on to break several more speed and endurance records. She married Putnam in 1931 and then repeated the transatlantic crossing in 1932 -- this time solo. In 1935, she became the first person to fly from Hawaii to California.

Between flights, she wrote magazine articles, endorsed products including a popular line of clothing and luggage which she designed, and gave countless speeches on a nation-wide lecture circuit, all arranged by George.  Although shy and modest, Amelia endured the publicity, seeing it as the most effective way to raise money to pay for her great love, flying.  She used the opportunity to speak on behalf of jobs and political rights for women.  She was a founding member of the "Ninety-Nines," an international association of women pilots still active today.  She proved a master of evasion when questioned about her personal life, but the press found her charming, intelligent and witty, and the world admired her for her courage, determination and charisma.

All this activity left her little time to upgrade her flying skills, particularly navigation and communication.  Days before her fortieth birthday, on the final leg of her round-the-world flight, her plane disappeared over the Pacific. The most extensive search for a single plane ever made by the US Navy failed to locate the plane or its crew.  The search continues even today, by individuals determined to solve the mystery of her disappearance.

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