Earhart symbolizes the fascination that aviation held for Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. Like Charles Lindbergh, she became a national celebrity because of her exploits in the air. Her modest demeanor and short, tousled hair made her a perfect heroine for a media-conscious age.
Earhart’s entire life had a certain restless quality. By 1928, she had found a calling of sorts as a social worker in Boston who flew in her spare time. When New York publisher George Palmer Putnam asked if she wanted to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic, she readily agreed. The June 1928 flight from Newfoundland to Burry Port, Wales, made her an instant celebrity, although she was quick to note that she had been merely a passenger, ‘a sack of potatoes,’ who kept the log. When she soloed the Atlantic in 1932, another first for women, she proved to the world and, more important, to herself that 1928 had not been a fluke.
After the 1928 flight, Earhart turned her hobby of flying into a paying career. As a lecturer, author, and airline industry vice president, she preached her message that flying would soon be an accepted part of everyday life. Many of her widely publicized flights-the 1932 transatlantic crossing, her 1935 solo from Hawaii to California, the 1937 round-the-world attempt-hastened the introduction of commercial air routes. Her career was managed by Putnam, whom she married in 1931 in what was as much a business relationship as a love match. Earhart kept her own name professionally and made no plans to have children. She continued to identify herself publicly with feminism and served as the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of women pilots.
Amelia Earhart had a poet’s appreciation of flight, and she flew because she wanted to, which to her individualistic mind-set was the best reason of all. She was delighted when Purdue University, where she had served as aviation consultant and counselor on careers for women since 1935, presented her with a Lockheed Electra so advanced she dubbed it ‘the flying laboratory.’ Now she could fulfill her ambition to fly around the world. The first attempt in March 1937 ended prematurely when her plane crashed on takeoff in Hawaii. A second attempt began two months later, now following a west-to-east direction. On July 2, 1937, during the hardest leg, a 2,556-mile segment from New Guinea to a tiny speck in the mid-Pacific called Howland Island, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared.
The circumstances of Earhart’s ‘popping off’ (her matter-of-fact phrase) have been a source of speculation ever since. Was she on a spy mission for Franklin Roosevelt? Did she land on a desert island and become a Japanese prisoner? The weight of evidence suggests that her plane ran out of fuel somewhere near Howland Island and sank quickly. But given the aviator’s hold on the popular imagination, the search for Amelia Earhart continues.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.