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Geography in the News: Amelia Earhart’s Legacy

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Amelia Earhart’s Legacy

The movie “Amelia,” detailing the life of Amelia Earhart, debuted in the fall of 2009 to mixed reviews. The real life story of Earhart, the aviation pioneer of the 1920s and 30s, however, is a fascinating story filled with intrigue and mystery. The search for her downed plane in the South Pacific continues.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. Even in early childhood, Earhart had a strong sense of adventure. She played tirelessly with her younger sister, climbing trees, hunting rats with a rifle and “belly-slamming” on her sled downhill. This rough outdoor play made many in her day characterize her as a “tomboy.”

As a teenager, Earhart preferred science and reading to more traditional activities for girls of her era. She aspired to a non-traditional career and collected newspaper clippings about women in mostly male-dominated fields, such as law, advertising, film direction and production, and mechanical engineering.

Earhart had her first experience with aviation in her early 20s while at an aircraft fair in Toronto. As she and a friend watched, a World War I flying “ace” dove his plane close to the girls intending to frighten them. Earhart stood her ground and later reminisced, “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”

After her first ride in a plane in 1920, Earhart knew she was destined to fly. Six months after beginning flying lessons, she purchased a second-hand bright yellow Kinner Airster biplane that she nicknamed “The Canary.” She flew the Canary to an altitude of 14,000 feet (4,300 m) in 1922, setting a world record for female pilots. Earhart received her pilot’s license in 1923 at the age of 26. She was only the 16th woman to do so.

Though many considered Earhart an intelligent and competent pilot, she was hardly a brilliant aviator according to more seasoned flyers. One miscalculation early in her career ended with the Airster spinning downward through a cloudbank, emerging at a dangerously low 3,000 feet (910 m). She worked hard at her chosen career, however, and continued to take lessons from more experienced aviators. By 1927, she had accumulated almost 500 hours of solo flight time.

After Charles Lindbergh completed his solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, Earhart was approached by friends to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Though she did not pilot the airplane (the team relied on instruments and she had no experience with that type of flying), she kept the flight log and made history as a member of the crew.

In 1932, Earhart embarked on a solo flight across the Atlantic from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. Despite encountering icy conditions, strong northerly winds and mechanical problems, Earhart flew 14 hours and 56 minutes to land in a pasture in Culmore, Ireland, just north of Derry. This achievement made her the second person, and first woman, to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com
Map by Geography in the News and Maps.com

Earhart broke many aviation records. From 1930-1935, she set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records in an assortment of different airplanes. Furthermore, in 1935, she was the first person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California, and from Los Angeles to Mexico City.

In 1937, at almost 40 years old, Earhart attempted to be the first woman to fly around the world. After a failed first attempt, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, left Miami a second time on June 1. Their flight was to cover 29,000 miles (46,671 km). By June 29, they had completed all but 7,000 miles (11,265 km) of their journey when they landed to refuel in Lae, New Guinea.

The next leg was to be the most difficult segment of the trip. They were scheduled to land on Howland Island, 2,556 miles (4,113 km) from Lae in the mid-Pacific Ocean. Navigation to and landing upon the 1.5 mile (2.4 km) long and half mile (.8 km) wide island would be challenging, especially given that many of Noonan’s maps had proven inaccurate.

In the midst of overcast skies and intermittent rain showers, Earhart presumably was unable to locate the island and her aircraft eventually ran out of fuel. She lost radio contact with a Coast Guard ship positioned near Howland to aid the landing. Though the search was extensive, no irrefutable trace of Earhart’s plane was ever found.

Famous for her solo aviation records, Amelia Earhart was also an author and a strong advocate of women pilots. She was a courageous visionary remembered for her amazing achievements in aviation. Her life’s story continues to enthrall a world of admirers even today, as the search for her disabled plane and its contents continues in the South Pacific nearly 77 years after it disappeared.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 1019, Taking Flight With Amelia Earhart, Dec. 11, 2009 (Maps.com)

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.