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  • The George Palmer Putnam Collection of the Amelia Earhart Papers
  • Scott A.G.M. Crawford

When her Lockheed Electra went missing on July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart, in a matter of days, became embedded in a, literally, fantastic landscape blending myth and mystery, for—right up to the present day—no hard evidence has been found to explain her disappearance. Very likely her plane ran out of fuel, and there is abundant evidence that navigational errors played a key role in the loss of her aircraft and the deaths of herself and her navigator, Fred Noonan. What makes Amelia Earhart a fascinating historical personage is the manner in which a one-time nurse and pre-medical student fell in love with airplanes and that flying found, in her, an amazing ambassador for aviation.

The Encyclopedia of Women and Sports (1996) opens its profile of Earhart with a poetic phrase that captures the aviatrix’s passion for being airborne: “As soon as we left the ground, I knew I had to fly myself. . . . We were friends the oceans, the hills and I.”1 The Encyclopedia of Women and Sport in America (1998) “sees her as true American heroine.”2 Leslie Heaphy’s biography of Earhart, in the International Encyclopedia of Women and Sports (2001), highlights her pioneering role in developing and promoting women’s aviation and notes that Earhart was an original inductee to the Women Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.3 [End Page 115]

Biographical Précis

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas, on July 24, 1897. Her father was a legal representative for railroad companies, and this necessitated a peripatetic lifestyle. Earhart thus attended no less than six high schools in the space of four years. She graduated from Hyde Park High School, Chicago, in 1915.

In early 1918 Earhart became a volunteer nurse at a military hospital in Toronto, and visits to a local airfield started a life-long enthusiasm for all things to do with flying. In December of 1920 she flew in a plane, as a passenger, for the first time. A year later Earhart took flying lessons from Anita Snook and showed such flair and enthusiasm for aviation that, with financial help from her family, she was able to buy her first airplane.

Sammie Morris, a Purdue archivist, has compiled an extraordinary eighty-nine-page guide4 to the George Palmer Putnam Collection of the Amelia Earhart Papers.5 The guide opens with a rich biography, in miniature, of Amelia Earhart. Morris perfectly captures Earhart’s zealot-like embrace of flying and reveals an intriguing character who was a complex jigsaw of a human being. She was competitive and charismatic; she found herself cast in the spotlight as a celebrity but in reality was retiring; she was a romantic at heart and wrote poems as a schoolgirl; she relished the many opportunities given to her with her head-lining aviatrix persona but often seemed overwhelmed by the demands placed on her as the “female” Lindbergh.

Morris charts the many accomplishments of Earhart’s aviation career. In 1922 she set her first aviation record, which was an altitude record at 14,000 feet. In May of 1923 she got her airline pilot’s license, the first woman and seventeenth pilot to be so recognized. Then, in April of 1928 Hilton H. Railey contacted Earhart to see if she wanted to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. She agreed and was a passenger in the Friendship that, with the crew of pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon, successfully made the transatlantic flight.

In 1932 Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She was now seen to be much more than an accomplished aviator; she had become equal parts folk heroine and female pioneer. Morris gives us some sense of the fast-paced tenor of Earhart’s life:

In July [1932], she set the woman’s record for the fastest non-stop transcontinental flight, flying from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey. She wrote her second book, The Fun of It, and began lecturing all over the country, often speaking in two...


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