Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart and George Putnam: The publishing tycoon turned Amelia into a record breaking aviator and a celebrity. He divorced and they wed, but then came the last flight...


America's most famous aviatrix grew up in an environment of wealth and privilege, thanks to her maternal grandfather, Alfred Otis, who was a former judge. As was tradition at that time, she was named after her two grandmothers.

From an early age, Amelia was the ringleader, as her little sister Grace, nicknamed 'Pidge', used to follow her about. The two girls enjoyed climbing trees, hunting rats with rifles and sledding down hills.

Amelia, known as Milly, was 10-years-old when she saw her first airplane at the Iowa State Fair, saying later, 'It was a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.'

She was educated at home before starting a public school at the age of 12. By the time she graduated in 1916, she had been to six different schools as her father was an alcoholic and couldn't hold down a job. Throughout her childhood she aspired to work in typically male-dominated industries, keeping a scrapbook of female lawyers, engineers and film directors.

In 1917, Amelia visited her sister in Toronto and after seeing wounded soldiers return from the trenches of WWI she trained as a Red Cross nurse. She cooked meals for soldiers with special dietary requirements and handed out medicine.

She caught Spanish Flu and was hospitalised in November 1918 before being discharged in December that year. One of her symptoms was chronic sinusitis, which would affect her later flying career as she was sometimes forced to wear a bandage on her cheek to cover a small drainage tube.

It wasn't until 1920 that the flying bug bit, when she and her father went to an 'aerial meet' at Daugherty Field in Long Beach. Given a helmet and goggles, she boarded an open-cockpit biplane for a 10 minute flight over Los Angeles. She was enthralled, and flying lessons soon followed.

By October 1922, Amelia began participating in record breaking attempts and set a women's altitude record of 14,000 feet.

In the autumn of 1925, Amelia moved to Boston, and joined the Boston Chapter of the National Aeronautic Association. During this time she took full advantage of the circumstances to promote flying, especially for women, becoming a regular subject of columns in newspapers. The Boston Globe called her 'one of the best women pilots in the United States'.

New York publisher George Putnam, impressed with Earhart, organised for her to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane on 3 June 1928, albeit as a passenger.

She later married him and Putnam built her public persona to such an extent that on 20 May 1932, when she successfully crossed the Atlantic alone, she was the most celebrated woman in the world, hailed a National hero, and given numerous awards and ticker tape parades.

Earhart became something of a celebrity in the period after this, launching her own 'active living' clothing line in Macy's and promoting a line of suitcases, which are still produced today. She even became an associate editor at Cosmopolitan magazine and used her position to campaign for greater acceptance of women in the aviation industry.

An around the world solo flight was the natural progression for Earhart, but an early attempt in 1935 was unsuccessful, when she crashed on take off near Pearl Harbour. Undaunted, and following the rebuilding of her Electra, she tried again, departing from Miami, Florida on 1 June 1937.

Her route took her via Puerto Rico and the northeast edge of South America, then on to Africa, the Red Sea and on to Pakistan (no one had ever flown non-stop from the Red Sea to India before). Following weather delays, she departed for Australia, then on to Lae in New Guinea. She had, at that stage, travelled 22,000 miles, with 7,000 remaining, most of which would be over the Pacific.

Leaving late on 2 July, Amelia made her last radio contact at 20.00 GMT with the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca and, despite a $4 million search authorised by President Roosevelt, involving 66 airplanes and nine naval ships, no trace of Earhart and her plane have ever been found. There was speculation that Earhart could have landed on an uninhabited island close to her intended destination, but she was officially declared dead on 5 January 1939 when all searches of the area proved inconclusive.

In 2009, a film based on the life of Amelia Earhart was released, starring Hollywood actress Hilary Swank. The movie was also executively produced by Swank and pieces of original newsreel footage were used during the film.

However, the movie was largely panned by critics, with one writing, 'The film accomplishes the amazing feat of making one of the most complex, passionate, ferociously ambitious, and successful women of the 20th century seem shallow, weepy, and rather dull.'