A Grand Adventure

Discover the life and truth behind the legend of one of the world's greatest aviators.

Amelia Earhart with an Autogiro in Los Angeles. REX/Shutterstock
Amelia Earhart with an Autogiro in Los Angeles. REX/Shutterstock

Amelia Earhart was never destined for the conventional life prescribed for most girls born in the American Midwest in 1897. A tomboy from the start, she scandalised neighbours in Atchison, Kansas, as she sledded down icy hills on her belly (young ladies were supposed to sit), cavorted in bloomers (made famous by suffragette Amelia Jenks Bloomer as a symbol of female freedom), built a dangerous homemade replica of the roller coaster she saw at a fair in St Louis and demonstrated both a dogged determination to succeed at any task and a cool defiance of authority.

From an early age, she kept a scrapbook of cuttings about women who had made their mark in a man's world, from pioneering doctors to film directors, lawyers to automobile testers. Later, she would declare that she saw marriage as little more than being a 'domestic robot'. She wrote: 'I cannot claim to be a feminist, but do rather enjoy seeing women tackling all kinds of new problems - new for them, that is.' And when fame (but never really fortune - flying was expensive) came her way, she used her celebrity status to encourage other women to break free from the prevailing social straightjackets.

She practised what she preached, turning down offers of marriage, helping Canadian soldiers as a nurse's aid in Toronto during World War I, learning the banjo, studying mechanics and throwing herself into social work.

Amelia Earhart in a Department of Commerce airplane, 1936. Everett/REX/Shutterstock
Amelia Earhart in a Department of Commerce airplane, 1936. Everett/REX/Shutterstock

The road - or rather the runway - to being America's premier aviator came on Christmas Day 1920, when her father (who had moved the family to Los Angeles) took her to an airshow in Long Beach and then, three days later, bought her a ticket for an airborne joyride. That night she told her family: 'I think I want to learn to fly.' She did a lot more than merely learn, of course, and along the way she became a style icon. She had her hair cut (in stages) into the famed tousled bob so it wouldn't get in her eyes, and dressed in long lace-up boots, jodhpurs, silk blouses and belted jackets (she would later adopt Belstaff, as its outdoor clothing was eminently suited to open or unheated cockpits).

By 1922, the 'society-girl aviatrix' was reportedly telling a Los Angeles paper: 'I don't crave publicity, but to me it would be the greatest fun to fly across the continent. I think I'll do it.' And do it she did, as well as famously becoming, in 1928, the first woman to cross the Atlantic. Though as she didn't fly the plane (or, unlike the pilot and mechanic, get paid), she considered herself mere 'baggage'. Nevertheless, her future husband and Svengali George Palmer Putnam transformed her into an international celebrity, with tickertape parades, lecture tours, and meetings with Harry Selfridge, the Prince of Wales and the Roosevelts. In 1932, she made a solo flight across the pond, garnering her a reputation as 'the female Lindbergh'.

A flight around the equator in 1937 was to be her last attempt at a record-breaking jaunt. But heading from New Guinea to a small Pacific island called Howland in foul weather, with malfunctioning instrumentation, she and her navigator disappeared.

Before her first Atlantic crossing, Earhart had written letters to her parents, in case she failed to return. Her attitude had not changed by the time of her final flight. To her mother: 'My life has really been very happy and I didn't mind contemplating its end one bit.' And to her father: 'Hooray for the last grand adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worthwhile anyway.' But she had won - a lasting place in people's hearts and imaginations.