Another Type of Pioneer

Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day celebrates the American worker. It may have started with labor unions, but it soon grew broader than that.

This post celebrates an American worker who was also a pioneer. She made great strides for American women, proving that they have as much courage as men and are capable of doing many of the same things, including joining them in the skies. And although it wasn’t exactly a labor union, Amelia Earhart was one of the founders and the first president of the Ninety-Nines—an organization of women pilots that still exists today.

On our summer vacation, Roland and I visited Amelia Earhart’s birthplace in Atchison, Kansas. She was born at her maternal grandparents’ house, shown in the second picture. She also spent a lot of time there during her early years.

Amelia was always a dare-devil. The third picture shows a replica of the roller coaster she built in her grandparent’s back yard after seeing one at the 1904 World’s Fair. I don’t know if the scale is correct or if the one Amelia built was taller. Amelia Earhart: Young Aviator by Beatrice Gormley (part of the Childhood of Famous Americans series), has the roller coaster starting at the top of a tool shed. Either way, her grandparents soon put a stop to the experiment.  

But they couldn’t stop Amelia’s quest for adventure.

Among Amelia’s many accomplishments were being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean (unfortunately, she was not allowed to pilot the plane on this 1928 flight); the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (1932); the first woman to fly nonstop across the U.S. (coast to coast in 1933); and the first person (male or female) to fly solo between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, California (1935).

Those achievements weren’t enough for her. She also wanted to be the first woman to fly around the world at its greatest circumference: the Equator. She would take a navigator with her and make several stops for fuel and a little sightseeing.

On May 21, 1937, Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Oakland, California, in an Electra airplane. They headed from west to east, and everything went fine for most of the trip. Amelia and Fred made it to Lae, New Guinea without any major problems. They were now about three-quarters of the way through their planned route.

When they left Lae, they headed for tiny Howland Island, where they would refuel before continuing on to Honolulu. The crew estimated that they had about twenty hours worth of fuel, which left them little margin for error.

Ships from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard monitored the Electra’s radio signals. Amelia and Fred maintained radio contact most of the way, but there were indications that they were having problems with their radio. And in those days before sophisticated equipment, the radio was a crucial navigational aid.

The last communication from the Electra came a little over twenty hours into the flight. Amelia’s message indicated that the crew was having trouble finding Howland Island.

Amelia and Fred were lost at sea on July 2, 1937. After an exhaustive search for the plane, Amelia was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939.

There have been many theories about what happened. The two most widely accepted are: (1) the plane ran out of fuel over the Pacific Ocean or (2) knowing that their fuel situation was desperate, Amelia and Fred tried to land on the uninhabited Gardner Island and ended up crashing on the reef. Either situation would have killed them.

Although the official search ended long ago, adventurers and researchers still spend significant time and money looking for remnants of the Electra and answers to its disappearance. Maybe one day we will know the rest of the story, but that day isn’t here yet.

Even so, Americans are indebted to Amelia Earhart for her pioneering spirit and her example to other women.

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The photo at the head of this post shows Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. The picture is in the public domain.

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