Eighteen months after her plane disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, Amelia Earhart — undoubtedly the world’s most famous aviatrix — was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939. More than seven decades later, her disappearance remains an enduring mystery.
Born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897, Earhart demonstrated an inquisitive nature throughout her youth. Wandering around the streets near their home, she often climbed trees and collected insects with younger sister Grace. At the age of seven, she pieced together her first flying machine, using a ramp to take off from the roof of her home — ending up with a ripped dress and fat lip for it. The adventurer within could not be prevented from coming out, it seemed.
Following a series of moves during her teens, the family settled in Chicago in 1915. Intrigued by science and women breaking the gender barrier, she graduated from Hyde Park High School the following spring and moved to a small community college in eastern Pennsylvania. Working as an aide at a military hospital in Toronto in 1917, Earhart ended up stumbling into a position as a nurse when the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak made its way to Canada. A two-month bout with the illness turned her into a patient, leaving her with sinus problems and headaches she would deal with for the rest of her life.
During a year-long recovery, Earhart read books of all kinds. Tempted to pursue a career in medicine, she eventually left the East Coast for California and took her first ride in an airplane on December 28, 1920. After only ten minutes in the air, Earhart knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. Days later, she began flying lessons.
In less than two years, Earhart became one of the most accomplished female pilots in the world. In October 1922, she flew her biplane to a height of 14,000 feet, far beyond the boundaries of any woman before her. The following May, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in Lausanne, Switzerland made her the 16th licensed aviatrix.
For much of the next five years, Earhart bounced between jobs to support her flying ambitions. In June 1928, she rode along with Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon on a transatlantic flight. Now world famous, she spent much of the next year and a half promoting a book, making speeches and endorsing products as diverse as women’s clothing and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
These forays into business allowed her to capitalize on her growing reputation as a pilot. She flew solo across the United States and back in August 1928. She surpassed her altitude record by flying up past 18,000 feet. She organized aviatrices to build an organization, the Ninety-Nines, for educating other women about the joys of flying. By the time she crossed the Atlantic on her own in May 1932, her place in the pantheon of female pilots was secure.
Not content to rest on her laurels, she continued to embark on solo flights all over the Western Hemisphere: Honolulu to Oakland, California; Los Angeles to Mexico City; Mexico City to New York. Determined to fly around the world at its widest point, a 29,000-mile trip, she spent much of 1936 and early 1937 planning the journey. With the first attempt aborted due to mechanical issues in March, she left Miami with Fred Noonan on June 1, 1937 and made her way to Lae, New Guinea four weeks later.
During the morning of July 2nd, Earhart and Gordon left for Howland Island, disappearing about a third of the way into the flight. The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed in the area to help Earhart find her way, radioed that contact had been lost. For the next 17 days, the US Navy and Coast Guard covered more than 150,000 square miles of the Pacific with no sign of the downed pilots.
Her husband, publisher George Putnam, soon paid for two private boats to search the islands of the South Pacific. Waiving the traditional seven-year waiting period, he asked a judge in Los Angeles to declare Earhart dead on January 5, 1939 so he could handle her estate.
For decades, interested historians and archaeologists have theorized about the cause of Earhart’s disappearance. While most believe a miscalculation or equipment malfunction did her and Gordon in, ideas of Earhart falling into the hands of the Japanese or taking on a new identity to escape the pressures of fame linger in the public consciousness.
Also On This Day:
1066 – Edward the Confessor, King of England, dies without a direct heir, opening the door for the Norman invasion
1781 – British soldiers commanded by Benedict Arnold burn Richmond, Virginia
1896 – The first reports of Wilhelm Rontgen’s discovery of X-rays appear in an Austrian newspaper
1914 – Ford Motor Company announces an eight-hour workday and minimum wage of $5 per day
1933 – The building of the Golden Gate Bridge begins in San Francisco Bay
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