Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Is Amelia Earhart Still Relevant Today?

With a new Hollywood movie retelling her aviation exploits, does Amelia Earhart still register in the national consciousness of America – or the rest of the world?

By: Ringo Bones

Short of making Paris Hilton to endorse and promote a civilian sport aviation version of the F-35 Joint Strike fighter. Or is it a modernized more “fuel efficient” equipped-with-a “six-pack” Pratt & Whitney F100 afterburning turbofan-all-carbon-fiber-version of the XB-70 Valkyrie - as something of a must-have for every woman of means in post subprime mortgage crisis America. Boron-enriched aviation fuel not included? I wonder if the latest Hollywood rollout of a movie retelling the aviation exploits and adventures of the Great Depression era aviatrix named Amelia Earhart is aimed at cashing in on the burgeoning feminist movement for those folks too young to have seen L7 perform Wargasm live. After all, aviation is a skill – rather than a gender – driven endeavor. Or maybe I’m just too young to had experience first hand the chauvinism and misogyny of the early part of the 20th Century.

Whatever the political baggage that goes with the retelling of Amelia Earhart’s piloting skills to achieve scores of aviation firsts is only a fraction of a very fascinating story. After all, the suppositions that surrounded Earhart’s disappearance during the Pacific leg of her round the world flight – from her distress call received in Florida to theories of her being abducted by aliens capable of interstellar travel – do spice up the factual aspects of her achievements.

Born in Atchison, Kansas in July 24, 1898. Amelia Earhart was educated at Hyde Park High School, Chicago and attended the Ogontz School for Girls in Rydal, Pennsylvania, Columbia University and other schools. In 1917 and 1918, she served in a nursing corps in Canada. Amelia Earhart learned to fly in California and continued her interest aviation after moving to Boston, where she took social work and teaching. She crossed the Atlantic on June 17 to 18, 1928 in a trimotored Fokker with Wilmer Stutz as pilot and Louis Gordon as mechanic. This flight probably served as a dry run for Earhart’s solo Atlantic flight of May 20 to 21, 1932. Later, Amelia Earhart made her solo Pacific flight from Hawaii to California on January 11, 1935 which she was the first woman to do both crossings. In 1931, Amelia Earhart was married to George Palmer Putman and during that year she set an autogiro – i.e. an early version of the helicopter with an unloaded rotor - altitude record. On an attempted flight around the world, Amelia Earhart was lost somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific with her navigator, Fred Noonan, early in July 1937.

Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific of her attempted flight around the world sparked a host of speculations and anecdotes. Some whimsical and fanciful and others bordering on the absurd. Quite a large number of people do believe that Amelia Earhart was a victim of alien abduction. This theory of her disappearance was even featured in an episode of Star Trek Voyager. There’s even a credible witness who swore that she received Earhart’s distress call while listening to a radio receiving set in Florida. Though the distress transmissions by Earhart might have been transmitted that far away by a freak condition of the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer or what we now call as the ionosphere.

The most likely and credible explanation of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance during the Pacific leg of her attempted flight around the world is either she ran out of fuel and crashed in some remote corner of the Pacific Ocean. Or was forced to land on a Japanese Imperial Army occupied island and was taken prisoner for being an American spy. Earhart was very likely executed by her captors or had died of disease and starvation given that Japanese soldiers were notoriously “Spartan” when it comes to stocking up on necessities like food and medical supplies.

So is the latest Hollywood movie retelling the exploits of Amelia Earhart achieve the same aims as does Earhart’s aviation exploits during the Depression-era America of raising the people’s spirits? Could be, but what fascinates me more is that Amelia Earhart managed to avoid becoming a shrinking violet in the face of aviation competition. Consider her rivals at the time, the lion cub toting Roscoe Turner, the über-rich Howard Hughes. Not to mention Whiley Post, a one-eyed aviator pioneer who couldn’t get an FAA flying license these days due to his major vision problem who managed to fly around the world in July 1933 on a modified Lockheed Vega named the Winnie Mae. Add to that the 1934 B.F. Goodrich made pressure suit in which Whiley Post use as he sought to break the then airplane altitude record of 47,352 feet. By the way, the Wiley Post pressure suit was used in some “realistic” science fiction movies of that time.

Given the stiff competition, it does seem like a miracle that Amelia Earhart did managed to establish her own niche in the short but very crowded roster of 20th Century aviation history. Although there is still a dreadful lack of women aviator pioneers. I can’t even for the life of me remember that American woman USAF test pilot who set a world’s speed record on the F-104 Starfighter during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Or what modifications were made on the MiG 25 FOXBAT that Valentina Tereshkova used during her extreme high altitude record attempts. Jena Yeager – who co-piloted the Voyager non-stop round the world flight back in 1986 is probably the only woman aviator besides Amelia Earhart that is taught in history classes in American schools.


  1. You don't have to be too apologetic when it comes to chauvinism / sexism / misogyny just because you're a dude. After all, you wouldn't be giving this very interesting topic a once over.
    On the latest Hollywood biopic of Amelia Earhart that stars Hilary Swank (isn't it curious how Hilary Swank turned out to look like the great aviatrix ) and directed by Mira Nair. Hilary Swank actually took flying lessons to make her role more authentic. Maybe Hollywood should make a movie about Jeana Yeager and her circumnavigational flight on Voyager. The only other woman aviator currently being taught on the American school history curriculum.
    Historically, Amelia Earhart did manage to avoid becoming a shrinking violet in the short but crowded history of 20th Century aviation. Which is a miracle in itself given the prevailing climate of chauvinism at the time. Not to mention her competitors, like Whiley Post who can't even get an FAA license these days because he only has one eye. I remember seeing that BF Goodrich-made Whiley Post pressure suit for the first time back when I was in third grade (1984) and I can't believe that it actually works given that it is the world's first working "space suit". The Whiley Post pressure suit reminds me of a movie called The Exterminator where actor Robert Ginty - a Vietnam War veteran turned vigilante wore an almost similar costume.
    Given that Juan de la Cierva invented the autogiro / autogyro, it is quite ironic that it was Amelia Earhart set the high-altitude record of this unloaded-rotor aircraft.
    THe Kennelly-Heaviside Layer? What is this the pre-Sputnic launch name of the ionosphere? Actually, I kind of like both versions of the "most popular" explanation of Amelia Earhart's disappearance over the Pacific. But compared to the alien abduction theory, the executed spy theory is more plausible.

  2. Paris Hilton - at present - is not doing any favors when it comes to the advancement of women everywhere. One notable aspect of the Mira Nair directed Amelia Earhart biopic is that Hilary Swank took flying lessons to make her "acting" that much authentic. But I won't recommend the movie to anyone not interested in Amelia Earhart's achievements because it is too antiseptic like a typical Discovery Channel or Nat Geo documentary.
    You forgot to mention Beryl Markham and Patty Wagstaff by the way.

  3. Women in 20th Century aviation are few and far between that the American Educational System had probably consigned their exploits to the dungheap of history. Like Patty Wagstaff with her Walter Extra 300s. Even Beryl Markham's East -West trans-Atlantic flight of 1936 is largely forgotten.