Monday, December 29, 2014

Amelia Earhart: Early Pioneer in the Age of Technology

I recently ran across the Christmas card below from Amelia Earhart which got me interested in the remarkable story of this woman persevering against the pressures of her time.  Earhart spent her life pursuing her passion for flying and pushing the envelop in aviation.  Her motivation was to expand the capabilities of planes, not just of what women could do, and she had to conquer bias at every turn.

Earhart was born in 1897 and took her first plane ride at the age of 23.  She immediately became hooked and worked various odd jobs to save money for lessons with pioneering female aviator Anita Snook.  She spent every minute of her free time learning about planes and flying.  Within 3 years she had her own plane, international pilot's license (16 woman to have one) and set an altitude record (14,000 ft) for a female aviator.

In 1928, a year after Lindberg's transatlantic flight, she was asked to join a team with two men with the purpose of her becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic.  They flew that year and she gained fame from the accomplishment.  However, she wasn't satisfied since a man did the flying and she was only a co-pilot.  She later complained that she "was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes".  That was never to happen again.

To do it her way, she needed money and sponsorship, and teamed with publicist George Putnam (whom she eventually married).  It was a success.  Between 1930 and 1935, she flew the Atlantic solo, set an altitude record of 18,400 ft, set several speed and distance records, and was the first person to solo the Atlantic and Pacific (Hawaii to Oakland) oceans.

This led to her famous and tragic project at age 40 to become the first person to fly around the world at the equator.  It was a bold plan with 80% (by my estimate) of the flight time over water.  It was really tough!  First a flight west from Oakland to Hawaii, with an accident in Hawaii where the plane was damaged.  She had to return with the plane to the mainland where she worked to exhaustion raising extra funds.  Then back to flying, this time heading south to South America and east to Africa.  The crew had changed over this extended period, but she had her trusted navigator Fred Noonan with her.  They made it all the way to New Guinea with 22,000 miles completed and 7,000 to go.  Dysentery laid Amelia up for days.  Then the final leg over the desolate mid-Pacific with only a few islands.  Their optimistic plan was already on the edge.  Fly to the longitude of the tiny Howland island and fly north-south streaks to find it.  Everything went wrong and the rest is history.  She and Fred were never seen again.

This short outline reveals Amelia Earhart as exceptional by any standards.  She was a true pioneer of our modern technological era, with amazing perseverance and courage.