circa 1935: American aviator Amelia Earhart (1898 - 1937), the first woman to complete a solo transatlantic flight, waves as she emerges from the cockpit of a rotorcraft, Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Updated at 6:19 PM EST on Wednesday, Jun 20, 2012
In June of 1932, New York went wild at the sight of the pretty young woman who had flown across the Atlantic solo. On lower Broadway, a blizzard of ticker tape rained down on the convertible carrying Amelia Earhart.
New Yorkers noted how much she resembled Charles Lindbergh, the famed “Lucky Lindy,” who had flown solo across the Atlantic in 1927. The crowds noted that she, like Lindbergh, was tall and slim with short, wind-swept hair.
The newspapers loved her. They nicknamed her “Lady Lindy” and hailed her as “Queen of the Air.” At City Hall New York’s playboy mayor, Jimmy Walker, congratulated her and praised her for forging a place for women in aviation history. New York embraced her as one of its own. That was the magic of the ticker tape parade -- it "New Yorkerized" all the people we honored. Actually, Earhart was born in Atchison, Kan., in 1897. She saw her first plane at a state fair when she was 10. At first she wasn’t impressed but, a few years later, when a pilot gave her a ride, it changed her life.
“By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.”
She was a pioneer, the first woman to receive the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross, for flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She set many records and wrote best-selling books. She helped organize the Ninety-nines, an organization for female pilots. She joined the faculty of Purdue University, where she advised women on careers. And, early on, she supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
Yet the end of her life is shrouded in mystery. In 1937, she planned a round the world flight. Her crew would include a navigator, Captain Harry Manning, and a second navigator, Fred Noonan. The first leg, from Oakland, Calif. to Honolulu was successful but the aircraft needed repairs urgently and the flight was called off.
Another attempt was made, starting in Miami, with Fred Noonan the only crew member besides Earhart for the second flight. They departed Miami on June 1, flew on to South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arriving finally in Lae, New Guinea. The remaining 7,000 miles would all be over the Pacific.
They were set to fly from Lae to Howland Island. As they neared that destination, the Coast Guard cutter Itasca received strong voice signals from the plane but the aircraft apparently couldn’t receive voice signals from the ship. The Itasca tried to generate smoke signals to identify its position. The situation was confusing. The signals stopped coming, and a huge search was initiated, with the Navy joining the Coast Guard, the battleship Colorado and other vessels joined in the rescue effort. Despite an intensive, seven-day search covering 150,000 square miles, nothing turned up.
Over the years, experts have studied the disaster. Many think the Electra plane Earhart was flying simply ran out of fuel. But there are other theories, including one that, at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, Earhart was spying on the Japanese. In 1990, the NBC-TV series Unsolved Mysteries broadcast an interview with a Saipanese woman claiming to have witnessed the execution of Earhart and Noonan by Japanese soldiers.
But concrete evidence is lacking. The story of Amelia Earhart and her dramatic, spectacular life is still shrouded in mystery. Yet the image of an ambitious young woman who captured the attention of the world survives. Her perseverance, her courage can never be forgotten.