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Amelia Earhart Was Way More Than a Famous Aviator Who Disappeared

Amelia Earhart
June 1931: American aviator Amelia Earhart climbs into the cockpit of her airplane at Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, just before embarking on a trip to California. New York Times Co./Getty Images

When she was about 7 years old, Amelia Earhart hopped into a wooden bucket and zoomed down a ramp that her uncle had helped her build next to the family shed. At the end of this daredevil experience, the box was shattered and Amelia was bloodied but beaming, exclaiming to her sister, "Oh, Pidge, it's just like flying!"

It wasn't until a few years later – 1908 to be exact – that Earhart saw her first airplane, at the Iowa State Fair. Her reaction? One big yawn. The rickety contraption failed to capture her interest in any way.

Not the response you'd expect from a young woman who ultimately became one of the most famous pilots in world history? Let's flash back to Amelia's earliest days.

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Unimpressed by Airplanes

Earhart was born in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, which lies on the Missouri River just north of Kansas City. Her family was privileged but troubled, her father an iterant alcoholic lawyer who had difficulty keeping a job. Given the troubles of her parents, Amelia spent much of her young life with her maternal grandparents.

Her parents tried to calm the waters of their marriage, so Earhart rejoined them in Des Moines. It was there, at the age of 12, that she first attended a public school. But the turbulence of her childhood, along with her fiercely independent temperament, meant that she didn't have a lot of friends. In one yearbook, for instance, her caption read. "A.E. – the girl in brown who walks alone."

Her social life may have been lackluster, but her studies were not. A rabid bookworm from early childhood, Earhart excelled in academics. After high school graduation, she attended a finishing school, but ditched it for a trip to Toronto to volunteer as a nurse for wounded World War I soldiers. There, she developed respect for military aviators and spent much of her free time watching them swoop and dive during exercises at a nearby base.

A few years later, fate handed Earhart a late Christmas gift on Dec. 28, 1920. She and her father attended an aviation show in California, and she took her first brief plane ride with a pilot named Frank Hawk. Later, she said, "By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly."

She immediately began working a series of odd jobs to earn enough cash for flying lessons. In 1921, she bought a second-hand biplane, painted it yellow and named it the Canary. In 1923, she officially earned her pilot's license, becoming just the 16th female pilot in the world.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The following year, Earhart received a phone call from a publicity agent looking to help a woman become the first female to fly across that same ocean. She agreed, but on that particular flight to Wales, she wasn't the pilot; she was merely a passenger, "like a sack of potatoes," she later recalled.

She wrote a book about the journey, aptly titled, "20 Hrs. 40 Min," (the duration of the historic flight) and thanks in part to publisher and publicist George Putnam (who would later become her husband), sales were strong. The tome made her a bona fide celebrity, a status she soon learned to milk to her professional advantage.

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A High-flying Celeb

Throughout the late '20s and '30s, Earhart was a whirlwind of a human being. She took up airplane racing, set the women's speed record at 181.18 mph (291.48 kph) and helped to establish The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots. She also set the world altitude record, soaring to more than 18,400 feet (5.6 kilometers).

Amid this flurry of activity, she became a prominent spokesperson for the commercial airline industry, helping to familiarize people everywhere with the concept of air travel. She also spoke at several colleges, urging girls to try male-dominated careers, like engineering.

In 1932, she went from passenger to pilot, with a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the first woman to do so. That 15-hour flight was not without drama – ice formed on her plane's wings, making the machine harder to fly by the minute, so she abandoned her original destination (London) and opted to land in Northern Ireland instead.

With that triumph, Earhart flew into the rarefied air of superstardom. Over the next few years, she set record after record for women's speed and distance in flying. She also flew from Hawaii to California, making her the first person on Earth to fly alone across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Amelia Earhart, Vogue design
In this 1934 Vogue spread, Earhart wears a suit of her own design: a dark flannel Norfolk jacket and checked wool tweed skirt with Jiffy-Johns (quick-to-remove fasteners).
Anton Bruehl/Condé Nast via Getty Images

In the midst of this madness, Earhart also became one of the first celebrities to launch her own line of clothing branded in her name. She unveiled 25 outfits meant for active living, clearly targeting women who admired Earhart's trailblazing lifestyle. For Earhart and her now-husband George Putnam, the merchandise was meant to fund her increasingly expensive flying career.

The clothes concept was a total flop. But the venture was another example of her willingness to embrace uncertainty throughout her life.

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One Final Flight

Even with so many amazing accomplishments, Earhart wanted one final shot at burnishing her legacy. Her goal? The first round-the-world flight in history, staying as close to the equator as possible. The roughly 30,000-mile (48,280-kilometer) journey was guaranteed to be the adventure of a lifetime.

In March 1937, Earhart departed Oakland with her navigator, Fred Noonan, planning to fly to Hawaii and then west around the rest of the globe. But plane damage, along with prevailing winds that reversed direction, forced them to stop for major repairs and eventually backtrack, planning to head eastward around the equator.

The duo successfully flew across the U.S., then the Atlantic, then Africa, and landed in New Guinea in late June 1937. With 22,000 miles (35,405 kilometers) out of the way, they had just 7,000 miles (11,265 kilometers) left – one last mammoth stretch took them over the perilous void of the Pacific.

On July 2, their intended landing strip was located on Howland Island, a tiny speck of land between Australia and Hawaii. Even with active Navy support and mostly good radio communications, it seems that Earhart struggled in vain to locate Howland. Running low on fuel, her increasingly desperate radio calls ultimately ceased.

After that, no one's certain what transpired, but there are plenty of theories.

Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan
Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan pose at the Honolulu Airport, Hawaii, March 20, 1937, before their round-the-world flight.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Most historians believe she and Noonan splashed down the ocean, never to be seen again. Others think that perhaps they were scooped up by the Japanese and held as prisoners. There is even a belief that she was eaten by giant crabs.

Richard Gillespie, who leads The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), has been investigating the plane's disappearance since the 1980s. He's certain that Earhart and Noonan wound up hundreds of miles from Howland Island, on a spot of land called Nikumaroro's reef, surviving for a time before ultimately dying as castaways.

Gillespie is a pilot and former accident investigator who has spent several missions scouring the area where Earhart vanished. He's found various artifacts, including plane parts, that he's certain belong to her doomed aircraft.

"There's an old saying in aviation, 'The are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots,'" says Gillespie. "Earhart was famous for her courage. Her poem 'Courage Is The Price' says it all." He lists some of the steps that Earhart could have taken before the flight to improve her chances of survival. "She could have learned Morse code. She could have learned how to use the radio direction finder upon which her life depended. She could have established and communicated to the Coast Guard a workable plan for finding Howland Island."

As for Earhart and Noonan's final resting place?

"The evidence is already overwhelming but not everyone accepts it as conclusive," Gillespie says via email. "There is a prevailing fiction that Earhart's fate will not be proven unless her plane or DNA are found. Neither are likely to happen. The available evidence suggests the plane was destroyed in the surf and the pieces scattered by subsequent storms."

In 1940, bones of a man and woman were found on Nikumaroro, studied for a time, and then they vanished. If modern science had those bones today, we might be able to confirm or deny that they belonged to the American explorers.

Instead, the world is left without definitive answers regarding the end of Earhart's short but amazing life. She left behind a high-flying legacy.

"Earhart's long-distance flights exhibited great courage, but they were essentially publicity stunts that did nothing to advance aviation," says Gillespie. "Earhart's greatest achievement was as a spokesperson for commercial aviation and as an advocate for equal opportunity for women."

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