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The Pioneer Aviatrix

Here is another notable relative connected through the Holmes branch.

Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)

There are probably very few people in history who have so shrouded in mystery and speculation than Amelia Earhart when she disappeared on 2 July 1937.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born 24 July 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, the daughter of Samuel "Edwin" Stanton and Amelia "Amy" (née Otis) Earhart.

When 10-year-old Amelia saw her first plane at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines she was not impressed. Her father tried to interest Amelia and her sister Grace in taking a flight. "It was a thing of rusty wire and wood and looked not at all interesting," she later recalled. She promptly asked her father if they could go back to the merry-go-round.

Her father worked as a claims officer for the Rock Island Railroad. The family bought a house in Des Moines and hired two servants. However, their fortunes changed when her father became an alcoholic. He was forced to retire from the railroad in 1914. He tried to get treatment, but he was unable to regain his job. About the same time, Amelia's maternal grandmother, Amelia Otis, died, leaving a substantial estate that placed her daughter's share in a trust, fearing that Edwin's drinking would drain the funds. Amelia described that time as the end of her childhood. Her mother would move her and her sister to Chicago to live with friends.

In December 1917, Amelia visited her sister in Toronto. She received training as a nurse's aide from the Red Cross and began to work at the Spadina Military Hospital, tending to wounded World War I soldiers. Her duties included preparing food in the kitchen for patients with special diets and handing out prescribed medication in the hospital's dispensary.

When the Spanish Flu pandemic reached Toronto in 1918, Amelia was engaged in arduous nursing duties that included night shifts at the hospital. She became a patient herself, suffering from pneumonia and maxillary sinusitis. She was hospitalized in early November and discharged in December, about two months after the illness had started. Her sinus-related symptoms were pain and pressure around one eye and copious mucus drainage via the nostrils and throat. Since this was the pre-antibiotic era, she was subjected to painful minor operations to clear out the affected maxillary sinus. However, those procedures were not successful and she subsequently suffered from worsening headaches. Her convalescence lasted nearly a year. She would suffer with sinus issues for the rest of her life, often worsened by flying in non-pressurized aircraft.

By 1919 she had enrolled in Columbia University and prepared to focus on continuing her medical studies, which began with her nursing training during World War I in Toronto. She quit a year later to move to California, where her parents had reunited.

On 28 December 1920, she accompanied her father to an airfield in Long Beach, CA where they met Frank Hawks, a World War I pilot and later record breaking aviator. Her father paid $10 for Amelia to take a 10-minute flight. "By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground," she said, "I knew I had to fly." She worked at a variety of jobs including photographer, truck driver, and stenographer at the local telephone company.

After managing to save $1,000 for flying lessons, she went to Kinner Field near Long Beach with her father on 3 January 1921. She approached Anita "Neta" Snook, a pioneer female aviator who used a surplus Curtiss JN-4 "Canuck" for her lessons, with a singular request: "I want to fly. Will you teach me?" Neta agreed and Amelia was on her way into history. In order to reach the airfield, Amelia had to take a bus to the end of the line, then walk four miles. Her mother also provided part of the $1,000 "stake" against her "better judgement".

Anita "Neta" Snook (L) and Amelia (R)

Amelia's commitment to flying required her to accept the frequent hard work and rudimentary conditions that accompanied early aviation training. She chose a leather jacket, but aware that other aviators would be judging her, she slept in it for three nights to give the jacket a "worn" look. To complete her image transformation, she also cropped her hair short in the style of other female flyers.

In six months, Amelia managed to save enough money to buy her first plane, a second-hand, two-seater Kinner Airster biplane painted bright yellow, which she named "The Canary." She used it to set her first women’s record by rising to an altitude of 14,000 feet on 22 October 1922. On 15 May 1923, Amelia became the 16th woman in the United States to be issued a pilot's license (#6017).

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh made his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Amy Guest, a wealthy socialite, expressed interest in being the first woman to fly (or be flown) across the Atlantic Ocean. She leased a Fokker Trimotor for the trip, hired noted pilot Wilmer Stultz at the controls and Louis Gordon as a mechanic and navigator. However, Guest's family thought the flight was too dangerous for her and forbade her from going. So instead, she offered to sponsor the project, suggesting that they find "another girl with the right image."

One afternoon in April 1928, a phone call came for Amelia at work. She did not taking it initially until the caller said it was important. She thought it was a prank call until the person on the other end of the line, Captain Hilton H. Railey, supplied excellent references. She realized the man was serious when he asked her, "How would you like to be the first woman to fly the Atlantic?" Amelia promptly replied, “Yes!”

Amelia agreed to go as a passenger, but Mrs. Guest was determined to have a woman at the forefront of her plan. She stubbornly directed that Amelia's contract designate her as Flight Commander; both Stultz and Gordon would be junior to her. Because of her position as commander she assumed the task of keeping the flight’s log. At the time Earhart had little training for flying on instruments and about 500 hours in the air as a pilot.

On 17 June 1928, the flight departed from Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland in a Fokker F7 named "Friendship." The orange and gold, float-equipped, three-engine monoplane landed near Burry Port, Wales, exactly 20 hours and 40 minutes later. When interviewed after landing, she said, "Stultz did all the flying—had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes." She added, "... maybe someday I'll try it alone."

The "Friendship" after the trans-Atlantic flight

Returning to the United States, they were greeted with a ticker-tape parade along the Canyon of Heroes in Manhattan, followed by a reception at the White House with President Calvin Coolidge. She became a world-wide sensation, with some newspapers and magazines began referring to Earhart as "Lady Lindy" while the United Press called her the "Queen of the Air." Meanwhile, book publisher and publicist, George P. Putnam had undertaken to heavily promote her in a campaign that included publishing a book she authored, a series of new lecture tours and using pictures of her in mass-market endorsements for products including luggage, Lucky Strike cigarettes and women's clothing and sportswear.

Amelia and George had developed a friendship during preparation for the Atlantic crossing and were married 7 February 1931. Intent on retaining her independence, she referred to the marriage as a "partnership" with "dual control."

By 1932, Amelia was one of the most famous and recognizable women in the world.

On 20 May 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh made his flight, Amelia took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland for Paris. Strong north winds, icy conditions, and mechanical problems plagued the flight and forced her to land in a pasture near Londonderry, Ireland. "After scaring most of the cows in the neighborhood," she said, "I pulled up in a farmer’s back yard." As word of her flight spread, the media surrounded her, both overseas and in the United States. President Herbert Hoover presented Earhart with a gold medal from the National Geographic Society. Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross-the first ever given to a woman. Vice President Charles Curtis praised her courage, saying she displayed "heroic courage and skill as a navigator at the risk of her life." Amelia felt the flight proved that men and women were equal in "jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower."

Amelia with President Hoover

In the following years, Amelia continued setting new records. She set an altitude record for autogyros of 18,415 feet that stood for years. On 11 January 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California. She arrived without difficulty, covering the 2,408 mile distance in 17 hours 7 minutes. It was also the first flight in which a civilian aircraft carried a two-way radio. Later that year, she was the first one to solo from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey.

Two members of the Purdue Research Foundation donated a total of $40,000 for Amelia to buy a twin-engine Lockheed 10E Electra to be used as a "flying laboratory," equipped with Bendix instruments, a Sperry autopilot and a radio compass. Amelia wanted to use the specially equipped craft to study navigation problems in addition to what she termed "the human reactions of flying."

One of the interesting friendships Amelia developed at that time was with Eleanor Roosevelt. She was planning to teach Eleanor to fly and the First Lady actually got a student permit. Mrs. Roosevelt never pursued the matter, but the two corresponded frequently.

As Amelia neared her 40th birthday, she thought she had just one more ambitious flight in her before she was ready to spend the rest of her life on the ground. She wanted to do something monumental to mark the occasion and decided to be the first woman to fly around the world.

On 1 June 1937, Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, departed from Miami and began the 29,000 mile journey. By 29 June, when they landed in Lae, New Guinea, they only had 7,000 miles to go, but their next leg would be the most challenging. Howland Island was a tiny strip of land in the huge Pacific; only a mile and a half long and a half mile wide.

The engines were thoroughly checked, the spark plugs cleaned, and a fuel pump and the autopilot repaired. Everything deemed nonessential for the transpacific flight, including parachutes and some survival equipment, was packed to be sent home to make room for additional fuel, giving Amelia approximately 274 extra miles.

Noonan had trouble getting his chronometers accurately set because time signals, necessary for accurate navigation, could not be picked up by radio. There are reports that Noonan and Amelia were exhausted at that point and that Noonan got drunk, causing a delay in their takeoff for Howland Island.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter ITASCA, their radio contact, was stationed just offshore of Howland Island. Two other U.S. ships, ordered to burn every light on board, were positioned along the flight route as markers. "Howland is such a small spot in the Pacific that every aid to locating it must be available," Amelia emphasized.

Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E Special, takes off from Lae, New Guinea

On 2 July 1937 at 10 a.m. local time, zero Greenwich time, the pair took off from the 3,000-foot dirt strip. The plane used every inch of the strip and disappeared briefly below a 20-foot drop off a cliff at the end. A commercial pilot reported that he saw the plane’s props throwing spray before it climbed slowly northeastward to about 100 feet and flew out of sight. Despite ideal weather reports, they flew into overcast skies and intermittent rain showers. This made Noonan’s favored method of tracking, celestial navigation, difficult. As dawn neared, Amelia called the ITASCA, reporting "cloudy weather, cloudy." In later transmissions, Amelia asked the ITASCA to take bearings on her. The ITASCA sent her a steady stream of transmissions, but she could not hear them. Her radio transmissions, irregular through most of the flight, were faint or interrupted with static. At 7:42 a.m., the ITASCA picked up the message, "We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet." The ship tried to reply, but the plane seemed not to hear. At 8:45 a.m., Amelia reported, "We are running north and south." That was the last transmission received from her.

A rescue attempt immediately commenced and became the most extensive air and sea search in naval history. On 19 July, after spending $4 million and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the United States government reluctantly called off the operation.

Despite many theories, no proof of Amelia's fate exists. There is no doubt, however, that the world will always remember Amelia Earhart for her courage, vision, and groundbreaking achievements, both in aviation and for women. In a letter to her husband, written in case a dangerous flight proved to be her last, her brave spirit was clear. "Please know I am quite aware of the hazards," she said. "I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others."

It would be 27 years before Jerrie Mock achieved Amelia’s goal of becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the globe as a solo pilot in 1964.

"The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward." - Amelia Earhart

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