Seventy-two years ago, Amelia Earhart flew into the wild blue yonder and never returned. What happened to her has remained a topic of conjecture and much argument over the past seven decades. A new movie, "Amelia," starring Hillary Swank and Richard Gere, is out on Friday, and myriad books, articles, and documentaries have been produced to examine her story.
Most aviation experts agree, however, that what happened to her was simply the result of a miscalculation. Earhart was on the second-to-last leg of her round-the-world flight, from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island, in her shiny silver Lockheed Electra. Without radar and with primitive (by our standards) radio equipment, the 2500-mile journey over open water between Lae and Howland was extremely risky (her route is traced above left). On top of this, Howland is little more than an uninhabited speck in the ocean - only 6,500 feet long and 2,000 feet at its widest point, and almost invisible from the air (right). Earhart was to land on Howland and get resupplied in fuel and food by the Itasca, a US Coast Guard cutter waiting off the island. But Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, operating by dead-reckoning and a compass, miscalculated the location of tiny Howland Island. After a series of weakening and ever more desperate radio signals picked up by the Itasca (Earhart had replaced the plane's original radio with a state-of-the-art model but was apparently unfamiliar with how to operate it correctly, so she did not hear the Itasca's repeated attempts to contact her), she either ditched or crashed the Electra into the water when it ran out of gas. In this area, the ocean reaches depths of over 17,000 feet (that's about three miles), so it is not surprising that no wreckage was ever found.
Some have called Earhart a publicity-hound or the pawn of her fame-hungry husband, George Putnam, and claim that she does not deserve the accolades she has received, both during her lifetime and posthumously. But a careful look at her life shows that she was no charlatan - she was an important figure in aviation history: brave, accomplished, and trailblazing. She was only the 16th woman in the world to receive a professional pilot's license. She broke the woman's world altitude record in 1922, reaching a height of 14,000 feet. She was the first woman to fly an autogyro (the precursor to a helicopter) and was the first person, male or female, to fly one across the United States. She was the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo -in 1928, one year after Lindbergh. She was the first person to fly the Atlantic twice. And on and on.
Earhart loomed large in my family - because, at the age of 15, my father met her. He was a member of an aviation-enthusiasts club, and in 1932, they heard that Earhart was going to be at Floyd Bennet Air Field on Long Island. So they made the trek from Brooklyn out to meet her. My father said she was gracious and kind, and he treasured the picture she posed for until the day he died. He carefully colorized it, then wrote out her accomplishments on the back, adding, in July 1937, the details of her final flight.