This year marks the 75th anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s legendary attempt to become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the Earth by air. As part of our celebration of Women’s History Month, Secretary Clinton spoke earlier today in the Benjamin Franklin Room about Earhart’s legacy as an aviator and an advocate for equal opportunity for women.
Born in Kansas, Earhart fell in love with aviation during a 10-minute first flight as a passenger in 1920, when she was 23 years old. She later stated, “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.” She began taking lessons and became one of the first women to be issued a pilot’s license.
A true pioneer, she set many aviation records in the 1920s and early 1930s, including being the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the North American continent, as well as the first woman to fly solo across North America and back, to fly across the Atlantic, and then to fly solo across the Atlantic.
She taught aviation at Purdue University, mentored women interested in careers as aviators, and became one of the first advocates for commercial air travel. Along with Charles Lindbergh, she worked on behalf of Transcontinental Air Transport (which became TWA) to establish an air transport system, and helped create the first regional air shuttle service, between New York City and Washington, DC.
Earhart’s greatest accomplishments, though, were intangible. Photogenic, charismatic, courageous, and independent, Earhart uplifted and inspired millions of Americans in the dark days of the Great Depression. She became an iconic role model for women struggling to break out of stereotyped roles. As First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt said, “She helped the cause of women by giving them a feeling that there was nothing they could not do.” In fact, Mrs Roosevelt herself was inspired to apply for a student pilot permit after her first flight with Earhart.
In 1936, Earhart decided to attempt a flight around the world. No woman had yet done so, and no person — man or woman — had taken the long equatorial route. Lockheed Aircraft Company built a special Lockheed Electra 10E to her specifications, and she mapped out the 29,000-mile (47,000-km) journey. Her first attempt, flying west from California in March 1937, was thwarted by mechanical difficulties. In late May 1937, after repairs were made, she made a second attempt, flying in the opposite direction.
She and her navigator Fred Noonan flew from Oakland, California to Miami. They left Miami on June 1st and made subsequent stops in South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. After traveling 22,000 miles (35,000 km), they landed in Lae, New Guinea. On July 2nd they soared up from Lae for the 7,000-mile final leg of their journey, across the Pacific to California.
Earhart and Noonan passed the Nukumanu Islands (approximately 800 miles from Lae) and headed toward their next refueling stop on Howland Island, a flat, narrow, mile-long bit of land in what is now the nation of Kiribati. Radio transmissions picked up by the US Coast Guard Cutter Itasca several hours later indicated that Earhart was very low on fuel, near Howland, but slightly off course.
Within an hour of Earhart’s last transmission a massive search was launched by ships and airplanes from the US Coast Guard, US Navy, and merchant marine. Earhart’s husband also mounted private search and rescue efforts. But no sign of Earhart, Noonan, or the Lockheed Electra was found. The mystery of Earhart’s disappearance captured the public imagination and has spawned numerous theories, unsubstantiated claims, and fascinating myths.
As part of today’s celebration of Earhart’s legacy, Secretary Clinton joined with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Kiribati Secretary of Foreign Affairs Tessie Lambourne, US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, aviation archaeologists, and scientists to announce a new expedition to attempt to solve the mystery of Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance.
Led by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), the effort will probe the waters off Nikumaroro Island in Kiribati where a 1937 photograph — taken just months after Earhart’s disappearance — seems to show part of the undercarriage of a Lockheed Electra airplane sticking up from a reef. In July, TIGHAR investigators will travel from Hawaii to search the area with robotic submersibles. The Discovery Channel will film the expedition.
Speaking of the new analysis of the old photograph, TIGHAR Executive Director Ric Gillespie said, “There are some very smart people who think we’re wrong about this. But there are some very smart people who think we’re right … The only thing we can do is make a best effort to go and search and look and see what we can find. And it’s the searching that’s important. It’s the trying that’s important.”
You can view the entire event in the video below, including a description of the upcoming expedition, commentary by the searchers, and heart-felt remarks by the Secretary about how greatly she was inspired as a girl by Earhart’s example. You can also read the Secretary’s speech here. I particularly enjoyed the Secretary’s powerful closing words, which I quote below.
“Now it has been 75 years since she set out in that twin-engine Lockheed Electra to be the first pilot, man or woman, to fly around the world along the longest equatorial route. Her legacy resonates today for anyone, girls and boys, who dreams of the stars. And I do think it’s important as Americans, thinking about Ben Franklin up there, who is not only a founder of the country but our first great scientist and inventor, to keep our eyes on the stars and to keep our minds set on what we are able to do that keeps pushing the boundaries of human experience.
“Think for a minute about the world Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan were circum-navigating. America in 1937 was still in the grips of the Great Depression. Millions were out of work, millions more were struggling. Around the world, authoritarianism was on the march. War loomed, people wondered openly about the future of our country. They asked if democracy, if free market capitalism, if America itself could survive.
“Our nation has always risen to the challenges that we have faced, but every so often, we need to be reminded that as Americans, a lot is expected of us. And therefore, we have to keep showing and giving what we are capable of. There’s no challenge too big, no problem too great, and we’ve always been blessed with a land of courageous pioneers and fearless optimists.
“Now Amelia Earhart may have been an unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck, but she embodied the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world. She gave people hope and she inspired them to dream bigger and bolder. When she took off on that historic journey, she carried the aspirations of our entire country with her. …
“So here we are to mark a time that is particularly rich in symbolism and opportunity. We can be as optimistic and even audacious as Amelia Earhart. We can be defined not by the limits that hold us down, but by the opportunities that are ahead. So I’m thrilled to invite to this room today scientists and engineers, our aviators and our salvagers and everyone who still knows how important it is to dream and to seek, because even if you do not find what you seek, there is great honor and possibility in the search itself.
“Like our lost heroine, you will all carry our hopes with us into whatever field of endeavor you go, and in particular, those whom we recognize today, we are excited and looking forward to hear about your own great adventure.”