Seventy-five years ago this month, Amelia Earhart took off from New Guinea in her bid to finish her trip around the world along an equatorial route.
The trip started in Miami on June 1, 1937. Earhart and her navigator stopped in South America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia. From New Guinea, Earhart was headed for Howland Island, which was halfway to Hawaii.
She never made it, and a mystery was born. Did Earhart run out of fuel, crash and sink into the Pacific Ocean? That's what most experts believe.
Or did she land on Nikumaroro (Gardner) Island and survive for a time as a castaway? This blurry photograph of supposed “wreckage” could hardly count as evidence, but recently discovered artifacts, including a glass jar, perhaps for anti-freckle cream, could.
Other theories (all debunked by credible sources): Was Earhart spying on the Japanese and shot down? Was she captured and executed on the island of Saipan? Was she captured and forced to broadcast propaganda as Tokyo Rose?
Maybe Earhart survived the flight, moved to New Jersey, remarried and changed her name to Irene Bolam, as a 2006 program on National Geographic Channel suggested. No, said the real Irene Bolam. She filed a lawsuit.
Now an expedition led by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) is searching the waters near Nikumaroro in the hopes of solving this mystery once and for all.
The public can't get enough of this Kansas tomboy who grew up to be the most famous aviatrix of our time. Even Hillary Clinton is in the loop.
Aviator Charles Lindbergh was very much the hero of the moment after his solo fight from Long Island to Paris in 1927. The search was on for a female “Lindy.” Tall, slender, sandy-haired, ambitious Earhart even looked a bit like Lindbergh.
Brave she was, but was she the best?
She was intelligent, and some think that’s the reason for her success despite her lack of talent. Her contemporaries thought she was not a natural flier, but she was a master at public relations. Other pilots noticed that Earhart crashed a lot, but her team always explained the mishaps away as mechanical failure, not pilot error.
Earhart did break records. She had to. That was the only way to keep the paid speaking gigs coming. But what a shame that more female pilots are not household names.
Bessie Coleman was the first African American — male or female — to get a pilot's license, in 1921. Her photograph is my favorite of any pilot from any time. She’s serious, but there's a hint of the dreamer in her eyes. When she died at the age of 34, thousands attended her funeral.
The 2011 documentary Breaking Through the Clouds: The First Women's National Air Derby explores the 1929 female pilot air race that led to the founding of the the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots that survives to this day.
In 1931 Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh, became the first female glider pilot.
Critic Robert Plunket described her 1935 book “North to the Orient” as a great adventure tale of the couple “flying over the frozen tundra in their leather jumpsuits, battling the forces of nature.”
“Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead,” her 1929-1932 diaries and letters published some 40 years later, was more revealing.
I read that book out of order. The second half, which covered the kidnapping and murder of her infant son, came first. I had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and I wondered how others had coped with a tragedy that feels unbearable.
Ten years would pass before I read the first half, about Lindbergh learning to fly, and her view of the shimmering world below. In her introduction she wrote that at the time she was very much in love and there was “a kind of bright golden ‘bloom’ over everything.”
Such was the siren call of the open cockpit. Amelia Earhart may be the most famous woman who answered the call, but she wasn’t the best or most passionate.
If you visit the Amelia Earhart exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, which runs through May 2013, spare a thought for Bessie Coleman and Anne Morrow Lindbergh too.
And Louise Thaden. Amelia Earhart may have been the first president of the Ninety-Nines, but, after all, it was Louise Thaden who won the derby.
Oh, and Thaden was from Arkansas. Born and raised. Just fyi, Hillary.