Letter From Aviation History – January 2010

 All About Amelia

Yes, she’s back in the public eye. With the recent release of the major motion picture Amelia, starring the perfectly cast Hilary Swank as the famous flier, Amelia Earhart has once again caught the media’s attention. How could it be otherwise for a woman who, thanks in no small part to her promoter-husband George Putnam, is arguably history’s most recognized pilot?

In his insightful article about the doomed aviator (let’s not call her an “aviatrix”—that went out with the 1930s), Stephan Wilkinson examines the reasons for our continued fascination with Earhart, fully 72 years after she and navigator Fred Noonan vanished in the Pacific without a trace. Certainly her disappearance, which has spawned a cottage industry for searchers like TIGHAR’s Ric Gillespie, accounts for much of that fascination, but it’s just one element of the mystery surrounding her. Although Earhart’s every move was documented by newsmen, and a parade of biographies and now a biopic have attempted to encapsulate her life, you get the feeling that we’ll never know the real Amelia—the flesh-and-blood human being behind the carefully crafted image.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Some, like Ann Pellegreno in 1967 (see “Two Electras in Search of Howland Island,” September 2009 issue) and Linda Finch in 1997, have done it by re-creating her round-the-world flight. (Grace McGuire hopes to do it in a Lockheed 10E outfitted like Earhart’s, although the Transportation Security Administration has thrown a monkey wrench in her plans—but the TSA’s draconian regulations are a subject for another column.) Others have plunked down $50,000 to join a TIGHAR archeological expedi­tion in search of clues that might finally solve the mystery of her disappearance. Still others have sought to own tangible ties to the aviator, such as the goggles she wore during her solo transatlantic flight that recently sold at auction (see photo, P. 9).

The rest of us must be content to plumb the massive historical record that surrounds Earhart’s life. A great place to start on the Web is Purdue University’s George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, an amazing assemblage of viewable documents, photos and biographical information. It also includes links to other Earhart-related sites, such as the home page of the Ninety-Nines, the international organi­zation of women pilots that Earhart helped found in 1929. That organization remains one of her greatest legacies, and underscores the impact she has had on generations of young women.

When you’re done exploring Amelia’s life, go see the movie if you haven’t already—it deserves our support. As Earhart biographer Susan Butler explains in her sidebar on P. 31, the film’s producers went to great lengths to ensure its accuracy. And if anyone can get to the heart of the Mona Lisa–like woman gracing this issue’s cover (our first ever to feature a pilot instead of an airplane), two-time Academy Award winner Swank can.

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