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Saturday, May 21, 2022

May 21-22, 2022: Aviation Histories: Amelia Earhart

[On May 20-21, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the second person, and the first woman, to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic feat, this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of aviation histories, leading up to this special weekend post on the myths and even more inspiring realities of Earhart!]

As I wrote in Wednesday’s post, Amelia Earhart’s solo flight is, like Earhart herself, justly famed. But it’s also a bit of a legend at this point; and as is so often the case with our collective legends, the multi-layered realities behind and around it are even more interesting and inspiring. Here are a few:

1)      The First Flight: Four years before she made her daring solo journey, Earhart was a passenger on another transatlantic trip, accompanying pilot Wilmer Stultz and copilot Louis Gordon as they flew from Newfoundland to South Wales on June 17-18, 1928 (just a year after Lindbergh’s famous flight). When the three returned to the US in early July, they received a ticker-tape parade in New York and a reception at the White House. Earhart was invited to take part in this historic flight thanks to the efforts of a number of other influential individuals, from aviation ally Amy Phipps Guest to publisher (and Earhart’s future husband) George Palmer Putnam. None of these origin points nor influences take anything away from Earhart’s later solo flight—but they do remind us that any individual achievement is also connected to communal histories that need our collective memories as well.

2)      Fellow Aviator Friends: All of those aforementioned individuals were friends and allies of Earhart’s, but as her career continued to unfold she also became close to a number of other female aviators. Many of them were part of an organization that Earhart herself helped found: known as The Ninety-Nines due to their original number of members, this group started in 1929 and Earhart became its first president in 1930. She also became a mentor to younger female aviators, as illustrated by her relationship with Jackie Cochran, the talented pilot who would go on to become the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953. And perhaps Earhart’s most interesting relationship was with one of my earlier subjects in this week’s series, Eleanor Roosevelt; after flying with Earhart Roosevelt got a student flying permit, indicative of just how inspiring Earhart was on that notoriously individual and strong-willed friend.

3)      Bessie Coleman: As far as I can tell, Earhart wasn’t friends with Bessie Coleman, which I’m sure was due in part to racism (not Earhart’s, but the collective racism of 1920s America that created such a segregated society in every way) but also perhaps a little as well to competition, as Coleman received her pilot’s license two years earlier than Earhart (but in France, as American organizations wouldn’t give her one). I want to be as clear as I can that I’m not accusing Earhart of anything here, but rather suggesting that, as with every layer of American history and society, there are African American figures and stories that we’ve purposefully forgotten and that demand a place alongside our more familiar ones. So as we commemorate Earhart’s feat this weekend, let’s make sure to remember and celebrate Coleman as well.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other aviation histories or stories you’d share?

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