Amelia Earhart's High Flying Legacy

The trailblazing pilot's singular achievement was breaking barriers.
On January 11, 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first pilot, male or female, to fly from Hawaii to Oakland, CA. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jan 9, 2012· 1 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

It's like something out of a Hollywood script: a beautiful young pilot overcomes extraordinary odds and sets off to become the first woman to fly around the world, only to disappear without a trace in the Pacific.

Actually, it was. But before she became the subject of forgettable movies, Amelia Earhart was famous for her flying.

In 1928, the Kansas-native stepped into the national spotlight after becoming the first female passenger to fly across the Atlantic. Dubbed "Lady Lindy" for her likeness to Charles Lindbergh, soon Earhart was setting records of her own. Gradually earning the respect of her peers, she was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress and became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and the continental United States in 1932.

Seeking uncharted territory, on January 11, 1935, Earhart became the first pilot of any gender to fly from Wheeler Field in Honolulu to Oakland, California, winning a $10,000 prize posted by Hawaiian commercial interests. Two years later, she set off for her most ambitious adventure yet: a 29,000-mile equatorial journey around the world.

Said Earhart before she left: ". . . Now and then women should do for themselves what men have already done—occasionally what men have not done—thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of thought and action. Some such consideration was a contributing reason for my wanting to do what I so much wanted to do."

As we now know, 22,000 miles into her journey, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan crashed somewhere near Howland Island, a remote U.S. outpost in the middle of the Pacific, possibly due to a faulty map.

Her legacy, however, lives on. For a generation of girls trapped in the Great Depression, Earhart not only offered hope for a better life, but an adventurous one. Her utilitarian fashion sense—close-cropped hair, pants, and leather jackets—became an archetypal image of the spirit and freedom of the women's movement. As France A. Córdova, female president of Purdue University, wrote in the Atlanta Constitution-Journal in 2009, any woman who has ever sought a career in a traditionally male-dominated field owes Earhart a debt of gratitude.

"I’m certain that Amelia Earhart would be proud of today’s women aviators and scientists and engineers," wrote Córdova.

"In the 1930s, she predicted that there would come a day when people would be judged by aptitude and society would 'stop blocking off certain things as suitable to men and suitable to women.' That is so much truer today, in no small part due to the inspiring life she led and the legacy she left behind."