Our Amelia

By: Peggy Nelson
June 1, 2011

On June 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart, along with navigator Fred Noonan, took off on her World Flight, with the intention of being the first to circumnavigate the globe at the equator.


You want to know what happened?

I’ll tell you what happened. The very first thing that happened was, we crashed.

A brand-new Lockheed Electra, state of the art, fully customized according to my specifications — and really expensive, $80,000 — and I crashed it. Right off the runway in Hawaii. So that was that.

You know how when you leave the house on a trip and you get down the block and you remember something you forgot, and you have to turn around and go back and get it? You know how it feels like the longest trip in the world, only because you’re going back, because you reversed direction, because you’re now behind the beginning before you even start? Even if it’s just a block and 5 minutes.

Well, this felt like that, except a hundred-, or a thousand-fold. We had to go back to before the beginning. We needed $34,000 in repairs. We needed a new funding cycle. We needed to change direction; literally, the late spring weather dictated that we head east, not west.

And this was all done in the public eye. I mean there’s no point in going on an adventure like this if you don’t announce it. No point financially, no point in terms of your reputation, and no point personally. Because an adventure like this isn’t personal — or, I should say, isn’t only personal. It can’t be. An adventure like this is public, and my public was very much involved, almost as if they were in the plane with me. So it wasn’t just me behind the beginning, or my team. It wasn’t even just “my public.” I was intending the first round-the-world flight, after all. So by tripping right out of the starting gate, I dragged the whole world back behind the beginning with me.

But there was nothing for it but to set to work and start over.

Despite everything, I was no stranger to adversity and opposition. I was supposed to be a lady. I was supposed to land a husband and tend the house, maybe join the Ladies’ Auxiliary Something-or-other, and that’s it, pretty much. That was how success was measured, when I was a girl. My mother was constantly after me to “act like a lady.” But I had always been ambitious and energetic, and I kept scrapbooks of Things To Do In The World, like mechanical engineering, that would get me out of Bedford Falls, so to speak, on my own terms.

I didn’t want to fly at first. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, except that I wanted to do what I wanted. But when the bug bit it bit bad, and I was hooked. There would be nothing else for it but I would fly. By 24 I had earned enough to buy The Canary, a beautiful bi-plane, bright yellow.

And then I thought I had found my vocation; not flying though. I was working with immigrants in a settlement house in Boston, and loving it. Flying had become more or less a weekend hobby.

So when the fateful call came at first I didn’t answer, I thought it was a prank. “Would you like to fly the Atlantic?” Three other women had died that past year trying.

It didn’t hurt that I looked like Lindy. Lindy was American’s Sweetheart, despite his gender. I could be branded; I became “Lady Lindy,” and if I made it, investors saw a marketing bonanza.

Adventure is entertainment of course, always has been. Who pays for all those expeditions and feats of strength? The audience of course, and often ahead of the fact, in terms of subscriptions to lectures and performance tours to be undertaken after a successful return. Don’t ever think you’re just an armchair traveler. You’re along for the ride just as inevitably as any co-pilot. Without your interest, these things just don’t happen. I would still have flown of course, I managed that on my own. But a stunt like flying the Atlantic — only the entire society has the resources for something like that: to buy a bigger plane, to hire the improvisational daredevils who might actually succeed, to build it up in the public eye as something worth accomplishing. And worth publishing; ideally to the best-seller lists after the event.

Well we made it, almost crashing and me just about falling out of the plane into Boston Harbor! But we made it. I did almost nothing. I was just a passenger, not the pilot, it was set up that way. But when we landed I was The Star, as intended, and neither I nor anyone else ever looked down again.

But we did look back, as in for example a few months ago, March 30, 1937, when I crashed at the very beginning of my biggest stunt yet. And, I intended, my final one. I don’t mean that I could see the future. But I was almost 40, and after flying around the world, what else was left? Celebrity is a demanding occupation. I was thinking about retiring, scaling back. Nowadays you switch careers and activities all the time. But back then we did pretty much one thing. Not all of us, but overall; generally. Nevertheless, I had always been ahead of my time, and I was starting to cast about for what my next thing might be. As in, maybe just some time off. So ready, in fact, that I was not really that focused during the planning of the World Flight; I kept getting distracted, thinking about anything but.

I did eventually fly the Altantic myself, the first woman to solo. But I wasn’t the absolute best flier. I hardly had time to practice! I wasn’t as good a flier as Pancho. Hell, I wasn’t as good a writer as Beryl! I knew that. But I was good enough. Due a variety of circumstances, I had become a servant of vicariosity, not virtuosity. My job wasn’t pilot, odd as that seems: it was Star. You have to fly to get up there, but after that, it’s a very different skillset to maintain your place in the sky. Through me, we all flew: especially women. Girls. I wanted girls to know that they could do whatever they wanted, as I had done. It was the new world, it was the modern era! Fly, be free.

GP had a lot to do with that, of course. When he met me he had just published Lindbergh’s best-seller, and he was looking for something to follow it up. That was me, literally. I followed it up and then he followed me, and up we went. We were a great team! If no one is there to see it, does a star really shine? GP made sure the eyes were turned in my direction — and that I flew across the right lines of sight.

It wasn’t uncomplicated. Neither of us were uncomplicated. Yes, I made him acknowledge escape as a condition of commitment. But that’s the essential condition anyway, acknowledged or otherwise. We’re essentially free. As is love.

We were leaving from Miami instead of Hawaii because of weather patterns. In March we were going to go east-to-west, and get the hard part over with first. Actually I was personally most worried about Africa! But in the Pacific there were thousands of miles to cover, before landing on a necessary speck. Thousands of miles over water, blue emptiness, wave after wave after wave after wave. Well, at any rate, that would be at the end of the trip, after South America, the Atlantic again, Africa, India, Australia, and the equator; four total crossings of that line as we swerved our way around the world.

It’s funny, but for someone who personified freedom and progress, and who lectured and toured pretty much non-stop when I wasn’t flying, I may have had what you term an issue with communication. I mean, being up there and flying through the clouds by yourself and communing with the rush of the wind and the wings — that’s just me and my thoughts. I never was that proficient with the radio. For the World Flight, I clipped off the trailing wire antenna. I left behind my morse code key because I never learned to operate it properly. There was a crucial lack of communication between me, my team, and the Coast Guard, about which frequency I would use in case of an Event. The Event, say, of me making my final approach to Howland Island…? Even inside the plane — it was so noisy that my navigator and I had to communicate through little pieces of paper handed back and forth on a fishing pole.

Right, a fishing pole.

I mean nothing says flexible, instantaneous decision-making like that.

But we made it, for 22,000 miles and change. That’s not so much remembered now. What people remember is that last bit, the anxious radio messages, the one-way transmissions, the invisible flying back and forth, the knowledge that we should have been right there — and then the silence.

Death always gets the last word, sure. Sometimes, you’re allowed to bargain for a few more good years. But at We Need to Talk I was up and away, trusting on luck and circumstance. And when you run on luck . . . it eventually runs out.


On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart fell silent, somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific. No trace of her plane has ever been found.

Already one of the biggest stars of the early 20th century, at her death Earhart went supernova, fueling our endless fascination with the occupants of the empty sky.


Kudos, Spectacles