Vanished Pioneer; Expedition Soon Might Solve 1937 Mystery of Amelia Earhart

WASHINGTON -- They last were seen bounding up the silver left wing of their Lockheed Electra, navigator Fred Noonan clutching Amelia Earhart's left hand to help her from the ground. Then they eased themselves into the cockpit and slammed the hatch...

The Navy named a new ship after her this year. At Purdue, you can see the suede jacket she wore during her flight across the Atlantic and the small ice pick she used to open cans of tomato juice on her flights. One of her planes rests at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and her picture graces a 1964 U.S. airmail stamp.

She was so famous that Port Columbus officials arranged for her to attend the three-day dedication of the new $850,000 airport in July 1929. Earhart arrived from New York by train, and as a hard rain pelted the airport, she climbed aboard a Ford Tri-Motor for a flight to Oklahoma.

A month and a half later, when Earhart and 14 other women landed in Columbus as part of a California-to-Cleveland air race, more than 20,000 people showed up, many breaking through police lines to swarm about the airplanes.

She was just part of a wave of women who helped transform America in the 1920s and '30s, such as magazine editor Clare Boothe Luce, pilot Louise Thaden, actress Katharine Hepburn and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Frances Marion. They firmly rejected the traditional role reserved for women and aggressively pursued careers.

"She set the pace for women at a time when women had babies and stayed home," said Donald Goldstein, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and co-author of the 1999 book Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend.

Like Hepburn, Earhart wore slacks. Like many glamorous 1920s screen stars, she cut her hair short. She bore a slight resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, which earned her the nickname "Lady Lindy," a moniker she reportedly disliked.

She helped form the Ninety-Nines, the first women's flying organization; urged President Herbert Hoover to support an equal-rights amendment; and refused an invitation to attend the 1934 National Air Races in Cleveland because women were not allowed to compete.

She loved Putnam but married him reluctantly, having described marriage as a "cage" and "living the life of a domestic robot." On the day of their wedding in 1931, she wrote Putnam a letter promising not to hold him "to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly," concluding by asking Putnam to end the marriage in a year if they were unhappy.

With Putnam the ingenious promoter and Earhart the gifted pilot, they formed a modern marriage, almost a business partnership. Many biographies of Earhart treat Putnam harshly, suggesting he pushed her into the risky round-the-world flight.

But Earhart needed no encouragement from any man. She thrived on a challenge, and circling the globe at the Equator was the ultimate flying test. Wiley Post had twice circled the globe, but he flew the shorter and less demanding northern route over Canada, the Soviet Union and Alaska.

After a crash in March 1937 during takeoff in Hawaii aborted her first effort, Earhart and Noonan started their second attempt on June 1 in Miami. They stopped in Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Chad, Sudan, India, Burma and Singapore before reaching New Guinea on June 29. There, mechanics overhauled the Electra's two 550-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines.

The flight to Howland was the most treacherous leg of the effort. Earhart would be crossing two time zones and the international date line, meaning she would both take off from New Guinea and land on Howland on July 2.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was stationed off Howland to help Earhart navigate by radio, and the U.S. government built a small airstrip at the island. A sailor stood atop an island house ready to communicate with Earhart with red signal flags, and an American official planned to give Earhart and Noonan red and yellow silk leis.

Throughout the long night, the Itasca received brief and cryptic radio messages from Earhart that suggested she was flying in overcast skies. The Itasca dispatched a barrage of replies to Earhart, but only once did she acknowledge hearing the cutter. With Noonan apparently telling her they were near Howland, Earhart circled the Electra at 1,000 feet and told the Itasca she was running low on fuel.

At 8:44 that morning, the Itasca received one final message from Earhart: "We are on a line of position 157-337. Will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles. Wait, listening on 6210 kilocycles. We are running north and south." Earhart's transmission was so loud that the crew was certain she was near the island.

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