On Friday, the latest biopic about Amelia Earhart -- this one a $20 million feature film starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere -- opens in theaters nationwide. As a woman pilot myself, I suppose I should be excited about having attention turned, once again, to one of our own. The fact that I'm not says nothing about my enthusiasm for women pilots or pioneers. It's just...enough about Amelia, already.
Amelia Earhart was a remarkable woman for her time. I give her a lot of credit for not wanting to be defined by her gender. She sent her husband a note on their wedding day informing him that she did not intend to stay faithful to him. That's not exactly standard. She took risks, which takes a certain amount of courage. She pursued feats of flight at a time when very few women did. All well and good.
But she was far from the only one, and far from the best at what she did. She was only the best known -- which was a feat, indeed, but one that was more the result of her husband's publishing and marketing savvy than an organic result of her own accomplishments. And on some level, I think a lot of women pilots chafe at the title of "most famous woman pilot" being conferred on a woman who, in the strictest reading of things, skimped on navigation preparations, got lost and crashed. Nobody bestowed that level of fame on the fliers who died attempting to span the Atlantic before Lindbergh.
But it's not just that. It's that there are so many other really accomplished women pioneers who get lost in Amelia's disproportionate shadow. Women in Aviation, International has a Hall of Fame that lists the bios of dozens of women who were Earhart's contemporaries. Interestingly enough, Earhart herself was not inducted into the Hall of Fame until five years after its inception, and her entry is not as compelling as some of the others.
Take, for example, the entry for Elinor Smith. Who? Right. That's the point. Elinor Smith soloed in 1926, at the age of 15, and three months later set an altitude record of 11, 889 feet. In 1927, she became the youngest licensed pilot and, at the age of 18, became the youngest male or female pilot to be granted an air transport license by the U.S. Department of Commerce. That same year, she set two endurance records, a refueling record, and the women's world speed record--that last one in a military airplane. In 1930, Smith was selected by licensed American pilots as the "Best Woman Pilot in America." During the Depression, she worked as a stunt pilot for the movies (no mean feat for a woman in those days) and did aerial fundraisers for the homeless and the needy. And, by the way, lived to tell the tale.
Or take Louise Thaden, who got a job as an office manager for Beech Aircraft in order to learn to fly, soloing in 1928. Later that year, she set the world's altitude record for women by flying above 20,000 feet -- the first U.S. woman to win that title. The following year, she set the solo flight endurance record and the woman's world speed record--the only woman to ever hold all three of those records simultaneously. The next month she became the fourth woman in the U.S. to get her air transport license, and later in 1929 she won the first Women's Air Derby--beating Amelia Earhart. In 1936, the year before Earhart's ill-fated world flight, Thaden became the first woman to beat all the men in the highly competitive Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, establishing a new transcontinental speed record for women and winning a Harmon Trophy--aeronautics' highest honor--in the process.
There were also women whose impact went far beyond record flights. Take, for example, Nancy Love. In 1942, long before Jacqueline Cochran achieved fame for her role in organizing and leading the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs), Love pulled together women who were already commercial pilots, with at least 500 hours of flight time, to form the precursor organization, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). Love was the first woman to fly the P-51 and P-38 World War II fighters, as well as a B-25 and B-17 bomber. In 1946, she was awarded the Air Medal and a citation for her leadership in women flying military aircraft. If women can fly in the military today, it's in no small part because of Love, who first proved women were up to the task.
It's also because of women like Barbara London, who was one of Love's 28 recruits and who became the commander of the Los Angeles WAFS/WASP squadron. By the time the WASPs were sent home in December 1944 and forbidden to fly any more military aircraft (a very long story behind that one), London was proficient in every single Army trainer, bomber, and fighter we'd built--one of only two women to achieve that distinction. Devastated at being sent home, she signed up for the new Air Force in 1947, hoping for the chance to fly again. She stayed in the service for 20 years, hoping the rules would change, but they didn't change in time for her. She was allowed to wear her flight wings, but she was never allowed to fly. Undaunted, London started an air charter service on the side and taught both her daughters to fly. And one of her daughters, who learned a lot about persistence from her mother, went on to become the first woman pilot hired by Western Airlines. If I'm going to look for a role model for women, I don't have to look further than Barbara London.
The list goes on and on. From Bessie Coleman, who became the first African-American pilot in 1921 by traveling to France to take flying lessons, because blacks were forbidden to fly in the U.S., and whose answer to how she got past all the barriers facing her was, "I refused to take 'no' for an answer," the list of women pilots who persevered against all odds to open doors and achieve great things is long and distinguished. So is the list of sacrifices those women made. When I flew in my first and only transcontinental air race, in 1992, I met a woman named Ruby Sheldon, who was already elderly but still flying and grabbing hold of life with two hands. She told me in a matter-of-fact manner about how, in the post-war years, no companies would hire women as pilots. Unwilling to give up her dream of being a commercial pilot, she ended up flying cargo helicopters off of ice floes north of the Arctic Circle, because that was the only job she could find.
If none of these women's names are household words, it's not because they weren't worthy. It's because none of them had George Putnam as a husband.
Earhart is still an interesting study, as most record-setting adventurers are. Last month, in fact, Judith Thurman wrote a fascinating piece on Earhart in The New Yorker, worth the reading for anyone intrigued by the Earhart story. But if Thurman's sources are to be believed (and I think they are), Earhart's unfinished world flight was, in many ways, a poetic and appropriate ending for her life. For beyond a craving for adventure and attention, it seems Earhart was a restless dilettante, afraid of getting old and rarely finishing anything she started.
As for the great mystery surrounding her disappearance ... I don't know a lot of pilots who think it's such a great mystery. I've flown in the South Pacific. It's a horizon-to-horizon stretch of unmarked nothing. And in the 1930s, it was far easier to get lost and crash there than it was to reach any destination safely. Sir Gordon Taylor, one of my all-time flying heroes who made pioneering flights across the Pacific and surveyed air transport routes for the Allies in early World War II, wrote about the challenge of navigating the Pacific in his autobiography The Sky Beyond:
"To reach our destination and, in fact, to reach land at all," Taylor wrote, "[the navigator] had to be exactly right in the work that was ahead of him. ... When he has made his allowances for variation of the compass due to earth's magnetism, for deviation due to its effect through the iron in the aircraft, and for the drift of the air in which the aircraft is flying, he still has to contend with the fact that the pilot may not steer the course given to him."
Perfection, across 15 or more hours, is hard to accomplish. And imperfection meant that you died, because finding a lone aircraft in the Pacific is even harder than finding a lone island. On one of Taylor's flights, he reached the Hawaiian Islands with only five minutes of fuel left. On another, he never found the right island, and survived only because that flight left him enough fuel to return to a radio-equipped checkpoint behind him. And Taylor was a master pilot and navigator.
Why, then, do so many people still have such trouble accepting the overwhelmingly probable answer that Earhart and Noonan got lost, crashed, and sank with or soon after the plane? I suspect it's because we want so badly for them to have survived. We let go of our heroes, and all of the dreams we infuse them with, very reluctantly (as I've written about before, here and here). And in many cases, we like the fantasy possibilities better than the reality.
But it's time. Past time. Amelia Earhart was an interesting, adventurous, and accomplished woman who lived and died unconventionally. But so did many of her peers ... who had every bit as compelling stories and accomplishments. Instead of telling the same story over and over again, I wish someone would fund the telling of some of those other women's stories. "Barbara" might not have the same ring as "Amelia," but the story of her life--a woman without any power or money connections who became the best there was, then had her wings taken away, but got up off the mat again and made it possible for her daughter to succeed where she had been thwarted--is a movie I'd be far more interested in going to see.
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