Amelia Earhart
The life story of Amelia Earhart has been told many times. Our biographical treatment of Earhart will be confined to those issues which have a direct bearing on attempts to discover her fate. These include:

Ethnic background and physical characteristics – useful in identifying human remains.

Education – useful in speculation about her behavior.

Aviation accomplishments and expertise – useful in speculation about her performance during the final flight.

Sources

The information in this section has been compiled from secondary sources including:

The Sound of Wings – The Life of Amelia Earhart by Mary S. Lovell, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
East to the Dawn – The Life of Amelia Earhart by Susan Butler, Addison-Wesley, 1997.
Revolution in the Sky – The Lockheeds of Aviation’s Golden Age by Richard S. Allen, Orion Books, 1988.
Lockheed Aircraft Since 1913 by René Francillon, Naval Institute Press, 1982.

Primary sources include:

Aviation Magazine, August 31, 1929.
Aero Digest October 1936.

Ethnic Background and Physical Characteristics

Ethnic Background

Amelia Earhart was of predominantly Prussian/English ancestry. On her father’s side, she was descended from a Prussian immigrant named Johann Earhardt who settled in York County, Pennsylvania sometime before the American Revolution. Her father, Edwin Stanton Earhart, was born in 1867 and, as a 28 year old attorney, married the 26 year old Amelia Otis (always known as Amy) of Atchison, Kansas on October 16, 1895. The Otis family had come to America from England in 1635. Both Amy and her daughter were named for Amy’s mother Amelia Harres Otis, who was of Prussian and English descent.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in her Otis grandparents’ house in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897. A sister, Grace Muriel, was born on December 29, 1899 in Kansas City. There were no other children.

Physical Characteristics

Documented physical descriptions of Amelia Earhart are rare. The only source known at present is Transport Pilot’s License No. 5716 granted by the U.S. Department of Commerce on May 1, 1930 to “Amelia M. Earhart.” The certificate describes the recipient’s age as 31, “weight 118 lbs., height 5 feet 8 inches, hair blond, eyes grey [sic].” It is not known whether this information was provided by an independent source (such as a physician) or by the applicant. If the latter, its precision is somewhat suspect. Generally both men and women tend to understate their weight and overstate their height.

Photographs of Amelia Earhart are, of course, abundant. They show a woman of lanky build with proportionate features. Because the fragmented remains of shoes have been found which are suspected of having been those worn by Earhart on her final flight, the issue of Amelia’s shoe size has received considerable attention.

Brocade dancing slippers in a Kansas museum are said to have belonged to Earhart in her youth and are marked size 6 and a half.

A pair of high-heeled dress shoes in TIGHAR’s possession are said to have been purchased by Earhart in Europe in 1932 and later given to a friend because they hurt Amelia’s feet. No size is marked but the shoes are 26.5 cm in length. A photo of Earhart’s foot as she stood on the wing of her aircraft five years later, and ten days before she disappeared, shows her wearing a blucher-oxford style shoe measuring 27.8 cm in length (as calculated from the known rivet spacing on the wing).


Speculation

How big, or small, were Amelia’s feet? TIGHAR asked forensic anthropologist Dr. Richard L. Jantz of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville what size her feet should have been if she was normally proportioned for a woman of her height. He replied:

The correlation between foot size and stature is not great, but it is good enough to narrow the range. As a preliminary attempt along these lines I took the female military data on stature, foot length and their correlation to estimate foot size from Earhart’s stature. The military data are not the best since they contain the various ethnicities in the U.S. Like the U.S. however, they will be predominately white. I get the following:
Earhart's ht. Estimated foot length
5′8″ (172.7cm) 25.7 +/- 0.903
5′7″ (170.2cm) 25.4 +/- 0.903

What size shoes might she have worn? The exterior dimension of a shoe sole is typically about 3.5 cm greater than foot length. Based upon Dr. Jantz’s figures we would therefore anticipate that Earhart might wear shoes anywhere from 27.9 cm to 30 cm.

Education

1916 Amelia graduated from Hyde Park High School, Chicago. That summer, her mother came into a substantial inheritance which enabled Amelia to attend the Ogontz School, an exclusive finishing school near Philadelphia. She did well in her studies, especially literature, and became vice president of her class.
1917 After the United States entered World War One in April, Amelia became active in volunteer work with the school’s Red Cross chapter. During the Christmas holiday of 1917, while visiting her sister who was attending school in Toronto, Amelia was appalled by the number of wounded soldiers in need of nursing care. She abruptly decided not to return to school but to stay on in Canada to enroll in a first aid course and was soon doing volunteer work at Spadina Military Hospital.

MYTH

Of her time at Ogontz, the 1993 PBS documentary “The American Experience, Amelia Earhart: The Price of Courage,” states that “Amelia didn’t fit the mold and was kicked out for stunts like walking on the roof in her nightgown.” The allegation is utterly groundless and grossly misrepresents Earhart’s character and the reason for her departure.

1918 Amelia continued her work at the hospital through the great influenza epidemic of the summer of 1918 until she contracted a pneumonococcal bacterial infection of her frontal antrum (sinus). The only available remedy was surgery which involved opening and draining the cavity. This painful and lengthy procedure incapacitated Amelia throughout the fall of 1918, which she spent in Northampton, Massachusetts where her sister was taking courses in preparation for the entrance examinations to Smith College. During her convalescence, she learned to play the banjo and took a course in automobile maintenance.
1919 In the fall of 1919 Amelia, then 22, enrolled in a pre-med course of studies with the Columbia University Extension Program in New York City. She carried a very heavy course load and maintained a B+ average for the entire year.
1920 At the end of the spring 1920 semester she left school to live in California with her parents. Amelia later explained that she had changed her mind about wanting to be a doctor. During the next four years Amelia began her flying career and gained some measure of fame in that capacity (see Aviation Accomplishments and Expertise below) before returning to the east coast in 1924 in the wake of her parents’ divorce.
1925

Following another bout of sinus infection necessitating more surgery, draining, and recovery, Amelia returned to Columbia for the spring semester of 1925 with the intention of earning a degree in engineering. Now short of money, she registered for only two courses, elementary physics and intermediate algebra. The algebra proved to be a problem. Her acceptance as a degree candidate at Columbia had been conditional upon completing that course but Amelia had had no math since high school. She received a C- which meant that she did not receive credit for the course. In an attempt to save the situation, she enrolled in summer school at Harvard University but instead of taking remedial instruction in algebra she signed up for a trigonometry course which assumed a thorough grounding in algebra. She worked hard and came away with an A, effectively erasing the stain on her academic record.

Rather than return to Columbia, she applied for admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) because they accepted women on an equal basis with men and because they offered a degree in aeronautical engineering. Her financial situation was such that she could only attend if awarded a scholarship, but none was awarded. Her formal education at an end, Amelia took up residence in West Medford, Massachusetts where her sister was teaching junior high school.

Although she never completed any program of higher education, Amelia Earhart was a good student and her schooling left her well versed in the liberal arts. She had an unusually fine knowledge of the classics, wrote well, and enjoyed music and poetry. She was also interested in science and had a fundamental grasp of biology, zoology, chemistry and physics.
Aviation Accomplishments
and Expertise
1921 Amelia Earhart took her first flying lesson from Neta Snook, at that time the only female flying instructor in southern California, on January 3, 1921. The aircraft was a rebuilt “Canuck,” a Canadian version of the Curtiss JN4 “Jenny.” That summer, dissatisfied with the lumbering performance of the Curtiss, Amelia persuaded her parents to buy her a new Kinner “Airster” as a present for her twenty-fourth birthday. She continued to take instruction from Snook and, on two occasions, had minor crashes. After nearly five hours in the Canuck and fifteen in the Kinner, Neta felt that Earhart was ready to solo, but Amelia refused, insisting that she have instruction in “stunting” before taking the machine aloft alone. An ex-army pilot, John Montijo, provided several months of additional training and by the time Amelia consented to solo the Airster (sometime in late 1921) she had learned to do loops, spins, and barrel rolls. At this time there was no requirement that a pilot obtain a federally issued license to fly and Earhart immediately began participating in public aerial demonstrations and “air rodeos.”

SPECULATION

Earhart’s pattern of flight instruction was a departure from that followed by most students who solo after approximately ten hours of basic instruction and later go on to learn more advanced maneuvers. Amelia’s insistence upon what some would consider excessive training before embarking upon her first solo flight is very much at odds with the boldness she displayed later in her flying career.

1922 Sometime (probably October) in 1922 Earhart set an altitude record for women of 14,000 feet. The record was unofficial but it did bring Earhart a measure of notoriety. (On September 28, 1921 Lt. John Macready had flown a supercharged Army Le Pere biplane to 34,508 feet.)
1923 On March 17th Amelia had top billing among the female pilots performing for the opening of the new Glendale, California airport. On May 16th she passed her test to obtain a pilot’s license endorsed by the National Aeronautic Association, the newly-created American arm of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI). Amelia was awarded Certificate Number 6017 after demonstrating a series of precision figures, and executing a power-off descent from 4,921 feet (1,500 meters) to land within 492 feet (150 meters) of a predetermined spot. The license was not required by any U.S. authority but was a pre-requisite for any attempt on an official FAI record. In June, her family’s financial reversals forced her to sell her airplane and a recurrence of her sinus condition, and more money problems, kept her grounded for the rest of the year.
1924 It has been said that Earhart briefly owned another Airster (Lovell, page 47) but there seems to be no contemporaneous evidence that the allegation is true. In any event, by late spring continued financial troubles and her parents’ decision to finally divorce resulted in Amelia buying a car in which she, her sister and their mother returned to the Boston area. For the next three years Earhart had little active contact with aviation as her attempt to complete her education fizzled and she wandered into a career of social work. In 1927 she was able to resume some flying in association with the new Dennison Airport near Quincy, Massachusetts.
1928 Earhart’s participation as a passenger in the transatlantic flight of Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon catapulted her to world fame but did not add to her piloting experience except as an observer. Her new-found celebrity did, however, enable her to purchase an airplane – a British-built Avro Avian which was similar to her earlier Kinner Airster in size and performance. At this point in her career, Amelia Earhart is alleged to have had 500 hours of piloting experience (Butler, page 214) but no documentation is provided. On August 31 she undertook to fly the Avian from New York to California, her first long distance flight as a pilot. She got as far as Pittsburgh where, upon landing, she hit a ditch with one wheel and groundlooped the airplane, wrecking the landing gear and shattering the propeller. After the airplane was repaired she continued her trip. She reached Los Angeles on September 14 during the National Air Races, but she was not a participant. On September 30, enroute back to the east coast, she made a forced landing in a ploughed field near Tintic, Utah resulting in a nose-over and a broken propeller.
1929 Hoping to compete in the first Women’s Air Derby, a Los Angeles to Cleveland race which was to be the opening event of the National Air Races in August, Earhart sought to upgrade her credentials and her equipment. On March 29 she obtained her Department of Commerce Transport Pilot’s License which required that the holder have at least 250 hours total time. Earlier that month she had tried to purchase an airplane from designer Giuseppe Bellanca, but after her poor performance during a demonstration flight the sale was refused. On July 20 Earhart started a new logbook and carried forward 559 hours and 46 minutes. On July 30 Amelia sold her Avian and purchased Lockheed Vega constructor’s number (c/n) 10, registered NC6911. The aircraft was a used five place Vega 1 equipped with a 225 hp Wright J5A Whirlwind engine. Empty weight 1,650 lbs. Maximum speed 135 mph. The next day Earhart departed for California with Army pilot Lt. Orville Stephens, intending to have Lockheed fine-tune the airplane prior to the race which was scheduled to begin on August 18. Upon arrival in Burbank, Lockheed found the airplane to be in poor condition and very difficult to fly. Impressed that Amelia had flown the aircraft across the country, the company traded her a new Vega 1, c/n 36 registered NC31E.

SPECULATION

Who was it that flew NC6911 across the country? A Vega was a major step up from the docile lightweight types Earhart had been flying. Is it reasonable to believe that the same pilot who fared so poorly in the Bellanca in March could handle the higher speeds, heavier weight, and trickier landing characteristics of a Vega (let alone an out-of-rig Vega)? The big Lockheed was a single pilot airplane with no provision for dual instruction. There is no record of Earhart taking instruction in some other type in preparation for flying the Vega. It would seem reasonable to speculate that it was Lt. Stephens who did most of the flying during the cross-country flight.

  On August 18 the Women’s Air Derby, christened the “Powder Puff Derby” by Will Rogers, started from Santa Monica. There were nineteen entrants for the race to Cleveland which would be run in nine stages over several days. Earhart’s was the only Lockheed and was, by far, the largest, heaviest, and fastest aircraft in the race. During a refueling stop at Yuma, Arizona Amelia ran off the end of the runway on landing and upended the Vega, bending the propeller. A new prop was flown in from Burbank and she continued on her way. The race was plagued by several other mishaps including one fatality. Of nineteen starters, sixteen reached Cleveland. The winner, Louise Thaden flying a Travel Air, had an elapsed time of 20:19:02. Second place went to Gladys O’Donnell’s Waco with a time of 21:21:41. Earhart finished two hours behind Thaden to claim third place with an embarrassingly poor landing before the crowd in Cleveland. She won $875. (The cross-country race for men had only four entrants, all flying Lockheeds. It was won with a non-stop L.A. to Cleveland dash by Henry J. “Brownie” Brown with a time of 13 hours and 15 minutes.) In the fall of that year, Amelia returned to California where Lockheed offered her an opportunity to set a women’s speed record in a new Vega 5A Executive. This aircraft, NC538M (c/n 107), was equipped with a Pratt & Whitney Wasp of 425 hp. On November 22 Earhart flew it over a 3 kilometer course at Los Angeles Metropolitan Airport at a clocked speed of 184.17 mph.
1930 On March 17 Amelia traded in her 225 hp Wright-powered Vega 1 for a 425 h.p. P&W-powered Vega 5 NC7952 (c/n 22). In June she was also loaned the first metal-fuselage Vega DL-1 NC497H (c/n 135) and set three more speed records for women in various load categories for Lockheed. On September 25 she wrecked her own new Vega in a nose-over landing accident at Norfolk, Virginia which left the airplane flat on its back, fuselage broken. Earhart received a laceration to her scalp and her passenger broke a finger. It was nearly a year before Lockheed rebuilt the machine using the fuselage of another Vega (c/n 68) and upgraded it to a 5B with the installation of a Pratt & Whitney Wasp C engine of 450 hp. Without her Vega, Earhart began an association with the Pitcairn company of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania to promote their new PCA-2 autogiro which she soloed on December 19.
1931 On April 8 Earhart set an unofficial altitude record of 18,415 ft in the Pitcairn autogiro. She was about to buy Pitcairn PCA-2 NC10780 with the intent of becoming the first person to fly an autogiro from coast to coast when the Beech-Nut company offered to buy the machine and sponsor the flight. She departed Newark, New Jersey on May 29 and arrived in Oakland June 6 only to discover that another pilot had completed the same trip a week before in an identical aircraft. Deciding to go for the first transcontinental round-trip in an autogiro, she departed for the return to the east coast but crashed after a rotor-strike on takeoff at Abilene, Texas. She received an official reprimand for negligence from Clarence Young, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Aviation. A replacement aircraft was dispatched immediately and she continued her flight, arriving back in Newark on June 22 having covered roughly 11,000 miles in 150 hours of flying. Shortly after her return (the date is uncertain) Amelia had another mishap with the autogiro in Camden, New Jersey in which the aircraft landed on a fence. In September, during a demonstration at the Michigan State Fair grounds in Detroit, Amelia botched a landing and dropped the machine in from about 20 feet, wrecking the aircraft but escaping uninjured. This seems to have been the end of her adventures with autogiros.
1932 Early in 1932 Earhart decided to attempt a transatlantic flight to Paris in her rebuilt Vega on the fifth anniversary of Lindbergh’s crossing. In preparation for the project, Amelia took instruction in instrument flying and studied Atlantic weather patterns. Meanwhile, the airplane was prepared for the flight by experienced long-distance pilot Bernt Balchen and mechanic Ed Gorski. A new P&W Wasp C engine of 450 hp and fuel tanks totaling 420 gallons were installed. On the afternoon of May 19 Earhart, Balchen, and Gorski departed Teterboro, New Jersey aboard NC7952. Balchen flew the airplane while Earhart and Gorski rode as passengers. They stayed the night in St. John, New Brunswick and the following day Balchen flew them to Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, arriving at 2:01 p.m. After a nap, Earhart took off on her solo transatlantic flight at 7:12 p.m. local time. After a night of bad weather, she reached the coast of Ireland 200 miles north of her intended course, with a malfunctioning altimeter, a cracked exhaust manifold and a leaking fuel gauge. Electing to end the flight, she landed in Gallagher’s field at Culmore near Londonderry in County Donegal at 1:46 p.m. local time May 21 having flown 2,026 miles in 15 hours and 18 minutes. She had 70 gallons of fuel remaining.

SPECULATION

The numbers indicate that Earhart had averaged 132 mph burning 22.9 gallons per hour (gph). Assuming that, at a much lighter weight late in the flight, she could reduce fuel consumption to roughly 18 gph, she had another 3.8 hours of fuel remaining when she landed. Had she elected to continue on toward Paris and been able to maintain 132 mph, she could have flown another 502 miles. Paris is more than 600 miles from Londonderry. In order to reach Paris she would have had to reduce her fuel consumption to 15.5 gph.

  On July 10 she departed Los Angeles in NC7952 in an attempt to become the first woman to fly coast to coast nonstop, but made a brief stop in Columbus, Ohio to clear a clogged fuel line before continuing on to Newark. She tried again on August 24 and this time made the trip without incident in 19 hours, 7 minutes and 56 seconds.
1933 The National Air Races for the first time were to allow women to compete with men and Earhart was one of two women (the other was Ruth Nichols) entered against five men for the Cleveland to Los Angeles Bendix race. Earhart’s hatch cover broke loose forcing her to stop for repairs and putting her across the finish line six hours behind the men. She made the return flight to the east coast nonstop, bettering her previous record by two hours.
1934 In June, Earhart sold NC7952, minus engine, to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and, purchased yet another Vega. This was a “Hi-Speed Special 5C” registered as NR965Y (c/n 171) upon which she installed the same Wasp C she had used for the Atlantic and cross-country record flights and adding a new Hamilton Standard adjustable-pitch propeller. Despite the new purchase, Earhart seems to have done little flying in 1934, instead working for the first time with Hollywood stunt pilot and technical advisor Paul Mantz to prepare for a new record flight early the next year. On November 21 FCC approval was received to install a two-way radio in the Vega, call sign KHABQ, transmitting on 3105 and 6210 kilocycles using a trailing wire antenna. No direction finding equipment was included. On December 22 the S.S. Lurline sailed for Honolulu with NR965Y as deck cargo.
1935 On January 11 NR965Y took off from Wheeler Army Airfield near Honolulu and headed for Oakland loaded with 520 gallons of fuel. The flight was roundly condemned from many quarters as pointless and dangerous. On December 3, British aviator Charles Ulm and two crew members had disappeared during an attempt to fly a twin-engined Airspeed Envoy from Oakland to Hawaii. An exhaustive and expensive search by naval ships and aircraft, including the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, had failed to find any trace of the lost aircraft. Earhart’s flight, however, was uneventful. She reached the California coast twenty miles south of her intended landfall and set down at Oakland after 18 hours and 16 minutes in the air. Seeking still another record, on April 19 Amelia flew took off from Burbank hoping to fly nonstop to Mexico City, but she got lost and had to land to ask directions just 60 miles short of her destination. Leaving Mexico on May 8, she flew nonstop to Newark, New Jersey in 14 hours and 18 minutes. In August she flew the Bendix race again, this time accompanied by Paul Mantz. They placed fifth and won $500.
1936

On March 20 Earhart placed an order with Lockheed for the construction of an Electra Model 10E Special. Amelia’s first flight seems to have been on July 21 with Lockheed test pilot Elmer McLeod while the airplane, c/n 1055, then registered as X16020, still belonged to the company. It was officially delivered on Earhart’s thirty-ninth birthday, July 24. In late August Amelia, Paul Mantz, and mechanic Ruckins “Bo” McKneely flew the airplane from Burbank to Floyd Bennett Field, New York for the start of the Bendix Trophy race back to Los Angeles. On September 4 Earhart, accompanied by former airline pilot Helen Richey, began the dash westward, but problems with the cockpit hatch and cabin door caused delays which resulted in them finishing fifth. First place and $7,000 went to Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes in a new Beech C17R Staggerwing – time 14:55:01. Second was Laura Ingalls, winning $2,500 in a Lockheed Orion with a time of 15:39:38. Bill Gulick received $1,500 for a close third in a Wright-powered Vultee at 15:45:25. George Pomeroy flew a Douglas DC-2 to fourth place and $1,000 with a time of 16:16:51. Amelia and Helen landed a few minutes later with a time of 16:34:52. They won $500.

In late September Earhart flew the Electra from California to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana with her husband George Putnam and mechanic Bo McKneely as passengers. This is the first time Amelia is known to have flown the airplane without another, more qualified, pilot with her. The Electra was the first multi-engine and the first retractable landing gear aircraft that Earhart had ever owned. Landings required the use of wing flaps, another first for Amelia. The airplane’s empty weight was nearly three times that of her heaviest Vega, yet it had the same high (65 mph) landing speed. To make matters worse, the E model Electra had larger, heavier, more powerful engines than the airframe was originally designed to accommodate and, predictably, the handling characteristics of the machine suffered for it. By comparison to other Electras, the 10E was ponderous, nose heavy and noisy.

In October she flew to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio for radio installation and again, in November, to Hadley Field, New Jersey for more radio work. Late that month she began a week-long trip back to California, sharing the cockpit with Jacqueline Cochran.

1937

On February 8 Earhart left Burbank to fly the Electra to New York for a press event to announce the upcoming world flight. She arrived at Teterboro, New Jersey on February 11 and the announcement was made at the Barclay Hotel in New York the next day. In late February she returned to California with Putnam, McKneely, and Harry Manning who was to be the navigator for the first part of the world flight. Upon her return to Burbank she made a series of test flights with Lockheed engineer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson to work out fuel consumption and power management tables for the world flight.

In mid-March the airplane was flown to Oakland in preparation for the world flight departure and on March 13 it was announced that Fred Noonan would be added to the crew. On March 17 Earhart, Mantz, Manning and Noonan took off from Oakland and arrived at Wheeler Field, Honolulu 15 hours and 47 minutes later on the morning of the 18th, setting a new record for the crossing. Mantz handled the throttles and landing gear on the takeoff from Oakland and made the landing in Hawaii. The next day Mantz, who would remain in Hawaii, flew the airplane to Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor so that Earhart could use the airfield’s recently paved runway for her departure on the anticipated 13 hour flight to Howland Island. On the morning of March 20, during the takeoff run for the flight to Howland, Earhart lost control of the aircraft and groundlooped, collapsing the landing gear and severely damaging the aircraft.

The Electra was shipped back to Burbank where repairs were completed on May 19. Total flight time on the airplane upon completion of repairs was recorded as 181 hours, 17 minutes. How many of those hours were Earhart’s is not known.

On May 20 Amelia, accompanied by Noonan, Putnam, and McKneely, flew the aircraft to Oakland and, on May 21, began her second world flight attempt in secrecy with a short flight to Tucson, Arizona. During Earhart’s attempt to start the left engine after refueling, a fire erupted which was extinguished with some difficulty, necessitating an overnight stay and minor repairs. The next day they continued on to New Orleans and, on May 23, arrived in Miami. Announcing that her second world flight attempt had already begun, Earhart departed Miami on June 1 accompanied only by Noonan.

In the course of the next month Earhart and Noonan flew the airplane south to Brazil, across the South Atlantic and North Africa, around the southern coast of Arabia to India, across the sub-continent and down through south east Asia to Australia and, ultimately, to Lae, New Guinea where they arrived on June 29. Most legs of the trip were under five hours in length with the longest flights being the South Atlantic crossing of 13 hours 22 minutes and the run from Assab to Karachi of 13 hours 20 minutes. There were no notable accidents or serious mishaps. The total time flown since the completion of repairs has been estimated at 161 hours.

At 10:00 local time on July 2 Earhart and Noonan departed Lae for the anticipated 19 hour flight to Howland Island. They did not arrive.

Conclusions

There are patterns discernible in Earhart’s flying career. With the exception of her early hesitancy to solo, Amelia’s appetite for new aviation laurels consistently outpaced her competence to achieve them and each move up to a new level was punctuated by accidents. Even in an era when aviation upsets and catastrophes were relatively commonplace, Earhart had far too many wrecks. Her mishaps, however, tended to be relatively minor and appear to be attributable primarily to a lack of physical skill rather than any wanton disregard for her own safety. She does not run into hills while trying to push through in bad weather. She doesn’t get hopelessly lost and wander around until she runs out of gas. She has no mid-air collisions or in-flight structural failures. She never has to use a parachute. And she doesn’t get hurt. The only injury she ever received was a cut on the scalp when she flipped her Vega onto its back in Norfolk. After enough hours of flight time, and enough bent metal, she either learns how to handle the airplane (as she did the Vega and the Electra) or she walks away (as she did with the Pitcairn).

It might appear that whatever happened in the Central Pacific did not fit the pattern of Earhart’s previous problems, but perhaps it did. The fundamental cause of the flight’s failure to reach Howland seems to be Earhart’s failure to adequately understand the capabilities and limitations of her radio equipment. In other words, she got in over her head, except this time the consequences were not a bent prop and a bruised ego, and this time she couldn’t walk away.

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