Ninety-one years ago, May 29, 1931, to be exact, a record-setting pilot with a familiar face took off in an autogyro (see featured photo*) in an attempt to be the first person to fly such an aircraft across the United States. She took off from Newark, New Jersey on that day and headed west.
She? Yep! Amelia Earhart. She had already flown this aircraft enough to set an altitude record with it earlier that year. Now she would fly it across the U.S., stop at several towns along the way each day, talk up this strange-looking aircraft, hand out gum and be on her way. Makers of the aircraft were advertising it as one that could “fly safely at low speeds” and land in small places. It used an unpowered rotor to develop lift and an engine-powered propeller to develop thrust. Surely every family needed one to make a quick trip to the grocery store!
Publicity was the name of the game. Someone from the local press was at each stop to take pictures, especially when she lifted very young children up to look inside the cockpit. It was an open cockpit with the rotor blades just above. A noisy ride, no doubt, and windy.
Along the way she shook hands with spectators, gave interviews and generally made a good name for herself and the aircraft as well as the gum.
Her destination was Oakland, California, where she landed on June 6, 1931. She soon learned that another pilot, a man named John M. Miller (he continued flying until he was 98!) had completed the same feat first, landing there on May 28th. There was no press or fanfare for him, unfortunately. Amelia’s husband George Putnam was furious. What to do? Well, how about making a return trip? She could be the first one to fly from west to east in that contraption.
And so, Amelia attempted it, but at Abilene, Kansas she crashed on take-off and made the rest of the return trip to New Jersey by train.
Eighty-five years ago today (July 2, 1937), Amelia was attempting to set another record. She wanted to be the first woman to fly around the world. With only 7,000 miles to go, she and her co-pilot, Fred Noonan, took off from Lae Airfield, New Guinea, and flew out over the vast Pacific, looking for their next stop, a tiny dot called Howland Island. They failed to arrive and entered into aviation lore. Over the decades many rumors and stories have circulated about their final flight.
Posthumously, Amelia was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1968. In 1973, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Another list is kept by the very prestigious magazine, Flying. There she is ranked 9th of 51 heroes of aviation.
Amelia came to Erie County on November 30, 1932, to talk to the students of Strong Vincent High School about the importance and future of flight. Her appearance was sponsored by the Business & Professional Women with Fairview’s Helen Schluraff heading the event. She was escorted from Port Erie (now the Erie International Airport) by 28 Girl Scouts and five women – the first women to earn their pilot’s licenses in the county. Among them was Erie Dispatch Herald reporter Barbara Hawley who lived in Fairview during her flying years. A more recent Fairview pilot, Vega Ihsen, joined the Ninety-Nines years later. This organization was for women pilots only and was organized by Amelia and others. The name indicated the number of charter members.
Coming soon on her birthday, July 24, is National Amelia Earhart Day. Look to the skies and imagine her there, soaring and looping, and chasing the clouds.
*Many thanks to James Bolla Sr. for the photo of the autogyro used in Amelia Earhart’s flight.