Today in Feminist History: Amelia Earhart is Airborne! (March 17, 1937)

March 17, 1937: Amelia Earhart is airborne!

PHOTO (Left to right): Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart, Harry Manning and
Fred Noonan.

Over five thousand cheering fans—husband George Palmer Putnam among them—were on hand to see her take off from Oakland, California, on her record-breaking around-the-world flight.

Early reports are that all is going well on this first leg of the journey, with Hawaii as her initial goal. As grueling as today’s 2,392-mile flight may be, it is just the first of three days of long-distance, over-the-water flying. Her next hop will be to tiny Howland Island, then on to Lae, New Guinea—6,500 miles from Oakland.

She is attempting to become the first pilot to circle the globe as closely as possible to the Equator, Earth’s widest point. Her 27,000-mile route will be nearly twice the distance of the late Wiley Post’s two 15,000-mile flights around the world at far more northern latitudes.

Though the flight is universally described in the press as a “great adventure,” Earhart insists that it is really a practical exercise to further the cause of aviation by testing new navigational instruments and radio devices—a necessary step to expanding passenger and cargo routes. Either way, she’s in the air now in her “Flying Laboratory.”

Accompanying her today are three other crew members: Navigator Fred Noonan, who has flown the Pacific many times for Pan American and will do the navigating from Hawaii to Howland; Harry Manning, whose knowledge of the South Seas as a ship’s captain will be useful for navigating from Howland to New Guinea and Australia; and technical adviser Paul Mantz. 

Though Earhart has previously done long flights over water, locating small islands in a huge ocean is a lot riskier than aiming for a continent. In that vein, she says she will be taking every possible precaution. She will use many means of navigation: Dead reckoning, which is estimating one’s position based on heading and speed; radio bearings from ships at sea and shore stations; a radio directional finder, plus celestial navigation, calculating one’s position based on the stars. 

Her present project is a logical progression of her career in flying. As she explains it:

“Pilots are always dreaming dreams, I think. After being just a passenger on the Atlantic flight of 1928, I wanted to duplicate the crossing alone in my own plane. I pursued the dream of a solo flight for four years before it became a reality in 1932. One ocean naturally led to another, and two years later, through hard work and planning and generous help, the opportunity came to try the Pacific.

“One day last summer President Edward C. Elliot [of Purdue University] asked my husband what most interested me beyond immediate academic matters. Mr. Putnam, a practicing believer in wives doing what they do best is an approving and helpful partner in all my projects. So he divulged my suppressed pilot’s yearning for a bigger and better airplane.”

Once this most advanced aircraft, a Lockheed Electra 10-E, was financed and outfitted for her by Purdue, and combined with her desire to do more pioneering work in aviation, this ultimate long-distance flight was the inevitable result. 

Today is a great day for both aviation and women’s rights. As an active member of the National Woman’s Party and a strong supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, Earhart’s contributions to the struggle for equality for women have already been substantial, both on the ground as well as in the air, so we should all wish her the best of luck on this latest adventure !


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.