Today in Feminist History: Amelia Earhart’s “Cool Nerve” (March 20, 1937)

March 20, 1937: Amelia Earhart’s latest adventure nearly ended in disaster today when she attempted to fly to Howland Island, the second stop on her around-the-world flight.

But despite the setback, she immediately assured everyone that once her plane is repaired, she will be airborne again.

She was barreling down the runway at Hawaii’s Luke Field at 7:30 this morning, when, as she calmly put it later: “Something went wrong.”

Though the crash took place near the end of the long runway, far from those who witnessed it, there is speculation that the plane first began to sway due to the sloshing of its unusually heavy fuel load for the long flight, then a tire blew out about the time it hit a patch of wet grass. The convergence of these events caused the plane to veer.

As a wing began to dip precariously, Earhart adjusted the throttles in an attempt to level the craft. For a second it looked as if she had succeeded.

But the swaying caused by the shifting of the fuel increased, became too much, and when the weight of the plane briefly rested on a single landing gear, it gave way. A wing slashed into the ground, spinning the plane as it skidded along the runway. Only Earhart’s quick cutting of the ignition switches kept a fire from breaking out that would have been fed by 900 gallons of aviation fuel easily capable of engulfing the aircraft and its crew.

There was praise for Earhart’s courage and skill from Army officers who witnessed the attempted takeoff. “I never saw anyone with cooler nerve,” said General Barton Yount, commander of Hickam Field. 

This was actually the second near-disaster in regard to the Hawaii to Howland trip. Though Earhart set a record for the fastest crossing from Oakland, California, to Hawaii, of 15 hours, 51 and a half minutes, it was found upon landing that the propeller bearings were almost dry. Had this not been discovered, and this morning’s takeoff been successful, she and her crew could have been suddenly forced down at sea somewhere along the 1,900-mile route between Hawaii and Howland, never to be heard from again. 

Earhart’s “Flying Laboratory” is presently being dismantled and will be sent by ship back to the Lockheed factory in Burbank, California, where it will be fully and expertly repaired. Wasting no time, she and her crew, composed of Harry Manning, Paul Mantz, and Fred Noonan, boarded the “Malolo” at 11:30 this morning and are already heading back to the mainland, still determined to be the first to fly around the world as close to the Equator as possible. 

“This action means postponement only. It is my full intention to go ahead with the adventure as soon as possible,” Earhart said earlier today, and no one doubts that she will be on her way again soon.


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.