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On This Day: Amelia Earhart Embarks on Solo Trans-Atlantic Flight

Last updated: February 12, 2023

On May 20, 1932, Amelia Earhart took off from Newfoundland; she landed in Ireland nearly 15 hours later, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Earhart Becomes Second Person to Fly Solo Across Atlantic

Aviation phenomenon Amelia Earhart first made headlines in 1928 when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic as a passenger on a trans-Atlantic airplane flight. Though she received international fame, Earhart did not think she deserved it; “I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes,” she remarked.

Four years later, Earhart attempted to make the flight on her own. Just one person, Charles Lindbergh, had flown solo across the Atlantic. A female aviator, Ruth Nichols, had attempted the flight in 1931, but had crashed in Canada.

On May 20, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh’s flight, Earhart took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, in her red Lockheed Vega 5B. She encountered many difficulties; “Earhart fought fatigue, a leaky fuel tank, and a cracked manifold that spewed flames out the side of the engine cowling,” writes the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. “Ice formed on the Vega's wings and caused an unstoppable 3,000-foot descent to just above the waves.”

She had planned to fly to Paris—the same destination as Lindbergh—but the weather and mechanical problems forced her to land at a farm near Derry, Ireland, completing the flight in 14 hours and 56 minutes. She described her landing in a pasture: “After scaring most of the cows in the neighborhood, I pulled up in a farmer’s back yard.”

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“Many have said that the last great spectacular feat of this sort which remained in aviation would be a solitary Atlantic crossing by a woman,” the Manchester Guardian wrote. “Without male or other assistance, but relying on her own ability as a pilot, her own skill in the extremely difficult navigation which the Atlantic demands, she has succeeded in proving that the flight is not beyond the knowledge and the capacity for sustained endurance which a woman can acquire.”

Earhart was lavished with honors, receiving a tickertape parade in New York and being awarded a National Geographic Society medal by President Hoover and the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress.

Watch a newsreel of Earhart speaking just days after completing her flight.

Biography: Amelia Earhart

Sources in this Story

  • Smithsonian Institution: National Air and Space Museum: Women in Aviation and Space History: Amelia Earhart
  • Official Amelia Earhart Web Site: Biography
  • The Guardian: From the archive: A unique distinction for Amelia Earhart
  • National Geographic: Where Is Amelia Earhart? — Three Theories
  • The New York Times: The Lady Vanishes: Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart, born in 1897 in Kansas, worked as a nurse’s aide and a social worker before learning to fly and buying her own plane in 1921. She set the women’s altitude record in 1923, and in 1928 was offered the opportunity by publicist George Putnam—her future husband—to be the first woman to take part in a trans-Atlantic flight.

Earhart went on to form the Ninety-Nines, the first organization of female pilots, with 98 other aviatrixes, and set other women’s flying records before her 1932 trans-Atlantic flight. Later, she became the first person to fly the Atlantic alone twice, and the first woman to fly nonstop across the United States.

Her flying career ended with her disappearance in 1937 during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were flying from Lae, New Guinea, to the Pacific Ocean island of Howland in one of the final legs of the flight. Despite massive search and rescue missions, her body was never found. The cause of her disappearance and her ultimate fate remain a mystery.

“Earhart’s disappearance spawned countless theories involving radio problems, poor communication, navigation or pilot skills, other landing sites, spy missions and imprisonment, and even living quietly in New Jersey or on a rubber plantation in the Philippines,” according to the National Air and Space Museum. “The most reasonable explanation, based on the known facts of her flight, is that they were unable to locate Howland Island, ran out of fuel, and ditched into the Pacific Ocean.”

Despite her tragic end, Earhart continues to inspire people today with her legacy of daring and love of flight. “Amelia Earhart symbolizes modern woman’s invasion of the male world of daring action and adventure,” wrote author Camille Paglia. “As an aviator, she broke barriers and made the machine age her own. … Dashing in man-tailored shirts, jackets and slacks, Earhart became an icon of the rapidly evolving new woman who sought self-definition and fulfillment outside the home.”

Reference: Earhart Papers, Documentary

The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers is the world’s largest collection of Amelia Earhart papers, photos, memorabilia and artifacts.

Source: Purdue University

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The PBS American Experience documentary “Amelia Earhart” can be viewed online in its entirety.

Source: PBS (WGBH)

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