The world has become a lot smaller since the Wright brothers’ legendary flight in 1903. Enormous airplanes have brought thousands of people closer together while systematically flying them farther away. As the field of aviation has grown and developed, important figures have emerged along the way, notably, pioneering women pilots. There is no denying that the early aviation industry was controlled and directed by men and yet, slowly, using determination, skills and willpower, women began to find their place within the flying world. And one of the first to do it was none other than Amelia Earhart.

Flickr Creative Commons - Joseph Novak

Flickr Creative Commons – Joseph Novak

Amelia Earhart’s achievements were two-fold – not only was she an extremely talented pilot, but she was a tireless advocate of women’s rights. Her work and fame has trickled down through the ages, paving the way for hundreds of young women to pursue things like piloting, aerospace engineering, and even air traffic control. Her love of adventure was clear from an early age. She and her sister were known for being tomboyish and running around their backyards while getting into various adventures. After a single flight in 1920, Earhart knew she wanted to fly and began taking lessons. Notably, it was a woman pilot by the name of Anita “Neta” Snook that taught Earhart how to fly. The two women would remain friends until Earhart’s fateful disappearance.

Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done.” – Amelia Earhart

Earhart’s fame began to grow slowly. As she traveled across the U.S. with her small two-person plane, nicknamed the Yellow Peril, she would write columns promoting aviation and female pilots. But her role in the public spotlight would be secured by two events. The first, in 1928 when she became the first woman to be flown across the Atlantic Ocean (her role was only to keep the flight log). The second was in 1932 when she flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Flickr Creative Commons - Pacific Aviation Museum

Flickr Creative Commons – Pacific Aviation Museum

One can only wonder what Earhart must have thought while soaring through clouds and over seas of blue, the only thing lying ahead being uncertainty. Yet she maintained the same stoic perseverance that propelled her through the rest of her life and successfully landed in Dublin. Following that trip, her career would only expand. She hosted lecture circuits, helped in the creation of the Ninety-Nines – an organization dedicated to women pilots – and wrote about her adventures and beliefs in papers and books. She was highly respected by her peers and audiences, and even had her own custom-made plane, a Lockheed Electra, made for her.

The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” – Amelia Earhart

Yet as the story goes, life was too good to be true, and in 1937 in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe, Amelia Earhart vanished into thin air. A number of theories have since presented themselves, some as simple as she ran out of gas and crashed into the ocean, and others as speculative as she was a secret agent for the U.S. government and was captured by Japanese soldiers.

Flickr Creative Commons – Tekniska Museet

It’s a testament to her character that the striking disappearance of this young, short-haired, mousey woman still stings and lingers in the modern conscious. Bits and pieces of bones, plane, and makeup have been sporadically recovered over the years, offering small glimpses into what may have happened in her final hours. Though nothing has ever been firmly concluded.

Adventure is worthwhile in itself.” – Amelia Earhart

Though Earhart’s life may have ended – in a place and time no one really knows – it’s clear that her influence has not. Since her trip across the Atlantic, there have been a slew of dedicated ground-breaking women who have taken to the skies. Perhaps the first to be mentioned is Jeana Yeager – the woman who finally managed to make it around the world. In 1986, she and her co-pilot, Dick Rutan successfully flew nonstop around the world. To accomplish this, Yeager and Rutan developed a lightweight aircraft, called the Rutan Voyager that would be able to manage the nine-day flight.

Yet many of Earhart’s predecessors and contemporaries were accruing their own lists of firsts. For example, in 1912, Harriet Quimby was the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She was also the first woman to be awarded a pilot’s license by the United States. And in 1930 – two years before Earhart flew the Atlantic – an English woman by the name of Amy Johnson was the first woman to fly from Britain to Australia.

Wikimedia Commons – George Grantham Bain Collection

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go” – Dr. Seuss

Equipment and conditions at that time made the flying conditions for these women difficult – most didn’t make it into their forties. Today, the list of accomplishments and firsts evolves. As the industry develops and the technology improves, trips across the Atlantic seem as simple as tossing a paper airplane across a room. Yet adversity against female pilots still manifests itself in the form of systematic oppression within the industry, particularly in underdeveloped countries with stringent laws against women’s rights. So when a woman finally beats the odds, there is cause for significant celebration.

Take, for example, Esther Mbabazi, who was born in 1988, Burundi and later lived in Rwanda. In 2012, at the age of 24, she became the first Rwandan woman to become a certified airline pilot. Or Niloofar Rahmani, who is the first Afghan woman in over 30 years to serve in the Afghan Air Force. Her actions have earned her various death threats from the Taliban.

“The natural function of the wing is to soar upwards and carry that which is heavy up to the place where dwells the race of gods. More than any other thing that pertains to the body it partakes of the nature of the divine.” – Plato

Despite the accomplishments of these decorated women, female presence in the aviation industry continues to be wanting. A study by Women of Aviation showed that in 2010 women only accounted for roughly 7% of all pilots in the industry (including commercial, for-hire, and private). And according to the same study, women only account for around 12% of all current airline students.

On July 24th, 2016 Amelia Earhart would have been 119 years old. A lot has changed in the industry she left behind. Airplanes have become larger, more powerful, efficient, and prevalent. But the ones who are controlling these machines remains largely male, but airlines are making moves to encourage young girls to join the exciting profession. 

Flickr Creative Commons – Aviatrix Aviatrix

This includes things like having female pilots go to schools to talk to students and generating hiring campaigns that target women specifically. And the impact moments like those have on little girls are long-lasting.

 

When I was about 9 years old I was waiting to go see and sit in the cockpit of the Boeing 747 that my family was just flown in (times were different back then). As my 12-year-old other brother and I waited to be let in, I excitedly began talking to him about how I wanted to be a pilot. Being the smug little boy he was, my brother teased back that “Girls can’t be pilots!” Not a moment later a stern, strong voice responded “Oh yea? Says who?” Our pilot – a woman – stepped out of the cockpit and my brother’s jaw dropped. Needless to say, when we got to sit inside the cockpit, my brother sat and pouted in the co-pilot seat, as I, the captain, fake-steered the plane away.

Earhart’s legacy reminds little girls every day that women can – and do – fly.

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