By John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, Western Reserve Historical Society
A recent story in the New York Times titled “An Amelia Earhart Mystery Solved” was certain to get attention. Was it “the” answer to the question of where she crashed and perished in her round-the-world flight in July 1937? No, it was about another mystery related to this noted woman aviator.
It all centered on a leather flight helmet that had been kept in a family for decades and which family tradition claimed that it belonged to Amelia. It purportedly had dropped during the hubbub that surrounded Amelia’s landing at the National Air Races in Cleveland in 1929 as a participant in a woman’s transcontinental air race. Even though she came in third she received a huge welcome as people swarmed around her single engine Lockheed Vega airplane – and why not, she was then the nation’s most noted female pilot.
The year before (1928) she had flown across the Atlantic – albeit as a working passenger in a plane piloted by Wilmer Stoltz and Louis Gordon. This was one year after Charles Lindberg’s flight and it made the headlines – placing Amelia as the first woman to cross the Atlantic. She soon became a national icon and would do a solo transatlantic flight in 1932.
Her flight to Cleveland was a true test of her skills – indeed, only 11 of the 20 who began the race made it to Cleveland. In the coming years she would visit the city numerous times, usually at the National Air Races which the city hosted again seven more times in the 1930s. Her fame continued to grow and in 1933 she and first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took a plane ride together. She and Eleanor became fast friends exchanging both letters and ideas.
She also pushed against the barriers facing women pilots who were usually referred to as aviatrixes — and indeed, the cross country race was gender nicknamed the “Power Puff Derby” by actor and humorist Will Rogers. Yet during 1930s she would hone her skills as a flyer, winning races and setting records. At the same time she used her celebrity to promote the growing aviation industry, and served as a Vice President of National Airways . But perhaps her most important contribution was being a founder of the Ninety-Nines a group of women pilots who worked to advocate for women in aviation. She served as the organization’s first president in 1930.
Her ultimate goal was to circumnavigate the globe. Her flight would not be the first, but it would be the longest, flying roughly along the equator – a total of approximately 29,000 miles. As we know, that flight in 1937 which began in Oakland, California, would never be completed. She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared on July 1st, 1937 while flying from New Guinea to Howland Island – a small speck of land in the South Pacific. They have never been found – and the search for Amelia goes on today, eighty-five years later.
As to the mystery of the flight helmet which was dropped on the ground when she landed in Cleveland – well, it turns out that the helmet was indeed hers. Its authenticity was confirmed by using a sophisticated photogrammetric analysis of the helmet compared to one worn by Amelia in images taken in 1928.
Yet, Amelia, like her helmet, really is no longer lost. Her skills and daring were remarkable and they helped advance the cause of women who sought to fly. That she often came to Cleveland (and lost her helmet here!) is something worth noting and, indeed, celebrating. Much of the story of her involvement in the National Air Races is chronicled in the Historical Society’s stunning collection of air race documents and memorabilia – and Amelia is also honored at the International Women’s Air and Space Museum at Burke Lakefront Airport.