Amelia Earhart was tied for first place in the inaugural 1929 Women's Air Derby going into the final leg of the race. Just as she was preparing to take off from the runway, however, she noticed that something was wrong – the plane in front of her hit a tractor while it was taking off, and fell nose-first into the ground, where it burst into flames and subsequently exploded. With the clock ticking on the final stage of this super-important race, Earhart did the one thing any real badass with nerves of steel would have done – she stopped her plane, jumped out of the cockpit, ran through the flames, and pulled the helpless pilot to safety. As soon as she confirmed that the somewhat-scorched woman she just dragged from the jaws of death was conscious and breathing, Earhart jumped BACK into the plane, took off, and finished the race. She came in third; not too bad considering that she had to make a little detour to save someone's life in the process.
A.E. is one of those Harriet Tubman sorts of historical figures that seem to dominate all the elementary and middle-school book reports, but never really get the badass cred they deserve. This chick was completely nuts like out of her mind psycho, went out and did all kinds of insane shit that nobody else really had the balls for, and made herself into a larger-than-life superstar in her own time and a role model to aspiring women everywhere.
Even from the early days bagging Womp Rats in her T-16 back home, Amelia Earhart wasn't the sort of chump who was going to sit back and let a bunch of antiquated bullshit traditions shoehorn her into a boring life of 1920s farmlife housewifery so insanely boring it would make June Cleaver look like Tony Hawk doing a backside 900 over a nuclear explosion. For starters, her mom was the first woman to ever successfully climb Pike's Peak, so you can be pretty fucking sure that Mrs. Earhart wasn't going to give herself whiplash by keeping an eye out to make sure that little Amelia didn't get mud on her pretty white dress. Earhart raced sleds downhill in the winter, climbed trees in the summer, had a pet toad, and hunted rats in the woods behind her house by capping them in the brain with a .22 rifle. When World War One started producing a copious surplus of dead and wounded Canadians, Earhart drove out and served as a military nurse in Toronto. In 1918 she somehow managed to survive an almost-fatal case of having her head spontaneously implode as a result of the Spanish Flu pandemic – a REAL pandemic that makes this swine flu garbage seem about as deadly as a severe case of colorblindness. My assumption is that she probably pulled herself along through sheer force of will alone. She also worked as a fucking truck driver, which is a serious job, and once drove from L.A. to Boston in a super-fast sportscar she dubbed "The Yellow Peril". So that's pretty tight.
Well all this crap was totally sweet to the max and all, but almost dying a half-dozen times before her thirtieth birthday really wasn't as balls-to-the-wall as A.E. had hoped. So, she went out, worked her ass off, paid for some flying lessons, bought an airplane, and started doing all kinds of crazy aeronautical shit that would make most people start barfing their guts out into their crappy paper airsickness bags. She entered races, pulled some sweet loop-de-loops, and became the first woman to fly an airplane over 14,000 feet in the air. Fourteen thousand feet might not seem that impressive today, but you have to remember that this was in the early 1920s when there was really nothing between the pilot and the harsh, freezing-ass-cold atmosphere except for a pair of scratched-up flight goggles and a badass leather helmet which, while cool looking, wasn't going to do a whole hell of a lot of good if you stalled, spun out, and crashed your crappy, barely-airworthy flying machine nose-first into a mountain. You also gotta remember that twenty years before this, most people in the world believed that powered flight was pretty much impossible, so it took some seriously concrete nerves for someone to willingly get into one of these rickety wood-and-canvas jobs and start flying around all over the place like a crazy person.
Anyways, in 1929 Amelia Earhart served as the navigator on one of the first transcontinental flights in human history, flying from the mainland of the US to Britain in just over twenty hours of air time. She was the first woman to ever cross the Atlantic in a plane, accomplishing the feat just one year after Chuck Lindbergh made the first transcontinental solo flight ever. Everybody thought that this was a pretty big deal, especially when you take into account the fact that ten years before this flight women in America didn't even have the right to vote.
Well, Amelia Earhart wasn't quite as pumped up about this shit as you'd think – she felt like a fraud because she had just been the navigator and wasn't actually flying the plane. So, three years later she went out and soloed it in a Lockheed Vega:
Now, just take a look at this picture for a minute. I have it on pretty good authority that this thing was a top-of-the-line flying machine in 1929, but to be perfectly honest I probably wouldn't trust this thing to get me the 200 miles from Boston to New York without spontaneously bursting into flames and/or having the wings fall off for no reason at all. Well, Amelia Earhart took this bastard across the Atlantic Ocean, through a nasty thunderstorm, and then successfully navigated over the featureless expanses of wide-open ocean and landed successfully even after a goddamned bolt of lightning knocked out all of her on-board instruments. She was just that hardcore. She was the first woman to solo the Atlantic, and the first human of any gender to cross the Atlantic in an airplane twice. For her effort, she won the Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Legion of Honor, and the Gold Medal from the National Geographic Society. A couple years after that, she became the first person to fly from Honolulu to the American mainland, which is kind of a big deal when you consider that ten men tried this feat before her and they all ended up face-planting the Pacific Ocean at lethal velocities.
Earhart wasn't done there though – she set the women's world flying speed record, won the award as America's Top Airwoman four years in a row, broke a bunch of transcontinental speed records, and became the first woman to compete in the National Air Race. She also got really into autogyros, which are basically like giant helicopter-esque deathtraps with wings that look like something out of a crazy old movie about mad scientists or demented underpants-stealing Gnomes or something. She was hired on by Purdue University in the 1930s as a consultant, she gave public lectures encouraging young women to go to college, she worked as an editor at the magazine Cosmopolitan, and she even found the time to write a couple of bestselling books when she wasn't out risking life and limb in a crazy airborne death machine. She also started her own commercial airline company, serving as Vice President of National Airways. Oh yeah, National eventually became Northeast Airlines, which eventually merged with a little company called Delta Air Lines. Maybe you've heard of it.
In 1937 Amelia and some guy attempted to fly around the world, probably because they really had nothing better to do. They got about 22,000 miles into their mission, going from Miami to South America, and then crossing over Africa, India, and Australia. With about 7,000 miles left in the mission, Amelia Earhart became so awesome that she completely blinked out of existence forever. Nobody really has any clue where the hell she went, which is kind of awesome when you think about it.
In her short time doing ridiculous insane shit in the skies over the planet Earth, Amelia Earhart was totally awesome. She kicked ass at a time when "proper women" weren't supposed to be allowed to kick ass, she gave the finger to anybody who told her what to do, and she is still remembered as the most popular and well-known female aviators of all time. To this day, her legacy continues to live on – she was the founder (and first president) of an organization called the Ninety-Nines, a group designed to encourage women pilots in America, and aspiring women looking to do some awesome shit with their lives all looked to Earhart as an example of what it was to be a badass chick. This ended up working out pretty well for the US – when World War II went down three years after Earhart's disappearance, these aviatrixes would go on to serve their country as Women Airforce Service Pilots, where they supported the effort to smash Hitler in the junk by relentlessly ferrying bombers and fighter planes from manufacturers in America to the front lines in Europe.
"Women must try to do things as men have tried.
When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others."
Official Website of the Ninety-Nines
Douglas, Deborah G., et al. American Women and Flight Since 1940. Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2004.
Duncan, Joyce. Ahead of Their Time. Greenwood, 2002.
Earhart, Amelia. The Fun of It. Brewer, Warren, & Putnam, 1932.
Heinemann, Sue. Timelines of American Women's History. Penguin, 1996.
Lauber, Patricia. Lost Star: The Story of Amelia Earhart. Scholastic, 1989.