Amelia Mary Earhart was the daughter of Samuel "Edwin" Stanton Earhart and Amelia "Amy" (nee Otis). She was born in Atchison, Kansas, in the home of her maternal grandfather, Alfred Gideon Otis, who was a former federal judge, the president of the Atchison Savings Bank and a leading citizen in the town. Amelia was the second child of the marriage, after an infant stillborn in August 1896. She was of part German descent. Alfred Otis had not initially favored the marriage and was not satisfied with Edwin's progress as a lawyer.
Amelia graduated from Chicago's Hyde Park High School in 1916. She began junior college at Ogontz School in Rydal, Pennsylvania, but did not complete her program. During Christmas vacation in 1917, Amelia visited her sister in Toronto. World War I had been raging and Amelia saw the returning wounded soldiers. After receiving training as a nurse's aide from the Red Cross, she began work with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at Spadina Military Hospital.
In Long Beach, on December 28, 1920, Amelia and her father visited an airfield where Frank Hawks (who later gained fame as an air racer) gave her a ride that would forever change Amelia's life. After that 10-minute flight, she immediately became determined to learn to fly. Working at a variety of jobs, including photographer, truck driver, and stenographer at the local telephone company, she managed to save $1,000 for flying lessons. Amelia had her first lessons, beginning on January 3, 1921, at Kinner Field, near Long Beach.
After Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, while at work one afternoon in April 1928, Amelia got a phone call from Capt. Hilton H. Railey, who asked her, "Would you like to fly the Atlantic?" The project coordinators (including book publisher and publicist George P. Putnam) interviewed Amelia and asked her to accompany pilot Wilmer Stultz and copilot/mechanic Louis Gordon on the flight, nominally as a passenger, but with the added duty of keeping the flight log. The team departed from Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland, in a Fokker F.VIIb/3m on June 17, 1928, landing at Pwll near Burry Port, South Wales, exactly 20 hours and 40 minutes later.
Although Amelia had gained fame for her transatlantic flight, she endeavored to set an "untarnished" record of her own. Shortly after her return, piloting Avian 7083, she set off on her first long solo flight that occurred just as her name was coming into the national spotlight. By making the trip in August 1928, Amelia became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent and back. Her piloting skills and professionalism gradually grew, as acknowledged by experienced professional pilots who flew with her.
In 1930, Amelia became an official of the National Aeronautic Association where she actively promoted the establishment of separate women's records and was instrumental in the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) accepting a similar international standard. In 1931, she set a world altitude record of 18,415 feet (5,613 m). During this period, Earhart became involved with The Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots providing moral support and advancing the cause of women in aviation.
Amelia was engaged to Samuel Chapman, a chemical engineer from Boston; she broke off the engagement on November 23, 1928. During the same period, she and publisher George P. Putnam had spent a great deal of time together. Putnam, who was known as GP, was divorced in 1929 and sought out Amelia, proposing to her six times before she finally agreed to marry him. After substantial hesitation on her part, they married on February 7, 1931. Amelia referred to her marriage as a "partnership" with "dual control". In a letter written to Putnam and hand delivered to him on the day of the wedding, she wrote, "I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly."
On the morning of May 20, 1932, 34-year-old Amelia set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. She intended to fly to Paris in her single engine Lockheed Vega 5B to emulate Charles Lindbergh's solo flight five years earlier. After a flight lasting 14 hours, 56 minutes during which she contended with strong northerly winds, icy conditions and mechanical problems, Amelia landed in a pasture at Culmore, north of Derry, Northern Ireland. The landing was witnessed by Cecil King and T. Sawyer. When a farm hand asked, "Have you flown far?" Amelia replied, "From America". The site now is the home of a small museum, the Amelia Earhart Centre.
As the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, Earhart received the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French Government and the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society from President Herbert Hoover.
Amelia joined the faculty of Purdue University in 1935 as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and as a technical advisor to the Department of Aeronautics. Early in 1936, she started to plan a round-the-world flight. Not the first to circle the globe, it would be the longest at 29,000 miles (47,000 km), following a grueling equatorial route. With financing from Purdue, in July 1936, a Lockheed Electra 10E was built at Lockheed Aircraft Company to her specifications, which included extensive modifications to the fuselage to incorporate a large fuel tank.
On March 17, 1937, Amelia and her crew flew the first leg from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition to her and Noonan, Harry Manning and Mantz (who was acting as Earhart's technical advisor) were on board. Due to lubrication and galling problems with the propeller hubs' variable pitch mechanisms, the aircraft needed servicing in Hawaii. Ultimately, the Electra ended up at the United States Navy's Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. The flight resumed three days later from Luke Field with Earhart, Noonan and Manning on board. With the aircraft severely damaged, the flight was called off and the aircraft was shipped by sea to the Lockheed Burbank facility for repairs.
While the Electra was being repaired Amelia and Putnam secured additional funds and prepared for a second attempt. This time flying west to east, the second attempt began with an unpublicized flight from Oakland to Miami, Florida, and after arriving there Amelia publicly announced her plans to circumnavigate the globe. On this second flight, Fred Noonan was Earhart's only crew member. The pair departed Miami on June 1 and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arrived at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. At this stage about 22,000 miles (35,000 km) of the journey had been completed. The remaining 7,000 miles (11,000 km) would be over the Pacific.
During this flight to circumnavigate the globe, Amelia disappeared somewhere over the Pacific in July 1937. Her disappearance remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century.
Amelia and Noonan departed Lae for tiny Howland Island - their next refueling stop - on July 2. It was the last time Earhart was seen alive. She and Noonan lost radio contact with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, anchored off the coast of Howland Island, and disappeared en route. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a massive two-week search for the pair, but they were never found. On July 19, 1937, Earhart and Noonan were declared lost at sea.
Scholars and aviation enthusiasts have proposed many theories about what happened to Amelia Earhart. The official position from the U.S. government is that Earhart and Noonan crashed into the Pacific Ocean, but there are numerous theories regarding their disappearance. According to the crash and sink theory, Amelias plane ran out of gas while she searched for Howland Island, and she crashed into the open ocean somewhere in the vicinity of the island.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) postulates that Earhart and Noonan veered off-course from Howland Island and landed instead some 350 miles to the Southwest on Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, in the Republic of Kiribati. The island was uninhabited at the time. A week after Amelias disappeared, Navy planes flew over the island. They noted recent signs of habitation but found no evidence of an airplane. TIGHAR believes that Earhart - and perhaps Noonan - may have survived for days or even weeks on the island as castaways before dying there. Since 1988, several TIGHAR expeditions to the island have turned up artifacts and anecdotal evidence in support of this hypothesis.
Some of the artifacts include a piece of Plexiglas that may have come from the Electra's window, a woman's shoe dating back to the 1930s, improvised tools, a woman's cosmetics jar from the 1930s and bones that appeared to be part of a human finger. In June 2017, a TIGHAR-led expedition arrived on Nikumaroro with four forensically trained bone-sniffing border collies to search the island for any skeletal remains of Earhart or Noonan.
There are numerous conspiracy theories about Earhart's disappearance. One theory posits that Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed by the Japanese. Another theory claims that the pair served as spies for the Roosevelt administration and assumed new identities upon returning to the United States.
According to History's investigative special "Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence", retired federal agent Les Kinney scoured the National Archives for records that may have been overlooked in the search for the lost aviator. Among thousands of documents he uncovered was a photograph stamped with official Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) markings reading "Marshall Islands, Jaluit Atoll, Jaluit Island, Jaluit Harbor". In the photo, a ship can be seen towing a barge with an airplane on the back; on a nearby dock are several people.
Kinney argues the photo must have been taken before 1943, as U.S. air forces conducted more than 30 bombing runs on Jaluit in 1943-44. He believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan. As part of the program's investigation, Doug Carner, a digital forensic analyst, examined the photo and determined it was authentic and had not been manipulated, while Kent Gibson, another forensic analyst who specializes in facial recognition, said it was "very likely" the individuals in it are Earhart and Noonan. Both analysts identified the ship in the photo as the Japanese military vessel Koshu Maru, which may be the ship that took Earhart and Noonan away after their crash landing.