Purdue University and Amelia Earhart

November 2nd, 2009 in Women's History by Haley Elizabeth Garwood

Most people remember Amelia Earhart as either the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic or her tragic disappearance in 1937. But how many know that she was on the faculty of Purdue University – or that Purdue Research Foundation helped purchase the Lockheed Elektra 10E she used on her final flight?

According to John Norberg’s book, Wings of Their Dreams, then president of Purdue, Dr. Edward C. Elliott, met Earhart in 1934 where they both had given speeches. Fascinated by her ideas that women should be part of the aviation scene and should be involved in the development of aeronautics, he approached her with an idea. Would she be interested in consulting women at Purdue on careers in aviation? Purdue University believed in the future of aeronautics and at that time operated the only university-owned airport. It was also noted for its engineering programs. How could she refuse an opportunity like this?

Amelia Earhart knew the first time that she went up in an airplane that she had to fly. She casually said to her family that she’d like to take flying lessons. Her father agreed it was a good idea, so Earhart began the journey that brought her fame. In January 1921 Earhart started lessons with Anita Snook, a pilot who deserves to be remembered for her own achievements.

Earhart bought her first plane in July 1921, and by December she had her National Aeronautic Association license. In the summer of 1922, she set an unofficial women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet. It was the first of many records she would set.

For awhile Earhart had to stick to the ground and do ordinary jobs to pay for her love of flying. One day Captain Hilton Riley asked if she would like to be the first woman to hitch a ride across the Atlantic. Earhart couldn’t say no, and she is in the history books as the first woman to cross the Atlantic nonstop, albeit as a passenger. The next time she crossed the Atlantic nonstop, she was at the controls. In 1928 she set the women’s record for the first solo round trip across the United States. The following year she was the first woman to fly an autogiro, an odd-looking craft that looks like part plane, part helicopter. Two years later she set an altitude record for the beast just before she became the first woman officer of the National Aeronautic Association.

This was the beginning of Amelia Earhart’s love affair with speed, records, planes, and the sheer joy of freedom that comes with flying. Stay tuned for more adventure and learn how Purdue University helped propel Earhart’s dream in my next blog.

Haley Elizabeth Garwood has penned four historical novels on women warriors. Learn more at her Web site.

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