Eighty years ago Amelia Earhart attempted to become the first person to fly around the world at the longest distance, along the equator. She disappeared during this flight, and the mystery of what happened to Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan, and her Lockheed Electra airplane continues to fascinate and intrigue us. During that fateful summer of 1937, the Purdue Exponent student newspaper, with the co-operation of the New York Herald Tribune, kept readers updated on Earhart’s flight progress. In this post, we will relive her amazing 27,000-mile journey by sharing features from the Exponent, a first-hand account from one of Earhart’s friends, and handwritten notes that Earhart took to summarize each leg of her flight, which she subsequently shared with the news media and planned to compile into a book.
Amelia Earhart and Purdue’s paths first crossed in September 1934 when she addressed the fourth annual “Women and the Changing World” Conference sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune. Purdue President Edward Elliott was at the same conference to speak on “New Frontiers for Youth.” He stayed to listen to Earhart speak on aviation’s future and the role of women in its advancement. Elliott, intrigued by her speech, arranged to meet her and her husband, George Palmer Putnam. Elliott and Putnam hit it off. After they dined at the Coffee House Club in New York, Elliott got right to the point, letting Earhart know that he wanted her to work at Purdue, where she would be in a role to inspire Purdue’s approximately 800 women students to seize new opportunities in America’s changing society.
Elliott and Earhart sat down and worked out the details. Due to Earhart’s busy schedule, she could not be a full-time faculty member, but she would attempt to spend at least one month at the university during the school year as a careers consultant for women students. Purdue in turn would pay her a $2,000 salary (Boomhower, 38). Along with guiding women students toward new careers, she also served as a technical adviser in aeronautics to Purdue, which was, at that time, the only university in the country equipped with its own airport. The connection between Amelia Earhart and Purdue University had begun. It would later expand in ways they could not have imagined.
Although she spent only a short amount of time at Purdue, Earhart’s ties to Purdue played a key role in securing the money and equipment necessary for attempting her round-the-world flight. On April 19, 1936 the university announced the establishment of the Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research. With contributions totaling approximately $50,000 from J.K. Lilly, Sr. and David Ross, and later donations of cash and equipment from companies such as Bendix, Western Electric, Goodrich, and Goodyear, Earhart purchased her “flying laboratory,” a twin-motored Lockheed Electra 10E airplane that would allow her to attempt her greatest long-distance flight yet, to circumnavigate the globe.
The Purdue Research Foundation established the “Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research” and Earhart purchased a new “flying laboratory,” April 21, 1936.
The plane was constructed at the Lockheed factory in Burbank, California, and included special features, such as extra gas tanks for long-distance flights, automatic pilot, deicing equipment, a radio homing device, and a two-way radio.
Preparing for the world flight was a huge undertaking. During preparations, Earhart was asked numerous times why she decided to attempt this flight. Her answer was always “because I want to.” She called the trip a “shining adventure, beckoning with new experiences, adding knowledge of flying, of peoples, of myself” (Boomhower 41). She also noted that with the flight behind her, she would become more useful to herself and to the aeronautical program at Purdue (Earhart, Last Flight 55). She called the Electra her “flying laboratory” because her intent was to use the plane to conduct research on the effects of long-distance flying on pilots . Once the flight was accomplished, the plane would be returned to Purdue where it would be used to further pure and applied scientific research in aeronautics. Royalties from the book Earhart planned to write about her flight would also support this research.
Earhart was to attempt her world flight twice. Originally, her flight team included Fred Noonan and Harry Manning. The original plans were for Noonan to navigate from Hawaii to Howland Island, a particularly difficult portion of the flight; then Harry Manning would continue with Earhart to Australia and she would proceed on her own for the remainder of the project.
As Earhart prepared for her world flight, anticipation continued to grow both on campus and in the minds of the public. Americans wanted to keep up to date on the progress of Earhart’s latest adventure. Purdue students claimed her as one of their own, and waited anxiously to hear of her progress.
Earhart is ready for flight, March 11, 1937.
To be continued…
Boomhower, R. “Amelia Earhart at Purdue: The aviatrix and the university.” Traces, Summer (1994): 36-41.
Earhart, Amelia, and George Palmer Putnam. Last Flight. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937. Print.
MSF 450, Amelia Earhart at Purdue Collection, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.
MSP 188, Collection of Amelia Earhart Related Materials, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.
Vertical Files, Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.
Purdue Student Publishing Foundation, and Purdue University. The Purdue Exponent (1889). Print.
Editor’s Note: Writer Mary A. Sego is an archival assistant and processing specialist within Archives and Special Collections.