Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon

When a publisher's representative asked me if I was interested in reviewing a new biography of Amelia Earhart I rolled my eyes and gritted my teeth a little. She gets so much press, and I'm constantly expected to revere her as a role model, despite the fact that her self-aggrandizing, poorly planned stunt flying eventually got her killed. My own mother refuses to understand that do not find it endearing when she calls me "Amelia." I look a little warily even at the record setting flights by Louis Bleriot and Charles Lindbergh but forgive them as necessary proof-of-concept achievements in the evolution of aviation. I grant no such dispensation to Ms. Earhart. There were a few words in the publisher's blurb, words like "reckless" and "lacked basic navigation skills" that told me this wasn't going to be an "Our Hero, Amelia" book so I asked to take a look.

The biography is Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon by Kathleen C. Winters and is published by Palgrave Macmillan. It's a well-researched, fair account of documented aspects of Amelia Earhart's life. It neither glorifies nor vilifies Earhart. Winters gives background information on the time, bases for comparison, footnoted facts, and quotations from people who worked with Earhart, and for the most part leaves the reader to identify patterns, speculate, and draw conclusions.

Winters was herself a record-setting glider pilot, but I don't know how much powered flight experience she had. In one passage she describes airframe icing as a familiar hazard to Earhart, referring to an earlier incident of carburettor icing. The two are completely different hazards, and it seems odd to link them. It's possible that Earhart's description of the first situation as "water in the engine" was more accurate, as carburettor icing both chokes the air intake as it forms and causes sputtering and a temporary further loss of power as it melts. I would have liked more information on contemporary knowledge of aviation hazards and techniques, especially more details on the instrumentation, navigation techniques and ground-based navigation facilities of the time, but Winter's choice to concentrate on the woman rather than the flights is not a flaw in her work.

Winters is careful to document her sources, not to restate the legend, and not to take people's word for what they said or wrote. For example Earhart wrote in a letter that the cost to learn to fly would be about $1000, and Winters researched contemporary flight training to determine that $250 to $500 was more typical. Earhart kept poor records, so Winters crosschecked her training claims with flights recorded in her flight instructors' logbooks.

Winters tells Earhart's story in an easy-to-follow linear fashion, and the balance of documentary evidence to narrative is good for this type of work, but it's not riveting, I suppose exactly because she is telling the whole story and not simply summarizing Earhart's dropping out of multiple schools and endeavours, and trying all manner of ways to raise the money she needed to keep flying.

I would recommend this title for both fans and detractors of Earhart, and for those interested in either aviation history or the history of the feminist movement. It is not excessively technical, and certainly requires no previous aviation knowledge. It has few details that would interest people primarily interested in Earhart's disappearance, unless they care to look at the evidence that she was poor on details like checking the fuel level during her preflight inspection, did not know Morse code nor how to operate the direction finding radio navigation equipment, was a poor navigator, did not plan ahead for how she would coordinate with ships to find the destination she never reached, and probably jettisoned some of her survival gear to save weight.

I did find some things to admire about Earhart. For example she tried to organize students to oust an incompetent teacher who held a position through nepotism, and worked to disband secret societies at her school. She really did work to parlay her achievements into not only money for herself, but for real opportunities for women.

"Women will gain economic justice by proving themselves in all lines of endeavour, not by having laws passed for them."

I think my favourite parts of the book are those where her path intersects with other aviatrices of her era: Jean Batten, Laura Ingalls, Edna Gardner Whyte, Louise Thaden, Blanche Noyes, Jackie Cochran, Mary Heath, Mary Bailey and other women whose aviation achievements are largely forgotten. I hate that Earhart, through the skill of her husband and publicist George Palmer Putnam, and because of her disappearance, is the one remembered. It's not so much that she is remembered is that it leaves people with the idea that she was the only aviatrix of her time. There were hundreds, and many of them lived long productive lives.

Ms. Winters wrote a previous biography on Anne Lindbergh and I would look forward to more from her on the history of women in aviation, but unfortunately she died of a brain hemorrhage shortly before the book was published. Oh and Kathleen Winters was born in the same city where Amelia Earhart first became interested in aviation--Toronto!


GPS_Direct said...

Interesting take on an early flyer. Some of the were truly their day's version of Evel Knievel...

One of these days, I'll have to dig around for a good text on aviation safety as it's evolved...

In teaching newbies, I always pay respect to those earlier fliers who got to 'discover' things like carb ice, airframe icing, aft CG, adverse yaw, mach tuck, retreating blade stall, etc. Perhaps the engineers could predict what was coming, or they had carb icing issues with cars... But I suspect that many things we now know were uncovered by the test pilots with a "What's it doing now?" moment, followed up on the ground with no evidence and disbelieving designers.

Then again, these days we're on to the 7th year of design and testing on the JSF, and it still has issues. Ed Heinemann and Kelly Johnson would be shaking their heads.

Mike Kear said...

Publicity is often crucial in getting recognised. Thanks for this post. My mother who is now 90 and lives in New Zealand has always spoken with admiration about Jean Batten, the great NZ aviatrix. As you say, her achievements (and those of others) were overshadowed by the force of the publicity surrounding Amelia Earhart.

There is credible evidence that Orville and Wilbur Wright were beaten to the punch by at least two others. Richard Pearce had a contraption 8 months before the Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk, but the publicity machine didnt work for him. The locals thought him just a crackpot, and any attention from the rest of the population would only encourage him with his reckless flying machines. There is at least one of his machines dating 8 months prior to the Kittyhawk flight in the Auckland NZ Transport Museum. It has variable pitch propellors, moving control surface (as distinct from the Wright Brothers method of bending the wings). And he reportedly got it to fly under control for several miles, at several hundred feet altitude.

But there is no chance of the world ever putting Pearce on the pedestal currently occupied by the Wright Brothers.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I cannot agree with you more regarding A. Earhart's overpublished reputation. I thought this book to be a very good oen and oen that went into technical details with regard to planning and equipment. I trust yoru opinion as to the icing, however. K. Winters held records with regard to soaring and I am sad to say she passed away recently. I too blog and mine is on aviation history -- it is entitled Travel for Aircraft and is at I found your blog through your review of this book and am glad to say that I did. Thanks, Joe

john said...

You left out Pancho (Florence) Barnes from your list!

I didn't know that Laura Ingalls was also an aviatrix. But then I looked her up: she flew over the Andes and around the circumference of both South and North America; she was jailed for being a German agent during WWII; she was not the one who wrote the Little House books(!). Someone should make a movie about her.

Finally, it's not that Amelia Earhart wasn't worthy of the attention she garnered, she most assuredly was. It's that so many other women accomplished as much or more than her, but were pushed off stage by a press and public that wanted only one photogenic icon (Pancho would have never been picked for that role.) Also unfortunately, the writing of feminist history has served us poorly by perpetuating the myth that Earhart was the only female groundbreaker (airbreaker?) of her time.

Aviatrix said...

Joe: One person's technical details are apparently another person's lack. I wanted more, but realized that that was the book Winters chose to write and not a shortcoming. You've confirmed that be being happy with the level of technical detail.

John: I hope the blog post got across that I share the sentiments of your last paragraph.

I didn't keep a list of the mentions of other aviatrices all the way through. I probably missed more. If I were the sort who committed to regular blog features, I could have an aviatrix of the month and learn about all these ladies.

cockney.steve said...

I can confirm that carb, icing is not the exclusive domain of aircraft.

I have had it occur both on motorcycles and cars....back in the days of my callow youth, it took some working out,to remember the school physics lessons, Mr Bernoulli, the "meat-safe" made of perforated-zinc, draped with a wetted lump of muslin.

slightly off-topic, "sophisticated" 60's cars had a dual-source air -inlet often mixed,(hot from around the exhaust-manifold, cold from ambient) by a bi-metal flap....the air was all filtered,the flap could not ever block the air-passage,- imagine my horror to find that piston-engined aircraft do not filter their hot air!

I appreciate that the air is a "lot" cleaner "up there", but I'd bet that filtering it is better for engine-life.

If you consider the lifespan of folk in the early 20th. century, they were probably pretty cavalier about risk,because the probability was that illness or disease would cause premature death anyway. Now, IMHO, the pendulum has swung too far and this young generation is frightened of it's own shadow.

Aviatrix said...

The heated air serves another purpose: a filter bypass. If something has blocked the main filter it could well have blocked the carb heat air filter too, if there was one. On the motorcycle I'd guess given the choice between having your engine destroyed in an hour and having your engine quit now, you'd choose the latter. Most pilots would want the opposite.

Anonymous said...

This post is well done. Initially, I cringed when I saw the title, but was fascinated with how you handled the subject.

Very good!

Anonymous said...

Many Australians do not realise that the Qantas Airbus 380 that suffered the uncontained engine failure over Indonesia last year was named after on of our great aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton. She wanted to fly from when she was very young, and paid her own way. In her long career, often flying into rough strips in the bush, she never had a major incident. She was one of Kingsford-Smith's first pupils. She died in 2009 aged 93. She has been nominated as one of Australias National Treasures.

DeAnn said...

"I could have an aviatrix of the month and learn about all these ladies."
Perfect for your next list of resolutions! I would love (for you to do) this!

gmc said...

@Mike Kear: Interesting item about Richard Pearse. I'm not an historian, but from what research I have done, and from reading about Mr. Pearse, I still think The Title rightfully belongs to the Wrights.

While many experimentors of the day managed some sort of parially controlled flights, no one seems to have gone about analyzing and solving the intricacies of powered, three-axis, controllable flight as well as did Orville and Wilbur. (At least no one who left any detailed records of their work like the Wrights did). Furthermore the Wrights had to completely re-create the work done by Canute? with respect to the lift-drag tables for the airfoil they were using (the original data turned out to be wrong). To do this they invented a "wind tunnel" rigged to a bicycle that could take reasonably accurate L/D readings for various angles of attack.

There's more to the story which one of the Wrights explains well in his booklet: "How We Invented the Aeroplane." This was produced as part of a law-suit against Curtiss who was using ailerons on his aircraft, which the Wrights claimed was just a fancy way of wing warping - for which they owned a patent.

Interesting reading.

Sue said...

I've always liked these verses from Amelia Earhart:
"Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things;
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings."
I found it in Bartlett's quotations.

Mike Kear said...

@gmc: My point about Richard Pearse wasn't that he was the first to fly controlled aircraft, but that the sheer weight of publicity would work against any cliam counter to the Wright Brothers. I was agreeing with Aviatrix's point about Amelia Earhart.

I'm no historian either, and I wouldn't want to try to prove it one way or another. But just imagine this for the sake of argument:

Suppose the claims of Pearse's advocates in the far South of New Zealand had really good proof that Pearce had managed controlled powered flight eight months before Kittyhawk. The history books and general perception about the origin of powered flight wouldnt change. It's unlikely the Smithsonian Air and Space museum would replace their Wright Brothers Flyer with a Richard Pearce replica.

Pearce's problem was he did his tinkering with his flying contraptions at a time when it took 9 months for news to reach London, in a time when the only history that counted for anything was written in the northern hemisphere.

Aviatrix said...

It's unlikely the Smithsonian Air and Space museum would replace their Wright Brothers Flyer with a Richard Pearce replica.

It's near impossible. The Wrights only allowed the Smithsonian to purchase the aircraft on the condition that "Neither the Smithsonian Institution or its successors, nor any museum or other agency, bureau or facilities administered for the United States of America by the Smithsonian Institution or its successors shall publish or permit to be displayed a statement or label in connection with or in respect of any aircraft model or design of earlier date than the Wright Aeroplane of 1903, claiming in effect that such aircraft was capable of carrying a man under its own power in controlled flight."

Claire Winters said...

I'm the daughter of the late Kathleen Winters. Thank you for bringing attention to this work. She so esteemed her fellow pilots and wanted to serve the community well. If you're interested in learning more about Kathleen's work and life, you can visit her website click here.

Claire Winters said...

Apologies - the above link doesn't work - go to