By Fionnuala McNicholl
On 20 May, 1932, aviator Amelia Earhart, aged 34, set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, on a solo trans-Atlantic flight bound for Paris in a red LockheedVega 5B single-engine plane. Having endured almost fifteen hours across the Northern Atlantic Ocean, inclement weather conditions of ice and northerly winds caused technical hitches, leaving Miss Earhart with no option but to land her plane.
North of her planned Parisian route, on a sultry Saturday afternoon in northwest Ireland, Amelia Earhart’s plane circled before landing in a field at Ballyarnett, on the outskirts of Derry city. The landing, witnessed by a local farmer and farmhands, caused great excitement.
Rushing to offer assistance, an unperturbed Amelia requested only a telephone to alert her husband of her safe landing. But, with telephones in short supply, Mr Gallagher, the landowner, drove her to the nearest telephone at a city centre hotel a couple of miles away. News of the landing spread rapidly, encouraging a sea of reporters and curious sightseers to Ballyarnett, snapping photographs and recording interviews with the history-making lady aviator. After a rest and hospitality offered by the Gallagher family, Amelia bade farewell to Derry and took to the air again the following day. On return to America, Miss Earhart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the American Congress.
Amelia Earhart was born to Edwin and Amy, nee Otis, in Atchison, Kansas, on July 24th 1897, at the home of her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather, a former judge, was president of Atchison Savings Bank and a leading light in the town.
Amelia’s father, Edwin, a lawyer, worked as a claims officer with Rock Island Railroad. Unlike most young girls of her time, Mrs Earhart encouraged her two daughters, Amelia and Paige, to partake in outdoor activities and adventure. When not being tutored by the family governess, the girls spent their free time independently participating in adventurous activities dressed in boyish dungarees, something almost unheard of for young girls of the time.
In 1907, her father was transferred to Des Moines, Iowa, during which time, the girls and their mother remained with their widowed grandmother in Atchison. Two years later, the family reunited in Iowa, where the girls attended public school. Unfortunately, during their time in Iowa, Amelia’s father suffered from alcoholism. Also, while there, Mrs Otis, Amelia’s grandmother, died, leaving a substantial estate in trust.
With the Otis family home and contents sold, the family moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, where Edwin found work as a clerk at Great Northern Railroad. Amelia attended Hyde Park School, from where she graduated in 1916.
During World War 1, while visiting her sister, Paige, in Toronto, witnessing injured soldiers returning from the battlefields prompted Amelia to join the Red Cross. She began working as a nurse’s aide at Spadina Military Hospital, Toronto. While there, Amelia developed recurring sinus problems, causing severe headaches for which she underwent several unsuccessful sinus operations. A year of recovery followed, forcing Amelia to stay with her sister Paige, then living in Massachusetts, where she read incessantly, studied mechanics, wrote poetry and taught herself to play the banjo.
Later, returning to live with her parents in Long Beach, California, during a local fair, encouraged by her father, Amelia took a $10 flight offered by Frank Hawks, an air racer and flying enthusiast. Amelia enjoyed the flight so much it prompted her decision to become a pilot. She took on various jobs to raise the $1,000 required for flying lessons with Anita Snooks, a pioneering United States female aviator, and purchased a second-hand biplane she named ‘The Canary,’ following the release of her mother’s legacy.
On May 15th 1923, Amelia Earhart became the 16th United States female pilot to be issued with a licence. Shortly afterwards, she set an altitude record among female pilots flying above 14,000 feet. Due to her parent’s divorce and depletion of legacy funds, in 1924, Amelia had to part with the ‘Canary.’
She moved with her mother, settling in Massachusetts, where she became a member of the American Aeronautical Society Boston Chapter. Four years later, Amelia became the first female log plotting co-pilot when she accompanied pilot Wilmer Stultz on a 20 hours and 40 minutes flight landing in Burry Port, South Wales. On return to the United States, she received an invite to the White House as a guest of President Hoover, who presented her with the United States Distinguished Atlantic Cross for her first transatlantic crossing.
Amelia became an aviation celebrity partaking in air races across the United States, writing aviation books, and touring universities as a guest lecturer on aeronautics. In addition, she became a style icon among America’s society ladies with her plain aviation dress style trending in fashion magazines and catwalks. In 1930, Amelia became President of the Ninety-Nines, an association of female pilots, and in 1931, she married George Putnam, a publisher with whom she worked for many years.
Five years after landing in Ballyarnett, on March 17th 1937, Amelia and navigator Fred Noonan left Oakland, California, in a twin-engine monoplane to circumnavigate the world. However, nearing the final leg of their 28,000-mile flight after leaving Lae, New Guinea, on July 2nd Amelia and Fred failed to reach their destination of the Pacific’s Howland Island. A seventeen-day rescue effort ensued with non-recovery of bodies or aeroplane debris. As a result, Amelia Earhart was certified dead by the State on January 5th 1939.
Amelia Earhart’s memory is still alive in Derry. Some street names bear her name in her honour, as does the departure lounge at City of Derry Airport. In 2021, the local Radio Ham Association assisted the city Mayor link with officials in Atchison, Amelia’s birthplace, and Harbour Grace, Canada, from where she took off on her first transatlantic crossing.
Internationally, Lego designer Mel Caddick produced a figure and red aeroplane to mark International Women’s Day 2021.
Plans are underway for May 20th 2022, to celebrate ninety years since Amelia Earhart paid a flying visit, having dropped in on the city outskirts for a little Derry air.