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Amelia Earhart: the turbulent life of an American icon — a book review

7 November 2010

Amelia Earhart: the turbulent life of an American icon — a book review

Amelia Earhart: the turbulent life of an American icon, Kathleen C. Winters, 2010, ISBN 978-0-230-61669-1, 233 pp. + index

Amelia Earhart: the turbulent life of an American icon by Kathleen C. Winters

Amelia Earhart: the turbulent life of an American icon by Kathleen C. Winters

I have been learning about aviation’s history from the 1930s and earlier over the previous year or so. I’ve learned that much of what I learned in my youth has been substantially revised.

The academic publisher, Palgrave MacMillan, offered me a prepublication copy of a new title about Amelia Earhart so that I might review and post about it. I happily accepted as there were no strings attached, no requests to edit the post or lavish gifting. Palgrave MacMillan does not work that way, thankfully.

Two things about the book immediately caught my eye. First, it is a handy size which is just right to carry in a briefcase, hand bag or school backpack. Second, it is written by the aviation author Kathleen Winters but, to me, more importantly she is a professional pilot and places a pilot’s perspective onto Amelia Earhart’s decisions, planning and incidents. This makes the book special in that one can better understand Amelia Earhart’s world and so better understand her motives and courage.

This book is easy to read and is filled with citations, references and a complete bibliography. This title could easily be used in a school course whether it be on aviation history or women’s studies. Winters addresses Amelia’s personal life and how she became the matriarch of her relatives as well as her nursing duties in Canada during WW I — where she also became one of the world’s millions of victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. She carefully examines Earhart’s flight training, flight planning and flying with her piloting experience and this sets the text apart from other biographies about aviators for me. Winters also has insight into the fundamentals of vital equipment modifications made to aircraft of the day for their long range flights with regard to placement and plumbing of the extra fuel tanks and a variety of compasses which were used by aviators (e.g., Sperry gyrocompass, earth induction compass and aperiodic compass).

Amelia was not a great pilot and did not fly with the precision required of today’s pilots. Winters insightfully notes that this was also the attitude of the day in general during the 1920s and 1930s. This is not only a fair point to assert but it also shows the study of the material by the author — this book is not a dry recitation of fact and dogma, it is a story of an important woman  and it is done with context and with insight.

Earhart was brave, of that there is no doubt, and she was one of the trailblazers for women in their quest to perform at a peer level with men in professional careers. She was one of the founding members of the Ninety-Nines as well as their first president. Amelia constantly and ardently strove for pacifism, women’s rights and commercial aviation.

Winters, with care and expertise, writes about her research and conclusions regarding Amelia’s final flight. She also addresses Fred Noonan’s contributions to the flight as well since he, too, was lost along with Amelia on that fateful flight. The reason for the flight was remarkable as was the involvement of the U.S. government which built a runway and radio beacon on Howland Island (the destination that Amelia did not quite make) as well as to station three ships of the U.S. Navy to aid her navigation. She was flying one of the most modern of aircraft with the most recent radio navigation equipment, especially the new voice radio (not Morse code, known now as CW). Ironically, reliance on this new equipment and the capability of the Lockheed 10E Electra may have led to her loss at sea.

This book is a worthwhile read and has a place on anyone’s bookshelf who has an interest in aviation history or the subject of women in the workplace. This book goes on sale November 23rd and orders can be made on — or simply wait for the arrival at your local bookseller.

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