As fate would have it, an extraordinary pilot named Amelia Rose Earhart became the youngest woman in history to circumnavigate the globe in a single-engine aircraft. While there’s no relation to her namesake who captured headlines more than 79 years ago, it’s clear they both share a deep passion for flight and a remarkable sense of adventure.
Reporting on the space industry has given me a first-hand look at the innovative development and changing diversity of the aerospace business. This inspired me to schedule a phone call with someone who has earned herself a role as pioneer and influencer for the industry’s next generation.
As we spoke, It became clear that Amelia Rose Earhart’s story will have its own place in history and inspire young women to follow her footsteps as a ground-breaking aviator.
How old were you when you first realized that you were named after a legendary aviator?
My second grade teacher, Mrs. Ramsey spent an entire week discussing Amelia Earhart’s impact on the world. I remember hearing words like adventure, airplane, boldness, and danger for the first time. To a kid, these words made me feel like I had just watched Indiana Jones. Suddenly, this name of mine had mystery and intrigue. That feeling only expanded from there.
I remember feeling, for the first time, that I was different from the rest of the class. Not better or more special, but different. I didn’t like the teasing or the attention from other kids, but I did like the attention from the adults. Definitely the teacher’s pet from a very young age, I liked that adults wanted me to be great because I had a big name to carry.
At what point in your life did you decide to follow your namesake?
As a child, the mystery of the name was easy. Granted, a little teasing and a lot of bad jokes took place, but before junior high, I didn’t have the feeling that crawling under a rock would be a viable option.
At about 13, the teasing got so bad that I came home crying. Mom and Dad suggested that I go by Amy for short. There were several other very popular and very pretty girls named Amy at my school and suddenly that was it. My first self-reinvention came at 13 years old.
It was a summer transition and when I came back to school the following year, my parents had contacted the school and asked my teachers to call me Amy. I blended in. I had the same name as probably 8 other girls at my school. At the time, it was heavenly. In hindsight, it was ridiculous, but you can’t reason with an emotional, desperate to be accepted little girl. I am sure my parents just wanted to help me enjoy my experience at school.
Most of the time through high school, I was Amy, until I joined the debate team. Feeling confident from a recent win, I signed my name on my judge’s ballot as Amelia Rose Earhart.
I started saying out loud that someday; somehow I would learn to fly. I didn’t know how or when, or if I was strong enough to actually pull it off, but eventually I would. I would learn to fly like Amelia Earhart and maybe, just maybe I could eventually fly around the world.
Can you describe to me your very first experience piloting an aircraft?
The aircraft was old, filthy, smelled like a dusty old farm truck, and instilled zero confidence in its ability to keep my instructor and I safely in the sky. My instructor was the human version of this aircraft. Crotchety, grumpy, smelled of stale cigarette smoke was NOT impressed that my name was Amelia Earhart. I remember feeling very out of place at the airport, clueless, awkward, in the way. We did a pre-flight inspection on the plane, my instructor helped me buckle myself into the left seat of the Cessna 172 and we were off.
I could feel a change.
Like a dream where the car you are in suddenly takes flight, we were hanging in the air, under the high wings of this tiny plane. My stomach flipped, in a euphoric summersault, we were flying.
The look of the plane no longer mattered, fear melted away into this undeniable sense of flow. It was love at first flight.
Pursuing a career as a pilot can be very expensive. How did you manage that while going to college?
This is the exact reason why it took me three years to obtain my pilot’s license. I was working two to three jobs at all times. Waiting tables, working at golf courses as a part of the greens keeper’s team, working at bike and snowboard shops in Colorado, it was everything I could do to cover the cost of several hundred dollar a pop flight lessons. I never took a Spring Break vacation to Cabo, never really lived in much more than a tiny room in a shared apartment.
I was completely devoted to becoming a pilot.
The problem with this method of training is simple. Students will save, save save, then spend, spend, spend, then have to save again, losing all the muscle memory and informational knowledge obtained during training. Flying often is a major key to safety.
This difficulty and increased cost that I encountered during my flight training is exactly why I created the Fly With Amelia Foundation. I wanted to alleviate this problem for other young women who had the passion to fly, but not the financial resources.
You were a former traffic and weather reporter at 9News before your record-breaking flight around the world. Can you describe the decision making process that lead to this endeavor?
For nearly ten years, my day began at 2:30 am with a blaring alarm clock, multiple slaps to the snooze button, and a groaning climb out of bed. From there, it was off to the station to build graphics, write stories, document all stories on social media and be a morning show personality.
I absolutely loved it.
What no one knew was that after my shift ended, I was planning for a flight around the world. I built 21 business plans to approach sponsors who might be interested in helping recreate and symbolically complete Amelia Earhart’s 1937 flight around the world. I wanted to tell what I called a “good news aviation story”.
Within 2 years I had raised close to two million dollars worth of sponsorships, both in the form of cash and in-kind contributions to the flight around the world. The benefit for my sponsors was visibility on mainstream media outlets and a huge social media push to spread the word about the potential and adventure in general aviation flight.
The choice between my TV career and my pursuit of my aviation goals eventually had to be made, as the travel and workload toward the flight was becoming overwhelming.
What were the greatest challenges faced during your circumnavigation of the globe?
Most people think that it simply takes money to complete a flight around the globe. If that were the case, there would be many more who would have already set off on this type of journey.
Over-flight permits through fourteen foreign countries, constantly monitoring the political stability in each country I was going to fly through, watching fuel prices rise and fall, monitoring weather changes and studying climate, building a 200 gallon auxiliary fuel tank to increase the range of the aircraft to safely cross the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, consistently documenting and responding to social media in promotion of the flight, open water survival training to plan for the worst- an engine failure.
The list goes on and on.
I had a team of close to twenty-five people that I worked with on a daily basis to help me troubleshoot as we went, but no one was going to step in and do the work for me. Over the course of the two years leading up to the flight, I exchanged over sixteen thousand emails about flight logistics.
After 24,300 miles, 17 stops and 108 hours, what was the most memorable moment of your trip?
Circling over Howland Island, the tiny South Pacific Atoll where Amelia Earhart intended to land after she departed Papua New Guinea was when I knew, down to my core, that this trip was worth every bit of effort.
I finally saw Howland after a 4 hour customs check in PNG, the most fearful night I have ever spent trying to sleep with multiple strangers outside the window of my hotel room.
Departure that morning came at dawn, which included paying each of the 20 guards of the aircraft a crisp $100 bill to ease tension, I climbed into the plane and locked the door. I was already exhausted and I hadn’t even flown the eight-hour leg in front of me.
Sky over ocean was the view I saw staring out the cockpit window of the Pilatus PC-12 NG for nearly four hours. Using our high frequency radio, I communicated with air traffic control agencies through Fiji and Kiribati. I had programed a waypoint in for Howland Island, using its latitude and longitude. Cloud cover could have easily blocked the view of this island, 27,000 feet below my aircraft, because around the shoreline, stretches only four miles of sand and it’s uninhabited brush covered mainland is only about 450 square acres. The only structure on Howland Island is a tiny lighthouse, built in Amelia’s honor by Naval officers after her disappearance.
I knew I was about to see, with my very own eyes, the one piece of land that Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan wanted to see with every part of their being.
And there it was.
At this moment, the obligation of this name disappeared. Something about seeing that tiny island that Amelia was looking for brought it all into perspective. Daring to do the one thing that consistently taps you on the shoulder and says, “chase me” is where happiness is found.
When it comes to the legacy of Amelia Earhart, people tend to focus on the mystery of her disappearance. What do you think we should take away from her life as a pilot and what she tried to accomplish?
I get asked all the time: “What do you think happened to Amelia Earhart?”
Personally, it’s not something I focus on. I choose rather to focus on what she had control of while she was alive. She was this audacious, tenacious, bright and cunning personality that was able to plan and nearly execute something that back in the 1930’s few would have ever dared. She had plenty of naysayers telling her to stay home and have a family, to push her romance with aviation to the side. She wasn’t begging others to care about her journey, she was simply living the biggest version of who she thought she could become.
Amelia said, “Everyone has ocean’s to fly, if they have the heart to do it. Is it reckless? Maybe. But what do dreams know of boundaries?”
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want my legacy to evoke an emotion of curious adventure, childishly peer into the night sky, and falling deeply in love, over and over again with the beauty of the star-splattered front seat views. I want to challenge the idea that we are bound to the Earth. I want to live by example, being the author of my life-long ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book.
Can you tell us a little about the Fly With Amelia Foundation and how it helps young women accomplish their dream of being a pilot?
We are a Colorado based, non-profit organization that has awarded funds to close to twenty young women so far and will continue to grow, becoming a resource of scholarships, aviation resources, aerospace opportunity, and inspiration for girls who want to fly.
That very first flight is really all it takes to let someone know if they were meant to fly. Most either love it or they hate it. I have never met someone who falls in the middle ground of their feelings for piloting a plane. For most who love it, it becomes a magnificent obsession.
What would you say to young men and women who see a career in the aerospace industry as unattainable?
You’re wrong. Curious, inventive, attentive and hard working people, of all backgrounds can find their way into an aerospace career. Every educational foundation has a tie to aerospace, be it design of aircraft interiors, engineering composite material for spacecraft, or creating an accessible social media page for future missions to Mars, don’t be one who fools oneself into thinking that just because you aren’t a scientist, you don’t belong. I would argue that aerospace is the next hot industry and employers are going to look for a social and entrepreneurial spirit in their team members.