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Issue #24 August 29, 2013 Aug 29, 2013 Aug 29
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Issue #1 October 11, 2012 Oct 11, 2012 Oct 11
From Issue #45 June 19, 2014

Amelia Reincarnated

A young pilot retraces her namesake’s journey.

By Liana Aghajanian Twitter icon 

In the darkness of the single-car garage in her townhouse apartment in Denver, Amelia Rose Earhart’s identity shatters with one phone call.

“I’m sorry,” the genealogist tells her. “We couldn’t find a connection.”

Holding her head in her hands, she stares at the neatly arranged collection of high heels she keeps on two oriental rugs. Black patent leather. Nude. Three inch. Four inch. Closed-toe pumps. All “super-tall news lady heels,” as she calls them, close enough to grab on her way out to her job as a traffic and weather reporter at NBC affiliate KUSA in Denver with an ungodly 4:30 a.m. starting time.

The genealogist keeps talking. He apologizes profusely. The two families lived near each other, but the bloodlines are separate.

She keeps staring at her heels. Black patent leather. Nude. Three inch. Four inch.

She hangs up and begins to cry.

Mistaken identity

Earhart’s family always told her she was distantly related to Amelia Mary Earhart, the aviation and women’s rights pioneer who disappeared during a journey around the world. Speculation about precisely what happened persists. Expeditions are still organized to find her plane, and teams have claimed to have found its remnants.

Now, Amelia Rose is sitting in a nearly pitch-black garage, just a year before she planned to embark on her own round-the-world flight following the same route as her name-alike, something she announced at the aviation world’s premier event, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin. She spends so long in the garage with her tears and her shoes that the small motion light fails to sense anyone in the enclosed space. The light goes off.

In many ways it feels as if the light is going out on her life too. Has she built her budding aviation career on a misunderstanding, a genealogical error, a falsehood she had believed to be real? How was she supposed to continue with this flight, continue with her job as “Denver’s own Amelia Earhart.”

In the next few weeks, she’ll have decisions to make. She will tell her friends, her family, her co-workers, and the television audience who watch her across Denver, along with her rapidly growing social-media fan base, that she shares no common ancestry with Earhart. She’ll be criticized for it. She will be called a liar, a self-centered, talentless weather reporter who gained fame by using a name that didn’t belong to her — even though she had no part to play in being named after one of the world’s most famous women. Is her flight over before it’s started?

Okay, she reasons with herself. I’m not related to Amelia. But my connection to her feels so much deeper than a bloodline, enough to make me take a 17-stop, 28,000-mile flight across the world.

In these moments, as she recounts to me later, Amelia Earhart is reborn.

The sky tugged at her

Her family always said that they were related to the other Earharts. Amelia’s father, Glen Earhart, was told throughout his life that there was some connection, and both Earhart families had lived in adjacent Pennsylvania counties. When he and his wife at the time, Debbie Bajenaru — a Brazilian woman he met and fell in love with on a California beach while surfing — had their daughter in 1983, naming her Amelia seemed perfect. They wanted to give her the legacy of a good role model, and a name that would spark conversation.

And it did, although not always the kind she wanted. The comparisons plagued her adolescence, as did that repetitive, endless question that followed moments of amazement and disbelief every time she uttered her name: “Are you related?”

In her world, “Amelia Earhart” was a college student in Boulder who waited tables and grew up alternating between Southern California high desert and Tonganoxie, Kansas, a town of barely 5,000 people that was most notable for once having had the largest dairy production facility in the state. She was not the feminist aviator who received high honors from foreign and national dignitaries, who said that women, like men, should try to do the impossible, and who so fascinated audiences everywhere that even the lunches she packed on her flights became a matter of interest.

She was not born knowing she had to be in the sky, but it called her nonetheless. It had taken her to a small town in Kansas whose most famous resident happened to be Reuchlin Wright, the brother of aviators Orville and Wilbur. The man her mother remarried hailed from a town just 20 minutes from the more famous Earhart’s birthplace, and they would visit occasionally. Later, when she moved to Los Angeles, her apartment overlooked a bronze Amelia Earhart statue. Every time she gazed out her window, Amelia was there. “Lost at sea, 1937,” the plaque reads.

At 18, in an attempt to overcome the shadow cast by a 1930s aviator, or perhaps to run into it, Earhart decided to take a discovery flight, the flight with which every aspiring aviator begins a career. “I either have to embrace it and become a pilot or just say ‘no, I don’t like flying’ and move on and do something else, make my own version of Amelia Earhart,” she says she told herself.

“It was the perfect environment not to love it,” she says. “The plane was old, smelly, and broken, with a lot of dials that weren’t operative. The pilot wasn’t very nice. There wasn’t anything about that environment where the situation was perfect. I loved it even through the circumstances were so strange.”

You can’t take the sky from me

Earhart says she wasn’t satisfied with the sparse details she had about her ostensible ancestor. Via Craigslist, she paid a genealogist $500 for more conclusive evidence of the connection. The report came back that the two Amelias had a distant, common ancestry dating to the early 1700s. To trace it further back using European records, it was going to cost her.

“I didn’t have several thousands of dollars as a 21-year-old college student. I said, you know, it’s good enough for me,” Earhart says.

It might have been good enough — until her announcement at Oshkosh of her plans to duplicate the original Earhart’s route. This brought national media attention, including write-ups in the Huffington Post and USA Today and an appearance on The Today Show. It also meant that her bosses at KUSA pressed her to prove exactly how she and Earhart were related. She paid the big bucks for research that led to the call that told her there was no family connection.

After she revealed the results, she faced a backlash, and she was accused of using the name for publicity and fame. Some even called her a fraud. Earhart wrestled with the news. She thought about giving up her plans to fly around the world. “It was hard to handle because it’s your identity for 30 years and it’s taken away from you abruptly,” she says.

But her determination didn’t waver. During open-water survival training, “where they toss you out of a boat and leave you there to figure it out,” she realized she felt more ready to take on the adventure than she had ever been.

“People will think ‘She’s got it so easy. Of course she can fly round the world — that’s what her name is,’” Earhart says. “But what I wanted to show is that it doesn’t matter. I just got my name taken away from me and I’m still going to go and do this and create a name for myself.”

Dipping the wings

Earhart’s flight comes at a time when women’s participation in the aviation industry has been in a long period of stagnation. While the percentage has increased since the original Amelia began her career, the numbers are still looking paltry.

The number of female pilots grew dramatically from 1960 to 1980, from about 10,000 to over 50,000, growing from under three percent to around six percent of total pilots. The job market for pilots has contracted since, from over 825,000 (including students) in 1980 to over 600,000 last year. The percentage of women stagnated, remaining roughly the same: under 40,000 female pilots fly or are in training as of 2013.

Flight training is expensive, but on top of the cost a 2010 study by the Wolf Aviation Fund — the Teaching Women to Fly Research Project — found “personal lack of confidence” and a “fear of flying” were major factors. “If these barriers erode or destroy the female student’s perception of the ‘benefit’ of or her ‘confidence’ to achieve the goal of pilot certification,” the study says, “then she either never begins flight training or drops out.” In a blog post about the report, Women of Aviation Worldwide Week founder Mireille Goyer concluded: “As a result, qualified women are less likely to consider flying than their male peers.”

Having struggled to complete her own training, Earhart decided to start the Fly With Amelia Foundation, a Colorado-registered nonprofit that provides girls aged 16 to 18 with aviation scholarships and STEM-based educational opportunities.

Dorothy Cochrane, curator of the aeronautics division of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, says Earhart’s flight and project have come at a good time. “The goal is to get them into the cockpit. It’s a struggle, I think, to get the younger generation interested in aviation,” she says. “Anything we can do to entice women in[to] aerospace and STEM studies is a great thing.”

Earhart has had first-hand experience with working in a field in which men dominate. Once while walking out to her plane in full newscaster regalia (she hadn’t had time to change) and carrying a flight bag, she was stopped and asked by an older man if she were lost. Relationships have fallen apart because boyfriends are intimidated by her. Men might say they want an independent woman, Earhart says, but things change when you tell them you spend your time flying.

“You’re doing something where you’re totally in control,” she says. “I’ve dated guys where I take them flying with me and they don’t know what to do — it puts a lot of men in a unique situation. They look at me [and] think ‘she’s a feminine, happy person,’ but then, for some reason, something clicks and that adds to the difficulties of having a long-term relationship.”

Susan Loricchio, a private pilot, Amelia Earhart historian, and official with the Air Force Association’s New Jersey chapter, says there’s still much to be done. “Even though we’ve come a long way, women are still a novelty in the field,” she says. “Every woman has their own horror story of the ‘good old boys’ being reluctant to include you.”

Clearly, Amelia Rose Earhart is not the first to propose shaking things up in the air.

In the years since Amelia Mary Earhart took her flight and disappeared over the Pacific, organizations like the Ninety Nines and Women In Aviation International have fought for the advancement of female pilots, providing support as well as cash scholarships. In 1997, the aviator and businesswoman Linda Finch even re-created Earhart’s last flight around the world, marking what would have been the aviation pioneer’s 100th birthday.

But Amelia Rose’s embrace of the power of connectivity is taking her project to an entirely new level. When she gets on the $4.5 million Pilatus PC-12 NG turboprop plane to travel 28,000 miles and make 17 stops along the way, she’ll be the youngest woman to fly around the world in a single-engine aircraft. She’s also in regular touch with over 50,000 fans she’s amassed on various social networks.

Heard round the world

Earhart and her co-pilot, Shane Jordan — her equivalent of navigator Fred Noonan — will be taking off from Oakland, California, on June 26, stopping in Trinidad and Tobago, Dakar, Mombasa, and Singapore, among other locations. Unlike Noonan, who wasn’t a flyer, Jordan is a former demonstration pilot and a flight instructor, and will act as a fully able backup.1

Their Pilatus will be souped up with a bevy of state-of-the-art technology from Honeywell Aerospace, enabling Earhart and Jordan to live-stream the entire flight with flexible cameras inside the cockpit. They’ll be able to show those tuning in the same view they’re seeing, answer questions on Facebook and Twitter, and make voice calls.

Honeywell’s Mike Beazley says they’ve installed a synthetic vision system that provides improved situational awareness and safety. “You get a visual picture regardless of the weather or time of day. You get a realistic view of the terrain on the outside,” Beazley says.

The enhanced system will also allow Earhart and Jordan to find the unfamiliar airports they’ll be landing at. “When thinking about the diversity of terrain and locations that Amelia is going to go to, we wanted to make sure that she was equipped with every feature,” he says.

Honeywell is also installing newly developed antennas in the plane, giving it much higher speeds for voice and data, which means the live video-streaming will stay consistently strong throughout the trip. Earhart’s plane will be the first to have the antennas onboard, which link up with service operated by Satcom1 to connect to Inmarsat’s broadband satellites.

Enthusiasm is building as the day for takeoff gets closer. Satcom1’s Web site features a live countdown of the June 26th flight. The Weather Channel and aviation-focused news outlets have written about her impending journey. She’s asked her followers what songs she should include for a round-the-world playlist (total flight time: 98.2 hours, in case you have a few to suggest). Even the Canadians are getting in on the buzz: Earhart was recently featured on the cover of Arctic Circle, the magazine of extreme-weather outerwear seller Canada Goose.

After Earhart lands on uninhabited Howland Island, almost 2,000 miles from Honolulu — the island that Amelia Mary was looking for with her co-pilot, Fred Noonan, but never reached — she’ll make her way to Atchison, Kentucky, home of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, to be present at an annual festival held in the pioneer’s honor.

Despite the announcement that almost derailed the trip of a lifetime, Louise Foudray, who has been the caretaker of the museum for the last 27 years, believes that the two Amelias have to be related. “She’s got to be connected to the family,” she says with certainty. “We just don’t know how.”

To Earhart, it doesn’t really matter anymore. In losing Amelia, she’s found herself — and realized that her predecessor in name was a lot like her in spirit, too. Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done. It’s what Amelia Mary Earhart said. It’s a philosophy Amelia Rose Earhart now follows.

“I know who I am so much now that I’m not afraid to speak my mind,” she says. “That’s the point that the first Amelia got to. She was focused on so much that she finally just started speaking her mind.”

Photos of Amelia Rose Earhart courtesy of her. Photo of Amelia Mary Earhart from Acme Newspictures (date unknown, print made in 1937) via Library of Congress.

  1. Jordan has logged over 6,000 flight hours, including 4,400 on the Pilatus; Earhart, over 300 total flight hours. However, flight experts we consulted say that with proper training on this model of plane and with Jordan on standby, she isn’t taking any undue risks. 

Liana Aghajanian is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about immigration, subcultures, and international issues from Los Angeles to London. Her work has appeared in the International New York Times, Mental Floss, Foreign Policy, and LA Weekly.

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