My history hero: Amelia Earhart (1897–1937)

Television presenter Julia Bradbury chooses a celebrated aviator as her history hero

Amelia Earhart, who became the first woman to fly non-stop across the Atlantic in 1932. (Image by Bettmann/Getty Images)

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Amelia Earhart was a pioneering American aviator. In 1932, she became the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic. Two years later, she became the first aviator to fly solo from Hawaii to the US mainland. During an attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, never to be seen again. She was 39.


When did you first hear about Amelia Earhart?

I remember hearing stories about Amelia when I was about eight years old. My dad is a history man, so most likely he told me about her adventures. I became fascinated by this amazing woman who set all these flying records, had her own clothing line and was an associate editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. She just seemed so accomplished and talented.

What kind of person was she?

I get the impression she was a big character, which I admire in a woman. But she was also a great supporter of women and equality in general, so there was obviously a nurturing side to her too. She didn’t just want to achieve great things for herself, she wanted to make it easier for other women to achieve their ambitions – aeronautical or not. There was a kindness about her that you don’t always find in such driven people.

When she landed in Northern Ireland, a farm boy asked her if she had flown far and she replied: ‘From America!’

What made her a hero?

Everything was against her in those days. Women didn’t fly. Women were certainly not pilots. Women were not adventurers. And they did not set records. Yet Amelia did all of these things and more. She was an original trailblazer. What’s more, she knew the risks involved – flying in the primitive planes of the time required nerves of steel – and was prepared to die for her adventures. I also admire her for her attempts to help other women get airborne: she was instrumental in setting up the Ninety-Nines, a mentoring organisation for female pilots, which now has more than 150 chapters around the world. Lastly, I admire her modern approach to marriage, which she regarded as a partnership of equals.

What was her finest hour?

It’s got to be the first non-stop solo transatlantic flight by a woman in 1932. She set off from Newfoundland [in present-day Canada] in a single-engine Lockheed Vega 5B with the intention of flying to Paris, but encountered strong winds, icy conditions and mechanical problems. So after nearly 15 hours in the air she was forced to land in a field in Northern Ireland. It was still an incredible achievement, and was rightfully recognised as such. When she landed, a farm boy apparently asked her if she had flown far and she replied: “From America!”

What do you think she would have gone on to achieve if she had not died so young?

Who knows? If she had been born 40 years later, she could have become one of the first women to walk on the moon.

If you could meet Earhart, what would you ask her?

Firstly, I’d ask: “Were you frightened when you were flying solo?” And secondly, I’d ask her how magical the stars were up there while she was flying around the ‘waistline of the world’…

Julia Bradbury is a television presenter, best known for having co-presented Countryfile. To read about her favourite walks, see theoutdoorguide.co.uk. She was talking to York Membery

Listen again: In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures.

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This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine