Photograph by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
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Amelia Earhart pilots a gyroplane—a sort of mashup between an airplane and helicopter—in 1930 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was thought to be the first flight of a “windmill” plane by a woman.
Photograph by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Amelia Earhart

How this pilot changed how high people thought women could fly

Amelia Earhart didn’t flinch. The 21-year-old was attending an air show in Canada in 1918 when a stunt plane dived right toward her. But instead of running out of the way, she faced the plane down.

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In January 1930, Amelia Earhart was a relatively unknown pilot. That was all about to change.

That wasn’t Earhart’s only brave moment. Born in Kansas on July 24, 1897, she volunteered during World War I starting in 1917, treating wounded Canadian soldiers returning from the European battlefields. Nearby were pilot practice fields, where she discovered her passion for flying. After taking her first flight in 1920, she started working odd jobs to pay for flying lessons. Then, in 1923, she earned an international pilot’s license, becoming one of only 16 women in the world to have one.

Aviation in the 1920s was still new—after all, the Wright brothers’ first flight had just happened in 1903—and most pilots were men. Earhart wanted to change that and in 1931 became the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots. The next year, no one would ever think of pilots as “just men” again.

In 1932, Earhart took off from Newfoundland, Canada. Fifteen hours later, she landed in a cow pasture in Northern Ireland and became the first woman to fly by herself across the Atlantic Ocean. And she didn’t stop there. In 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans after she flew from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California. In fact, between 1930 and 1935, Earhart set at least five women's speed and distance flying records.

But Earhart wanted to do something even bigger. On June 1, 1937, she and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Miami, Florida, in an attempt to fly 29,000 miles around the world. By June 29, they had made it to New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea), an island north of Australia in the Indian Ocean. They had only 7,000 miles to go. But something happened as they crossed the Pacific Ocean. They set out on July 2, 1937, at 12:30 a.m., heading toward tiny Howland Island. They were never seen again.

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Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan look over a map of the Pacific Ocean that shows the planned route of their doomed 1937 flight.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent 66 aircraft and nine ships to look for them, but the fliers had vanished. The official search ended on July 18, 1937, but to this day people are still trying to solve the mystery of what happened to the woman who changed aviation history.