It's not every day that you receive an email from Amelia Earhart, let alone speak with her.
"Yeah, people usually respond to my emails, writing: 'Wait, is this real?'" said Earhart.
Right up front, you should know that yes, Earhart is an accomplished pilot. In fact, she has made a 28,000-mile flight around the world in a single-engine aircraft. Plus, she oversees the Fly with Amelia Foundation, which grants scholarships to young women to help fund flight training.
In advance of her visit to Idaho on Thursday, Oct. 18, when she'll be the featured guest of the Boise Metro Chamber's 135th annual gala, Earhart spoke with Boise Weekly about legacies: the one of the historic woman who shares her name, and her own.
We have to begin by talking about your name.
My parents had always been told that, somehow, we were distantly related to Amelia. My mom told my dad, "We've got a great opportunity here to name our daughter after somebody incredibly inspirational, somebody who was a real game-changer." My dad immediately said, "Whoa, I don't know about that. This could be troublesome. What if our daughter feels like she has to learn to fly?" Needless to say, my mom won out. And it's funny, because all those things my dad said were absolutely true. From a very young age, every adult I met would say, "Oh, you're little five-year-old Amelia. You better be a pilot someday. You've got big shoes to fill."
And what was it like for you as a young schoolgirl?
I had a second-grade teacher who somehow managed to spend a lot of time, a full week, studying Amelia, and she never embarrassed me in front of the class. That was the first time I can remember feeling that there's something really special about this.
At what point did you first consider flight lessons?
I was in college. By then, everyone was asking, "Are you a pilot yet?" When I told them "No," I was always faced with a disappointed look. I got sick of it. I realized that I had to take a flight lesson, even though I had no idea if I would be scared or get motion sickness. I had no clue. The first lesson began terribly. I was with an instructor who didn't care much [for] having a woman in the cockpit with him. But when we took off, it was like he wasn't there. I forgot about the petty issues. I realized that when I was in flight, I was responsible for my own life and anyone else that was in the aircraft. It was a joyful experience.
I understand that soon after, you began your first genealogical search.
I was born in 1984, so you couldn't hop online and do a genealogical search. I found a woman and gave her birth certificates, death records, military records, anything we could find. She came back to me and said, "Amelia, I can tell that you're definitely related to the first Amelia Earhart. You share common ancestry through Pennsylvania, dating back to the 1700s." I was so proud. I went back to my parents and said, "Look, you're right."
But it's important to note that the genealogist also cautioned you...
...to pinpoint the exact lineage, going into European records. But that would be $3,500 more. I was a college student and could barely afford the first bill of $500.
And it was some time later that you followed up with another genealogist.
It was 2013, just before my trip around the world. But that genealogical search found that I wasn't related to the first Amelia Earhart. It was the first point in my life when I really experienced true turbulence. I was a television personality in Denver and social media was pretty new, and when people found out, they sent messages that read, "How dare you." "You lied to us." "I hope you crash into the ocean and die, just like the first Amelia." "Get out. You're a fraud." It was incredibly painful. I wished that my family had never placed this burden on me. But over time, I became glad that I wasn't related. It would have been an easy story, right? Amelia Earhart's distant relative flies around the world. Sure. But, Amelia Earhart who thought she was related, finds out that she's not? And she still flies around the world? The big takeaway is that I may not be related, but I learned how to relate to her, to the type of life she led, the passions that she had for aviation, for fashion, for social work. That's the type of woman I'm trying to be now.
Let's talk a bit about that around-the-world flight. What was the best part of that and what was the most challenging?
The most joyful moments were watching the sun come up over the eastern horizon while flying over the ocean; there was a heightened sense of awareness around the undertaking. You're flying a plane with one engine and if that fails and you're over the ocean, you're going to have to use all your skills to ditch the plane in the water and then survive until somebody hopefully rescues you. The colors were brighter, the sounds more vibrant. Those images and feeling are so burned onto my heart.
I know we spoke of figurative turbulence in your life, but did you not run into literal turbulence on your round-the world flight?
There are best times to travel—late June or early July—when you fly around the equator. I had studied the past 100 years of climate data, and of course temperatures are rather high near the equator and you've got a lot of conduction over the ocean, so storms can pop up very rapidly. I traveled through some massive 60,000-foot-high cumulus thunderstorms between Singapore and Australia. It's an incredibly intimidating part of the world when you're flying a small aircraft. Even worse, you can get to a point of no return when you can no longer continue flying without gliding back without an engine. For me that was about 70 miles offshore, and we were past 70 miles and there was a lot of turbulence.
I also experienced metaphoric turbulence in Papua, New Guinea, where they don't see a lot of female pilots. When I landed, they claimed that I landed at the wrong airport, but that wasn't true.We were basically held inside the plane by armed guards. I've never been more scared in my life. Here I was, a young woman, being looked at with absolutely zero respect. It took four hours to get through it. It was all resolved with money.
Can I assume that you run into sexism at a number of airports, including the U.S.?
Absolutely. I'll be walking out to the plane and one of the airport officials will come up and ask me if I'm lost or if I'm looking for my husband. I answer, "I need fuel. I'm going to fly this thing."
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you to reflect on the part of your flight as you flew over Howland Island, where the first Amelia Earhart had intended to land.
Yes. In fact, that's exactly where I sent out Twitter messages, via a GPS device, to 10 young women, saying that they would be the recipients of $7,500 scholarships for flight training. At that point in the journey, I stopped chasing Amelia's path. I felt like saying, "Come on Amelia. We're taking you back home. Let's finish the flight you started 77 years ago."