A newly discovered photograph suggests aviator Amelia Earhart, who vanished 80 years ago on a round-the-world flight, survived a crash-landing in the Marshall Islands. The photo, found in a long-forgotten file in the National Archives, shows a woman who resembles Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan. The discovery was recently featured in a new History channel special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence.”

Photo of Amelia Earhart in 1935.

This particular topic interests me personally as I have long been interested in women in aviation. Most people know that Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, but women have been flying powered aircraft since 1908. Prior to 1970, most were restricted to working privately or in support roles in the aviation industry. Women pilots were often called aviatrices.

Within the first two decades of powered flight, women on every continent except Antarctica had begun to fly. Many were performing in aerial shows, parachuting, and even transporting passengers. They were increasingly involved in establishing distance and aerobatic records, and in pressing for airplanes to be used for disaster and public health services.

During World War II, women from every continent helped with war efforts and, though mostly restricted from military flight, many of the female pilots flew in auxiliary services. In the 1950s and 1960s, women were primarily restricted to serving in support fields like flight simulation training, air traffic control, and as flight attendants. It is only since the 1970s that women have been allowed to participate in military service, and not in all countries.

Female interest in aviation is not new. In 1930, there were around 200 women pilots but in just five years there were more than 700. Women of Aviation Worldwide Week reports that after 1980, the increase in gender parity for women pilots in the United States has been stagnant. Women flying commercial airlines in India make up 11.6% of all pilots, significantly further ahead than the global number of women airline pilots which is 3%.

Elizabeth L. Gardner, WASP, at the controls of a B-26 Marauder.

Earhart made history but she wasn’t the first. The first woman known to fly was Élisabeth Thible, a passenger in an untethered hot air balloon in 1784. Jeanne Labrosse became the first woman to fly solo in a balloon in 1788 and would also become the first woman to parachute. Sophie Blanchard took her first balloon flight in 1804, was performing as a professional aeronaut by 1810 and was made Napoleon’s chief of air service in 1811. The list goes on.

Women today are still setting records and making history. Women who work as aerospace engineers make up 25% in the field in 2014. Women make up less than 6% of senior executive level positions in airline companies, as of 2015.

Women have had to work hard to prove themselves as capable as men in the aviation field. During the first National Women’s Air Derby in 1929, women flying the race faced threats of sabotage. Because flying was considered dangerous, many aircraft manufacturers in the late 1920s hired women as sales representatives and flight demonstrators. The reasoning was that if a woman could fly an airplane, it really could not be that difficult or dangerous.

Earhart’s accomplishments in aviation inspired a generation of female aviators, including the more than 1,000 women pilots of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who ferried military aircraft, towed gliders, flew target practice aircraft, and served as transport pilots during World War II alone.

Maybe it isn’t so difficult after all.

Melody K. Smith

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