In 1937, Amelia Mary Earhart disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean attempting to fly around the world, and on Friday, July 11, 2014, Amelia Rose Earhart became the youngest woman to successfully circumnavigate the globe. We spoke to Earhart eight months ago as she prepared for her around-the-world expedition. She gave us the scoop on what motivated her to complete the trip and how she came to be an accomplished aviatrix.
Earhart has spent the last eight years juggling work as a television and radio reporter with her foundation, which grants scholarships to young women who want to pursue flight training. She earned her private pilot license in 2010 and will now shift her focus completely on fostering aviation opportunities for people of all ages. We followed up with the 31-year-old pilot days after she returned to American soil to learn more about her time up in the air and what her future holds for her passion project, the Fly With Amelia Foundation. One thing is for sure, this optimist will continue making waves. Airwaves, that is.
How did you get into flying?
My parents could never afford to put me through flight school. It was too much of a cost, especially with everything else going on in life at that time. When I started thinking about taking lessons, I was right around 17 or 18 years old. I always knew I needed to take flight lessons because everybody was asking me about it. There’s a lot of pressure being Amelia Earhart. I finally just said, “Gosh. I better just take one myself.” I started working extra jobs; I waited tables and worked at golf courses or wherever I could pick up spare cash. So I saved up and started taking a few aviation lessons. From that very first one, I knew I was in big trouble because it was so much fun. I just totally fell in love with it right away. It was such an easy way to make myself to leap out of bed in the morning. It made for a very inspired life. One thing led to the next; it took me four or five years to actually finish my private pilot’s license because it was so expensive, but I eventually got it done.
What was it about that first flight that hooked you?
I completely forgot about everything else on the ground when I got up in the plane. It was such a nice reprieve from going to school and working a bunch of jobs. Whether I was having relationship issues or family problems, it all went away when I was in the plane. As soon as I shut that door, I was totally laser focused. That’s what I enjoyed most. The views are beautiful and so is the freedom of it, but it really does come back down to that it’s a very strong sense of clarity around what I love to do when I’m in the air.
We can tell you’re a very positive person! While you were flying around the world, how did you stay so positive, optimistic, and energized in the face of fatigue?
I definitely know that I’m in control of my own mood. No one’s going to step in and say, “Hey, get out of that funk.” My co-pilot, Shane Jordan, was always in a great mood, so that part was easy. I was working on the goal for a year and a half, to pull that flight off. It was almost like raising a child: you put all this hard work in and they start to do things on their own. It was almost like the flight took on a life of its own. It had this amazing personality of positivity and everyone who heard about it fell in love with the idea of honoring Amelia and handing out these flight scholarships and being passionate about an adventure. I woke up, and it was all my hard work right in front of my eyes coming to life and coming to fruition. It was naturally easy to be very optimistic. I was really tired on certain days and pretty exhausted from all the flying, but toward the end, it all came down to adrenaline.
How did you and Shane Jordan start working together? Obviously, spending that much time in a pretty small cockpit you have to match up personality-wise. What is your relationship like?
I started out with a different co-pilot, and he ended up having to back away from the project because he has a full-time job and has kids and a family. So I said, “You know what, Patrick, you do your thing. No worries. I can find someone else to do this trip with me.” It was pretty stressful, but I didn’t want him to go out of obligation. When I started looking for another suitable co-pilot who loved the experience and had the right attitude about adventure, I started calling my pilot friends and asking what they thought about Shane Jordan. He was recommended by Pilatus, which was the aircraft manufacturer. One of the people I talked to was his friend Peter Duncan. He said, “There’s only one other person who I would trust my own family with in the cockpit and that’s Shane.” So that was a good starting point. Even beyond safety, it does come down to personality, of course. Shane viewed the adventure the same way I did. It was gung-ho; we’re not out to prove anything other than adventure is awesome and we hope to inspire other people’s personal adventures. When I heard that come out of his mouth, I was like, “This is the guy.” I knew he was the one. Not only did I gain the ability to say I’ve flown an airplane around the world, I also gained a best friend. It’s totally true. He’s definitely somebody who will be around for the rest of my life.
It sounds like you have a great relationship! What did you and Shane Jordan do to pass the time while flying?
When it’s all ocean underneath and sky above, it’s like wow. First, when we got in the plane, we did all of our checks and got up to altitude, which takes a good 20 or 30 minutes to get up to 27,000 feet. Then we talked about where we’re going. Usually the conversation revolved around how cool the last place was and how amazing and exciting the next place was going to be. In some places, that was true. In some places, it wasn’t. We packed a lot of Cliff bars and beef jerky, typical road trip stuff, but we tried to keep it on the slightly healthier side. Because the cabin of the aircraft was configured with the fuel tank in the back, there weren’t any seats or carpet or anything, so we took two yoga mats and we had them back behind the fuel tank. While one of us stayed up and flew, the other one took 5 or 10 minutes to go to the back and stretch. We both really like fitness, so I went back there and did crunches, push-ups and yoga, just to get a little burst of energy. You get really sleepy sitting in that seat, and just like driving a car, there’s that vibration of being in a machine and it gets you really sleepy. We did that pretty consistently on every flight. We listened to a lot of music. We totally forgot to bring any sort of reading material or anything fun like that. It was just mostly music and chatting. We never ran out of things to talk about.
What were some of your favorite places that you visited?
One of the most amazing places was Tanzania. The hotel we stayed in was a traditional African hut, so it was stunning when you get there. It was all sorts of adventurers; lots of climbers who had come to summit Kilimanjaro, so it was a very young air in Tanzania. You felt like everybody there was there on a mission. Their huts were a combination of thatched roofs and mud walls, and they had nets over the bed. There was a beautiful restaurant where we had one of the best meals ever. We sat down under the stars with crazy animal noises and crickets all around us, and you could see the mountain in the distance. That was pretty spectacular. The only regret that I have about that place though is that we got in so late the day before that we arrived at the hotel in the dark, and the next morning we left in the dark because one of our goals was to see the sunrise around the whole globe. We made them, but it meant taking off super early and not getting to stay and enjoy these places during the day.
Is there a place you visited that you can’t wait to get back to and stay awhile?
Definitely Brazil. That would be incredible. I would say the Seychelles Islands. That was one of our fuel stops; we didn’t get to overnight there, but it was just a gorgeous spot, very tropical, very turquoise waters and lots of good climbing. It was a very outdoorsy kind of place. I definitely want to go back Singapore again because the city fascinates me for some reason. It’s very technologically advanced and very fashionable. There are so many good restaurants; it almost feels like going to New York City for the weekend.
Your goal was to see the sunrise in every place you went. What was a favorite or most memorable one?
They were all so different. If you’re over the ocean, it’s one type of sunrise reflecting off the water but if there are mountains in front of you, it’s different. One of the best was Tanzania, and I hate to bring up Tanzania again, but it was such an awesome departure! When we departed, there was a low cloud deck at about 2,000 feet, and when we broke through the clouds, we could see the mountain for the first time in broad daylight. It was just a huge ball of sun, reflecting off a snow-capped peak in Africa and clouds. I have a video of that exact moment when we saw it. We were flying eastbound and our next clearance was into Kenya, and we were talking to Kenyan airspace, watching the sunrise, getting ready to cross the Indian Ocean. It was definitely one of those moments in my life that I’ll never forget. It was so colorful.
Tell us about the map that you had everyone sign.
It was kind of a last-minute idea I had. I basically ran to Office Depot and I grabbed a world map and a ton of Sharpies and said, “This thing’s going around the world.” I’m never going to meet 99 percent of those people again but in whatever capacity, large or small, they all influenced the flight in some way. Anyone we met, whether it was a fueler or a kid who happened to be at the airport, we would tell them about the project and have them sign it. It’s just absolutely coated in signatures. We would always take photos with it and people would want to hold it and take their own pictures of it. It became quite the famous little map. I want to have it framed and hung in the museum in Denver where I’m on the board of directors. We’ve built this display about the flight and it’s a good way to show how many people you meet when you do a big trip like that. It has fun little messages all over it.
Did you have any flight rituals that you went through before or during take off to maintain some sense of normalcy?
We always did our pre-flight the same way. Shane and I got into our routine of who did what going into the flight, which was nice. It really felt like we were working as a team when that went down. One was a funny accidental ritual–Shane could never remember to bring his iPad up front. He would get in the seat, get his harness on, get his headset on, and remember that he left his iPad in the back. He’d have to unbuckle, take the headset off, climb in the back of the plane and find the iPad and get up front. I’m not joking, he did it on every single departure. So that was funny. Then I have a little ritual that I do no matter what flight I’m on: I wear a ring on my right hand on my ring finger. It’s a diamond sapphire ring that I bought for myself after a solo flight that I did into Santa Barbara. It was such a beautiful approach and it was over the ocean, but that flight in particular was the very first time I considered continuing on and flying over the ocean. The sapphire looks like the water and the diamonds look like the stars. Whenever I am taking off, I always tap that ring on the throttle before I push it forward on the end of the runway. Shane wasn’t aware of that, but is is my personal flight thing.
Was there a point during the flight where you were just so tired you didn’t think you could keep going?
There were so many people watching and pulling for us to finish that it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t finish. There were definitely moments where I was laying there at the end of the day and I couldn’t even eat dinner I was so tired. There were some very lonely moments on the flight because I was in some of the most beautiful locations in the world, and I didn’t really know Shane that well at the time. I was in my hotel room by myself thinking, “Oh my gosh. What am I doing? I’m zipping around the world, not experiencing any of it, yet I’m flying around it.” That was one of the struggles that I had, and I remembered wishing I was there with somebody I cared about.
You were flying from each spot to the next so quickly; were there times you wished you could stay?
Definitely. Both Shane and I had pretty strong emotions about that and were almost a disappointment that I planned the trip that way. To be able to stay in each spot would have given us the chance to get to know the people, to get to know the location, and learn about the country, but then it wouldn’t be a record-breaking flight. It would be more like a vacation and that’s not what I was after. I had to get myself back in check and say, “This is what you think you want, but it’s not really what you wanted on the outset.” Any thoughts I had like that were pretty misleading, and I would get myself back in line pretty quickly. I’d just say, “This is so incredible and there’s a reason that you’re doing this flight. It’s not to see the world from the ground, it’s to see the world from the air.” Which is exactly what we did.
You mentioned all the people who helped you! Tell us about your support system.
Our partners that came on to help the flight were so incredible. We had 20 different partners come in: Pilatus donated the aircraft and Honeywell Airspace donated the avionics and technology. I wanted to stick within airspace but also bring in companies that young women could relate to. This totally shocked me, but Target came on board as one of our sponsors. They were the official electronics sponsor, so they provided my iPad and my phone accessories and all the stuff we’d need for the flight. They gave me a Fitbit to wear; fun stuff and that was just awesome to me because I’m a pilot, but Target’s a place where all young women go and shop. That was exciting and they were super encouraging on social media, along with all the other partners. One of the best was Wings Over The Rockies, which is the aerospace museum where I’m on the board of directors. They sent a note out to all the local schools in the area and had them draw notes and little letters for me. They made this massive custom mailbag. It was awesome because when we had bored moments on the plane, we could literally sit there and read kid notes for an hour and laugh so hard because they were so ridiculously cute.
What about some of your close relatives that made up your immediate support system?
They were fantastic! My parents both came to the return flight in Oakland. I was checking in with them on social media and texting with them the whole time. We had this little GPS handheld device that we could send out text-only messages back and forth. They got to follow me the whole time. My parents were the ones who gave me this name, so when I think about the whole reason about how the trip came together, they take the credit for it. They took a risk with naming their kid something fairly ridiculous when you really think about it, and we really worked hard as a family to turn it into something super positive that has a bigger impact. Having them track the flight was really special. My dad really broke down at the end. He had a hard time and was crying when I came back. I had never seen my dad like that. He was just overwhelmed. NBC Nightly News was there and CNN was there, and they’re all sticking their microphones up to him to get him to talk, and he wouldn’t say anything. He’s definitely a man of few words; he’s a cowboy and lives out in the middle of the woods, so it was a lot for him to handle.
You flew for eight hours between two active volcanoes. What was that like?
Weather-wise we had to watch out for thunderstorms and all the normal stuff that pilots look out for, but because we were flying on a path that took us right by two volcanoes; we had to watch the ash cloud development. We got daily forecasts that told us exactly how active the volcanos were. As we were flying, I was looking out the window for these things like crazy, thinking that they’d be small and difficult to find. All of a sudden we got to that part of the world and we look out the window and there’s one volcano on each side of the airplane. The smoke plumes were really small, but they were still really active. You could see the smoke just cranking out of these things. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen. I wanted to fly directly over so I could look inside and see if it was molten lava. Shane was like, “Stay the course.”
What was it like to follow Amelia’s path and pass over Howland Island near where it’s believed she disappeared?
She had such limited technology and I had GPS. Some people criticize me for making the flight too easy, and to that I say: You’re driving a modern car, and just because you think driving is great doesn’t mean you have to drive a Model T. We use technology to stay safe and I wanted to complete this flight safely and with today’s technology to bring aviation into the future. That’s what Amelia was trying to do back in the 1930s. I don’t think we were doing the same flight by any means. We were on the same path, and when we passed by Howland Island it was my goal to do the flight at least until that point and then symbolically pick her up and take her with us. We wanted to take the spirit of Amelia and her sense of adventure on this flight and carry her home, not only through Honolulu, but also back into Oakland. It was so fun because at that point, it wasn’t Amelia Earhart’s 1937 flight, it was Amelia Earhart’s 2014 flight with both Amelias somehow tied into that plane. That was a really special one for me; that’s when I took ownership over the flight, over Howland Island. I took ownership in a symbolic way and paid it forward and continuing the flight in our own way. It was one of the most empowering moments of the whole journey.
What technological essentials did you have with you at all times on the flight?
We had GPS, synthetic vision, transponders, a handheld GPS device that allowed us to text, the full suite of avionics, which let us know exactly where we were with our altitude and air speed. There were four essential computer screens across the front of the aircraft, and we also had our iPhones, iPads, laptops (the normal stuff!). It was so funny to be doing this flight around the world and I’d still have the same frustrations like at home: where’s my iPhone charger?
How did you deal with the jet lag in all of those different locations and time zones?
You’re not going to believe me when I tell you this, but I never felt jet lag once on this flight. I don’t know if it’s just because we were going so far, like there were some days we lost three or four hours going eastbound, and I’m thinking to myself, “I’m going to feel horrible.” I honestly never felt it. I didn’t have a strategy only because I never really needed it. I want to look deeper into the science behind it because when I fly to Europe, I feel terrible the whole first day.
Now that you’ve completed your trip around the world, what’s next?
I was really encouraged by the overwhelming response of people about the Fly With Amelia Foundation and how they gave so openly. I really want to take this foundation to a whole new level and be able to affect a lot more girls who really want to learn how to fly. That’s definitely first and foremost. I’m also working on a book about the flight. We’re also working on a children’s book, which will benefit the foundation. It’s going to be about a little girl that doesn’t have the resources but eventually is able to fly all the way around the world. For me, that’s going to be a special one. Having that for my own children some day is going to be really meaningful.
What surprised you most about the trip? What didn’t you expect?
I had a lot of fear about communicating with people in different languages and in different countries. I didn’t know what it would be like to talk to someone who lives in Africa and speaks a different dialect. The cool thing about aviation is that English is the international language of aviation. Even though their English was very broken, we were still able to work together with people in 14 different countries to not only get what we needed fuel-wise and to be technically sound, but we made friends. Here I am with a group of 10 African men who’ve never seen anybody with blond hair before and at the end of it, they’re all hugging me and taking pictures. That’s what surprised me the most: how easy it was to relate with people in different cultures who normally I would have anxiety about, just because I felt I needed to speak their language or have something in common. People were so kind and it was just an amazing thing to do.
What will you bring to the foundation that will help promote aviation for young women?
I don’t think the girls who get involved will have any idea how far aviation can take them. Just in terms of becoming a stronger person and more comfortable with yourself and what you’re capable of. It’s wonderful to watch these girls start taking their first few flights; they just start to carry themselves differently. When you know who you are, you’re so much better at relating to other people. You become kinder and more secure because you’re allowing yourself to have fuller experiences. That’s how I grew during the trip and I’d love to bring that to the girls.