Sometimes it takes finding out who you’re not to truly discover who you are… and even more so, who you are capable of becoming.
In July of this year, I announced to the world my intention to fly around it. Twenty four thousand nautical miles, fourteen stops, a Pilatus PC-12 NG, an endless circle of big blue skies and many deep, dark, quiet black nights of flying. This wild dream of an around-the-world flight was planted in my head early on, and, as you can imagine, being named Amelia Earhart was ultimately the catalyst for this epic journey around the globe.
Now, when someone named Amelia Earhart heads to Oshkosh, Wisconsin to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Air Venture Celebration and announces that she is going to jump in a single-engine airplane and cross some oceans, people tend to take notice. We will talk more about the flight later…
First, let’s rewind a bit… I was born in 1983 to a spunky, beautiful, artistic and super creative young woman named Debbie Bajenaru, and a hard-working, self-reliant, Buddhist-surfer-cowboy, Glen Earhart. Now, according to my Mom, she grew up naming every one of her baby dolls Amy. When she married an Earhart, she loved the fact that Amy was a nickname for Amelia. They talked it through and decided that the first Amelia Earhart would be an excellent role model for their daughter. She stood for hard work and courage, passion and strength in women. She was a game changer in American history.
It was always said on my Dad’s side of the family that we were somehow related to the first Amelia Earhart. It was simply oral tradition through the years that our two families were distantly related, somehow connected through a shared last name. As a child, when your family shares stories, you don’t usually have any reason to question them.
I grew up simply, in the high desert of Southern California. My family didn’t have a lot of money and my Dad and I lived in my Grandma’s mobile home. I don’t include this fact to gain sympathy for a poor childhood. I grew up rich with imagination. I was a happy kid, a kid with a feisty spirit for adventure who just happened to be named Amelia Earhart.
As I grew older, my name began to matter more and more to others. Through high school and college, I began to get asked if I was related to Amelia Earhart. In my late teens, I would sheepishly say, “yes, my family is distantly related.” However, when I got to college and started developing my courage and personality, I decided to figure out just how we were related to Amelia. I hired a local genealogist who researched my family tree back several generations and told me that Amelia Earhart and I shared what she called, “a distant common ancestry traced back to the seventeen hundreds.” To go back further, she told me that it would cost several thousand dollars and an international records search. As a college student, paying her way through school, eating Ramen and searching for used textbooks, that just wasn’t an option.
From the moment I took my very first flight, I knew that this was not going to simply be a physical experience of getting up in an airplane. I felt connected to the act, the power in the cockpit and the potential to literally go anywhere I chose. I was limited by my own will to learn and train and excel in aviation. Early in my flight lessons, I realized that I had the potential to change my horizons by adjusting my own altitude. The higher I flew, the further I could see–the more I wanted to see. My days got longer because I was chasing the sun. I was thriving on the power of a throttle that was in my own right hand.
Private pilots license, instrument rating, high altitude endorsement, open water survival training, a check out in the Pilatus PC-12 NG, and now I stand here, 236 days away from a flight around the world.
When I announced my flight plan, there were a lot of questions, rightfully so, about my name and my relation to the first Amelia Earhart. Through all the interviews with The Today Show, Huffington Post,People Magazine, and the like, I answered that question the same way I always had–that Amelia and I shared a distant common ancestry that was traced back to the seventeen hundreds. For some, this wasn’t enough and I was encouraged to do a second genealogical search. I knew deep down that this was the right thing to do. The search would be done, I could finally put the vague nature of the first search to rest. I called ancestry.com and paid top dollar for one of their lead researchers to dig into my family’s history.
I waited, impatiently, to hear the results. Finally, “Hi, it’s Amelia… how’s the search going?” “Amelia, I have some news you may not want to hear. Based on our research, your first genealogical search was incorrect. It looks like you are not related to Amelia Earhart.”
Silence, anger, doubt, fear, tears welling up, “Thank you! I appreciate the time you took to do the research.” That response was the biggest lie I’ve ever told. I went full-blown faker on that one. The researcher on the other end of the line knew I was crushed.
I sat in my car, shoulders hunched, head hanging wondering who the hell I was. For 30 years, I had been told that I was related to someone extraordinary. Someone that changed the way we perceive what we are capable of doing. I wore that name like a shining badge of honor… I embraced her spirit, I channeled her optimism, and I learned how to fly an airplane because of someone who disappeared in 1937 for goodness sake!
The news broke that I was not, in fact, related to Amelia Earhart. The nasty emails shot through my inbox, directly to my heart. The homepage of USA Today ran the story for a week straight. My identity was in shambles.
If I wasn’t related to Amelia Earhart, what was I doing flying around the world?
I said it out loud.
The tears stopped.
I sat up straight.
No one dragged me to the airport and told me to fly airplanes. No one granted me an honorary pilot’s license for being named after Amelia. I started asking myself real questions about my intentions around flight.
Do you love to fly? Obviously.
Do you want to inspire young women to get into general aviation? Absolutely.
What will it feel like to honor your namesake in an around the world flight attempt? It will be remarkable beyond belief.
When you find out that something you have tied yourself to isn’t the truth, you’ve got two choices. You can let the disappointment define you, falling into the shadows of an identity that was assigned to you, or you can add power, choose your own altitude and rise to the view that you want to see.
I used to think that that being named Amelia Earhart was the best gift my parents could ever have given me. Now, I see that having a so-called relation to her taken away from me has been a much greater gift. What I never allowed myself to do, when I thought I was related to Amelia, was define what MY name meant to me. I felt the need to follow a path that had been taken back in the 1930s. I felt the need to recreate a path already taken, rather than create a path of my own, unique to Amelia Rose Earhart.
Who I am is a girl that is fueled by a will to see the best in every situation, a girl who feels empathy for those who just need that one little spark of encouragement to get their feet off the ground. I am the girl who knows that with a little power, a little altitude, you can learn to widen your view to see further than you ever knew you could. I no longer need to be the distant relative to Amelia Earhart in order to succeed.
I am Amelia Rose Earhart: aviatrix, optimist, and supporter of anyone who has ever given up who they were supposed to be in favor of who they wake up each and every day and choose to be.