Amelia Earhart namesake with Kansas ties to re-create famous global flight

06/25/2014 7:16 PM

Perhaps this was her destiny after all.

On Thursday, a 31-year-old Denver woman named Amelia Earhart will take off from Oakland, Calif., to re-create the around-the-world flight that famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart attempted in 1937.

If she succeeds, the former Kansas high school state debate champion and Tonganoxie High School graduate will become the youngest woman to fly around the world — 28,000 miles in 18 days — in a single-engine aircraft.

Along for the ride: photos of the parents who named her Amelia Rose Earhart.

“They wanted to give me a good female role model and also give me a name that nobody would ever forget,” she said. “And they certainly did that.”

Living history

Earhart quit her job in March as a traffic reporter at KUSA, the NBC affiliate in Denver, to finish prepping for the flight. She and co-pilot Shane Jordan will follow much the same route that Amelia Mary Earhart flew when she famously disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.

The owners of the hangar in Oakland where the first Amelia Earhart departed from 77 years ago are letting Earhart leave from the same location.

“I have goosebumps just thinking about this,” she wrote on Facebook. “What will it feel like to open the hangar doors the morning of June 26th?”

She and Jordan will fly in a specially outfitted Pilatus PC-12 NG plane, stripped down inside like a cargo plane and carrying an auxiliary 200-gallon fuel tank.

They plan on making 17 stops, taking off at dawn from each so they can watch the sun rise around the world.

They are scheduled to be back in Oakland on July 12. The following week, Earhart plans to talk about the trip at the annual Amelia Earhart Festival in Atchison, Kan.

The festival is sponsored by the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, which last year honored the younger Earhart with a women’s achievement award.

“We’re behind her 100 percent and just hope she finishes her flight safely,” said Louise Foudray, the museum’s curator and historian. “I think it’s very representative of the interest that is still shown in Amelia Earhart and Amelia Earhart’s memory. She accomplished so much and was so much of a role model for children and women at the time she was doing her flights, and that has just not died down. And it’s special things like this flight that help keep it in the public eye, too.”

Earhart is not the first woman to recreate the famous pilot’s flight, Foudray said. At least two other women have done it: Ann Pellegreno in 1967 and Gaby Kennard in 1989.

But round-the-world flights aren’t all that common. Only about two dozen people have circumnavigated the globe in a light aircraft, according to the website Earthrounders.com, a register of pilots who have flown around the world.

Unlike the first Amelia Earhart, this modern-day adventurer is able to take the world along for the ride: She’ll be live-tweeting on a handheld GPS device, using the hashtag #flywithamelia.

As they fly over Howland Island, the destination the first Amelia Earhart never reached before she disappeared, she will tweet out the names of several young women who will receive flight scholarships from her new nonprofit, the Fly With Amelia Foundation.

The social media aspect of the trip is “really important,” said Earhart, who also has kept supporters up-to-date on Facebook as she prepares.

“It’s not been done before to this extent,” she said. “I’m probably going to post more than people want to see. It’s not going to just be all the happy sunrises and sunsets.”

Loaded name

Earhart was born in Downey, Calif., and was young when her parents divorced. She moved to Tonganoxie with her mother and stepfather when she was in high school.

Her mom, Debborah Dale, who now lives near San Diego, said it’s rather unbelievable what her daughter is about to do.

She named her Amelia “because it was really kind of a quirky thing.”

“I wanted her to have a name that her teachers would always remember,” Dale said. “We never, ever, talked about flying when she was little. I didn’t really want her to put everything into the former Amelia Earhart. I wanted her to become her own person.”

That she did, because for years Earhart refused to be called Amelia. She once told the story of how her first-grade teacher taught the class about a “brave lady” who vanished while trying to fly around the world. When the teacher told the class the brave pilot’s name, the other kids started teasing Earhart, who started loathing the name “Amelia.” For a long time, she stopped using it.

That’s why her friends and teachers at Tonganoxie High School knew her as Amy Earhart.

The moment she became Amelia Earhart again came later in high school. One day, feeling kind of feisty, Earhart said, she signed Amelia, not Amy, on a debate tournament form.

“I put down my full name, and the adults in the room who were the judges just started paying more attention to what I had to say,” she said. “And it felt like it gave me a little bit of advantage. And from that point on, I just started using it more and more.”

By the time she went to college — freshman year at the University of Kansas — she was introducing herself as Amelia Earhart.

“It took me until I was 18 to figure it out, but there was no turning back,” she said.

Steve Harrell, Earhart’s former debate coach at Tonganoxie High School, has followed her training preparations on Facebook and can tell that she’s still the cross-every-T-dot-every-I kind of person she was when she was a teen. He’s not surprised at what she’s attempting because he heard her talk about flying around the world even when she was in high school.

“I have no doubt that she can do it,” said Harrell, the school’s director of speech and drama. “But in the back of your mind, you’re still praying for her that hopefully everything turns out well.”

Relation queries

Dale said her ex-husband’s family, the Earharts, always believed that they were related to the famous pilot, who was born in Atchison in 1897.

Whether the two Amelias were blood relations became a controversial sticking point for Earhart in recent years, with people accusing her, some viciously online, of trading off of her famous moniker.

Questions about that relationship became even more pointed as her around-the-world flight became more of a reality.

“Her dad’s side always told us that they were related distantly,” said Dale. “We never really questioned it.”

In an extensive profile called “Being Amelia,” published last fall in 5280, The Denver Magazine, writer Robert Sanchez noted how early articles about Earhart called her a third cousin of the famous pilot.

“She later tried to clarify the relationship, saying she’d hired a genealogist who said the two Amelias shared a ‘distant, common ancestry,’ an ambiguous term neither she, nor anyone else, made too much of an effort to pin down,” he wrote.

“As plans for the flight moved forward, Earhart tried to brush away what she referred to as ‘the negativity.’”

Earhart herself finally put the issue to rest when she hired a second genealogist who determined that she is, in fact, not related to Amelia Mary Earhart. In a way, it’s a relief to know that for sure, she said.

“Because when it was an issue of, ‘Well, I’m not sure how I’m related but I’ve always been told I was,’ it wasn’t a strong place to come from,” she said. “But now I say no. And then I keep going and say, ‘But I’m flying around the world this year.’ And people are like, ‘Wow.’”

With all the important details about visas, immunizations, flight suits, route decisions and fuel planning done, Earhart moved on to one of her last tasks before departure.

Baking chocolate chip cookies.

The first stop on her trip Thursday is at home in Denver for a special farewell at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, where she is on the board of directors.

On Tuesday, she and her best friend baked cookies for the event.

“I really like to cook, and I thought that would be a nice personal touch,” she said. “And it calms me down to be in the kitchen.”

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

Amelia Earhart Festival

When: July 18 and 19

Where: Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, 223 North Terrace St., Atchison.

Speaker: Amelia Earhart (July 19)

Info: (913) 367-4217 or ameliaearhartmuseum.org

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