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Amelia Earhart: what is her legacy for female pilots?

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This week marks the 86th anniversary of Amelia Earhart becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic by aeroplane. But has she inspired a generation of new female pilots today?

Earhart was a true pioneer for female aviation. She dreamed of flying since getting up close to a fighter plane in Canada during World War I, and after a short flight as a passenger decided she wanted to fly herself.

She saved up $1000, the equivalent of $13,700 today, for flying lessons working as a photographer, truck driver and stenographer at a phone company. After becoming the 16th woman ever to get a pilot license in 1921 she moved to Boston, where she wrote a newspaper column about aviation and set up organisations pioneering female aviation.

After Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic, a flight including a woman was planned but when another female pilot pulled out Earhart was asked to participate.

She and co-pilot Wilmer Stultz set off to fly from Canada to Southampton on June 17th 1928, arriving on June 19th after 20 hours and 40 minutes of flying. Upon returning to the US they were greeted with a ticker tape parade and a reception with the president Calvin Coolidge.

After this, Earhart became a huge celebrity, touring America with a series of lectures, writing a book and appearing in adverts for cigarettes, suitcases and sportswear. She even launched her own line of clothing and luggage.

As her fame grew, she took part in more and more aviation records, and eventually became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932.

Earhart married her editor, George Putnam, in 1931, famously keeping her own name (he was even referred to as Mr Earhart) and writing a letter on their wedding day telling him “I shall not hold you to any midaevil code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.”

Her ultimate aim was to circumnavigate the globe solo, and she set off in 1937, making multiple stops, but her plane disappeared over the South Pacific on the last leg of the journey. Her body was never found.

But her legacy lives on, and boosted female aviation. Earhart's accomplishments inspired a generation of female aviators, including the more than 1,000 female members of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) who served as transport pilots in World War II.

However, despite Earhart's hard campaigning to increase female aviation, today women pilot numbers are low.

The first woman employed as a commercial pilot was Helen Richey in 1934, but it wasn't until the 1970s that Yvonne Pope Sintes became Britain's first commercial airline captain, in charge of a crew. And 40 years later, there are still relatively few women sitting in the pilot’s seat. Of the 3,500 pilots employed by British Airways, around 200 are women, even though the company employs the highest proportion of female pilots of any UK airline.

Globally, around 4,000 of the 130,000 airline pilots are women, according to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots. Fewer still are captains – worldwide, there are only around 450. Is this because women don't see flying as a viable career choice?

Jonathan Candelon, MD of pilot school Flying Time Aviation (FTA) thinks "the lack of women in the industry is perhaps a cultural problem that needs to be tackled. A survey that British Airways carried out asked children between six and 12 their ideal careers; ‘airline pilot’ came out as number two on the boys' list of top jobs but it seems that girls didn’t necessarily think of it as an option and we’d like to change that’."

Sophie Davies, an instructor at FTA tells us "From a young age, I dreamt of becoming a pilot. I was allowed to sit in the flight deck during a flight to Antigua and was there for the landing - and that was where my love of flying started.

"When I completed my flight training, I joined an organisation called ‘Women in Aviation’ and was inspired to become an instructor. Many women feel that aviation is a male dominated industry but year on year, the number of women pilots is increasing and I welcome that.

"We need to raise the awareness from a young age, that this is not just an industry for men and we must encourage women to join organisations such as the Air Training Corp, Women in Aviation and local flying clubs."

A timeline of female aviation

1903 - Wright Brothers successfully pilot the first propeller airplane

1906 - E. Lillian Todd becomes first woman to design and build an aircraft

1908 - Therese Peltier is the first woman to pilot an aircraft

1910 - Baroness Raymonde de Laroche is the first woman to qualify for a pilot license

1928 - Amelia Earhart crosses the Atlantic

1932 - Earhart crosses the Atlantic Ocean solo

1934 - The first woman pilot, Helen Richey, is hired for U.S. commercial airline

1942 - First U.S. women pilots to fly military aircraft

1963 - First woman in space - Valentina Tereshkova

1980 - Betty Stewart becomes the first woman to win the World Aerobatics Championship

1993 - U.S. Department of Defense opens combat aviation to women

1999 - First woman space shuttle commander - Lt. Col. Eileen Collins

2014 - Amelia Rose Earhart, a female pilot (with no relation to her legendary namesake), is preparing to recreate Earhart's final flight

Images: Rex, Getty

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