x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The instant expert: Amelia Earhart

This week Rick Arthur ponders the mystery of Amelia Earhart as the search is renewed for the plane in which she vanished.

Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Rick Arthur ponders the mystery of Amelia Earhart as the search is renewed for the plane in which she vanished.

THE BASICS Amelia Earhart was the world's most famous female aviator. Guided by her publicist (and later, husband), George Putnam, she drove the public perfervid over aviation. She disappeared in 1937 in the Pacific on her bid to become the first woman to fly around the world.

THE FIRST "FLIGHT" Earhart was born into wealth on July 24, 1897, in the US state of Kansas. In 1904 she put a ramp atop the family's tool shed to mimic the roller coaster she had ridden at the St Louis World's Fair. She climbed out of the broken wooden box she had used as a sled with a bruised lip and torn clothes, and shouted to her sister: "Pidge, it's just like flying!"

THE FIRST REAL FLIGHT Earhart quit Columbia University and joined her parents in California in 1920. Fascinated after she and her father went to an "aerial meet", the next day she paid $10 to ride in an open-cockpit biplane for 10 minutes over Los Angeles. "As soon as we left the ground I knew I myself had to fly!" she said later.

LADY LUGGAGE Earhart bought a second-hand yellow Kinner Airster biplane and named it "The Canary". By 1927 she had 500 hours in the air and celebrity status, and promoters asked her to be the first woman to be flown across the Atlantic. "I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes," she said of the 1928 flight from Newfoundland to Wales.

LADY LINDY The pilot left for Paris from Newfoundland in her single-engine Lockheed Vega 5b on May 21, 1932, to match Charles Lindbergh's 1927 trans-Atlantic solo. After 14 hours, 56 minutes, she landed in a pasture in Culmore, Northern Ireland. Global renown was hers.

THE ENDURING MYSTERY Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Oakland, California, on May 21, 1937, on their second attempt to fly around the world. Going west to east, by July 1 they had reached New Guinea. The next day they left for tiny Howland Island, but never arrived. The likeliest explanation is that storms and equipment problems forced their Lockheed 10E Electra to use up its fuel and ditch into the sea. But conspiracy theories abound.

THE RENEWED SEARCH Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, will head a 10-day search for Earhart's plane in July. He told CBS News recently that a newly enhanced photo taken three months after the pilot's disappearance could show the landing gear of her plane sitting in the water near the remote island of Nikumaroro, from which distress calls were heard shortly after the disappearance.

THE ENDURING ICON Earhart is cited in dozens of pop culture references. Among them: Amelia Earhart's Last Flight, by the "Yodelling Cowboy" Red River Dave McEnery, is thought to be the first song ever performed on commercial television, at the 1939 New York World's Fair; she is depicted as one of many humans abducted by aliens in 1937, and found in cryo-stasis on a planet on the other side of the galaxy, in the Star Trek: Voyager television episode The 37's (first aired in 1995); and Hilary Swank plays Earhart in the 2009 biopic Amelia.

THE DISSENTING OPINION Many of Earhart's contemporaries, along with aviation experts and veteran flyers in the years since, sniff that she was an intelligent, competent but hardly brilliant pilot, whose many mishaps were her own fault rather than the result of flaws in early planes and instruments. Ah, the price of fame!

Six other famous flyers

FLORENCE "PANCHO" BARNES (1901-1975) Flew in air shows and as a Hollywood stunt pilot. In 1935 founded the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a California dude ranch that was the hangout for such test pilots as Chuck Yeager, Jimmy Doolittle and Buzz Aldrin.

BESSIE COLEMAN (1892-1926) Earned first International Pilot's Licence issued to an African-American woman, in France in 1921. Back in US, "Queen Bess" was thrown to her death as her plane went into a spin.

JACQUELINE COCHRAN (1906-1980) Earhart's main rival. Formed the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (Wasps). First woman to top Mach 1, the "sound barrier", in 1953.

HELENE KRASNER (1886-1918) Self-styled "Baroness de Laroche" of France was first woman to fly, in 1909. Suffered three near-fatal accidents.

AMY JOHNSON (1903-1941) Britain's most famous female pilot. First woman to fly solo to Australia. Crashed into and was drowned in the Thames estuary in Air Transport Auxiliary service in 1941.

HARRIET QUIMBY (1875-1912) First female licensed pilot in the US, in 1911. Fell to her death out of a plane in an aviation fair at Boston Harbor.