As more and more women begin to soar at the controls of aeroplanes and balance the scales of gender equality in what has been a man’s world we peek into the world of the woman who started it all
Words Aninda Sardar
The year 2019 was an exceptional one for all those women who aspire to fly. Not just as smartly uniformed Captains of commercial aeroplanes but even as our guardians of the sky. As combat pilots of the Indian Air Force, bearing the motto Nabhah Sparsham Deeptam meaning Touch the Sky with Glory in their hearts and souls as much on their uniforms. Exactly a year ago, on May 22, 2019, Flight Lieutenant Bhawna Kanth soared into history at the controls of a MiG-21 Bison and became the first ever fighter pilot of the IAF. And like her uniformed sisters flying hundreds of passengers hither thither each day, Flt. Lt. Kanth owes it all to another woman. A woman who simply disappeared off the face of the Earth over eight decades ago. Her name is Amelia Earhart.
Almost 87 years to the day since Earhart and her Lockheed Vega aircraft flew from Harbour Grace in Newfoundland to Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Flt. Lt. Kanth took off in the MiG bearing the IAF roundels on May 20-21. Her non-stop solo trans-Atlantic flight took 14 hours and 56 minutes, a record. By 1932 Earhart had penned her story, especially the bit about her love of flying, in a book titled The Fun of It. By 1935, she had rewritten the pages of history once again. This time with a solo flight from Hawaii to mainland USA, in 17 hours and 7 minutes. The 3,875km that separate Hawaii from USA is a longer distance than America to Europe. That was January 1935. The same year she notched up another aviation record by becoming the first person to fly solo from LA to Mexico City.
Born on July 24, 1897 under the sign of the Lion, Earhart’s early life wasn’t easy. Which was often the case at the turn of the 20th century. Her father Samuel Stanton Earhart, a rail road lawyer by profession, was an alcoholic and even though Mrs. Amy Earhart (her mother) came from a wealthy family, they all suffered on account of Mr. Earhart in the wake of the death of Earhart’s grandparents. Amy did not believe in bringing up “nice little girls” as was the fashion of the times and the result was a fiercely independent and adventurous spirit.
Amelia’s very first flight came in 1904 when she and her uncle put together a roller coaster like ramp on the roof of the tool shed at home and used an old wooden box for a sled. A bruised lip, a torn dress and the broken box later Earhart was delighted. “Oh, Pidge, it’s just like flying!” she exclaimed to her sister and partner-in-every-crime Grace Earhart. The deal was finally sealed a few years later when her father persuaded her to take a flight as a passenger at the Iowa State Fair.
Earhart’s flying career however would not start until years later when she became the 16th woman in the US to be issued a pilot’s licence. So in that sense she wasn’t the first and the movement towards women becoming aviators had already started. Once she got flying however, it was Earhart who made it glamorous for a woman to fly in a world where aviation was very much a man’s sport. And she kept at it till the time she vanished off the face of the planet on July 2, 1937 while trying to circumnavigate the globe at the Equator.
Earhart’s contribution to the world of aviation is of course the long list of accomplishments that she notched up as she flew from one record to another. There is no doubt that she was a celebrity of her times. That however is only a part of the story as far as I am concerned. A much larger contribution of hers was what she symbolised. Remember when Earhart was growing up, women walked behind men. In several parts of the world women couldn’t vote, couldn’t inherit property from their families and were often little more than either chattel or pretty dolls on a man’s shelf. The closest she could come to an adventure was falling in love. With the traditional hackneyed roses and rhyme as the principal techniques of wooing. Earhart shattered those images. She refused to be bound into a box, even though I don’t think that breaking through barriers was her motivation. She loved to fly and so she did. Not for some greater cause of women’s emancipation.
Unintentionally as it was, Earhart’s actions turned her into the very personification of these. With her records she proved that there really was no limit to what a woman could achieve. Even if they had been considered manly pursuits for the longest time ever. With her disappearance she proved that a woman was as willing, and able, to risk and eventually give her life in pursuit of her own happiness.
And with that she paved the way for Flt. Lt. Kanth to soar into the high heavens in the cockpit of a MiG and touch the sky with glory. For that, we must thank Amelia Earhart.