June 2009 Issue
Cleveland’s International Women’s Air & Space Museum pays homage to Amelia Earhart and other pilots who have made aviation history.
Oh, the stories those oil-stained coveralls could tell: Their owner was the first pilot to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean and the first woman to fly solo nonstop coast to coast. Between 1930 and 1935, she set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records in a variety of aircraft.
Through September 13, The International Women’s Air & Space Museum (IWASM) at Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport is honoring aviatrix Amelia Earhart with an exhibit celebrating her accomplishments and exploring the facts of her disappearance over the Pacific in 1937 during an around-the-world flight.
“Amelia Earhart strikes a nerve among women of all ages, whether they are in aviation or not,” says Toni Mullee, the museum’s executive director. “Through the years, no one has eclipsed her achievements. And her disappearance adds to the fascination.”
Many of the more than 50 Earhart artifacts on display are from the museum’s collection, including a lock of her hair donated by the Smithsonian Institution, an autographed flight helmet and a tailwheel from the Lockheed Vega she flew coast to coast.
A variety of special programs are planned in conjunction with the exhibit, including “A Night at the Museum” on June 19, 6–10 p.m., featuring family-friendly activities and a flight-themed scavenger hunt. On August 25 at 7 p.m., Ric Gillespie, author of Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, will speak about the eight archaeological expeditions he’s conducted to search for signs of Earhart, navigator Fred Noonan and their Lockheed Electra. Gillespie, founder of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), is planning a ninth trip next summer to explore the island campsite where he believes the duo perished after landing on a nearby reef.
“Finding Amelia is the history book that’s always been needed,” Gillespie explains during a phone interview from his home in Delaware. “You can’t reach valid conclusions unless you have valid facts to draw from. The facts of what happened at the time are available, it’s just that they’re scattered all over the place like a dropped box of jigsaw puzzle pieces. [Our team members] have gathered up all those pieces and put them in the right chronological order. What we don’t have yet is that one smoking gun that the public wants.
“But,” Gillespie adds, “we’ll find it. It’s there.”
Museum president Connie Luhta, who’s been a pilot for 47 years, is also fascinated by the 72-year-old mystery.
“Amelia’s story is captivating,” she says. “But so are the lives of all the women we honor here.”
The IWASM was founded in 1976 by members of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots formed in the 1920s and named after the 99 charter members. The museum was originally housed in the Centerville, Ohio, historic home of Asahel Wright — great-uncle of Orville and Wilbur Wright and their sister, Katharine, who assisted her siblings in their aeronautical experiments. Ten years ago, when the collection outgrew its space, a new home was found at Burke Lakefront Airport.
In addition to Earhart, the museum pays tribute to the more than 1,000 first ladies of flight who have clearly earned their wings. Permanent exhibits include those honoring Harriet Quimby, the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license (she achieved that feat in 1911, nine years before women were granted the right to vote); Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to be awarded a pilot’s license (because of American prejudices at the time, the Texas native had to earn the license in France in 1921); Jacqueline Cochran, who, in 1953, became the first woman to break the sound barrier; and the women who have been an integral part of NASA missions.
“Their stories just grab you,” Mullee says. “I’m amazed by each one of them. They broke barriers and didn’t let anything stop them.”