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Amelia Earhart and Neta Snook: Pioneering aviators


What made Amelia Earhart push the boundaries of aviation? Her peripatetic early childhood took her from place to place and opened her eyes to new experiences. Due to her father’s job working for railroad companies, Amelia moved from house to house and school to school, which she later admitted she found fascinating. However, Amelia was not one for keeping up with what was expected of ‘young ladies’ and was what could be described as a ‘tomboy’.

As she grew up Amelia became interested in aircraft and flying. After visiting an air show with her father she persuaded him to pay $10 for a flight with pilot Frank Hawks. It was after this flight she decided that she wanted to learn to fly, but she was not impressed with the pilot’s attitude to the possibility of women pilots. Amelia was determined to learn to fly but only if she was taught by a woman aviator. That person turned out to be Neta Snook, who was the only female flying instructor in southern California.

Neta Snook had many ‘firsts’ of her own. She had attended a flying school close to her home town and became the first woman aviator in Iowa. She was the first woman to graduate from the Curtiss Flying School of Aviation, and also the first woman to set up her own flying school based at Kinner Field, Los Angeles. It was at the Kinner Field that Neta Snook first met Amelia. Neta was taken by how elegant Amelia looked, while she herself was dressed in dirty, greasy overalls, but was impressed by Amelia and immediately took a liking to her. Amelia asked Neta if she would teach her, and it was agreed that Amelia would become her pupil. Neta was then aged 24, just one year older than Amelia, but she was exactly the instructor that Amelia needed.  Neta had already built up a lot of flying experience across the USA with her barnstorming show.

Amelia’s father was shocked at the cost of the lessons but Amelia was so keen to learn that she took a job to help pay for lessons with Neta. It was quite an exciting time for both Neta and Amelia and after the first lesson on 3 January, 1921 which lasted 20 minutes, they became great friends, with Neta often visiting Amelia’s family. During that time Neta also taught Amelia to drive a car and allowed her to have her flying lessons on credit.

However, things did not always go smoothly with the flying lessons and this was seen when Amelia had her first crash. Neta Snook was her co-pilot when the aircraft stalled and crashed. Fortunately the aircraft was not badly damaged and neither Neta nor Amelia was injured. The second crash was the result of not checking the fuel levels before takeoff, and when the aircraft ran out of fuel it crashed to the ground damaging the landing gear and propeller. What amazed Neta, who was well known for going around in her greasy overalls with spots of oil on her hands and face, was how very conscious Amelia was of her appearance. This was seen after one of the crashes when Neta said she saw Amelia powdering her nose so that she looked good for the reporters.

This self-consciousness was not to last because Amelia was determined to look more like an aviator; she gradually shortened her hair, bought goggles, a helmet, and a leather jacket. She also wore trousers, shirt and necktie, but even then she started to attract the attention of the public in what was essentially a masculine dominated environment.

Amelia Earhart went on to became famous for her many flying achievements including flying across the Atlantic. Sadly, on a mission to circumnavigate the globe she disappeared with her navigator over the Pacific Ocean on 2 July 1937 and was never seen again.

By Mike Roussel

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