More than 85 years ago, pilot Amelia Earhart spoke to an auditorium packed with Cortland college students, sharing her knowledge of the aviation world and hoping to inspire women to fly.
Homer Historian Martin Sweeney received newspaper clippings from Kathryn Bundy Locke whose uncle, Charles York Briggs, a prominent Homer businessman and director of the Cortland Flying Club, was presumed influential in arranging for Earhart to speak at the Cortland Normal School in 1935, Sweeney wrote in an article for the Homer News.
The Normal School, which preceded SUNY Cortland, hosted Earhart in December 1935 following her flight from Honolulu to Oakland. She began her speech by taking her audience on the trip with her, describing the feeling of being in flight and that she would “never forget the contrast of the star light and the dark water below, showing through an occasional rift in the clouds,” the Cortland Standard reported in December 1935.
“I will try to answer the ever present question: ‘Why do you do such things?’” Earhart said in 1935. “Seriously, there is no reason for my making any flight other than my own will to do so.”
In contrast to her tomboyish appearance, she was described as extremely feminine with a winning personality who sold aviation to the hundreds filling the auditorium, the Cortland Standard reported.
She spoke about flying safely. She asked the audience how many of them had been in a plane, how many of them would go tomorrow, how many would not. She said speeds over 40 mph would get pilots and planes into the air safely. She spoke about fatality statistics. She concluded flying an airplane is safer than driving an automobile.
“We should require regular physical examinations for automobile drivers as we do for aviators,” Earhart said. “Based on the average flying a person will do on air lines in this country, you’ll have to reach the ripe old age of 128 before you meet with any accident, and yet it is the most beautiful form of travel man has yet devised.”
Less than two years later, in 1937, Earhart would attempt to make a round-the-world flight that would end in her mysterious, and very publicized, disappearance. On July 2, with 7,000 miles to go, communications from Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan ceased near Howland Island in the Pacific. The plane, Earhart and Noonan vanished.
“She inspired not just people in the aviation world but also outside of the aviation world,” said Shaylyn Sawyer, museum manager for the Ninety-Nine museum of Women’s Pilots in Oklahoma. “She really loved aviation, she really loved flying, she thought it was one of the greatest things that man had created up to her date and she didn’t really do it to be a rebel, she just kind of made it a point that aviation can be safe and women can be pilots just as well as men can be.”
Earhart, and several other women, co-founded in 1929 the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of female pilots. It drew its name from the 99 of 117 female pilots in the United States who met at Curtiss Airfield in Valley Stream on Long Island.
Today, more than 6,000 women are part of the organization, Sawyer said. And many of them are inspired by past members — like Earhart, who was the organization’s first elected president and Elmira native Eileen Collins, the first woman commander of the space shuttle — to take up aviation.
“Amelia Earhart’s adventurous life as an aviation trailblazer and the circumstances of her final flight have stirred the imagination of writers, filmmakers, and young people, especially girls who have come to see her as a feminist icon motivating them to dare to dream big,” Sweeney said in the Homer News.