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Women's History Month: Legendary Aviator Amelia Earhart's Stint at Purdue University

amelia earhart
Posted at 5:03 PM, Mar 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-25 17:03:28-04

WEST LAFAYETTE — Amelia Earhart has a lot of firsts to her name.

She was the first woman to fly solo coast to coast, fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first person to fly solo from Oakland, California to Hawaii. Her list of accolades stretches high - just like the altitude, speed and distance records she broke.

For about two years, Earhart brought her knowledge and records to the next generation of aviators at Purdue University.

In the early 1930's, Purdue president Edward Elliott saw Earhart speak at a women's conference in New York City about the importance of careers for women. The speech moved Elliott to recruit Earhart as a career counselor for women and aeronautics advisor.

Purdue University archivist Tracy Grimm says Earhart's time on campus was amazing for the students, encouraging young women to pursue their career dreams. Purdue has an extensive collection of photos, receipts and credentials featuring Earhart's time at Purdue from 1935 until her final flight in 1937.

One artifact is a survey, drawn up by Amelia Earhart for her students at Purdue at the time. Some of the questions on it were unheard of for that era.

amelia earhart photo

In the 1930s, Earhart was pushing boundaries in the way she lived and the advice she shared. She even wore pants on campus, when women were expected to wear dresses or skirts.

"She was a pilot. She flew a plane," Grimm said. "She was a modern woman, and so she kind of brought that a little bit of rebellion to the women students."

Purdue junior Bailee Kelch will never forget the first time she took flight. "One second, you're going pretty fast," she recounts, "you're just moving down the runway and then the next, there's like nothing under you."

She was hooked and now plans to fly for the Air Force and with the dream of flying fighter jets one day.

Standing next to a statue of legendary aviator Amelia Earhart on the Purdue campus, Kelch is very aware of how a woman in the past is influencing her in the present.

"If you google 'famous aviators,' the first person to pop up is not Charles Lindbergh, not Chuck Yeager, not the Wright brothers. It's Amelia," Kelch said.

Purdue's collection also has Earhart's pilot's license and a snapshot outside "Hangar One" at the Purdue airport, where she parked the plane that eventually vanished with her.

The Lockheed Electra plane, which Purdue helped to purchase, became known as "The Flying Laboratory" because Purdue is a research school. Grimm says there were different experiments that Purdue wanted her to do during her ambitious solo flight around the world on "The Flying Laboratory."

amelia earhart the flying labr

Amelia Earhart and her navigator attempted a solo flight around the world in July 1937. To this day, no one knows what happened on that fateful flight.

For Kelch, the Amelia Earhart statue on Purdue's campus, and the woman to whom it pays tribute, is inspiration.

"Being in aviation, obviously, she's like my role model, idol, you know," Kelch said. "She was a barrier breaker. She was a pioneer. She never took no for answer. She never settled."

During her lifetime Earhart was also an author, an advocate for women's rights and a public speaker.

Purdue Libraries has an Amelia Earhart collection. It is available online.