Who is Amelia Earhart?
Amelia Earhart drops a blue-and-white Victoria’s Secret bag onto the tarmac at Whittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, grabs a blue pen, and spreads a map of the world across the concrete. It is a humid morning in late July, and the 30-year-old Colorado television personality, pilot, and namesake of the famous aviatrix is wearing white pressed shorts, black Nike running shoes, and a navy polo-style shirt of the kind usually reserved for men trying to close a business deal at the clubhouse bar. Earhart brushes a strand of blond hair from her forehead, leans over the map, and points a manicured nail at a single spot: Oakland, California.
“We start here,” she says.
Although she chose Oshkosh—home of the weeklong Experimental Aviation Association’s annual AirVenture show (essentially Comic-Con for air show nerds)—to formally announce her ambition to fly around the world next summer, Earhart’s plan is among the worst-kept secrets in the aviation world. She’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that she’s been imagining this adventure since she began flying nearly a decade ago—that, in the past year and a half, she’s found a co-pilot for the journey and raised close to $1 million in cash and sponsorships almost entirely on her own. And that doesn’t even count the $4.5 million Pilatus PC-12 NG turboprop plane that’s being modified for her in Switzerland and will include, among other things, a specialized 436-gallon leak-proof fuel tank and enough video equipment and wireless infrastructure to live-broadcast the two- to three-week trek on every social media platform available to the free world.
As she stands over the map, Earhart holds a creased copy of USA Today she’s been carrying around all morning. On Page 3, there’s a story headlined: “TV anchor, namesake to re-create Amelia Earhart flight.” When Amelia Rose Earhart leaves Oakland in June 2014 for her 21,000-mile journey, it will have been almost exactly 77 years since Amelia Mary Earhart slipped into the South Pacific on her own around-the-world attempt. When she disappeared on July 2, 1937, Earhart was perhaps the most famous woman in the United States, if not the world; she was a close friend of American dignitaries, European royalty, Hollywood stars, and New York writers. Long before she was declared legally dead in 1939, she had become part of the country’s collective subconscious and soon would find her way into its history textbooks—into that grainy space between myth and reality.
Amelia Rose uses her newspaper as a straightedge to plot her own course on the paper map. Just like the original Amelia, there’s Oakland and Miami. There’s Australia, the eastern tip of Brazil, the west coast of Africa. The map doesn’t show Howland Island, the infamous South Pacific island near where the first Amelia Earhart is presumed to have disappeared with her navigator, Fred Noonan. Earhart pulls out her phone, does a quick search, and plots Howland’s general area. She draws a blue line on a 45-degree angle northeast to Maui, the last stop before she’ll reach the mainland United States. Earhart leans over the Pacific Ocean, the final 2,350-mile leg the original Amelia didn’t complete. “This,” she says, patting the soft blue with her left hand, “is the most important part.”
These days, everyone wants a piece of Amelia Rose. There’s her 4:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. shift at the NBC affiliate in Denver, KUSA (9News), for which she rises at 2:30 a.m. and prepares to deliver traffic updates to 3.8 million viewers across the majority of Colorado each morning. After work there are potential flight sponsors to meet, Facebook messages that need responses, photos she needs to tweet, a lawyer who’s asking her for a few minutes, a meeting that needs to be scheduled, a flight that needs to get done, a call she should make to her co-pilot. Her 19-hour days sometimes end with her asleep on the couch of her south Denver townhome, her “chiweenie” mix, Nubbin, at her side, a flight manual in her hands. “Every time I think about taking a break, there’s something in me that won’t let it happen,” she says. “When you have a name like this, there’s a lot to live up to.”
Which is why, these days, she has had to regulate herself when yet another message pops up in her inbox or is posted on her Facebook page. As she’s inched closer to her world flight, the haters have come out in full force. She’s heard the criticisms, most of which center on the same theme: She’s a no-talent hack who got her job and her status because she exploited a famous name. She got her pilot’s license because she exploited a famous name. And, most recently, the around-the-world flight is just another way for her to exploit a famous name.
Lately, Earhart has seen notes from people who seem to be rooting against her on her quest, not-so-subtly hinting they wouldn’t mind if Amelia Rose disappeared forever, too. “I will laugh if the same thing happens to her,” someone posted on a news site in July when the world flight was officially announced. When Earhart began working in television seven years ago, she suffered each sling against her. Now, it’s her mother, Debbie Dale, who keeps track of the latest insults, reporting dutifully back to her only child each real or perceived slight. “I can’t stand when someone says something bad about her,” Debbie says. “They have no idea what she’s been through to get to where she is.”
Amelia, however, hasn’t always made it easy on herself. Her constant presence on social media—from the photos of her with planes to the persistently positive messages and self-promotional notes she posts on various sites—can come across as immature, maybe even spoiled. (“Up early to head to championship day at the Denver Polo Classic….” “I hate saying no—but sometimes it has to be done to figure out what is right and best for each situation! Sigh!” “As I look towards my weekend plans, one thing sticks out: jumping out of an airplane at the Longmont airshow.”) Not that she’s about to stop. “I get the perception of ‘Amelia,’ ” she says. “All I do is run around with this big smile on my face, trying to do good shit. I’m fine with that.”
But, really, if you want to get to the root of the hate, it is in the inexactness of her relationship to Amelia Mary Earhart—a connection she freely admits factored into her landing her first job in Denver and is inexorably linked to much of the attention she enjoys today. In early articles about her and her namesake, newspapers reported she was a third cousin of the famous pilot. She later tried to clarify the relationship, saying she’d hired a genealogist who said the two Amelias shared a “distant, common ancestry,” an ambiguous term neither she, nor anyone else, made too much of an effort to pin down.
As plans for the flight moved forward, Earhart tried to brush away what she referred to as “the negativity.” But the attention she was about to receive—everything from national print articles to an interview on Today—would only make the doubts about her relation to Amelia Mary more prevalent, more pressing. The trip would become secondary to the question Amelia Rose wasn’t asking herself. A question she feared, perhaps, because she might learn the real answer: Who is Amelia Earhart?
This past spring, a woman from the Amelia Earhart Festival, held annually in Atchison, Kansas, sent a message via Amelia Rose’s Facebook fan page. The message said Earhart had been chosen for the Amelia Earhart Pioneering Achievement Award, which is given out at the festival each July to a woman who “exemplifies the spirit of Amelia and works to show women that the sky is no longer the limit.” Along with a 10-inch bronze bust of the original Earhart, Amelia Rose would be given a $10,000 check that she could use to fund scholarships for the Fly With Amelia Foundation, her registered nonprofit.
Her face was splashed on brochures, and a reporter from a television station in nearby St. Joseph, Missouri, drove to Atchison to interview her. There was a hopefulness about the entire event. “The two Amelias have to be connected,” Louise Foudray, caretaker and historian of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum, told me by phone weeks before. “I mean, look at Amelia Rose’s size, how beautiful she is. It’s just like Amelia.”
On July 20—the third day of the festival, which drew an estimated 60,000 people to the 11,000-person town over the course of three days—Earhart was feted in the cafeteria at Benedictine College, a Catholic school near the tree-lined banks of the Missouri River. After lunch, she was called to the podium. There was polite applause from the 120-or-so people sitting among white-clothed tables. Earhart spoke for 17 minutes and talked about children and education; how more women needed to get involved in aviation; and how she wanted her work to inspire others. She spoke of how flying transformed her, how the original Amelia helped shape her life. When she finished, she received a standing ovation.
Afterward, Earhart went to the museum. It was roughly an eight-block ride from the college to the former home of the first Amelia’s grandparents, where she spent part of her childhood. Earhart was greeted inside the Victorian house turned museum, signed the guestbook, and then passed from room to room, looking at photos and admiring the architecture.
Everywhere she went in the house, someone wanted to talk.
Are you really flying around the world?
Is your name really Amelia Earhart?
Are you related?
In a first-floor room at one end of a long, windowed hallway, a museum volunteer asked Earhart to sit with her at a wooden table. The woman had a round face, a sweet smile, and a soft, motherly voice. She produced a sheet of paper and a pen and explained she was retracing the many branches of the original Amelia’s family.
“Could you give me some of your family members’ names?” the woman asked.
Earhart stammered; she seemed uncertain how to handle the request. “I don’t know,” she said. A few uncomfortable seconds passed. The woman at the table looked down at her blank paper. Earhart explained that she’d had an exploratory phone call with the website ancestry.com, which was considering conducting a genealogical search as part of a possible sponsorship for the around-the-world flight.
“I’m not sure they’d want me to do this,” she said. “I’m sorry—”
“That’s OK,” the woman interrupted. “That’s fine.”
There was another uncomfortable pause.
“What the heck, I guess I can do it,” Earhart said finally. She pulled up some documents on her phone and spelled out family names. After the woman from the museum double-checked the names, she thanked Earhart. “We’ll get back to you when we have something,” she said.
A couple of hours later, Earhart and I drove to a restaurant in downtown Atchison. She was nervous and angry. “I could tell that woman didn’t like me,” she said. “She just wants to be able to come back and say there’s no relationship.”
It started innocently enough. Her father, Glen Earhart, explains how—before baby Amelia was born in Downey, California, in 1983—Glen and Debbie decided they wanted to give their daughter an unforgettable name, something that would stand out among the Jennifers and Jessicas they knew would someday populate America’s elementary school classrooms. Glen, who was a carpenter with an independent streak, had grown up with stories that his branch of the Earhart clan had sprung from the same tree as that other Earhart family. The relationship was difficult to decipher—Glen heard family tales that his father was in some way related to the original Earhart—but no one in his family had ever met another Amelia Earhart relative, and no one followed up on the connection. When the couple’s daughter was born, it was Debbie—now Glen’s ex-wife—who thought “Amelia” was the only name suitable for her daughter. “It was perfect,” Debbie says now. “We knew she’d do something great with her life.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Glen has a different take. “We didn’t think about the future,” he says. “We were a couple of young, hippie-type parents. We just thought it was way cool.”
But it wasn’t cool, at least at first, to little Amelia. As her parents remember it, sometime around second or third grade, their daughter came home from school in tears. Her teacher had told the story of Amelia Earhart, the famous aviatrix who disappeared during a trip around the world and was presumed to have died. Other students made fun of Amelia. “She was so mad,” Debbie says. “She was like, ‘Thanks, Mom, for naming me after someone who disappeared into the ocean.’ ”
Amelia soon started going by “Amy,” which she’d use for much of her childhood. By the time she was a teenager, her parents had explained the importance of her birth name—the woman behind it and her vague relationship to her (“Third cousin was such an abstract term to me,” Amelia Rose says now)—but they didn’t fight their daughter’s decision to separate herself from it. They’d given her a big name, and they realized it was something she needed to grow into—to stretch and tailor so it would fit the woman who might someday wear it.
In the late 1980s, Debbie and Glen divorced and Earhart bounced between the two, never living in the same place for more than a year. (To date, she’s lived in 32 different homes.) In the mid-1990s—just before Amy started her sophomore year of high school—her mother met a man, got remarried, and moved from Hesperia, California, to his place in Tonganoxie, Kansas, a bedroom community of a few thousand that’s 30 miles outside Kansas City, Missouri. While she’d continue to share time between her parents, Amy lived primarily in Kansas. Coincidentally, Tonganoxie happens to be 38 miles from the original Amelia’s birthplace in Atchison, Kansas.
The move was a difficult transition, but when she joined the Tonganoxie High School debate team in 1999, she felt as if she’d found her niche. Almost immediately she realized she had a skill for persuasive speaking. She traveled throughout Kansas and earned her way to two championship competitions in New York City. In preparation for the debates, Earhart looked for any edge she could find. “She wanted me to go to LensCrafters to get her glasses without a prescription because she thought they’d make her look smarter,” Debbie says. Ultimately, Amy Earhart decided to use the biggest home-field advantage of any high schooler in eastern Kansas. Amelia was reborn.
By the summer of 2001, Earhart was 18 and preparing to leave home for her freshman year at the University of Kansas when her stepfather told her that he’d been hiding inappropriate feelings for her.
She didn’t tell anyone for a year. Finally, one day, Earhart says she got into an argument with her stepfather and called her father to ask for help. Glen was in a long-term relationship with another woman by then and was working as a horseshoer in southwest Colorado. He drove two days from Pagosa Springs to rescue his daughter. The moment she fled, Earhart later realized, helped define her. “I left with nothing,” she says. “I learned that if I’m going to pull this off, I’m going to do it on my own.”
She spent a year in Pagosa Springs, saving money from jobs on a golf course grounds crew and as a server at a nearby restaurant. By 2003, she’d secured financial aid and used some of her own money to pay for school at Colorado State University, which she attended for a few months. In 2004, she transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder, where she became an English major and imagined herself as a high school teacher. She seemed to be back on course: Her mother had already left her stepfather, and Earhart allowed herself to settle into college life.
But at CU, her name attracted attention, just as it did everywhere else. Now, though, when she’d tell yet another person she wasn’t a pilot, she felt a bit of guilt. It sounds strange, she admits, but for whatever reason, it was like she thought that part of the first Amelia should also be a part of her. “I felt like I was disappointing people because I wasn’t a pilot,” she says. “Here I am, Amelia Earhart, and I don’t fly.”
On June 2, 2004, Earhart took $60 from her savings and spent it on a “discovery flight” out of Centennial Airport. It was a clear afternoon, and the instructor let Earhart do most of the work. At 9,000 feet, she finally felt free. “I felt like Amelia was right there, cheering me on,” she says. Shortly afterward, she began regular flying lessons.
That was only the second-most fateful thing to happen to Earhart that year: A dean at the University of Colorado had learned about the Amelia Earhart on campus who happened to be related to the famous aviatrix and wanted to become a pilot. Soon there was a short profile in Campus Press.
A couple of weeks later, KOA radio called. “I thought it’d be a cute little feature we could do for the holidays,” says Kathy Walker, the station’s news director. “ ‘Amelia Earhart comes to Boulder.’ ” At the end of the interview, Walker stopped the tape. “Her face fell,” Walker remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do a story on you. I want to hire you.’ ” Walker called Lee Larsen, then the market manager of Clear Channel Denver, and told him she was going to hire the young woman. “I was in awe,” Larsen remembers of his first meeting with Earhart. “It was pretty clear she wasn’t trying to tread on a famous name. She was mature, unlike most college students you meet.”
Earhart worked the split shift at KOA—early mornings and late nights—and went to classes during the day. She did small reporting jobs, worked her way into feature stories, and covered traffic for Clear Channel stations around Denver and remotely for stations from Seattle to Phoenix. Shortly after starting her job in 2004, she was asked to join a mission to search the South Pacific for the original Earhart’s crashed Lockheed 10-E Electra. “I think it would probably be a pretty pivotal moment in my life and extremely important to my family” if plane remains were found, she said in an article that was published in newspapers across the country and identified her as the original Earhart’s third cousin. Though Amelia Rose ultimately didn’t go, the article solidified her as the most noteworthy living member of a family she’d never actually met.
With interest in her personal story now growing, Earhart wanted to learn more about her namesake’s history. “I was being asked all these questions, and I had to talk intelligently about Amelia,” Earhart says. She bought books and read the newspaper stories that seemed to pop up every couple of months, most of which centered on the disappearance. Perhaps because of that research, she also decided she needed to know the depth of her relationship to the first Amelia. “It just seemed to be the right thing to do, to confirm that link,” she says. In 2004 or 2005, she says she hired a genealogist—Earhart now says she can’t remember the person’s name, nor does she have any documentation—who returned with less-than-compelling evidence. Earhart was not a third cousin of the famous pilot. Instead, she says, she learned her family and the original Amelia Earhart’s family had an 18th-century link to a county in Pennsylvania. “Distant, common ancestry,” the genealogist called it. “The relationship wasn’t as close as I was led to believe, but there was still something there,” she told me this past June. Despite the initial disappointment, she was relieved she had a connection, however tenuous it seemed to be.
Earhart quit college in 2005 to move into helicopter traffic work at KOA. She then accepted a job-share with 9News (she transitioned solely to TV in 2007). She was an immediate hit. Although she wrestled with being squarely in the spotlight for the first time, it was a dream scenario: She was a rising star in a top-20 television market with a memorable name.
Bigger opportunities arose within a couple of years. She left Denver in 2009 and took a traffic job at KCAL-TV in Los Angeles. Moving to a city with lots of high-profile celebrities was especially liberating; she was gloriously anonymous and could focus on her job. She was also making more money than she’d seen in her lifetime, which was a boon to her flying career.
On a solo flight one evening, Earhart was preparing to land a Cessna 172 when she looked out over the Pacific Ocean on her final approach. The sky was the color of a sapphire and the stars popped around her. “It was mind-blowing,” she remembers. “There’s a point where you lift the nose up and you flare, and I could only see the sky and the water and the stars. It sounds really dorky, but I was thinking about what it would be like to cross an ocean.”
Three years ago, she returned to her adopted home and to 9News, where she now does traffic and weather. In many ways, it was Earhart’s second rebirth. Earhart finally seemed ready to accept who she was—which also meant deciding who she wanted to become. She spoke about the original Amelia and aviation in general to children, to historians, to anyone who wanted to know more. But she also was determined to set a parallel course, one in which she would allow herself to become the central character. She joined the board of directors at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver. This year—as she was making initial preparations for her world flight—she started a foundation and planned to give flight scholarships to 16- to 18-year-old young women who had dreams of becoming pilots. When she talked to large groups, to potential sponsors, she discussed inspiration and passion. Earhart talked about surviving as a female in the male-dominated aviation world, about being a role model. When she spoke, it was with such conviction that her audiences were left with, as she’d say, “nothing but positive energy.”
Her early morning schedule at the television station these days has given her more time to train and to plan. It’s the same freedom that allowed Earhart to prepare for a cross-country flight in 2011, which followed a route similar to the first leg of the around-the-world flight the original Amelia took in 1937. As part of that project, she met a then-26-year-old former Cessna test pilot named Patrick Carter. A slight man with a head of stubble and an imperturbable demeanor, Carter owns an aviation photography business in northwest Arkansas and is an adventurer at heart. (During his short life, he’s been a bush pilot in Kenya and was once kidnapped in southern Egypt.) He outfitted Earhart’s plane with video equipment, and the pair stayed in touch after the trip.
Earhart, who was then 29, intended to replicate the original Earhart’s 1932 trans-Atlantic flight sometime in 2012, but she broke her hand when she fell during a jog. She’d always envisioned flying around the world before she was 39 (the age at which the original Amelia made her attempted flight), which would make Amelia Rose the youngest woman to circumnavigate the globe in a single-engine aircraft. But she knew the extensive planning would consume her for years, which wouldn’t leave time for her to chase another goal: getting married and raising children. “I wasn’t getting younger,” she says now. “So I thought, ‘Why wait to fly when I can do it now?’ ”
Once Earhart got to thinking about the around-the-world trip in June 2012, she called Carter. Besides his work with small aircraft, he had experience with larger private planes like the ones needed for such an ambitious project. Earhart told Carter how she wanted the flight to inspire young women, but she needed help to make it happen.
Carter agreed immediately and the two soon were spending up to 15 hours a week talking logistics and working on landing sponsorships. Jeppesen, the navigation company based in Arapahoe County, was among the first to sign on. By late spring this year, the Switzerland-based Pilatus Aircraft Ltd. agreed to modify a 1,200-horsepower PC-12 NG business aircraft for Earhart and to do the finish work at its hangar in Broomfield. The plane will be nearly bare when Earhart and Carter step foot in it—there won’t even be carpet or a bathroom—which will keep the plane’s weight down and allow Earhart to carry more fuel. “This isn’t going to be cushy air travel,” Earhart says. “It’s going to be stripped down as far as we can go.”
The pair already has spent a week at a Pilatus training center in Florida and has undergone water-survival training; Earhart and Carter will also do maintenance and recurrent training over the next seven months. Earhart, meanwhile, has burned through certification tests and is working with Carter to set a course that will keep them close to the equator but away from countries with iffy geopolitical environments. The generally good weather in June will allow the team to keep as close as possible to the original Earhart’s flight path, which includes stops in India and in Australia, on the continent’s northern tip. The shortest leg of the trip, from Christmas Island to Maui, will take about four hours to complete. One of the longest, from Maui to Oakland, will take up to eight. When Earhart flies over Howland Island near the end of the journey, she plans to make a low pass to commemorate the first Amelia.
On the day of her July announcement at AirVenture in Oshkosh, Earhart planted herself in front of a Pilatus similar to the one she’ll fly out of Oakland and gave a 15-minute speech to roughly 50 people—mostly journalists and representatives from companies sponsoring her flight. Afterward, her public relations handler, Katie Gerber, worked to firm up details on Earhart’s appearance the next morning on Today. When Gerber announced that the flight to New York City was nearly confirmed, Earhart wept at the thought of making news on the iconic morning program. “It’s like a dream,” she said. She swept tears from her cheeks and laughed. “I’m such a little bitch.”
Earhart and her entourage walked a couple hundred yards across the airport grounds to the enormous Pilatus tent, which was part of a makeshift city that smelled like new sod and freshly lain mulch. She gave interviews to local media, then called 9News to tell her bosses about the pending appearance on Today. A few minutes later, she huddled with Gerber. It wasn’t good.
Patti Dennis, 9News’ vice president and news director, wanted exact details on Earhart’s lineage. “She wants to know what I can put into writing,” a stunned Earhart told Gerber. “She wants to know how much research I’ve done.”
The sudden rush for proof had been fomented the night before, when 9News ran a story in advance of the AirVenture announcement and mentioned the familial relationship between the two Earharts. Shortly afterward, news anchor—and self-described amateur genealogist—Kyle Clark posted the first of two messages on his Twitter feed: “Apologies for the error in the story that just ran claiming our Amelia Earhart is a descendant of the famous flier. Not the case.” The second one followed shortly after: “We try to catch these things before they make air—but every now and then one gets past the keeper.” (Both tweets have since been deleted.) Earhart had seen Clark’s tweet the night before and was livid. He had called her out publicly. Earhart poked fun at Clark’s improper use of the word “descendant” in her own Twitter response: “@kyleclark Amelia had no children and has no descendants. Thanks for the update.” Semantics aside, the underlying message was clear: Her co-worker didn’t believe her story.
Gerber asked Earhart what could be proved about her lineage. Earhart mentioned the research she’d paid for in college. “It’s a distant, common ancestry,” she said, almost pleading now. “What else can I say? That’s what it is.”
“They’re just jealous,” Gerber assured her client. “They’re all jealous.”
During her August 2 interview on Today—she was bumped from her originally scheduled appearance—Earhart stressed her “very, very distant” relationship to the original Amelia Earhart, then focused the rest of the interview on the pending flight. “When I think about the best way to honor being a namesake of Amelia, it’s all about adventure,” she said. “There’s not a lot of things that we’re entitled to in life, but what I believe is we are entitled to developing our own adventure, whatever that is, whether it’s just leaving the house or if it’s flying all the way around the world. So this is my version of adventure and my best way to keep Amelia’s spirit alive.” Afterward, Earhart felt good about her appearance. “It’s finally starting to feel real!” she posted on Twitter. Later that day, she flew to Las Vegas on a pre-planned trip to see friends.
That afternoon, I called Clark. I wanted to know why he posted those tweets and to get his take on Earhart and her genealogical claim. He declined to comment. Soon after, I got a text message from Earhart: “Can you call me?”
When we finally spoke on the phone that night, she began to cry. Her friends were inside a restaurant toasting her accomplishments, she said, but she was outside on the phone with me worrying about her career. Dennis had learned of my call to Clark and that I had asked about Earhart’s family background. Dennis then called Earhart and asked her to clear up the genealogical confusion. It was becoming obvious the questions about her family claims were only going to increase with the attention the world flight would bring. The station seemed to want Earhart to be ahead of what could be a potentially embarrassing story for both her and for 9News. “This is going to cost me $3,000,” Earhart told me. She sounded scared. “I’ve—I’ve got to go,” she said, and then hung up.
In the early afternoon, on a Friday in August, Earhart walked into the 9News studio and settled onto a stool in the middle of the room. The overhead light was hot and bright.
The senior creative-services producer and the director of marketing and promotion were in the room with her, at the edge of the diffused glow. These were men Earhart had known and trusted for the better part of her time at the television station, and now she was thankful they were with her in the room. In the control booth, the general manager watched quietly. What Earhart did next, as she would say later, was to report the facts of a story as they had changed. It just happened the story was her life, and the facts, to her, felt devastating. She was setting the record straight, she would say. To anyone who would watch her later on television or online, it would be hard not to see the moment as anything other than a confession. It took two takes.
“Discovering who I’m not has led me to fully and finally understand who I really am,” she began. “In the last 24 hours, new information from a team of researchers that I hired shows that while I share a name and a passion for flying with the first Amelia Earhart, we are not from the same family. While I am her namesake, nothing in life is ever really as simple as we want them to be.” Over the next two minutes, she explained growing up with the family story about the Earhart link, how she hired a genealogist when she was in college, how the first Amelia had inspired her life. How the genealogists she’d now hired had traced more than 30 lines of the Earhart name to the United States and none had linked with hers. “It’s tough to hear something you’ve believed your whole life just isn’t true,” she admitted to viewers. “But I’m still the same Amelia Earhart. And in 2014 I’m going to fly around the world in honor of the pilot whose name I share.”
After the taping, the people in the control room thanked Earhart for her candidness. The producers went away to put together the package that would air during the 4 o’clock newscast. Earhart didn’t wait to see the finished product. She went to her car and cried.
She drove to her townhome, took a shower, and opened her laptop. She put together a note for all of her social media accounts that explained the situation. “I was shaking like a leaf,” she says now. The message was a condensed version of what she’d said to the camera a short time earlier. Earhart posted it and immediately felt like a weight had been lifted. “At that point, the reaction was out of my control,” she says. “If you truly know me, you probably know I’m not a bad person. If you don’t know me, then….”
Not long after posting her message, she drove to a friend’s fashion show 15 miles away in Douglas County. Earhart was expected to be one of the runway models, and as she waited for makeup, she could see friends scanning their phones, whispering among themselves. They’d seen the video; read the online statement. “I don’t want to ruin the night,” she told her friends when they tried to console her. She wanted to move on.
Except, of course, that’s impossible when your name is Amelia Earhart and you’re flying around the world in 2014. As she was having makeup applied to her face, she looked out a window toward some pine trees. Another woman, a Denver Broncos cheerleader, was seated in a chair next to Earhart. The woman introduced herself. Earhart did the same.
“Oh, my God,” the woman said. “That’s so cool your name is Amelia Earhart. Are you related?”
Earhart meets me two weeks later at the doorway of her townhome. Her dog runs onto the concrete porch, a white collar with his name, “Nubbin Earhart,” scrawled on it. “He’s not related to Amelia, either,” she deadpans.
A few minutes later, Earhart and I are sitting near her kitchen. She’s tapping her pilot’s license on a wooden table. There are books about female pilots on a shelf in the hallway. There’s a half-globe on her wall, the bronze Amelia Earhart bust from Kansas on a ledge, and a framed sepia-tone print of the original Amelia flying near the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge on her first transcontinental flight in 1928. Stuck to the glass is a smaller photo of Amelia Rose recreating the scene on her own transcontinental trip.
Earhart has been trying to make sense of the past few weeks, trying to figure out how this latest moment fits into her life’s narrative. “The fact is,” she tells me, “this could have happened to anybody.” She’s talking less about her identity and more about the fact that everyone’s fallible. That’s not to say some folks haven’t reveled in her misery. “People are so unkind,” she says of the new online messages about her. “If I would have sat there and read through all that shit, I probably would have killed myself.” At the TV station, she says, co-workers have been treating her differently, averting their eyes when she’s in the newsroom, as if she has been struck with some fatal disease.
Before her announcement, Earhart wrote emails to her flight sponsors and to her foundation’s contributors. She wanted to explain things and give them a heads up. Earhart said she’d understand if anyone wanted to back out of the flight or pull donations. But just so they knew, she wrote, she was still Amelia Earhart, and that hadn’t changed. She still wanted to inspire young women; she was still going to fly around the world. “Without exception,” she says, “they all came back and said it doesn’t matter. Every single person said, ‘Keep on.’ ”
In a weird way, the revelation about her family history was freeing. “This brought me down in a really good way,” she says. “It humanized the whole situation. It made me vulnerable. It showed people that, no, I’m not going to quit because I found out I’m not related to Amelia Earhart. If I did that, what would I be?” Sure, she was miserable at first—“the worst day of my life”—but it led her to assess herself, her accomplishments, her goals without an unclear lineage hanging over her. Is she happy with the person she’s become? Earhart stops tapping her pilot’s license. “This,” she says, holding up the plastic card with her photo on it, “doesn’t fall into your lap just because your name is Amelia Earhart."
Amelia Rose can fly through the clouds now. It takes a special skill to do that, to be blind to everything, to trust only what’s in the cockpit, to give a bit of yourself over to something that’s beyond your control.
Flying still scares her, she admits. She gets a jolt of nervous energy right before takeoff. She says it keeps her focused, doesn’t allow her mind to wander.
She departs east along Centennial Airport’s runway one-zero on an afternoon in late September. It’s clear and blue outside, the kind of perfect day pilots dream about. As she climbs, Earhart looks to her left, to the concrete and asphalt below, to the suburban cul-de-sacs that soon fade into dirt roads and mottled stands of pine trees stamped into the earth. She levels out and brown grasses stretch toward the horizon. Earhart lolls left, eases the plane along a curve. She pulls right and makes wide circles in the sky. Minutes feel like seconds up here.
But the people down there are still pulling at her. There’s an event to emcee tonight, someone to call, another photo she needs to post. Her cellular phone registers a missed call. It’s the television station. She sighs.
Earhart eventually makes another wide turn and swings the plane back to the west, back over the fields and the trees and the roads and the waves of asphalt. She can see the runway in the distance. No clouds, no rain, no wind—everything’s clear. She eases the plane down. She’s got this.
11/11/13 Correction: This article originally stated that Amelia Earhart's pilot's license has her photo on it. In fact, pilot's licenses do not contain photos. We regret the error.