Women Who Travel Podcast: Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman's Record-Breaking Flights

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As Women's History Month comes to a close, we dive into the stories of two pioneering pilots: Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman. Yet while the legend of Earhart’s aviation feats and mysterious disappearance has long gripped the public imagination, Coleman’s equally impressive career as the first African-American woman to hold a pilot license is a story that still largely goes untold. Lale chats with Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to find out more about both pilots record-breaking flights, the risks they took, the individual challenges they faced, and the ingenious ways they advocated for themselves.

Lale Arikoglu: Hi there. I'm Lale Arikoglu and this is Women Who Travel After exploring the depths of the ocean recently. We thought this would be a good opportunity to take to the skies in honor of Women's History Month and discover more about Amelia Earhart and Bessie Coleman. Amelia, of course, is known for her record-breaking flights. Brave Bessie is known for her daring barnstorming stunts. Both were good publicists, self-promoters and had ingenious schemes to fund their own flights.

Dorothy Cochrane: It's a matter of keeping these women in the limelight acknowledging who they were as pioneers, as pioneering women who were resilient, they had visions, they saw no limits for themselves.

LA: As a pilot and as a curator, and as someone who's working in the aviation space, what do these two women mean to you? How do you see them?

DC: There's such strong women who really made their own way in the world against all these odds, especially Bessie.

LA: I'm talking to Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

DC: You know the average woman at that time, whether black or white was tied to the family. They wanted to do something different. Once they both found aviation, it's what they wanted to do. So I think you look at them as always looking at life differently, wanting a different life for themselves, and then being able to persevere and make it happen in the 1920s.

LA: I'd love to hear a little bit about you first because you come from an aviation background yourself. You're a curator, but you are also a pilot.

DC: When I first came to the museum, I did not have an aviation background, and so one of the things I did was decide to get my pilot license so that I would understand and basically have a future here.

LA: That's so fascinating. So you felt like you needed to know what it was like to be in a cockpit and fly a plane to really be able to understand the work that you were doing from the standpoint of a curator and from how you approach these archives. That context felt important.

DC: It was important because at the time, the museum was most of the staff were men, and certainly in my aeronautics department and the people I was working with at the collections restoration unit were people who had been in the military either as pilots or as mechanics or things like that. Getting that license made them really take me more seriously.

LA: We've done shows about the sea and sort of adventures on the sea, and I've talked to women who have climbed Everest and all these sorts of adventures are really quite bewitching and often for them quite, I think it almost becomes an addiction. Would you say that flying is the same?

DC: Oh, absolutely. It is an addiction. There are people that just live for flying. They fly as often as they can, and it's their favorite thing to do, so all their friends, all their experiences are based around their flying.

LA: This episode, we're honoring two aviators. Who are they and tell me a little bit about what they have in common.

DC: Bessie Coleman was the first African-American to earn a pilot license, and to do so, she had to leave the United States in order to be able to get training. Amelia Earhart is a contemporary of Bessie Coleman. They were essentially of the same age and working to create a career. The differences, of course, that Earhart had built a real career and Bessie was still struggling to create one for herself.

LA: While Bessie was a stunt performer, first and foremost, Amelia was more set out on record-breaking both spectacles, but with different intentions.

DC: Yeah, Bessie, she wanted to be a stunt performer. She wanted to do barnstorming, and her goal was to open her own flying school so that African Americans would have a place to learn to fly and not be discriminated against as she had been. So that was her goal. Amelia, she got her license about the same time in 1921, but it wasn't until she was selected to be the woman to become the first to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger that she was able then to get notoriety and get a good promoter.

LA: Amelia's story is such a thing of myth, but what sort of celebrity was she when she was kind of at the peak of her fame before she went missing?

DC: Amelia was seen as a great promoter of aviation, as a record setter and as an extraordinary woman, and she made a concerted effort to build upon her records, always trying to do something new and different that would not only give her experience, but would also land her in the headlines in the news. Bessie was not known. She was not covered by any white newspapers as a rule, and she just really wasn't known. Bessie never got the chance to prove herself, whereas Amelia did.

LA: I am familiar with Bessie, but it's only through sort of years of working at Traveler and being curious about this sort of corner of women's history, and she doesn't get talked about in the same context as Amelia, but yet you say they're peers, but met such different challenges.

DC: Well, for Bessie Coleman, it's all about discrimination. In the early 19 teens, discrimination, segregation were legal at the time, certainly in the United States, and there was no opportunity for African Americans to learn to fly. Simply no instructors would teach them, and they did not have the means to go out and buy airplanes and learn on their own.

LA: Tell me a little bit more about her background, because she's the first African American woman to hold a pilot's license. She also identified as Native American, correct?

DC: Yes. Her father had Native American relatives, and then her mother was African American, so she did become both the first African American and Indigenous American pilot. She was born in Texas, worked in the cotton fields, the whole family eventually, except for her father, her father went off to Oklahoma, back to his indigenous family. The rest of the family eventually participated in the great migration of Southerners up north and ended up in Chicago, and she got a job as a manicurist, which was something that was done in the black community at that time, but she was unsettled and wanted to do more, and so selecting the idea of becoming a pilot was truly extraordinary, daunting and seemingly impossible.

She worked within her Black community, and so she did have support there. One of the big supporters was the African-American newspaper, the Defender in Chicago, the editor of Mr. Abbott. He saw it as an opportunity basically to highlight an African American who was pursuing something different. So it was promotional for him, but it worked to Bessie's advantage as well, because he helped her with ideas and support to get that license and to get started

LA: Coming up: how Bessie Coleman had to go to France to get her pilot's license. One barrier was broken, but there were many more to overcome.

DC: She had to go to France because no Americans, no white Americans would teach African Americans how to fly at that time, and especially an African American woman. So she took French while she was in Chicago, she saved money. She was able to get money from family and friends, and she went to France, and there she was enrolled in the Caudron School of Aviation, which was one of the premier schools of the time in France. Took her seven months, but she did learn to fly there and received her license becoming the first African American to receive a license from the International Group Fédération Aéronautique International, which was then recognized as an international license that would allow her to fly anywhere in the world. That was important because she could bring that back to the United States and she could fly back in the United States. She came home, she went back to Europe again to get more training, flew in the Netherlands and also in Germany.

LA: It sounds like she sort of was part of a greater movement of African Americans who traveled to Europe, I think like James Baldwin relocating to Paris a couple of decades later to experience greater freedoms and then use it as a vantage point to scrutinize the racism and segregation in their home of the US. How did she take what she learned in Europe back to America?

DC: She brought back her aviation skills, but in order to put on a show to earn money in aviation, she really needed some support to plan flying exhibitions and join established exhibitions. She really became the first African American to put on a public show first in New York at Curtis Field and then out in Chicago as well.

LA: How was she able to pull off the shows that she did? How was she challenging these Jim Crow practices?

DC: Well, she would approach people who were putting on shows, or she would say, "I'm an African American pilot, and I would like to put on an exhibition." One way or another, she would try to negotiate with people who were putting on these shows to try to be able to fly in them. They might be an all Black show. She could perform sometimes in a mixed show, and then before audiences of both races. The hardest thing to do was to be able to find an aircraft that was air worthy. The aircraft of the day that most barnstormers were flying was the Curtiss Jenny, which was surplus from World War I. By the early twenties they were aging and they were always in need of repair, and they were always a bit sketchy, and because she didn't have a lot of money, she couldn't afford one that might've been in the best shape. So it's a matter of borrowing, renting airplanes. She bought one airplane, but unfortunately had an accident in it the first time that she tried to do a show.

LA: You mentioned barnstorming, which is a very visual word, but I actually can't describe what I think it is. Can you explain what type of stunt barnstorming it was and what sort of spectacle that people would come out to see her do?

DC: In this timeframe, most people have not seen an airplane, and their introduction to an airplane is via a barnstormer, who is a person who has an aircraft and travels from town to town, from farmer's field to farmer's field to put on a show, which is normally loops and rolls, figure eights, climbing high and diving low and putting on a spectacle, scaring people, thrilling people, and then also taking people up for rides and giving them their first opportunity to fly, and it's dangerous, thrilling, all in one.

LA: I mean, Bessie just sounds like the most radical woman for so many reasons, for challenging segregation, for doing these crazy stunts that people had never even seen. People hadn't even been up in planes, and there was this woman doing loops in the air. I mean, it's absolutely astonishing. Yet she doesn't get the same place in history as Amelia.

DC: Well, she doesn't get the same place in history because of discrimination, but also because her time was cut short.

LA: What was the accident that Bessie lost her life in?

DC: When Bessie was scheduled to fly in a Jacksonville, Florida airshow in April of 1926, she had just bought a Jenny aircraft and her mechanic had brought it to Jacksonville. They went up in it together, and she was a passenger at that point because they were looking for the right spot where they could do a parachuting act. She would fly the airplane on the day of the event, and then another person would perform a parachute jump out of the plane. So they were scoping out the best spot for the jumping out portion of the parachute jump, and unfortunately, the plane for some reason went out of control and because Bessie had been looking over the side of the aircraft and did not have a seatbelt on, she was tossed out of the airplane and fell to her death, and her mechanic had lost control of the aircraft, had crashed, and he also died.

It was one of many of this type of accidents of barnstorming, which is a reason that regulation and rules did then start to be implemented because of these tragedies. I think Bessie was on the cusp of being able to establish a barnstorming career and establish that school, and who knows how different things might've been, but then her legacy was taken up by African-American pilots in the thirties, so she left a legacy that then others picked up on, and we honor her in the Pioneers of Flight Gallery.

LA: After the break, Amelia in her own words,

Speaker 3: Amelia Earhart Putnam lands at Newark after her ethical 2,500 mile hop from Los Angeles, raking Ruth Nichols distance record and setting a new time mark for women.

Amelia Earhart: It took me about 19 hours and a few minutes to make the trip. I wish I could have done it faster.

LA: There's quite a lot of archive still out there. How does she come across in all of those news reels and interviews? What's her personality like?

DC: She was actually very good with the public. She understood intuitively how to get her message across be taken seriously, but she came across quite well in the media.

Amelia Earhart: Well, I carried some water, of course, because my cockpit is very warm, and I carried a sandwich in case. I didn't eat it though. I carried some hot chocolate and the old reliable tomato juice.

LA: It sounds like she knew how to play the game.

DC: She did, and some of that was her own personality, and of course some of that was with George Putnam being the promoter behind the scene, and they worked together to create this persona and to sell it, but she was serious about it. It wasn't a false creation. This is who she was.

LA: And George Putnam was a very powerful publisher, right?

DC: He was one of the major publishers publicists. He came from a publishing family, and then he became a publicist in aviation. He had already been a publicist for Charles Lindbergh, so he understood completely what needed to be done and was very good at his job,

LA: And clearly he must have... That's quite progressive for a man to take on a woman pilot in this time, based on everything we've discussed. He must have seen, I don't know... What was it that he saw in Amelia? Was it dollar signs? What was the potential he saw? It must have been some self-interest there.

DC: Oh, he certainly saw dollar signs when they were first looking for the first woman who was going to be the passenger to go across the Atlantic Ocean with two male pilots in 1928. They were looking for what they quoted as saying as "the right sort of woman." They wanted someone with experience who was already a pilot to be taken seriously, but they needed someone who they felt and that you also had to have an impeccable background, no skeletons in the closet, that sort of thing, and also be able then to present on camera to the public.

LA: On May 20th, 1932, Earhart flew from Newfoundland. Her destination was to be Paris, but her flight was disrupted by petrol leak, which forced her to land in Donegal.

Amelia Earhart: I believe I saw land first about the middle. I decided to come down anyway in the best available pasture. I got down without any trouble and taxied to the front door of a surprised farmer cottage. After receiving a real Irish welcome, I took a Paramount plane to London.

DC: Public speaking, and the lectures and tours and advertisements were really how she made her money. Her record setting rarely offered a prize of money, but she did that to become known, and there she was in the newsreels, so she became a celebrity.

In 1937, Amelia Earhart wanted to fly around the world, and she wanted to do that as close to the equator as possible. She had already become the first woman to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. She had to make headlines, she had to set records, and so this continued then into 1937 when she decided to fly around the world, and she took with her navigator Fred Noonan, who had been a former pan-American Airlines navigator, and so the two of them embarked on this flight. They made it quite a distance around the world to lay a New Guinea, and they were then route to Howland Island, which was another 2,500 mile flight when they disappeared and did not arrive at Howland.

LA: So she takes this last flight and the now very famous disappearance takes place. Do you think that helps keep her in the limelight? Do you think that law of her story and that mystery has kept us so fascinated with her, perhaps even more so than the actual work that she succeeded in doing?

DC: Well, you have to understand that her disappearance is still one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. So the idea is they disappear and the search goes on and no one finds her. Nothing. And how does that resonate then, for the rest of the time?

LA: What is it that has captured our imaginations when it comes to the disappearance? Now you have people who are still racing to solve that mystery. Why are we so fascinated with the fact that they disappeared with the adventure, with where they disappeared and coming up with all of these theories?

DC: I think because she was so famous, because the rest of the world was rooting for her to fly around the world, and the fact that you could hear her radio transmissions, her last radio transmissions, and according to the Coast Guard who received them, they were anchored off of Howland Island where they were awaiting her to come and land and refuel her for her next leg or for flight, which would've taken her to Hawaii. They have heard her, they know that she's coming closer and then she doesn't arrive, and it's just that sheer shock that they have disappeared without a trace. A huge search was put on, the largest sea and air search ever at the time, and there was no... nothing was found.

LA: What are some of the prevailing theories?

DC: The logical theory is that she was lost on the way to Howland Island, and then there are all the other myths and theories, the idea that perhaps she flew to a different island because she couldn't find Howland Island and maybe she flew back to Saipan or the Marshall Islands, which were several hours away from where she was when she said, "I have only a half an hour of fuel left." So the idea that she was crashed somewhere else and was captured by the Japanese and killed by them or put in prison have no basis in reality as far as I'm concerned.

LA: There's one that she survived and was working on some sort of pineapple plantation. Is that one I've heard?

DC: Yes. There's one that she landed somewhere else, and either Saipan or the Philippines, I think that one somehow gets her to the Philippines, and I'm not sure exactly how she got there, but the idea that she's running a pineapple plantation there. There's another theory that also says that she survived, and I forget where it says she landed, but that she eventually made her way back to New Jersey and lived under the assumed name of Irene Bolam. There was a woman named Irene Bolam who objected to that strenuously, and finally-

LA: She would if she was pretending to be Irene Bolam.

DC: Well, she would, but on the other hand, if you were Irene Bolam, she went and got a court order to tell people to stop calling her Amelia Earhart.

LA: It's funny, as you're describing this, I can't help but think of conspiracy theories of 2024. So in a way, we've never changed.

DC: No. When you don't have an actual physical piece of evidence, then you have this vacuum because you don't know what happened, and it just gets filled. People just don't want to let go of it.

LA: Amelia Earhart pops up in the news semi-frequently.

DC: There have been searches for Amelia Earhart ongoing, but in recent years, modern technology has made it a bit more practical, the idea of using submersible sonar equipment. And so last fall, a group called Deep Sea Vision went out into an area not too far in the vicinity of Howland Island to do exploration with one of these underwater submersible sonar pieces, and they went down for a 30-day mission. They came up with a sonar image, which I think most people have seen now. It does have a vague resemblance to an aircraft, but it could be something else. It could be an anchor, it could be a boat. So in order to go any further, they're going to need to go back and do more sonar and do actual photography of whatever this is that they have found on the floor.

They're not the first to do this. There's a group called Nauticos, which has also made three missions to different areas around Howland Island, and they are still refining their scientific exploration. So it's an ongoing thing. It's just a constant effort to try to acknowledge earlier women's roles. It still remains always difficult to get women to be the headlining in a news article. There's no doubt about that. We still struggle with that. We want to honor women. We always want to take that opportunity to bring their stories to life. It's always good to remind people of where some of these strengths and some of these original pioneers went in order to persevere, to live their lives and become the legacies that they are.

LA: Perfect. Dorothy, this was a fascinating conversation. Next week, we're talking to a TV host who's obsessed with being out in the wilderness, Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant. She'll be chatting about her new memoir, Wild Life: Finding My Purpose in an Untamed World. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me on Instagram @lalehannah. Our engineers are Jake Lummus, Nick Pitman and James Yost. The show's mixed by Amar Lal, Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer. Chris Bannon is Conde Nast Head of Global Audio. See you next week.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler