Linen Wings and a Leather Coat

In 1921 Amelia Earhart was one of several thousand Americans who wanted to fly. Most were men, some already aviators, veterans of world war aerial combat. While a fortunate few remained in the armed forces, the majority were discharged when the military not only divested itself of surplus aviators but also of airplanes, sold for from three hundred to five hundred dollars. To release grounded aviators and cheap airplanes simultaneously was like throwing iron shavings at magnets. A nucleus of veterans with surplus airplanes was rapidly augmented by young admirers who became students, then partners of their teachers. The task of advancing aviation was left to them, for neither the government with its power nor private business with its capital viewed aviation as a practical means of transport.

While the public may have agreed with that assessment, a large segment of the same public was fascinated by the novelty of flight. A small number was willing to pay five dollars per person for a ten-minute flight to see “what it was like,” and many more preferred to watch from the ground while the airborne risked their lives. During a decade of “barnstorming” and air circuses, pilots moved their worn, patched planes from the outskirts of one town to the next, renting farmers’ fields as bases for a day or two and coaxing the curious into cockpits for a brief, often risky, ride. For paying viewers, pilots in their fragile craft of wood, linen, and wire staged mock aerial fights, skimmed upside down twenty-five feet off the ground, and ascended high into the sky for breathtaking dives, spins, and stalls. Their partners—some of them women—wingwalked, hung from struts, and took freefall parachute jumps. In Miami, one pilot flew into a vacant lot between two buildings one hundred feet apart, a strip of openended land that went back from the street for six hundred feet. His wife, who operated an aerial sightseeing service, sold tickets from a soapbox on the street. These barnstormers and stunters, along with military and airmail pilots, were the true believers in the future of aviation.

A number headed for Southern California where the mild climate diminished the single greatest threat to flight—bad weather. Attracted to the area by that same climate was a second group of visionaries, the moviemakers. The two groups shared more than a mutual interest in a beneficent climate. Their members were capital-poor gamblers in two high-risk, infant industries, men whose characteristics were similar and whose interests often converged. Cecil B. De Mille, who would make millions in the film industry, was also a pilot. Too old in 1917 for wartime flight training, he hired a pilot to teach him. When the Army still refused his services, he founded the Mercury Airline, bought a Junkers JL-6 that young Lt. Eddie Rickenbacker delivered to him in 1921, and attempted to schedule flights between San Diego and San Francisco. He lost money but never his interest in aviation. Charlie Chaplin’s stepbrother, Sydney, was the founder of an aircraft company at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. With ex-Army pilot Emory Rogers, Chaplin ran a regular service between Wilmington and Catalina Island, which also failed. Rogers bought Chaplin out, and it was at Rogers Field that Amelia took her first airplane ride with Frank Hawks on that December day in 1920.

On the first Monday of January in 1921, Amelia Mary Earhart appeared at Kinner Field accompanied by her father, who found the owner of the field, Winfield B. Kinner, working in the hangar. Bert Kinner, former streetcar motorman, farm machinery mechanic and Cadillac dealer from Magnolia, Minnesota, had come to Los Angeles five years before and opened an auto repair shop in which he built custom-made sports car bodies for Model-T Fords. A mechanical wizard with an eighth-grade education, Kinner built an airplane in 1919. When he finished it, he taught himself how to fly, then bought a field at the corner of Long Beach Boulevard and Tweedy Avenue, in a semirural area of cabbage patches, avocado fields, and palm trees. Facilities at the Kinner Aircraft and MotorCorporation consisted of a single hangar with living quarters at the back, a hamburger stand, and a gas and repair station set along the edge of the unpaved, scruffy field.

Bert told Amelia to talk to his field manager, twenty-four-year-old Neta Snook, while he had a few words with Edwin Earhart. Neta, who had just finished a tiring day of flying sightseers over the bay, was walking in from her plane, an old Canuck that she had rebuilt in her father’s workshop back in Ames, Iowa. “More silly people with silly questions,” she thought, as she watched the tall, slim woman with long, golden braids wrapped around her head approach. The woman wore a brown suit with a silk scarf at the neck and white gloves. She looked like the elegant young women who went to the Frances Shimer Academy in Mount Carroll, Illinois. She spoke like one, too. “I want to fly,” she told Neta, “and I understand you take students. My parents aren’t in accord with my ambitions, but might reconsider if they found another woman in the business.” Amelia was less than candid. She wanted to learn from a woman. Neta agreed to teach Amelia for one dollar a minute. Amelia said she would pay with Liberty Bonds. The first lesson was scheduled for the following day.

A third person who saw Amelia and her father at the field that day was Cora Brusse Kinner, Bert’s thirty-five-year-old wife, who had stepped out of the house at the back of the hangar. Cora watched the Earharts, her hazel eyes scanning the young woman’s white gloves, then the man’s stiff-collared shirt and frock coat. A very odd couple for Kinner Field, Cora thought, where men wore oil-stained slacks or coveralls and Neta, the only other woman there, was covered from neck to ankle by greasy brown overalls, her hair tucked under a flying helmet, her hands grimy from tinkering with engines. Cora continued to watch the two visitors until they left Neta and walked toward the boulevard.

On the way home Edwin Earhart told Amelia he thought Bert Kinner was a “visionary and not too practical, but intelligent.” For highly intelligent but far more impractical Edwin to make this assessment was ironic. When Bert Kinner had a vision, he pursued it until he realized it, no matter how difficult. He wanted to make some money for Cora and the children and he wasn’t above hustling a few innocents to do it, but the primary goal was to create something new, something that worked. This restless man, fingers constantly running through black, wiry hair, piercing dark brown eyes intent on the job at hand, was the man farmers in Minnesota called “the kid who could fix anything.” To those who helped him, he was kind and generous. He saw nothing odd in a woman like Neta using his field for her Canuck. She knew planes. She pumped gas and fixed shocks. She earned her keep. Amelia Earhart couldn’t have found a better place to learn to fly.

The next day Amelia, wearing riding breeches, laced boots, and a well-tailored jacket, met Neta at the field. She had taken the streetcar to the end of the line and walked the three miles to the field, a journey she would repeat time after time over the next two years. Under her arm was a book on aeronautics from the library. Neta, one of the first women to graduate from the Glenn Curtiss School for aviators, regarded it with approval. After a few minutes of explanation, Neta told her pupil to get in the front cockpit of her dual-controlled Canuck, a Canadian version of the JN-4 (or “Jenny”), a World War I army trainer. Its top speed was sixty miles an hour, its landing speed forty, the OX-5 engine’s horsepower ninety.

During her first lesson Amelia learned how to taxi. By February she had logged four hours in the air and Neta called her “a natural.” “There wasn’t much for me to do. She just seemed to take over and do it, although she did have a tendency to bank more steeply than I did, and a great many times I had to shove the nose down because she held it too high.”

The “natural” had another inclination Neta found worrying, one she would have expected if she had known the little girl who “belly-slammed” down that icy hill in Atchison. To land at Kinner Field it was necessary to clear two lines of high tension wires, eight feet apart, running along the side of Long Beach Boulevard. Amelia “would have gone between them if I didn’t watch her all the time,” Neta claimed.

Only a year Amelia’s senior, Neta, who kept a firm hand on the dual controls and a stern eye on her adventurous pupil, was soon a friend and frequent guest at the Earharts’. Amelia liked her because she was a pleasant, intelligent contemporary, but the strongest bond was Neta’s interest in aviation. Amelia had no time for idle conversation. Discussions were meant to raise and answer questions on matters of substance. When they failed to do so, she lost interest. At the airfield, where they cooked and shared meals with pilots and mechanics, Amelia “never wanted to dally long at what she called ‘frivolous doings’ if the weather was right for flying.” If the weather was not right, she left the group and sat with her back against the hangar wall, reading a library book. While she read, Neta’s Great Dane, Camber, a lumbering animal, coat covered with adobe dust, lay across her outstretched legs, waiting for the hand he knew would reach out after turning a page and scratch his ears.

Neta taught Amelia how to drive. Waving a twenty-dollar bill at her one day, Amelia announced, “This is the day I learn how to drive a car.… You rent it, because you have a license, then I’ll drive it.” The rented 1921 Model T Ford was not an easy car to drive. There were three foot pedals, one a planetary shift with high, medium, and low gears, depending on how near the floor boards it was pushed, a second for reverse, and a third for braking. On the dashboard were two hand levers, one for spark and throttle, and the second, a choke. Each time she stalled the car Amelia had to get out and crank it. Several hours later she was driving, with flair if not skill, missing the driveway when she returned it to the rental agency and ascending by way of the curb.

Both young women enjoyed the company of men. Neta’s constant escort was William Southern. In addition to Sam Chapman, Amelia went out with other men, some who were friends of Southern’s. On one occasion they were caught in a rainstorm two hundred miles from Los Angeles on their way back from the Tehachapi mountains where the two men had an interest in a mining claim. Although a separate cabin was offered the women, Amelia refused to spend the night.

If she seemed excessively prudish on that night, she surprised Neta on another when a black limousine pulled up in front of Neta’s house in Huntington Park. Amelia was in the back, “sitting ramrod straight” beside an old man who wore a bowler hat and held a gold-headed cane. His legs were covered by a travel rug. Amelia introduced him as Powell Ramsdell, adding that he shared her interest in early Californian history. After Ramsdell left, she explained to Neta they had met when she helped his driver find some books on the subject in the library. Ramsdell offered her a ride home. “I took six books which were heavy, and with five blocks to walk, I thought I might as well.… He looked harmless.”

Ramsdell’s car began to appear frequently at Kinner Field. Cora Kinner, always blunt and staunchly respectable, disapproved of what seemed to her Amelia’s thoughtless acceptance of the old man’s attentions. Nor did Neta escape judgment. “He’d come out there every morning in his Cadillac. He was a sick guy. An old guy. Those girls got hold of him because he had lots of money to spend.… Those girls really took advantage.… I didn’t like that.”

Cora may have misjudged Amelia, who enjoyed the company of older men. Father figures would continue to appear in her life for she had never lost her deep love for Edwin, no matter what his faults. When younger, more attractive men asked her out she refused those who failed to interest her. She told Neta it was dishonest to let them spend their money on her for theater tickets or dinner. Nor did she think an escort was always an advantage. With her newly acquired knowledge of California’s history and a smattering of Spanish, she wanted to explore what Neta thought were “out-of-the-way,” dangerous areas of Los Angeles, areas her friend insisted necessitated the protection of male companions.

Neta frequently stayed overnight at the Earharts’, sharing Amelia’s room where they talked late into the night, covering the wide range of interests held by two typical, young, college-educated women. Topics included religion, philosophy, literature, music, films, clothing styles, and men. On one of those nights Neta asked Amelia what she thought of William Southern. After her customary pause and with a smile she said, “I think he has the mating instinct. His eyes … oh, his eyes are magnificently sullen. Are you sure you’re ready to give up your career?” When Neta asked her why she thought that would be necessary, she replied, “Because you will. He’s the kind who will insist on being boss.”

Amelia’s warning to Neta, like the one she had given her friend Louise a year before at Columbia, was not a conventional one. The new postwar “freedom” of American women was one of frivolity and sexuality. Skirts were shorter, cheeks rouged, corsets discarded. The Charleston replaced the waltz and “petting parties” were gaining acceptance, taking place on the new American sofa—the back seat of an automobile. But the liberation was one for men, making women more desirable as playmates or mates. While the Twentieth Amendment had given women the vote the previous year, census takers listed housewives as having “no occupation,” and the “nonoccupation” of housewife was the primary goal of the vast majority of American women. Women who did not marry were referred to as “old maids.” Many of the better educated worked as school teachers, librarians, or unpaid helpers in the households of their parents or married relatives. Those who achieved the status of college professors, doctors, or lawyers, however honored in their professional roles, were also “old maids” socially.

Already in her mid-twenties, past the age when most women married, Amelia ignored the prevailing opinion of single women. Instead, she added notes and clippings to her scrapbook. No profession or business was singled out. Her interest was clearly in the fact that no matter what had been accomplished, a woman had done it. She included the following:

Foreign Women Developing as Film Directors

Texas has a woman pistol shot champion, Miss Grace McClellan of Austin

Florence Egan and her Jazz Orchestra on Program from Examiner Studio Tonight

Miss Mithan Ardeshire Tata, B.A., of Bombay University, has been formally admitted to the practice of law in Great Britain. Miss Tata is the first woman of India to be admitted to the bar.

Woman Manages City. After April 15, Warrenton, Oregon, is to be managed by a woman, Miss R. E. Barrett … according to available records Miss Barrett is the only and first woman to direct a city’s affairs.

Mrs. Lulu Eckles, President of the Women’s Advertising Club, and advertising and sales manager of A. Hamburger & Sons, Inc., talks to Women’s Personnel Club.

However great Amelia’s admiration for career women and her aversion to home, hearth, husband, and children, she kept both well concealed. Except with Neta, she did not share her views on the potential of women in what was essentially a man’s world. Her behavior was that of a conventional, well-bred young woman. She dressed with care and style, so much so that Waldo Waterman, one of the pilots who knew her at Kinner Field, remarked that while Neta wore coveralls and a helmet, “Amelia was usually dressed in jodphurs, or riding breeches and boots, yet looked thoroughly feminine, with a loose shirtwaist and tousled hair.”

Another admirer was Winfield Kinner, Jr., an eleven-year-old schoolboy. However, neither her good looks nor penchant for daring but often poorly executed landings were what interested him. Initially it was her contortionist’s skills, demonstrated to him by placing the entire palms of both hands on the ground without bending her knees. He was also impressed by what seemed to him considerable stoicism on the day she removed a small bandage from her cheek to show his mother the tiny tube used to drain the chronic abcess of the antrum which continued to plague her. For the most part Amelia was approved of by both men and women at the one place she most wanted to be—Kinner Field.

She began to cut her long, honey-blonde hair, inch by inch, probably because she disliked doing anything that attracted too much attention if it could be avoided. She also bought a leather coat.* The first time she wore it the men at the airfield exchanged remarks about the “dude aviator.” The next time they saw it, it was wrinkled and oil-stained. The stains were easy to make, the wrinkles created by sleeping in it. Dressing as she did was not just youthful play-acting but evidence of her unerring instinct for making a physical statement of who and what she was. She was a woman and an aviator. The bobbed hair was thick and curly (with the aid of a curling iron), the jacket under the leather coat beautifully tailored and worn with a white silk blouse, a colorful scarf knotted at the neck.

By the time Muriel came home in the summer of 1921, Amelia was one of the airfield crowd, “regarded by many people as slightly crazy.” She was invited to join them and did. “We shellacked the canvas wings, replaced struts … and when there was enough gasoline … took turns cruising over the bay and north a few miles along Malibu Beach.”

After only two and a half hours of instruction in Neta’s Canuck, Amelia had decided “life was incomplete unless I owned my own plane.” The plane she wanted was one built by Bert Kinner. Originally a single-seater, it was cracked up in a test flight and rebuilt as a dual control ship to be used as a trainer. As usual, Amelia’s problem was money. Already working as a clerk at the telephone company and one day a week at her father’s office, she completed a course in commercial photography at the University of California and went into partnership with another young woman, Jean Bandreth. When the venture proved unprofitable, she bought an old Moreland truck and contracted to haul gravel for a construction company. Her father, who had taken her to her first air show, treated her to her first ride, and accompanied her to Kinner Field to arrange for lessons, had lost his initial enthusiasm and refused to help her buy the plane. It was Amy Earhart who came to the rescue, after a considerable delay that annoyed Cora Kinner. Bert had already agreed to let Amelia have his small, rebuilt plane in exchange for his right to it as a demonstrator while he waited for Amy to pay up. Cora wryly observed that Amy had “too much money with a string around her sock, and Bert couldn’t get her to take it out.” The sock was finally opened on July 24, 1922, Amelia’s twenty-fifth birthday. Cora said that Amy only paid on condition that Amelia “give up that truck and act like a lady.”

The little plane, which Bert Kinner called the Airster, did not meet with Neta’s approval, nor that of the other pilots who frequented the field. Neta said its seventeen-foot wing span made it “fly like a leaf in the air,” that it lacked stability and was inclined to ground-loop if landed in a cross wind. She also noted that the third cylinder of its three-cylinder engine clogged frequently, dangerously reducing its already minimal sixty horsepower. Neta’s advice was ignored by Amelia who had the plane painted yellow and named it the Canary. Bert’s demonstration rights were again exchanged for hangar space and mechanical repairs and Neta volunteered to teach Amelia “all over again,” giving her four more hours of instruction without charge.

There were accidents. Cora Kinner witnessed one. “Amelia set her little Kinner Canary down in my cabbage patch, but she walked away from it. She used to scare me to death.” In another mishap Neta was with her. They had taken the Airster to the Goodyear Field, six miles from Kinner’s, to see the huge, new Cloudster, designed by Donald W. Douglas, whose World Cruisers, flown by U.S. Army Service pilots, would circle the globe in 1924. On the return flight to Kinner Field, the Canary’s third cylinder failed immediately after takeoff. When Amelia tried to pull up over a grove of eucalyptus trees, the plane stalled and crashed into the trees, breaking the undercarriage and propeller. Neta crawled out of the wreckage and looked back to see if Amelia had been injured. She was standing by the plane, grinning and powdering her nose. They must look nice, she told Neta, when the reporters arrived.

The accidents may have upset her more than she admitted. When Neta told her she was ready to solo, she procrastinated. The same woman who had wanted to fly between two high tension wires eight feet apart and who “scared” Cora Kinner “to death,” said she wanted more training. But solo she did. There is no official record of it but it was before December 15, 1921, not quite a year after her first lesson, because on that date she took and passed her trials for a National Aeronautic Association license.

The solo flight that preceded these trials had been a shaky one. “In taking off for the first time alone,” she wrote, “one of the shock absorbers broke, causing the wing to sag just as I was leaving the ground. I didn’t know just what had happened, but I did know something was wrong and wondered what I had done. The mental agony of starting the plane had just been gone through and I was suddenly faced with the agony of stopping it.” After repairs were made she took off again, only to make “a thoroughly rotten landing.”

Two days after her NAA trials she flew in an exhibition at the Sierra Airdrome in Pasadena. The official program listed the tenth event as the “Pacific Coast Ladies Derby, An Exhibition by Miss Amelia Earhart in her Kinner Airster and Miss Aloyfia [sic] McKlintock in her Laird Swallow.” Coming in for a landing the same troublesome spark plug that had failed before did it again. “Luckily I was over the field.… Otherwise I might have made my landing in a treetop.”

In spite of joking about looking nice for the reporters after the crash at Goodyear Field, Amelia did not like exhibition flying. “The moment I flew up the field I began to feel like a clown, although happily there were two of us females to divide the honors and odium.” What the retiring, often secretive Amelia really wanted was to be alone and aloft, flying for her own pleasure. But publicity provided airplanes and the money needed to maintain them and she took what she could get.

In May of 1922 Bert Kinner put out a flyer advertising the Airster. Headed “A Lady’s Plane as Well as a Man’s—read what Miss Earhart has to say after flying a KINNER AIRSTER two years,” a letter from Amelia followed:

After flying my Kinner Airster for two years, it is a real pleasure to state that the performance has at all times been beyond my expectations.

In placing my order with you for one of the new models I am taking advantage of the recently improved refinements but am glad to know that you have retained those fundamental characteristics that have always placed the Kinner Airster high in my regard.

Scrupulously honest in other matters, Amelia stretched the truth for that Airster, and for a newer one she hoped to get from Kinner. She did not mention the fact that the third cylinder was too often “beyond her expectations.” Her claim that she had owned the Airster for two years was a false one. The letter was dated May 20, 1922, a time when she was still at Columbia University. It would be six months before her first airplane ride as a passenger, and when she wrote the letter her mother had not yet completed paying for the plane.

Three months later, on August 8, 1922, a Los Angeles newspaper ran a story along with a two-column picture of her in leather coat and goggles, headed “Air Student-Aviatrix to ‘Drop In’ for Study”:

Vassar College is primed for its thrill of thrills. Some sunny day next fall a large and dusty airplane is due to pull a near-tailspin over its exclusive campus and descending, to disgorge Miss Amelia Earhart, Los Angeles society girl student-aviatrix.

“I just dropped in,” she’ll tell the faculty. “to take a post-graduate course.…

“It’s my greatest present ambition,” said the winsome Miss Earhart yesterday. “I don’t crave publicity or anything, but it seems to me it would be the greatest fun to fly across the continent. I think I’ll do it.”

Miss Earhart is popular in society circles here. She is the daughter of Attorney Edwin S. Earhart, 1334 West Fourth Avenue.

The story is a typical tabloid fabrication of that era but there is no record of Amelia’s objecting to it.

The same month the story appeared, Amelia changed instructors. Neta Snook’s flying career ended as Amelia had predicted it would. Married to William Southern and expecting her first child, Neta sold her Canuck and turned her student over to John G. “Monte” Montijo, proprietor of a flying school across the road from Kinner’s, on Long Beach Boulevard. The arrangement was a good one for Amelia. Pleased to have a woman teacher when she was a beginner, she was ready for aerobatic instruction from an expert. Monte Montijo was a former Army flier, barnstormer, and stuntman for Goldwyn Studios, a sturdy, broad-shouldered man with a handsome sun-bronzed face, his dark eyes beneath arched eyebrows commanding attention. One of the best pilots in the region and, like most, barely making a living, he flew for a local oil man, gave lessons to students and, to augment these meager earnings, ran a restaurant with his wife, Alta.

Amelia was an eager, attentive student. After seven hours of lessons, she soloed for him. “She handled the ship like a veteran,” he said, “and made a perfect takeoff and landing.” When she took more lessons in advanced aeronavigation and aerobatics, “after each flight she wanted to know what the mechanical action of each movement was and she showed a keen interest in motors.”

Her confidence greatly enhanced by Monte’s training, Amelia set her first flying record on October 22, 1922, at an air meet at Rogers Field. Edwin brought Muriel, who had dropped out of Smith College and was teaching at Huntington Beach, but neither of them knew what Amelia intended to do. She had asked a representative of the Aero Club of Southern California to seal a barograph in her Airster. In an open cockpit, with no oxygen supply, on her second attempt she climbed to fourteen thousand feet through fog and sleet before the Airster’s motor began to falter. Fearing a stall, she kicked the little plane into a tailspin, bringing it out only after she dropped beneath the fog line at three thousand feet. When one of the older pilots asked her what she thought might have happened if the fog had reached ground level she was embarrassed, but not enough to regret making the record, which was acknowledged by the Aero Club.

Her approach to this first record would be repeated again and again. She was secretive about her plan to set it and insisted on calling it an attempt at “a calibration of the ceiling” (for that particular aircraft) instead of admitting she was trying to set an altitude record. She was meticulous in arranging for the barograph to prove what she had done but showed far less concern about the capabilities of the plane or her own safety.

Seven months after her “calibration of the ceiling” at Rogers Field, nine weeks before her twenty-sixth birthday, on May 15, 1923, she received a license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, the international aviation organization of which the American National Aeronautic Association was a member. She was the sixteenth woman in the world to receive one.

* The leather jacket, which she wore on her solo transatlantic flight in 1932, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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