More than eight decades since she disappeared in the Pacific three weeks before her 40th birthday, aviator Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) still generates considerable interest. In this Women’s History Month, her story is resurfacing yet again. Speculation as to why and where her plane went down continues unabated.
Earhart was a remarkable woman—the first to fly alone across the Atlantic, and the first—male or female—to fly solo from Honolulu to the mainland US.
Just a few years before, in 1923 at age 25, she had become only the 16th woman in the United States to earn a pilot’s license. But did you know that it was another remarkable woman with the unusual name of Neta Snook who tutored Earhart in aviation in the first place? Known to her friends as “Snooky,” she told the details of her mentorship in an autobiography titled, I Taught Amelia to Fly.
Born in Illinois in 1896, Snook was just a year older than Earhart and not yet 20 when as a college sophomore she applied for entrance to an aviation school. Her application was returned, stamped with the words “No females allowed.” So she found another one that would take her. Meantime, she bought a wrecked Canadian plane, shipped it to Iowa and rebuilt it herself before flying it solo and earning her license in the process. That license didn’t permit her to fly sightseers for money but she did it illegally anyway, providing her with a decent living.
Iowa’s weather wasn’t conducive to year-round flying so Snook dismantled the plane she had rebuilt and shipped it to Los Angeles. There, she became a flight instructor and the first woman to manage a commercial airfield. She was the first woman to compete in a men’s air race at the Los Angeles Speedway in February 1921, finishing fifth and proclaiming, “I’m going to fly as cleverly, as audaciously, as thrillingly as any man aviator in the world.”
In her 1991 biography of Amelia Earhart, East to the Dawn, Susan Butler recalled the first time Neta met Amelia:
On January 3, 1921, Amelia Earhart, along with her father, walked onto the airfield and asked Neta, “I want to fly. Will you teach me?” The agreement struck between Amelia and her parents was that only a woman pilot would teach her to fly. For $1 in Liberty bonds per minute in the air, Neta Snook taught Amelia Earhart to fly, but above that, they became friends. The first five hours in the air were paid for by Earhart but the next 15 were entirely unpaid as Snook took her new pilot up in the Kinner Airster that Amelia had purchased.
That first flight was not a good omen. Earhart stalled the plane and it crashed, but neither woman was hurt. Snook’s instructions continued until Earhart earned her license, and the two remained very close friends for the rest of Amelia’s life. The rest is history. Snook became the oldest active female pilot in 1981 (at age 85) and died ten years later.
While Amelia Earhart certainly deserves to be remembered for her accomplishments, so does Neta Snook. The story of one can’t be told completely without the story of the other. Both were courageous, spunky women who broke barriers, proving that there’s nothing about aviation that precludes the female spirit.