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Legendary flier Amelia Earhart brought glamour and influence to early Cleveland aviation

In the late 1920s and 1930s, almost all roads in aviation led to Cleveland, home of the National Air Races. So, naturally, Amelia Earhart was here. Many times.
In Cleveland, few people could be more excited about the Friday opening of “Amelia,” starring Hilary Swank, than the women who work at the International Women’s Air & Space Museum at Burke Lakefront Airport, where there’s a good bit of Earhart memorabilia.
“Amelia brings people in here,” says executive director Toni Mullee. “But by the time they leave, they’re amazed at all the other women aviators there were then — it was such a time of opportunity for them. ”
Eighty years ago, Earhart flew in what was dubbed by humorist Will Rogers the Powder Puff Derby of 1929 — the first cross-country air race for women pilots, who took off in Santa Monica, Calif., and landed here. (One pilot, Marvel Crosson, was killed, with sabotage of her plane suspected; Earhart came in third.)
The women’s race was part of the National Air Races that year, where about 500,000 people jammed the airport over the 10-day event. Other high-profile fliers included Jimmy Doolittle, Eddie Rickenbacker and Charles Lindbergh.
In 1931, Earhart was in Akron for the launching of an airship, named the USS Akron, by Goodyear-Zeppelin.
But, most important for women fliers — and their numbers were growing exponentially then — in 1929 she helped start a famous organization called the Ninety-Nines, which still thrives today.
By several accounts, Earhart was overnighting at the Hotel Westlake in Rocky River, where she was a frequent guest, when she and other women aviators came up with the plan. The Westlake was the closest and finest hotel near the Cleveland Municipal Airport, now known as Hopkins, and so became a favorite hangout for pilots.
The Ninety-Nines were so named because that was the number of women pilots who joined at its inception — out of the 117 who were contacted.
The letter that went out to them stated, “On talking it over among ourselves and the other pilots whom we already know personally, it seems that the women pilots in this country, should have some sort of an organization. . . . It need not be a tremendously official sort of an organization, just a way to get acquainted, to discuss the prospects for women pilots from both a sports and breadwinning point of view, and to tip each other off on what’s going on in the industry.”
Today, the Ninety-Nines have more than 6,500 members and are headquartered in Oklahoma City, where they also have a museum.
Even among the 100-plus female aviators back in Earhart’s era, she was the clear star — yet one who was always tremendously supportive of her “fellow” female pilots.
Not only was she the first woman to complete a solo trans-Atlantic flight, but she was glamorously attractive, well-spoken and had a gift for marketing — she designed her own “active” fashion line and put her name on a line of luggage. She’d quickly written an autobiography, titled “20 Hrs. 40 min.: Our Flight in the Friendship.”
Then, the still-lingering mystery of her plane’s disappearance in 1937 created indelible fame.
Among the many Earhart artifacts at the Burke museum are letters, a lei that she was given in Hawaii and a piece of canvas from one of her planes.
Most significantly, there’s a portion of the landing gear from her Lockheed L-10 Electra, the plane on which she disappeared. It had been refurbished after a previous crash at take-off in Hawaii, during her first round-the-world attempt, also in the spring of 1937.
During her trips to Cleveland, Earhart was usually interviewed by reporters. Talking to one at the Hotel Westlake in 1935, she commented on a lucky charm given her for an upcoming long flight. She said, “I think a good mechanic is much better than a lucky charm.”
Though her bravery never ran out, her luck apparently did. She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were officially missing as of July 2, 1937. No trace of their plane has ever been found.
The International Women’s Air & Space exhibits at Burke are open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; the office and research center from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 216-623-1111 or go to To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4542
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