“Greatest Woman Flyer” Amelia Earhart in Helena
By Brian D’Ambrosio
Born July 24, 1897, Kansas native Amelia Earhart grew up playing all different sports, games and activities, many of which adults at the time considered only for boys.
At age 19, Earhart attended Ogontz School near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two years later, after visiting her sister, Muriel, in Toronto, Canada, Amelia felt obliged to leave school. She took a course in Red Cross First Aid, enlisted as a nurse's aide at Spadina Military Hospital in Toronto, Canada, later tended to wounded soldiers during World War I.
Exhilarated by countless hours in the air, Earhart set a number of aviation records in her short career. Her first record came in 1922 when she became the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet.
In 1932, Earhart became the first woman (and second pilot after Charles Lindbergh) to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She left Newfoundland, Canada, on May 20 in a red Lockheed Vega 5B and arrived a day later, landing in a rural field near Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Upon returning to the United States, Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross—a military decoration awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” She was the first woman to receive the honor.
Later that year, Earhart made the first solo, nonstop flight across the United States by a woman.
“Greatest Woman Flyer Delights Helena Crowd”
It was no great surprise that when the aviator landed in Helena, Montana, around 4:30 p.m. on January 29, 1933, she was greeted by a crowd of thousands. She arrived in a large Northwest Airlines Ford Trimotor passenger plane, with a wingspread of 80 feet, her appearance part of her 1933 promotional tour for Northwest Airways.
At the time the airline was seeking the desirable airmail contract for the Northern Transcontinental Route from Minneapolis to Seattle. General manager John Croil Hunter invited Earhart to fly as a guest aboard a Northwest Airways Ford Trimotor on a portion of the northern route “to assess the desirability of flying the route in mid-winter.”
Earhart looked fresh and spry, and appeared eager to socialize after a seven-hour flight from Bismarck, N.D. Addressing the crowd at the Helena Airport administration building, she made a small talk from a second-story window. Earhart was then taken to a banquet in her honor at the Placer Hotel, where she was introduced by Gov. John E. Erickson. Earhart entertained the crowd of approximately 100, which included visiting members of the legislature, with tales of her aviation exploits and with stories of her various transatlantic flights. She spoke of flying through storms and heavy rain and other hazards. She talked of rocky runways and small icebergs and the many illusions of land. She urged mothers to “take their children up in an airplane while they are still youngsters.”
Earhart also said that she was “surprised at the excellent airport” in Helena, although she did not know what to expect because it was her first visit to Montana. She said that a city’s airport was quick becoming “as important as any other public building.”
She stayed at the home of the Fred B. Sheriff, a local rancher and Helena airport commissioner as well as chairman of the State Aeronautics Board, at 700 Power Street, in Helena, that evening.
In an interview on file at the Montana Historical Society, Sheriff’s daughter, Jean Baucus, recounted the night the famous aviator visited.
“They stayed at our house, and as they walked in she was dragging her mink coat on the ground, and I didn’t know whether to pick it up or tell her or what,” Baucus said. “She and my father sat around our dining room table and discussed the routes and the air service. She was charming, and I vividly remember the mink coat.”
Renowned local realist painter Bob Morgan (1929-2015), who later created a mural at Helena Regional Airport to commemorate the occasion, shared his recollection of Earhart’s visit with the Helena Independent Record.
“My father never missed a great occasion in Helena,” Morgan said. “We drove up here and my dad bought each of us a pilot’s helmet and goggles. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I got behind the tallest man in the United States and I couldn’t see anything until (Fred Sheriff) and Amelia Earhart came walking by.”
Earhart’s stopover in the Queen City of the Rockies was brief. The next day she attended an afternoon luncheon in the city before departing to Spokane, Seattle, and Portland, Ore., seeking additional airports for possible Northwest Airways service. The January 30, 1933 cover the Helena Independent Record preserved the visit with the lavish headline, “Greatest Woman Flyer Delights Helena Crowd.”
Amelia Earhart disappeared four years later, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, while attempting a record round-the-world flight. On June 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart took off from Oakland, California, on an eastbound flight around the world. It was her second attempt to become the first pilot ever to circumnavigate the globe.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a massive two-week search for the pair, but they were never found. On July 19, 1937, Earhart and Noonan were declared lost at sea. To this day, no one knows for certain what happened to her.
Earhart Memorial in Helena
In 2010, Helena Regional Airport officials unveiled a painting commemorating the only visit of Amelia Earhart to Montana, completed by Robert Morgan.
Morgan’s “Amelia Earhart in Helena” illustrates the exciting afternoon when Earhart and a Northwest Airways executive landed at the brand new airport before a waving crowd.
The painting hangs in the airport terminal next to another Morgan painting, one of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 visit to Helena. (Another adjacent painting depicts teen dirigible pilot Cromwell Dixon, who was the first person to fly in an airplane across the Continental Divide in September of 1911.) Both Fred Sheriff and Red Morrison, the first manager of the Helena Airport, are depicted in the Morgan painting, over Earhart’s left shoulder.
Additionally, the Montana Historical Society has in its collection an amateur motion picture film of a portion of Earhart’s 1933 visit.