Why we're all still looking for Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart: A mystery that never gets old
Amelia Earhart: A mystery that never gets old

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  • Dorothy Cochrane: This latest photo only deepens the mystery -- and the impact -- of Amelia Earhart's life and legend
  • Defying gender roles but also embodying modern womanhood, Amelia Earhart built an unorthodox career in a man's world, Cochrane writes

Dorothy Cochrane is curator for General Aviation in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and is responsible for the collections of general aviation aircraft and flight materiel, aerial cameras, and the history of women in aviation. She is the co-author of "The Aviation Careers of Igor Sikorsky" and numerous articles, and is curator for the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery in the Museum's National Mall building and displays at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.

(CNN)Once again, we are addressing the merits of the most recent chapter in the search for pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan who disappeared 80 years ago on a round-the-world flight.

As often happens, the news centers around a photograph, this time purported to show Earhart and Noonan on a dock in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. While this particular photograph is inconclusive, the searches are real, diverse and inevitable. They will continue until someone recovers an indisputable piece of Earhart's Lockheed Electra or discovers bona fide photographs or documents about the end of the flight. Why? Well, this is still the greatest unsolved mystery of the 20th century, and the subject of the search, Amelia Earhart, is well worth the attention.
Dorothy Cochrane
In 1937, having set many records, her most impressive being the first solo transatlantic flight by a woman in May 1932, Amelia Earhart decided to make a round-the-world flight. Not only would she become the first woman to do so, but she would also be the first person to fly a route so close to the equator.
    Earhart planned the flight as matter-of-factly as she had her whole career, and discarded some potentially life-saving advice and equipment for this particular flight. Through perseverance and good public relations, thanks in part to her husband George Putnam, she was one of the most revered women and pilots of the 1930s. Their marriage was an unconventional equal partnership. Her willingness to move beyond aviation to lecture, write, and even design clothing and luggage, kept her in the public eye and paid the bills.
    For more than a month, millions of people followed the world flight and so, when she and Noonan disappeared en route from Lae, New Guinea, to tiny Howland Island, it was naturally front-page and heart-breaking news. Today she is still headline news. People want closure. Those searching enjoy the chase. What could have possibly happened to her? Is it as simple as ditching in the ocean or much more sinister?
    Ultimately, this accomplished woman still intrigues us because she flew when few others, especially women, did. Advertising campaigns then and now celebrate that she dared to be different. Earhart exuded confidence and carefully cultivated her public persona. She held official roles in start-up airlines and the National Aeronautic Association. Though she had achieved economic and personal independence, she empathized with the average woman and challenged her to be more autonomous.
    She used her celebrity status to appeal for individual, legal and societal change. She was an impressive but widely appealing advocate for equal rights, birth control, the National Women's Party and the National Women's League for Peace. Comfortable in pants and leather flying jacket, she projected an androgynous image, in good company with sports stars and Katherine Hepburn, but she also photographed surprisingly well in evening attire.
    Defying gender roles but also embodying modern womanhood, Amelia Earhart built an unorthodox career in a man's world, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, and consistently made the Most Admired and Best Dressed women lists, a complex combination that allowed her to have a real and lasting impact.
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    All told, her flying career, life and death are subjects of countless student essays, articles, books, movies, public inquiries and, as this most recent photograph indicates, searches for the truth. It is likely to continue.