Amelia Earhart and the Pittsburgh-Butler Airport

In October 1929, two wheels touched down on the asphalt runway of the Butler County Airport, just over seven miles south of Butler, PA. A glittering red airplane slowed to a stop, its propeller coming to rest as the pilot removed her goggles and rose from her seat. Amelia Earhart had arrived.

While many people have heard the story of Amelia Earhart’s mysterious demise in the Pacific Ocean, fewer are familiar with her successes in life. Born on July 24, 1897, Earhart was only six years-old when the Wright brothers invented the airplane, thrusting America into a Machine Age fascination with flight. Viewed as the pinnacle of “Yankee ingenuity,” Americans adopted airplanes into popular culture and media such as films, exposing Earhart to the wonders of flight from a young age.

As a pilot, Earhart had a record-breaking career, most notably as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, and her successes earned her the reputation as the “First Lady of the Air.” Earhart’s remarkable career is closely intertwined with the history of the Butler County Airport, now known as the Pittsburgh-Butler Airport. Earhart attracted great public interest to the airport in 1929 as she and six other female pilots completed a Labor Day race from Cleveland to Butler. By now, Earhart had already achieved celebrity status for becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane, accompanied by two co-pilots in 1928. A large crowd gathered at the airport to celebrate the afternoon arrival of the internationally-renowned women, marveling as their planes materialized on the horizon and landed effortlessly on the runway. After welcoming Earhart and the other pilots, the crowd remained to witness their skills as a series of air sports commenced and the festivities continued throughout the evening.

Situated along the Transcontinental Air Transport route, a cross-country series of airports along which many famous aviators traveled, the Pittsburgh-Butler Airport became a layover for Earhart on more than one occasion. On October 13th, 1929, Earhart spontaneously visited the airport during a trip from Long Island to California, eating lunch and spending an hour and a half there before departing for her next stop in Columbus. By now, Earhart was in her early thirties, known for her trademark cropped hair, unparalleled skills in aviation, and international celebrity status. A visitor to the airport, pleasantly surprised by the star’s arrival, declared their experience a “most interesting” event. Americans’ fascination with celebrities was a relatively new phenomenon that began in the late nineteenth century with the rise of consumerism, and improvements in print and radio brought famous figures like Earhart directly into Americans’ homes.

Earhart attracted significant attention to the Pittsburgh-Butler Airport through her spontaneous visits and celebrated races, but the airport also provided her support as well, helping her to later set a series of aviation records. In 1930, the airport provided instrument training for her and installed long-range fuel tanks in her little Lockheed Vega 5B airplane - the very plane she piloted two years later in May 1932 as the first solo woman to cross the Atlantic, and later as the first woman to fly nonstop across the entire country. The “Little Red Bus” glimmered in the sun as it received its maintenance at the Pittsburgh-Butler Airport, the mechanics oblivious to its later role in Earhart’s extraordinary career. Seated confidently in her Vega on June 25, 1930, Earhart set a female speed record at 184 miles per hour before proceeding to set two successive speed records for 62-mile flights - one with 1,102 extra pounds weighing her down.

Seven years after her record-setting flights on that hot June day, Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean during her attempt to become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the globe. The circumstances of her death remain a mystery today, although a plethora of theories have attempted to explain the disappearance of the beloved aviator. The Pittsburgh-Butler Airport has outlived the celebrity pilot by 82 years, but the legacy of Earhart’s life continues alongside it.