Amelia Earhart was famous for her flying feats (she was the first woman — and only the second person — to make a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean), but she arrived in Kankakee for a speaking engagement behind the wheel of an automobile.
Shortly after arriving at the Hotel Kankakee on Wednesday evening, Nov. 6, 1935, she joined the members of the city’s Business and Professional Women’s Club for a banquet in the hotel’s Gold Room. An article in the Kankakee Republican-News noted that she “told members of the host club that she would fly from one city to another to fill speaking engagements except that many cities are not equipped with landing fields or with hangars, so that her speedy Lockheed plane would be unsheltered.” Thus, she left her aircraft in Chicago, and drove to Kankakee (even though the city did have a landing field, Koerner Airport).
Following the banquet, Miss Earhart and the club members made a short journey to the Kankakee Armory on Indiana Avenue, north of Court Street, where a crowd of almost 2,000 had gathered. “As she appeared before the microphone on the palm-decorated platform, simply dressed, she seemed almost boyish, tall, and slender, with her characteristic windblown bob,” reported the newspaper. “Not a beautiful woman — she said she has been mistaken for Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt — but with an abundance of charm.”
“‘Aviation Adventures’ was the subject of her armory appearance,” the news report continued, “not a speech, address or sermon, rather an informal monologue of her experiences in the air … so intensely interesting that her hearers seemed to hang on every word, laughing spontaneously at her frequent sallies into humor.”
Only 10 months before her Kankakee appearance, Earhart had become the first person (male or female) to fly solo nonstop from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland; it was the most recent of her epic flights, following her May 1932, solo journey across the Atlantic, and (later that same year) becoming the first woman to fly nonstop across the U.S., from Los Angeles, California, to Newark, New Jersey. The newspaper described her as “probably the world’s most famous woman today, with a record of adventure the most daring swashbuckler could envy.”
Addressing the issue of risk-taking, she told the audience that she had estimated her chances of successfully making the 1932 trans-Atlantic flight as “one in 10. For the Pacific flight, the chances were better, about 50-50. I felt in both cases, the goal was worth the risk, otherwise I would not have gone.” Regarding the motive behind her record-breaking flights, she declared, “There were no reasons except my wish to do so. I believe every woman should strive for a goal outside of what is platitudinously known as her own sphere.”
When a member of the audience asked her, “Do you really know a valve from a piston?” she laughed and responded, “I think a motor is a very beautiful thing, and I like them. I don’t have much time to mess around mine, but I know its voice very well. I don’t think we ought to say women aren’t mechanically minded. I think we should say some individuals are and others aren’t, and leave sex out of it.”
In the early 1930s, commercial aviation was in its infancy; many potential air travelers were concerned about safety. Earhart addressed that issue directly: “For speeds over 45 miles an hour, take to the air for safety. The oxcart is more safe than the automobile, yet I saw no oxcarts parked in front tonight — you all took the more dangerous but more comfortable way. Flying is the modern means of transportation, more comfortable, more convenient, more swift than any other way. Every flyer is enthralled by the esthetic beauty of this most delightful mode of travel.”
Some nineteen months after her Kankakee visit, Amelia Earhart launched what she hoped would be her most significant record: to become the first pilot to fly completely around the globe. Accompanied by her navigator, Fred Noonan, Miss Earhart took off from Oakland, California, in her sleek, twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10E aircraft on May 20, 1937. Flying eastward, she reached Lae, New Guinea’ on June 29, after covering some 22,000 miles. With some 7,000 miles to go to reach her California starting point, she took off from Lae, heading for a refueling stop at Howland Island, a tiny speck in the mid-Pacific. The Lockheed aircraft never reached Howland Island; Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan apparently died when the aircraft ran out of fuel and plunged into the ocean.