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Fine writing by famous female flyers

Anne Morrow Lindbergh is among the group of aviators who have also distinguished themselves as authors. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Women’s History Month is a perfect time to read (or re-read) and appreciate the work of talented women who distinguished themselves as both aviators and authors.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906–2001), wife of pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, was a prolific author who wrote a number of aviation-inspired books. The Lindberghs married in 1929. The published author-to-be earned her pilot’s license in 1931, and accompanied her husband on two globe-spanning flights to chart air routes between the continents. The couple flew from the United States to China in 1931 and to Europe, Africa, and South America in 1933. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was awarded the 1934 National Geographic Society Hubbard Medal for her contributions to these exploratory flights. The China flight inspired her to pen her first book, North to the Orient.

Although her flying career lasted but a few years, she wrote numerous books throughout her long life—nonfiction, novels, poetry, and volumes of her diaries and letters.

North to the Orient

North to the Orient recounts the Lindberghs’ 1931 flight to China via a northerly route over Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Japan. The 1935 book was a bestseller, was praised by critics, and won a National Book Award as the “Most Distinguished General Nonfiction of 1935.”

For the flight, the couple flew a Lockheed Model 8 Sirius equipped with floats, as much of the route was over water. The aircraft was damaged on China’s Yangtze River and returned to the United States, along with the couple, by ship. Today, you can view it on display at the National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C.

Listen! The Wind

Listen! The Wind is a 1938 book that focuses on the Lindberghs’ flight from Africa to South America, one leg of their 1933 exploratory flight. Like North to the Orient, it was a bestseller and received a National Book Award.

The Steep Ascent

The Steep Ascent is Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s only aviation-themed novel. Written in 1944, the plot follows a pregnant woman and her husband as they fly from England, across France, and over the Alps to Italy. The early reviews were lukewarm, but the book sold well and later reviewers were more generous. The New York Times wrote, “As an adventure story, it is keen and exciting. But, it is much more than that. [It’s] charm and grace are rooted in the fabric of the author’s mind and in the fruit of her philosophy…You feel on reading this book that you have shared in the thoughts of a keen, sensitive, generous mind.”

Gift from the Sea

A nonaviation book is Lindbergh’s most famous work. Gift from the Sea was the top nonfiction bestseller of 1955 and today it’s considered “inspirational literature.” Anne wrote the book for the American women of her time, with a subtitle, “An answer to the conflicts in our lives.” Inspired by seashells on the beach, she mused on various aspects of the lives of women in the mid-twentieth century, including youth and aging, love, marriage, and family.

As one book reviewer wrote, “The literature of flight has no more gifted contributor than Anne Morrow Lindbergh. To her has been given that rare quality of spiritual insight and the ability to translate it into words.”

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart, perhaps the most famous of women aviators, also showed skill with the written word. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

Amelia Earhart (1897–1937) was arguably the most renowned female aviator of the Golden Age of flight. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean—as a passenger in 1928 and then as a pilot in 1932. Earhart set many aviation records (including the altitude record in a gyroplane), competed in air races, and was a founding member of The Ninety-Nines. She wrote numerous newspaper articles promoting aviation and was the aviation editor for Cosmopolitan magazine. During her lifetime, Earhart wrote two books. A third, with her “authorship,” was compiled by her husband after she vanished over the Pacific Ocean in 1937.

20 Hrs. 40 Min.: Our Flight in the Friendship

A well-written account combining flight log entries with childhood recollections, 20 Hrs. 40 Min.: Our Flight in the Friendship is based on Earhart’s experience as a passenger in the Friendship as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1928. Earhart included a chapter entitled, “Women in Aviation.”

The Fun of It

Earhart’s second book may be the best gift to give young girls to inspire them to pursue aviation. In The Fun of It, Earhart relates how she became interested in flying, profiles other female pilots of the time, and encourages girls to follow their dreams. The title comes from her quote: “Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.”

Last Flight

Published posthumously after Earhart’s disappearance during her around-the-world flight attempt in 1937, Last Flight was compiled by Earhart’s husband. It consists of diary entries, flight notes, and logbook entries made during the flight (and mailed home) plus recollections of people who knew Earhart.

The Lockheed Vega flown across the Atlantic by Earhart in 1932 can be viewed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., not far from the Lindberghs’ Sirius. You can visit Earhart’s birthplace, now a museum, in Atchison, Kansas.

Beryl Markham

Beryl Markham (1902–1986) was a pioneering bush pilot during the early colonial settlement of East Africa and the first person to fly solo, nonstop, across the Atlantic from east to west. Her memoir, West with the Night, is a classic of aviation and Africana literature.

Markham grew up in Kenya, establishing herself as a talented horse trainer at a young age. She was taught to fly by Tom Campbell Black, a British pilot who established the first airline in Kenya and earned fame as a long-distance air racer.

Markham flew safari clients to remote campsites, evacuated sick and injured people to the Nairobi hospital, and collaborated with big game hunters to track game.

In 1936, Markham took off from England in a Percival Vega Gull to attempt a westward crossing of the Atlantic. She safely crossed the ocean but made a forced landing, due to fuel system problems, in Nova Scotia. She became the first person to fly from England to North America, nonstop from east to west.

West with the Night

In 1942, Markham published West with the Night, a memoir of her life growing up in British East Africa, her career as a horse trainer and bush pilot, and the 1936 Atlantic flight. Although most people who knew her said she was the last person they thought would be a writer, Ernest Hemingway was impressed.

“She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. She can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers…it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

After you’ve devoured West with the Night, learn more about Markham’s life by reading Mary S. Lovell’s biography, Straight on Till Morning.

Today, if you want to fly above the same wild landscapes as Markham and scout for elephants, head to Wilson Airport in Nairobi, where she learned to fly. There, it’s possible to rent an airplane or join a guided flying safari.

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