OAKLAND, Calif. — Elwood A. Ballard was 7 when his mother brought him and his siblings to watch aviation pioneer Amelia Mary Earhart take off from Oakland on her attempted flight around the world. On Thursday morning, 77 years later, Ballard was there again, to watch Amelia Rose Earhart lift off through the clouds as she embarked from the same spot to retrace the journey of her famous namesake.
“It is an experience that is indescribable. It was the realization today of the history that I had witnessed all those years ago,” said the 84-year-old, who was also there to meet Earhart’s plane when it landed in Oakland from Denver Wednesday night. “I gave her a hug and just about broke down and cried, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
Though the original Earhart’s dream fell short when the aviatrix disappeared somewhere near Howland Island, an atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, she continued to inspire generations of pilots — men and women alike.
By contrast, Amelia Rose Earhart never aspired to be a pioneer, let alone a pilot. She was embarrassed by her name and went by Amy. Yet her famous moniker drew interest. Almost every day people would ask her if she was a pilot, and she answered no. People started asking another question: Would she fly around the world like the original Amelia Earhart?
Eventually, while studying at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she thought, “Why not?” So she scrimped and saved, juggling two jobs on top of school to pay for flight lessons.
Earhart, 31, a weather and traffic reporter by trade, has been a pilot for 10 years. Her longest solo flight was from Switzerland to Colorado, but after a year and a half of planning, she said she is prepared for the grueling 28,000-mile trip, with 17 stops in 14 countries. She departed early Thursday morning from the same North Field hangar used by Amelia Mary Earhart in 1937. The trip is expected to take about three weeks to a month.
The original Amelia flew a modified Lockheed 10 Electra with two engines. Earhart is flying a single-prop Pilatus PC-12. If successful, she will be the youngest woman to fly around the world in a single-engine aircraft.
Earhart said the potential dangers of such an undertaking did not have her rattled. And she was the picture of calm as she gave a little wave to the small crowd gathered to see her off, climbed into the cockpit and taxied down the runway and lifted off to begin the first leg of her long journey.
“It gives me goose bumps to think she was in the same place just before the same type of adventure,” she said in an earlier interview. “I expect to feel the same way while flying over where she disappeared.”
Safety is Earhart’s top priority. Besides her meticulous logistical planning, she has been practicing yoga to maintain her physical and mental health. And unlike her predecessor, who with navigator Fred Noonan relied on the stars, maps, and Morse code, Earhart and her co-pilot Shane Jordan are armed with GPS and a laptop.
“(The flight is) more of a symbol of completion for Amelia,” Earhart said, “picking up where she left off.”
Because of oral family traditions, Earhart used to think she was related to her namesake. Finding out the opposite did not dull her love of flying.
“I thought, ‘Do I keep flying even though I don’t share a bloodline with Amelia? Do I give it up?’” she said. “But my name is the greatest gift my parents could have even given me.”
It certainly has opened doors and is one reason she is circumnavigating the globe is for adventure’s sake, paying homage to Amelia Earhart. She also hopes to raise awareness for her nonprofit, the Fly With Amelia Foundation, which puts girls ages 16 to 18 through flight school on scholarships. She said many of the girls tell her that they were the type of kids who stared at the sky and watched planes.
“I’d like to think that if Amelia Earhart was watching me from somewhere or somehow, I’d like to think she would be proud of how I’m helping girls,” Earhart said. “She was also about paving the way for women in aviation.”
Plus, she said, “We can fly just as well as the boys can.”
Lynn Tu, 15, left home in San Jose at 4 a.m. to see Earhart take off Thursday.
“I’m trying to keep my cool,” she said seeming star-struck. “There’s so much you can do with flying. It’s limitless. I’m keeping my career options open.”
Some of the girls took selfies on the runway, and 9-year-old Amber Phillips of San Jose, wore airplane earrings.
While prepping for solo flights, Earhart said airport employees often asked if she was lost or needed help. But when co-pilot Jordan, a flight instructor, got the call from Earhart to join the trip, he knew exactly who she was and could not pass on the opportunity.
“To join that adventure with both Amelias, that’s significant,” Jordan said. “Both of their go-getter attitudes, that’s what I really respect about both women.”
The trip will be one of the first socially integrated flights, with Wi-Fi and live-streaming audio and video. She and Jordan will tweet and post on Facebook with the hashtag “flywithamelia,” so people can follow the adventure and stay in touch.
When she returns, Earhart plans to tour, run her foundation and write aviation books, including one for kids. She quit her job for the trip but said she is open to new opportunities. And the sky might not be the limit; she calls the jar into which she tosses loose change her “Space Fund.”
“Flying is as fun as it looks when you think about adventure and travel,” she said. “The sunrise you get to see from a commercial flight, multiply that by 100 and that’s what it feels like to be in the cockpit.”
Earhart is scheduled to return to Oakland around July 12.
“Oh, I’ll be waiting there when she comes back,” Ballard said.