JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
From the cutting edge of modern aviation to a 76-year-old aviation mystery deep as the ocean. This month, the son of the late philanthropist, Paul Mellon, filed suit against an aircraft recovery group. Timothy Mellon says the group withheld underwater photos of what could be the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra plane. The suit alleges that the group duped Mellon to the tune of a million dollars just to drag on the exploration. The organization denies the claim.
Controversy aside, the pioneering aviatrix still fascinates and dazzles in song...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMELIA EARHART'S LAST FLIGHT")
KINKY FRIEDMAN: (Singing) Happy landing to you, Amelia Earhart.
LYDEN: ...and in film.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMELIA")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) After this round-the-world flight, Ms. Earhart, are you going to give up long-distance flying?
HILARY SWANK: (as Amelia Earhart) Not while there's still life left in me. I'll be ready for a new adventure.
LYDEN: In 1937, Amelia Earhart was well into her attempt to become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the globe. But she and her plane, along with navigator Fred Noonan, vanished in the South Pacific. No one knows for sure what happened. But before that final journey, Amelia Earhart, tall but with a pixie-ish élan, was the carefully constructed media sensation of her time. And that brought in money for more exploration.
Earlier in 1928, she'd become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, not as a pilot - that came later - but she worked alongside the pilot and kept the flight on track.
ANN PELLEGRENO: They flew above clouds where they could see the stars and landed in the estuary near Burry Port, Wales.
LYDEN: That's Ann Pellegreno, Earhart expert, author and lecturer.
PELLEGRENO: They stayed in the plane quite a while till people came out and got them, took them ashore where they were just mobbed by the crowd who had gathered. They wanted to touch her and get an autograph.
LYDEN: Tomorrow is the 85th anniversary of the 1928 transatlantic flight, which propelled Earhart to stardom.
PELLEGRENO: She wasn't brassy, and she was almost embarrassed by the attention.
LYDEN: Four years later, in 1932, Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic once more. This time, she was alone at the controls, the first woman to make that flight solo.
PELLEGRENO: She had many problems with icing. She had leaking gasoline. But she kept going. And that was what she always did.
LYDEN: And she helped others get going, including Pellegreno herself.
PELLEGRENO: Any woman pilot feels a kinship with Amelia Earhart.
LYDEN: In 1967, Ann Pellegreno became the first pilot to complete Earhart's path all the way around the world in the same kind of Lockheed Electra. But she says no one can really compete with Amelia.
PELLEGRENO: I don't think anyone will ever touch the Earhart icon status. She was first. She made the big ones, and she spoke out about women being equal. So I take my hat off to her for everything she did.
LYDEN: Amelia Earhart was born almost 116 years ago, but she will remain forever in our minds as a daring young woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMELIA")
JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) A ghost of aviation, she was swallowed by the sky or by the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.