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Neta Southern; Taught Earhart How to Fly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Neta Snook Southern, who taught a young premed student named Amelia Earhart to fly for $1 per minute at old Kinner Field in what is now South Gate, is dead.

Mrs. Southern was 95 when she died Saturday, a year older than her famed pupil would have been had Earhart not disappeared in the Pacific Ocean while trying to fly around the world in 1937.

Mrs. Southern, who quit flying in 1922 shortly before the birth of her son, had been hospitalized in June for a heart problem and had been in poor health in recent years before dying at her Los Gatos home near San Jose.

In 1921, she was a cow pasture barnstormer who was giving flying lessons when she was approached by a young girl in a brown dress and scarf who had come to Kinner Field by streetcar with her attorney father.

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“I want to learn to fly,” Mrs. Southern said were Earhart’s first words to her.

In a 1981 interview with The Times, Mrs. Southern remembered her new pupil as obsessed with the desire to fly. Earhart abandoned her studies at Columbia University after her initial flight with Mrs. Southern and spent 25 hours of dual instruction before attempting a solo flight.

“She was a natural pilot and as an instructor there wasn’t very much for me to do,” Mrs. Southern said.

Earhart was also a daring pilot even then, and Mrs. Southern recalled some harrowing experiences dodging power lines with Earhart at the controls or forcing her to keep the nose of the Curtiss Canuck trainer down because her pupil had a tendency to bank too steeply.

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Then there was the day the engine stalled and they crashed, causing just enough damage to break the plane’s undercarriage.

“We got out and Amelia started powdering her nose,” Mrs. Southern said. “She said we’d have to look good when the reporters arrived.”

The ambitious student and her teacher became friends, double-dated and talked about boys and “making hope chests.”

After Mrs. Southern married one of those beaus and bore a son, Curtiss, Earhart came to her house and admired the baby. “But I could just see her saying to herself: ‘How could you give up aviation for that?’ ”

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Curtiss Southern told the Associated Press on Monday that his mother “always said if she had a healthy baby . . . she would quit flying,” he said. “Most of her friends had been killed. She thought her luck eventually would run out.”

How did Earhart’s luck run out?

Mrs. Southern surmised that it was about the way everyone else had it figured since 1937: that Miss Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had gotten off course, run out of fuel and crashed near Howland Island on their way to New Guinea.


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