AUGUSTA — When aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart came to Maine nearly 80 years ago, her mission was to interest more women in flying, a male-dominated profession and pastime.
Since then, things haven’t improved as much as she might have hoped: As of late 2013, about 40,000 of 600,000 pilots in the U.S. – less than 7 percent – were women, according to Federal Aviation Administration figures.
“We’re still working at it,” said Lori Plourd of Bridgton, chairwoman of the Maine and New Hampshire chapter of the Ninety-Nines, a group for women pilots.
On Saturday, the group held an event at the Augusta State Airport honoring the nearing anniversary of Earhart’s three-day Maine tour, featuring artifacts from the trip and cockpit tours for children.
Earhart was a national celebrity then, especially after 1932, when she became the first woman to fly solo and nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. She disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while attempting an around-the-world flight.
She visited airports Aug. 12-14, 1934, in Bangor, Waterville and August to look at routes and destinations for an airline she helped start and to promote flying among women and girls, giving plane rides to hundreds.
“If you are going to travel 40 or more miles an hour, take my advice and get an airplane,” the Morning Sentinel quoted her as saying at a Waterville hotel. “It is safer at 150 miles an hour than you are on the ground at 40 or 50 miles an hour.”
As Earnhart’s visit did then, her legacy and disappearance still attract a lot of attention, with explorers continuing to try to locate her wreckage.
“She is timeless,” said Bob Umberger, a board member of the Maine Air Museum in Bangor. “People have an interest in her whether you’re young, old, male or female.”
Plourd gave a couple of reasons why the gender balance is so skewed: It could be lack of encouragement, the traveling lifestyle of commercial piloting, or something else, she said.
“It can be debated from all different angles,” Plourd said.
Among those interested in flight was Karen Munzing, 3, whose grandmother Beth Cooley of Gardiner, said that before they left for the airport, her granddaughter told her to hurry because a plane was waiting for her.
Though cloudy weather kept planes from going up, Karen got to sit in a four-seat Cessna Skylark with a pilot to check out the controls.
“She loved it,” Cooley said.