The Mysterious Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

Her disappearance is still just as much a mystery as it was 83 years ago.

Amelia Earhart

Since it’s National Women of Aviation Week, let’s take a look at the trailblazing pilot who is as well known for her mysterious disappearance as her trailblazing efforts for equality.

Earhart wasn’t the first woman to pilot an aircraft — that honor goes to Marie Élisabeth Thible of France, who piloted a hot-air balloon in 1784. Earhart wasn’t even the first female pilot in America — in 1803, Aida de Acosta broke that barrier. What made Earhart so beloved was her aeronautical daring and her outspoken commitment to equal rights for women.

Born July 24, 1897, in Atchison, Kansas, the former “tomboy” first fell in love with flying when she saw a stunt-flying exhibition at the age of 20. She took her first ride in an airplane in December 1920, and she said, “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.” She began taking lessons only days later.

Within two years of that first flying lesson, she broke the women’s altitude record. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, she continued breaking records in speed and altitude, and broke several gender barriers in aviation. In 1928, she became the first woman to ever fly across the Atlantic Ocean. When she landed, she was greeted by a ticker-tape parade in New York City and a personal reception with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.

She was also the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932; this feat would earn her the US Distinguished Flying Cross medal — the first time it had been awarded to a woman.

At nearly every one of her record-breaking flights, the press followed her like a celebrity, and crowds greeted her at the airfields. She was called the “Queen of the Air,” offered several lucrative sponsorship deals, and undertook a nationwide lecture and book tour. The poor tomboy who had once sewn her own clothes was now designing fashions sold at Macy’s.

She used her celebrity to advocate for women to be accepted as equals in the aviation field and everywhere else. She founded and served as president of The Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots dedicated to advancing the cause of women in aviation. She was given the role of “aviation editor” in Cosmopolitan magazine, where she continued to advocate for women’s acceptance in aviation.

Even her marriage was groundbreaking; in 1931, she married her book publisher, George Putnam, after he proposed to her six times. She refused to take his last name — almost unheard of at that time — and described their marriage as a “partnership” with “dual control.”

By 1937, Earhart was approaching 40, still looking for that next mountain to climb. And nothing was more enticing than the prospect of being the first woman to fly around the world. Circumnavigation had been done before, though not by a woman. To make it even more challenging, Earhart wanted to follow a basically equatorial route, which would make it the longest such flight at 29,000 miles.

In March, she made her first attempt with navigators Cpt. Harry Manning and Fred Noonan, along with her technical adviser, the stunt pilot Paul Mantz. However, on the first leg of the journey, from California to Hawaii, the plane, a custom-made Lockheed Electra 10E, suffered from mechanical issues. After repairs in Honolulu, Hawaii, they attempted to resume the flight. But during take-off, the plane’s forward landing gear collapsed, both propellers hit the ground, and the plane skidded on its belly, damaging part of the runway. The plane had to be shipped back to California for repairs.

That wasn’t enough to stop Earhart. After the Electra was repaired, she tried again, this time flying west to east, and with only a two-person crew: Earhart and Noonan.

The first leg of this journey, from Oakland, California, to Miami, Florida, was unpublicized. On June 1, she and Noonan, to much fanfare, took off from Miami. Despite inaccurate maps that made navigation difficult, they were able to make it through South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia.

By June 29, they had made it to Lae, New Guinea. Only about 7,000 miles remained in their journey, but they were all over the Pacific Ocean. Their next leg in particular — to Howland Island — would be the most challenging.

The first challenge was its size: Howland Island is only a mile and a half long and a half-mile wide. “Howland is such a small spot in the Pacific that every aid to locating it must be available,” Earhart said. So the US Coast Guard stationed the Itasca just offshore of Howland Island to maintain radio contact and, if necessary, act as a beacon by sending up a column of smoke. Two other US ships stationed along her flight route were under orders to burn every light on board in order to serve as markers.

The other challenge was that the length of the flight — 2,600 miles — was at the outer range of what the Electra could cover without stopping for fuel. So every unessential item was dumped to make room for more fuel, enough to give the plane about 274 extra miles.

On the morning of July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae. Despite good weather reports, they flew into cloudy skies and rain. This made celestial navigation, Noonan’s favored method, difficult to impossible.

Communications, at first, were clear. She reported to the Itasca that conditions were very cloudy. Later, however, radio communications began to break down. The Itasca continued to try and make radio contact, but Earhart apparently wasn’t receiving its transmissions. And when Earhart’s radio transmissions did come through to the Itasca, they were irregular, faint, and interrupted with static.

It wouldn’t have been the first time the Electra’s radio had malfunctioned. It had malfunctioned at the very beginning of the journey, while they were flying across the continental US. Then, during the transatlantic flight from Brazil to Africa, the Radio Direction Finding (RDF) equipment hadn’t worked. The problem was attributed to a blown fuse; it was replaced and the RDF resumed working.

At 7:42 a.m., the Itasca received a cryptic message: “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” The ship tried to reply, but, again, Earhart didn’t seem to receive their transmission. Since those transmissions could be used for direction-finding, this would imply that the Electra’s RDF was malfunctioning again.

This would prove to be the fatal flaw in the plan: despite the Itasca having state-of-the-art RDF technology, Earhart’s radio capabilities weren’t matching up with them. At the frequencies the Itasca’s RDF worked, Earhart’s equipment didn’t function. In short, they were talking past one another.

At 8:45 a.m., another transmission was received from Earhart. Though it was recorded slightly differently by each of the radio operators, one phrase was certain: “We are running north and south.” Those were the last words the Itasca would hear from her.

The Itasca continued to try and make contact for another hour. But when that didn’t work, the Itasca launched a search for the plane north and west of Howland Island — to no avail.

Four days after Earhart’s last transmission, on July 6, 1937, the captain of the battleship Colorado received orders to take over all naval and coast guard units to coordinate search efforts. Along with the Itasca, the USS Lexington, the USS Colorado, the Japanese oceanographic survey vessel Koshu, and the Japanese seaplane Kamoi searched for nearly a week, covering 150,000 square miles.

Search efforts included the areas around Phoenix Island and Gardener Island, both somewhat south of Howland. A naval aircraft from the Colorado flew over Gardener Island, noting some signs of habitation, but no evidence of a wreck.

On July 19th, after spending $4 million and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the US government reluctantly called off the search and rescue operation. It had been the most extensive air and sea search in naval history, yet no physical evidence of the plane or either of its crew were found.

Putnam, however, was not ready to give up on his beloved Amelia. Once the government’s search efforts were called off, he financed private searches, coordinating with (and often, paying off) authorities in the Pacific islands around Howland Island. When those searches turned up nothing, he chartered two boats and directed a search of the Phoenix Islands, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Fanning (Tabuaeran) Island, the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands.

In order to pay for these extensive searches, Putnam went to court to have Earhart declared deceased so that he could take control of her financial assets. So on Jan. 5, 1939, Amelia Earhart was officially declared dead.

But What Really Happened to Amelia Earhart?

The prevailing assumption held by the US government — as well as most aviators, historians, and other experts — is that the Electra ran out of fuel over the dark, trackless Pacific. The plane crashed into the ocean, taking its crew with it.

Known as the “crash and sink” theory, it has simple logic in its favor. Cloudy conditions and lack of communication between the Electra and the Itasca could certainly lead to the plane flying far off course, and Earhart had transmitted that the aircraft was running out of fuel before her disappearance.

But there have been other theories about what happened to the pioneering aviator. Some conspiracy theories posited that she survived the crash, changed her name, and continued living her life as an unknown New Jersey housewife. Others thought she and Noonan were actually spies for the US government — this despite the fact that Earhart was a committed pacifist and opposed all war.

One theory held that she was shot down by Japanese planes. Some variations on this theory state that the plane simply sunk to the bottom of the sea; others say that Earhart and Noonan were taken prisoner and died, or were executed, in a Japanese internment camp.

The “evidence” used to bolster this theory includes a photograph of what looks like a white woman sitting with her back to the camera, as well as a Saipanese woman who claimed to have witnessed Japanese soldiers executing Earhart and Noonan. The photograph was later identified as having been taken years before Earhart’s flight, and the Saipanese woman’s claims were never corroborated.

The theory that seems to have the most staying power in the American imagination is that Earhart landed the plane in the atoll of Gardener Island, where she and Noonan lived for an unknown period of time before dying of starvation, exposure, injury, or some combination of the three.

The theory does have some evidence — however slim — to its credit. The first is the series of mysterious radio transmissions people claimed to have heard around the Pacific and even as far away as Florida. Many of these claims were hoaxes, but others aren’t so easily dismissed. One Florida girl claimed she heard a woman’s voice saying she was Amelia Earhart, and pleading for help. Others heard transmissions that included Earhart’s flight call letters — not something the general public would know.

Another piece of possible evidence: a piece of aluminum found on the island that could be a piece of her wrecked plane. It’s veracity is hotly disputed, though. On one hand, it doesn’t match any parts that would be found on an Electra. On the other, it could be from a repair patch installed over a window while the plane was in Miami, done by a Pan Am factory. The pattern of rivets matches that shown in a photograph of the patched window. But on yet another hand, manufacturer’s marks found on the aluminum weren’t in use until years after Earhart’s crash. Needless to say, experts are divided on whether this piece of metal is indeed a piece of the Electra’s wreckage.

Then there was the mysterious skeleton found on the island several years later. At first, it was identified as belonging to a woman of about Earhart’s age and height, raising hopes that these were Earhart’s remains. But another anthropologist who studied the remains said they were those of a much taller, and much older, man. The bones themselves were subsequently lost, so there is no way to know for sure.

As I said, the evidence is thin. When the original rescue plane flew over Gardener Island, the crew saw no evidence of a crash, and no one signalled to them. Surely experienced aviators like Earhart and Noonan would have been on the lookout for a rescue plane and made some effort to make their presence known.

Even after numerous searches of Gardener and other islands, not one definitive piece of evidence has emerged to shed light on exactly what happened to Earhart. Yet the Gardener Island castaway theory lives on — maybe because we just can’t seem to accept that such a brave, capable woman could have died so ignominiously. Maybe we want to think that even in an impossible situation, she still would have landed her aircraft and survived — that her death was caused not by her failure, but by the failure of those tasked with rescuing her.

Despite meeting such a tragic end, Earhart lives on as a pioneer in aviation, a feminist icon, and an inspiration to girls and women. In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory. All across the US, streets, schools, and airports are named after her. Her birthplace, Atchison, Kansas, became a virtual shrine to her memory. And awards and scholarships in Amelia Earhart’s name are given out every year.

In the end, perhaps it’s not so terrible that Amelia Earhart is best known for attempting something extraordinary — and failing spectacularly. In a letter to Putnam written just before her doomed flight, she wrote, “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Rest in power, Amelia.

Obsessed with true crime.

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