There are few mysterious disappearances that have quite managed to capture the imagination as that of female aviator Amelia Earhart in 1937.
Earhart was famous for her exploits in the skies, and had a string of accolades and achievements to her name. She became the first woman in history to fly solo across the Atlantic when she flew from Harbour Grace in Newfoundland to Culmore in Northern Ireland in May 1932 (1). Even more impressively, she became the first person in history –man or woman – to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean when she flew from Honolulu in Hawaii to Oakland, California in 1935 (2).
Along with her solo flight records, Earhart was also the holder of numerous speed and altitude records, and was presented with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) from President Hoover and the Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French government.
Amelia Earhart was a media celebrity long before the term first found popular use. Ticker tape parades were held in her honor, with thousands of people turning out in order to cheer their hero. She contributed to a successful fashion range and she was also an associate editor with the widely popular magazine “Cosmopolitan”.
There really was only one challenge left for Amelia Earhart – to fly around the world. The United States Army Air Service, the precursor of the United States Air Force, had already circumnavigated the globe by air in 1924 (3), but no one had ever done it flying around the equator.
Flying Around the World
After one failed attempt in March 1937 which resulted in severe damage to her Lockheed Electra L-10E aircraft, Earhart and her navigator finally embarked on their historic flight on June 1st 1937 in the now-repaired plane.
Flying from Miami, the pair made numerous stops in Central and South America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia, before landing in New Guinea 28 days and over 22 thousand miles later. With only 7 thousand more miles to the finish line, the next leg would be a 2256 mile trip to the tiny “Howland Island”.
Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea at 10am on July 22nd 1937, but never made it to their destination. A United States Coastguard Cutter (USCGC), Itasca, was stationed near the Island in order to help the flyers land on the narrow strip of land. The Itasca received loud and clear transmissions from the Electra, suggesting they were somewhere in the vicinity, but Earhart reported that they couldn’t hear any transmissions from the ship. russian language school moscow
“KHAQQ [Earhart’s call sign] calling Itasca, we must be on you but cannot see you but gas is running low, been unable reach you by radio we are flying at altitude 1000 feet” (4)
Further reports were received from Earhart, but the USCGC Itasca was unable to establish a visual with the plane and two way communications were being misinterpreted or misunderstood. The final transmission was received 43 minutes later, with Earhart reporting:
“We are on the line of position 157-337, will repeat this message. We will repeat this message on 6210 KCS. Wait listening on 6210 KCS. We are running north and south.” (4)
A massive air and sea search mission was launched, with the United States Navy directing an operation that was to last nearly 3 weeks and cost over $4 million dollars, but ultimately prove fruitless. No sign of the Electra aircraft, Amelia Earhart or Fred Noonan was ever found.
Amelia Earhart was declared dead eighteen months later in January 1939.
Investigating the Amelia Earhart Mystery
There have been many wild and unsubstantiated theories offered for what happened to Amelia.
Her celebrity and popularity ensured the mystery never left the public spotlight, and even now –over 70 years after she disappeared, popular TV shows and Movies such as Star Trek Voyager and Night at the Museum 2 have used her character in their storylines. Close Encounters of the Third Kind even had Amelia returned to earth after being kidnapped by Aliens.
One theory suggested the flight was an elaborate scheme to spy on the Japanese at the behest of President Roosevelt, another said she crashed on Saipan and was executed by the same Japanese and a further theory suggests she survived a crash landing in the Pacific Ocean and returned to the US with a new identity.
Other wacky theories about her disappearance all involve the Japanese in some way, with most of them originating at the end of the Second World War by returning servicemen (5). However unbelievable those theories are, at least they don’t have her being kidnapped by aliens as some people want us to believe!
There are two other explanations that are more than likely to be closer to the truth about what happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.
The first has them crash landing into the Pacific, resulting in their death and the complete destruction of the plane. The other explanation has them crash landing either on or close to a small Pacific island and surviving for a short time after. The latter theory now has some tantalising evidence to supporting it.
The International Group for Historical Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) run “The Earhart Project”, and is based on what they believe to be cast iron evidence that provides a comprehensive answer to the mysterious disappearance.
According to TIGHAR, Earhart and Noonan landed the Electra on a reef just off Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro,) a not impossible feat because the reef is dry at low tide. The pair would have been able to reach the shore, and may also have managed to send several distress calls while the aircraft was still on “dry land”.
Some distress calls were received by various sources, but many of these were deemed to be hoaxes. However, some of those calls are believed to be genuine and lend support to TIGHAR’s hypothesis about the Amelia Earhart mystery.
The TIGHAR Investigation
A week after the disappearance, three US Navy planes flew over Gardner Island and even reported “signs of recent habitation”, but believing the island to be inhabited they thought no more about it and flew on.
However, what they didn’t know at the time was that no one had lived on the island since 1892. By the time the three planes flew over, the Electra had probably been washed over the reef by rising tides and surf, causing them not to see the landing site. The TIGHAR researchers also believe that Earhart and Noonan survived for a short time on the waterless island, but ultimately died there.
“One week after the flight disappeared, three U.S. Navy search planes flew over Gardner Island. By then, the distress calls had stopped. Rising tides and surf had swept the Electra over the reef edge.
The available evidence points to a landing on the reef on the west end of the island. One of the last credible distress calls mentioned rising water. The aircraft appears to have been washed seaward and become hung up in the surf zone at the reef edge.
A photo of the area taken by a British expedition three months later shows an unidentified object on the reef edge. Later, residents of the island told of aircraft wreckage in that location.”
The TIGHAR researchers described how during archaeological work on the island, researchers found that island residents had made use of bits and pieces of the aircraft wreckage. Evidence uncovered in the village area included aluminum and plexiglass that would have been found in Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.
Evidence shows that Earhart and Noonan were likely castaways for as long as they could survive under difficult conditions.
Earhart and Noonan lived for a time as castaways on the waterless atoll, relying on rain squalls for drinking water. They caught and cooked small fish, seabirds, turtles and clams. Amelia died at a makeshift campsite on the island’s southeast end. Noonan’s fate is unknown.
In 1940, three years after Earhart disappeared, a British Colonial Service officer found what many thought might be Earhart’s skeleton near a campfire, animal bones and a box with a sextant and a man and woman’s shoes. Unfortunately the skeleton turned out to be that of a male, not a female.
However, later computerized re-evaluation of the bones revealed that the skeleton was more likely a northern European white female, approximately Amelia Earhart’s height.
TIGHAR researchers explain:
“TIGHAR has found a site on the island that fits the description of where the castaway’s remains were found in 1940. Archaeological excavations in 2001, 2007 and 2010 have found and recovered physical evidence suggesting residence by an American woman of the 1930s including several artifacts of the same type as items known to have been carried by Earhart. TIGHAR research has shown that serial numbers reported to have been on the sextant box found in 1940 are consistent with the make and model of sextant used by Fred Noonan.” (6)
An Enduring Mystery Survives
TIGHAR have recently returned from an expedition to the island where they had hoped to find solid evidence of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft, evidence which would close the book on the Amelia Earhart mystery once and for all.
Sadly, due to underwater conditions at the site affecting their equipment, the team were unable to spend as much time on the island as they hoped. While they did record hours of high definition video and collected huge amounts of sonar data from the site, they failed to find any actual aircraft debris.
The group is planning to return to Nikumaroro next year, when they will continue their search of what they believe to be Amelia Earhart’s final resting place. In the meantime, the Discovery Channel will be airing a documentary on the 19th of August, when the group’s final analysis of the recently collected sonar data and video will be shown, along with information relating to the artifacts already found at the site.
Their evidence is already extremely convincing. If they could only find that small, final piece of the jigsaw puzzle that still eludes them, TIGHAR will have finally solved one of the most enduring mysteries of our time – What really did happen to Amelia Earhart?