The name of Amelia Earhart is well-known for a variety of reasons. A pioneer of the aviation industry, Earhart was the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, before going on to set a slew of other records in a distinguished career. Earhart was known across the United States for her achievements. She was attempting to complete a treacherous journey around the world when she disappeared. Her life and disappearance have fascinated many. In this article, we look at the disappearance, and theories behind it.
Earhart was born in Kansas, USA in 1897. As a child, Earhart had a penchant for exploring, and a natural intrigue around air travel. After attending college, Earhart was 23 at the time of her first flight – which kick-started a life-long love affair with aviation. She immediately started learning to fly after her first taste of aviation – working a series of jobs in order to do so. It didn’t take her long to learn, and in 1923, Earhart was granted a pilot’s license, becoming just the 16th woman in the US to do so.
Over the next decade, Earhart would forge a highly-distinguished aviation career. In 1932, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Her journey took almost fifteen hours, and upon return, Earhart received a hero’s welcome. Over the years, Earhart became a celebrity – helped by a blossoming friendship with President Herbert Hoover. Earhart quickly became known as the ‘Queen of the Air’, and attracted several endorsement deals, such was her level of fame.
Further achievements and ventures would follow. In 1935, Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California. Several speed records were set during races. As 1937 approached however, Earhart set herself the goal of completing a circumnavigation around the globe. Earhart formulated a plan for the journey, which involved flying alongside Fred Noonan – a navigational specialist. Noonan would join for some of the journey, before Earhart would fly a portion of the route alone.
Earhart took off in March 1937 from Oakland, California. However, the flight was a disaster – with various mechanical problems causing Earhart to only make it to Hawaii. Repairs were made, which allowed Earhart to attempt a second takeoff, but again trouble would brew. An uncontrolled ground-loop would take place, which ruined the aircraft. Again, the aircraft was sent for repairs. It would take until June 1937 for another attempt to be launched.
This time, Earhart and Noonan took off from Miami, Florida, and stopped off in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia over the course of the next few hours. They made their final scheduled stop off in Papua New Guinea. Just 7,000 miles remained in their journey. Their intended destination was Howland Island – an American territory around 1,500 nautical miles from Hawaii. The duo left Papua New Guinea, hoping to complete their journey.
What happened in the next few hours isn’t totally known. USCGC Itasca – a huge US Navy ship – was at Howland Island to assist the final descent. The intention had been to guide the aircraft to the Island using radio communications. Yet it appears some of the equipment aboard Earhart’s aircraft was faulty. Transmissions from Earhart were received, though she appeared to be unable to receive transmissions. Problems too with frequencies led to further communication troubles.
Earhart sent a transmission noting their gas was running low, and that they were flying at just 1,000 feet. The signal from this transmission was strong – suggesting the aircraft was in the immediate area of Howland Island. Yet Earhart was unable to find it, largely due to communication problems. A further hour later, another transmission arrived, with Earhart and Noonan stating they believed they had reached Howland’s chartered position – but they hadn’t. Efforts were made to communicate via morse code, but the duo weren’t heard from again.
Search efforts were made. The US Navy spent three days searching in the vicinity of Howland Island, along with other areas based upon details from communications with Earhart. Searches would continue for weeks, but, after accruing the most expensive search mission in US history at the time, the search was called off. In total, 150,000 square miles were searched. Private searches would be carried out for years, but there has been no sign of Earhart, Noonan nor the aircraft. Earhart was declared legally dead in 1939.
- Crash and Sink: Statistically the most likely outcome – that Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel while desperately trying to find Howland, before the aircraft eventually plunged into the sea, leading to death. The aircraft struggled without proper communications with Itasca. This does appear to be the most plausible explanation, though the fact that the search effort covered 150,000 square miles, yet found no trace, does raise questions over whether or not this truly happened.
- Gardner/Nikumaroro Island: If Earhart and Noonan survived, this theory would then become the most plausible. Various expeditions to this Island have been launched, though nothing concrete has been found. However, various points support a theory that the aircraft landed on Gardner Island. The duo may have awaited rescue that never arrived. In support of this theory:
- Many have suggested that an experienced pilot like Earhart wouldn’t have spent precious minutes looking for Howland, instead playing it safe and landing somewhere else. The most plausible location could be Gardner Island – now part of Kiribati.
- During searches, the Island appeared to show signs of recent habitation, despite it being uninhabited for around 40 years.
- Human remains were found on the island in 1938. Unfortunately, only limited tests could be carried out, as crucial bones were misplaced. But a 2018 study looked at the limited tests. The study looked at a sample of Americans who died in the 20th Century, and also took into account Earhart’s approximate bone measurements. The group came to the conclusion that Earhart’s bone measurements matched the bones found to a stronger degree than 99% of the sample. However the study has been criticised since.
- A photo from 1937, taken from the reef at Howland Island, appeared to show a ‘blurry object sticking out of the water’, which was purportedly consistent with the aircraft’s landing gear.
- Japanese Capture: Another suggestion is that Japanese forces captured Earhart and Noonan. This could’ve happened if the aircraft navigated to an area in the South Pacific which was under Japanese control. A 1966 book suggested the aircraft crashed on the island of Saipan – a Japanese territory. Saipan is over 2,700 miles away from Howland Island however, leading some to discredit this theory. Some have suggested the Marshall Islands was the actual area Japanese forces captured the duo.
- In 1990, NBC aired an episode of ‘Unsolved Mysteries’, which included an interview with a Saipanese woman who claimed to have witnessed the execution of Earhart and Noonan by Japanese soldiers. The authenticity of this interview was never determined.
- A 2012 book suggested that Earhart and Noonan crashed on the Marshall Islands, before being captured and executed. This was based upon residents who claimed to have witnessed a crash.
- Other supporters of this theory have cited witnesses suggesting Japanese trips cut an aircraft into small pieces. This would at least be consistent with the lack of aircraft being found. In any case, the sheer distance of the islands away from Howland makes this theory unlikely. It is also questionable as to why Japanese forces would be so hell-bent on executing the duo – the Second World War was still years away.
- Military Mission: Some have suggested that Earhart was actually on a reconnaissance mission aligned with the US Army. The entire disappearance may have been staged, with Earhart and Noonan either given a new identity upon return, or caught by an enemy. But again, there are questions over why the US would be engaging in such missions, and whether or not Earhart would actually partake in them.
- New Identity: There was also a somewhat-controversial claim that Amelia Earhart had assumed a new identity, after staging her disappearance. The National Geographic Channel aired an episode of ‘Undiscovered History’ looking at the claim. Apparently, Earhart survived the flight and moved to New Jersey, before remarrying – all under a new identity. She was believed to be a woman named ‘Irene Bolam’. The real Irene Bolam subsequently filed a lawsuit, requesting over a million dollars in damages. An out-of-court settlement was reached eventually. Given Earhart’s celebrity status, it is unlikely she would be able to assume a whole new identity. This theory doesn’t hold too much credence.
- Alien Abduction: No mysterious disappearance at sea would be complete without a theory of alien abduction. With Earhart, Noonan and the aircraft never seen again, it is possible that aliens abducted the duo, along with the aircraft, leading to an unknown fate.
The ultimate fate of both Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan is unknown – and all these years on, it remains unlikely that we’ll ever find out. Earhart left a strong legacy behind – being known for her charisma, courage and independence. Her aviation records are seen in the contemporary age as being well ahead of the time. If the flight did indeed end in disaster – in some ways it was a fitting way to go out, doing so while doing something she had devoted her life towards.