Nowadays, air travel is commonplace. You can get a flight to almost anywhere in the world with enough money and a little bit of notice. But in the ‘30s, air travel was just starting to be possible, and world records were just waiting to be set.
Many of the world firsts in aviation were set by Amelia Earhart. To this day, she is the world’s most recognizable pilot. Her legacy has been immortalized in museums, literature, art, and film for decades. Most of this is because she was an incredible woman who did what many believed was impossible.
But partially, it’s because she disappeared under suspicious circumstances. During an attempted circumnavigational flight in 1937, her aircraft lost all contact with those on the ground that were supporting her. She, her navigator Fred Noonan, and her beloved Electra aircraft have never been found, and there is no conclusive evidence as to what became of them.
Amelia Earhart: An Incredible Woman
Amelia Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897. From her twenties onward, she began gaining experience as a pilot, and her love of the air was unmatched. In 1928, she became the first-ever female passenger to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. She accompanied pilot Wilmer Stultz for this flight and was tasked with keeping the flight log.
It was this initial world-first that made her a celebrity. By 1929, her endorsement was being used to market everything from luggage to women’s clothing, to Lucky Strike cigarettes. She was a huge supporter of commercial air travel, which was barely in its infancy at the time.
In 1932, she became the first woman to make a nonstop solo transatlantic flight. Amelia completed the feat in a Lockheed Vega 5B, and the flight took her 14 hours and 56 minutes. While she was in the air, she had to contend with strong northerly winds, icy conditions, and multiple mechanical issues. This led to her receiving rewards from multiple countries for this achievement. These include United States Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Cross of Knight from the Legion of Honor, and the National Geographic Society’s Gold Medal.
Setting World Records and Advocacies
Her record-setting didn’t stop there. Between 1930 and 1935, she set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records in multiple aircraft. This was a feat that no one had ever managed. She was the first person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California on January 11, 1935. Many had attempted this, but none had been successful. Earhart reported that this flight was fairly routine, with good weather conditions and no technical issues with her plane.
Alongside being one of the world’s most brilliant pilots, Earhart was a huge influence on women’s rights. She was a member of the National Woman’s Party and an early supporter of what would eventually become the Equal Rights Amendment.
She was good friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. A visiting faculty member at Purdue University, they would eventually fund her final flight. Her function at Purdue was two-fold. She was a consultant to their aeronautical engineering department and a career counselor for female students.
Around the World
Despite the fact that she had many aviation records under her belt, Amelia Earhart was not finished with doing the impossible. In early 1936, she began planning a flight that would circumnavigate the entire globe. Though this had been done by other pilots, her planned flight path was the longest by far at 29,000 miles. This was due to her insistence that she stay as close to the equator as possible.
Purdue University agreed to finance her effort, and she had a Lockheed Electra 10E built to her exact specifications in July 1936. She made her first attempt in March 1937. But it ended at Luke Field in Pearl Harbor when the Electra made an uncontrolled ground loop during takeoff that collapsed the forward landing gear. The plane just skidded along the runway.
Their second attempt involved some changes to the route. They planned flying west to east, rather than east to west. This was due to changes in global wind and weather patterns on the designated flight path. For this flight, her only passenger was Fred Noonan, her navigator.
Neither he nor Earhart was proficient radio operators. They had initially planned to take along another navigator named Harry Manning, who was radio proficient. However, he had backed out after the first attempt.
The flight departed from Miami on June 1, 1937. It made several stops in South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia before they arrived in Lae, New Guinea on June 29. They had completed 22,000 miles of their journey by this point. Only 7,000 remained, but all of these would be over the Pacific Ocean.
Last Flight of Amelia Earhart
The Electra took off from Lae at midnight GMT on July 2. Their next stop was supposed to be Howland Island, 2,556 miles away. At around 3pm that day, Earhart reported their altitude at 10,000 feet, but noted that they would be reducing altitude due to a thick cloud cover. Then, around 5pm, she reported an altitude of 7,000 feet and a speed of 150 knots. This was her last known communication with Lae.
The rest of the communications for their approach to Howland Island were supposed to be handled by the USCGC Itasca naval vessel, which had been stationed at the island specifically to assist the flight. They were tasked with communicating with the Electra and guiding Earhart towards the island once they had entered the vicinity.
However, due to a series of either errors or misunderstandings – there are still a ton of conspiracy theories about the circumstances, but we’ll stick with the innocent explanation for now – the plane’s final approach towards Howland Island failed.
Misunderstandings and Fortuitous Circumstances
It was possible that the issues were caused primarily by a misunderstanding between the technicians aboard Itasca and Earhart – they could have been planning their communications using different time systems. It’s thought that Earhart could have been using Greenwich Civil Time, while the Itasca would have been using a Naval time designation system. These systems run a half-hour apart.
Additionally, the expectations were that Itasca would be transmitting signals to the Electra that they would use as an RDF beacon to find the ship. But the plane’s RDF system had failed due to a blown fuse in the Darwin leg of the flight. Itasca had its own RDF equipment that it could have used, but it could not operate at the frequency that the Electra was using. On top of all of this, there was no voice communication between Itasca and the plane. The technicians couldn’t even tell Earhart to switch to a more appropriate frequency.
During the plane’s approach to Howland Island, the Itasca received strong, clear voice transmissions from Earhart identifying as KHAQQ. But it quickly became apparent that she couldn’t hear any of their responding transmissions.
Last Messages and Transmissions
Her first calls were routine weather reports, and they were received at 2:45am and just before 5am on July 2. These were broken up by static, but the aircraft would have still been a significant distance from the ship at the time, so that was understandable.
At 6:14am, another call was received, stating that the plane was within 200 miles of the ship and requesting that Itasca use their direction finder to provide bearings for the aircraft. Earhart started whistling into the microphone to provide a continuous signal for them to home in on, but it was at this point that the technicians realized that the Electra’s signal was in a frequency that was too high for their RDF equipment to use.
An Itasca radio log for position 2 at 7:42 am states:
KHAQQ CLNG ITASCA WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE U BUT GAS IS RUNNING LOW BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO WE ARE FLYING AT A 1000 FEET
Earhart’s transmissions received at 7:58 stated that she could not hear the Itsaca. She asked them to send voice signals so that she could try and take a radio bearing to find them. This particular transmission was reported by the Itasca as being the loudest possible. It indicated that the plane was in their immediate area. They couldn’t send voice signals like she asked, but they did send Morse code signals. Earhart confirmed that she received. However, she could not determine their direction.
Amelia Earhart’s last known radio transmission came in at 8:43am on July 2:
“We are on the line 157 337. We’ll repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.”
This transmission indicated that the Electra was flying along a line of position – running N-S on 157-337 degrees – that Noonan would have calculated and drawn on a chart as passing directly over Howland Island.
Her transmissions indicated that she and Noonan thought they had reached the charted position of Howland Island, which was known to be incorrect by approximately 5 nautical miles. The Itasca generated smoke from her boilers for a while in an attempt to signal the plane, but there is no indication that they were able to see it due to the scattered cloud cover in the area.
And with that, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan vanished into the ether.
It’s uncertain if any further transmissions could have been received from the Electra – if any did exist, they were garbled beyond understanding. Sporadic garbled signals were reported for four or five days after all radio contact was lost, but none yielded any information indicating where the plane was or what had happened to it.
About one hour after her last recorded message, Itasca conducted a search both north and west of Howland Island, based on initial assumptions about their position based on their transmissions. The US Navy joined the search soon after, sending all of their available resources to the area. No sign was found of the plane or its occupants. Later efforts moved the search to the Phoenix Islands, situated south of Howland Island, with the thought that Earhart and Noonan had gotten lost and landed or crashed there instead.
The Search Continues
Naval aircraft from the battleship Colorado flew over several islands in the group, including Gardner Island – modern day Nikumaroro – which appears in multiple theories later. The island had been uninhabited for 40 years and included a lagoon that looked both deep and wide enough to have accommodated an impromptu aircraft landing.
The official searches lasted until July 19, 1937. It was the most costly and intensive search by the US Navy and Coast Guard at the time, costing approximately $4 million. Unfortunately, the search and rescue techniques at the time were rudimentary at best, and the area was not well charted, leading to misunderstandings about the terrain and ocean where the plane was believed to have disappeared.
Immediately after the official search ended, Amelia Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, financed a private search by the local authorities. It focused on nearby islands in the Pacific, mostly the Gilberts. He also chartered two small boats for a search later that month. This covered the Phoenix Island, Christmas Island – now Kiritimati, Fanning Island – now Tabuaeran, and the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. But, just like in the military search, no trace of the Electra, Earhart, or Noonan were found.
Putnam also went to probate court in Los Angeles to become the trustee of Earhart’s estate. He did this to could continue to finance the searches. He had the seven-year waiting period for her to be declared dead in absentia waived. She was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939.
Most historians believe that the aircraft simply crashed into the ocean after running out of gas and sank. However, there are plenty of other theories proposed by scholars and armchair detectives alike. The most popular of these alternate theories is that Earhart and Noonan somehow survived a crash, or landed the plane in another location, and then either were never rescued or killed.
Proposals for this location include Gardner Island, which was uninhabited at the time, or islands that were controlled by the Japanese at the time: the Marshall Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Gardner Island remains the favorite of these options, considering its proximity to Howland Island.
On September 23, 1940, a British colonial officer from a settlement on Gardner Island radioed his superiors to say that he’d found a skeleton and an old-fashioned sextant box under a tree on a southeastern corner of the island. He thought that the skeleton could have been that of a woman, and he thought immediately that there was a slight chance that the remains were those of Amelia Earhart.
However, when it was examined in Fiji by Dr. D.W. Hoodless of the Central Medical School, they concluded that the skeleton was a male that was at least 45 years old. These bones were unfortunately misplaced in Fiji and re-examination is impossible, but its assumed that this skeleton could not have been Earhart. Additionally, the sextant box that accompanied its discovery was determined to be much older than what would have been used in Earhart’s plane.
In 1988, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery began their investigation of Earhart’s disappearance, and have so far sent ten expeditions to Gardner Island, including ones in 2007, 2010, 2012, and as recent as 2017. They have produced a range of evidence to support the Gardner Island theory, though none is conclusive.
This includes improvised tools, several pieces of metal and glass that could have been from the Electra. They also found a size 9 Cat’s Paw heel that looks like Earhart’s footwear in photographs. They also believe that the lack of human remains is due to resident coconut crabs, who are known to carry bones away after stripping them of flesh.
Other theories posit that Earhart and Noonan could have been somehow captured by Japanese forces. The most prominent source in this theory is a book that was published by a CBS correspondent named Fred Goerner in 1966. He claimed that Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed after crashing the Electra on the island of Saipan. This island is over 2700 miles from their intended destination. However, later adopters of the theory usually prefer the Marshall Islands instead, considering that they are slightly closer to Howland Island. Slightly different versions of this theory include that the plane was actually shot down by the Japanese. But there is no evidence that this would have been so.
Other popular theories include Earhart being a spy for Franklin D. Roosevelt or making propaganda radio broadcasts as Tokyo Rose, but these were investigated by George Putnam personally, and he found no evidence that any of these rumors were true.
Amelia Earhart’s celebrity status made a lasting impression that has persisted long after her disappearance. She is often used as a role model for young girls; typically regarded amongst the highest echelons of feminist icons. Her childhood home is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum. This place is maintained by The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of female aviators that Earhart helped establish. There have been multiple memorial flights along her circumnavigational route. Her name has been featured in multiple museums, memorials, scholarships, and other honors that still exist today.
What happened to Amelia and Fred Noonan that fateful day in 1937 may never be fully known. But we still hold out hope that someday, there will be answers to some of the questions.