The Mystery of Amelia Earhart

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Amelia Earhart standing under nose of her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra. Gelatin silver print, 1937. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of George R. Rinhart, in memory of Joan Rinhart

For the last seventy years researchers have tried to solve an enduring mystery–what happened to Amelia Earhart. Recently new theories have emerged.

In 1937 Amelia Earhart took off on what was billed as an attempt to circle the globe at the equator, roughly 29,000 miles. Nearly 40, Amelia felt she was good for one more spectacular flight, and wanted it to be a memorable one. Her first attempt had to be aborted when she crashed her Lockheed 10E Electra in Hawaii.

Shaken, but not seriously hurt, Earhart and her husband/promoter George Palmer Putnam raised enough money to repair the aircraft and try again. Earhart took off from Oakland, California to Miami, Florida, where she announced a second try at circumnavigating the world. On this second attempt she had only one crewmember, Fred Noonan, one of the best navigators in aviation. The pair took off on June 1, 1937.

The First Stages of the Round-the-World Flight

The initial stages of the flight were tiring but uneventful. Earhart flew south, making numerous stops in South America, then “hopped” across the Atlantic to Africa. After crossing Africa, it was on to the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, finally landing at Lae, New Guinea on June 29, 1937.

Amelia had completely roughly 2/3rds of the epic journey. About 22,000 miles had been travelled thus far, with about 7,000 miles left to go. But those 7,000 miles would be over the broad and seemingly limitless Pacific Ocean. The first leg was perhaps the most dangerous– over 2,000 miles to a tiny speck of land called Howland Island. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itascawas near Howland to help guide Amelia in if necessary.

Aborting the Amelia’s Flight?

In the 1993 PBS documentary Amelia Earhart: The Price of Courage, biographer Doris L. Rich says that Amelia was in bad shape by the time she landed in Lae. She was physically and emotionally exhausted, and even though she was a veteran pilot, sitting for hours in a cramped cockpit must have taken their toll. By June 29 she had been flying for 40 days, with an average of five hours of sleep per day. Amelia had stomach problems, and according to Rich was wracked with bouts of diarrhea.

In the same documentary, writer Gore Vidal says that she contacted her husband, George Putnam, in the New York Herald Tribune Building the night before she took off from Lae. Vidal maintains she spoke to Putman about ”personnel problems”—a euphemistic hint that Fred Noonan, known to be a heavy drinker, was hitting the bottle again. Her husband told her to abort the flight—just come home. Amelia refused, vowing to continue.

She took off from Lae, New Guinea on July 2, 1937, and was never heard of again. The Itaska did pick up her radio transmissions, but apparently she never heard the ship, though the cutter sent many messages at all frequencies. Again, biographer Rich has said that Amelia didn’t really like using the radio, and never fully learned. She had little knowledge of the Morse code, and Noonan’s expertise was largely in celestial navigation, not radio communication.

Amelia Disappearance Theories

Some have maintained Amelia simply ran out of gas and crashed into the sea. There are a few historians who feel, based on some evidence, that her Lockheed 10E Electra wasn’t fully fueled in New Guinea. It was also discovered later that Howland Island’s position was incorrect on maps and charts.

Another set of theories deal with the Japanese. It is claimed that Earhart went down on Saipan, part of the Northern Marianas, then part of the Japanese empire. Earhart and Noonan were captured, interrogated as spies, and late executed. To date, no indisputable evidence has surfaced to confirm this allegation.

Tighar (International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) is going to mount an expedition to Nikumaroro Island, formerly known as Gardner Island, about 1,800 miles south of Hawaii. They have a theory that Earhart and Noonan survived a crah landing there, and perhaps even sent out radio messages. But no help came, and the castaways died of hunger and exposure. The Tighar researchers already excavated an island site in 2007, where they found pieces of a mirror that match a 1930s compact, and other artifacts.

The Tighar people hope to find more possible proof in 2010, with a view of getting DNA evidence. An anonymous relative of Amelia’s has provided a sample of Mitochrondrial DNA for a reference. The new biopic movie Amelia, which stars Hillary Swank as the flyer, should further interest in the subject.

Sources:

  1. Doris L Rich, Amelia Earhart: A Biography (Smithsonian, 1989)
  2. PBS Documentary Amelia Earhart: The Price of Courage (American Experience series, 1993)
  3. ABC News Broadcast, July 27, 2009, Amelia Earhart Mystery Solved? Investigation Junkies to Launch