Mysteries sometimes take on a life of their own, particularly when a famous individual is involved. This is certainly the case with Amelia Earhart, the celebrated aviator who vanished in 1937, and whose final location or remains have never been identified. Few women of the 20th century attained the notoriety of Earhart, who was the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic; this feat led to her being awarded multiple and international honors, and a career as an author and lecturer which fueled her standing as an early feminist. The world has changed immensely since that era, and several generations have virtually no sense of who Earhart was, yet the mystery continues to generate news stories, theories, and speculation. All these years later, and the world is still not satisfied without knowing what exactly happened to a skilled woman pilot who was legendary even in her own day.
Facts of the Case
The facts of Earhart’s disappearance have been exhaustively documented. By July 2, 1937, Earhart was on her way to setting the longest around-the-world flight, with 7,000 miles to go from New Guinea; essentially, the last leg of the journey was crossing the Pacific. She and Fred Noonan, her technician, were headed for Howland island, a miniscule stopping point between Australia and Hawaii. 19 hours into this trip, however, communications from Earhart indicated serious trouble. She repeatedly radioed the U.S. Coast Guard, standing by to guide her to the island, that fuel was running low and she could not see the destination, although she knew they were very near. Her communication also indicated that, for unknown reasons, the message from the Coast Guard ship were not heard by her, and radio navigation was not successful in guiding her to Howland Island. The last message from Earhart came at 8:43 a.m.: “’We are on the line 157 337… We are running on line north and south’ – indicating that she was following a particular bearing in the hope of stumbling across her destination” (Nuwer, 2013). Nothing more was heard from Earhart, and within hours the news that one of the most celebrated and admired women of the era was, in a word, lost.
At the time and in the years following, an extraordinary range of explanations has been offered to account for the disappearance. Theories of alien abduction compete with proposals that Earhart in fact staged her vanishing in order to create a new, anonymous identity. On a more realistic level, there is the matter of the investigation at the time, and a massive search was in fact conducted. Part of this was generated by a media frenzy at the time; both the Coast Guard and the press understood how spectacular a rescue-at-sea of Earhart would be. Then, and despite the obvious nature of the emergency, actual fears for Earhart’s safety were minimized when the news spread that her plane was perfectly capable of staying afloat for hours; this was in fact telegraphed to Admiral Leahy, Chief of Naval Operations in Washington. Nonetheless, the orders went out that any and all means to locate the presumably downed aircraft were to be engaged, as the search and rescue teams were confident that Earhart was near Howland Island (Gillespie, 2001, p. 107). As the searches came up empty, and as later investigations would support, there were issues with the methods used. For example, even while it was known that Earhart’s plane might send out distress calls after it was down, the Itasca, the ship in place to support Earhart, tuned into only one of the three potential frequencies. Then, and as that ship’s captain noted, they had virtually nothing to go on save the mysterious coordinates relayed by Earhart. Another immense – and ironic – difficulty involved air searches, because the rescue planes would have to attempt the very problematic flight path of Earhart to Howland Island (Gillespie, 2011, pp. 108-110). Nonetheless, an unprecedented search was undertaken, with absolutely no success in locating Earhart, Noonan, or her vessel.
State of the Mystery
As so much time has passed, the most obvious explanation for the inability to ever find Earhart is that her craft was simply never located, and that she and Noonan died within the vast expanse of the Pacific. As Coast Guard and search teams know too well, finding a submerged vessel when there is no real sense of location is inestimably difficult, and that Earhart’s plane was capable of floating by no means translates to its not having crashed into the water and gone far down. At the same time, there is an explanation based on multiple facts, and going to Earhart’s having briefly survived the crash. For five nights after Earhart’s plane was lost, distress signals were received from a tiny atoll about 350 miles south of Howland Island. Navy planes circling saw no evidence of life below, and dismissed the signals as hoaxes or glitches. A battleship arrived at the atoll but this took a full week, and by then the signals ended. A few years later, a coconut harvesting expedition found several human bones on the site, a woman’s shoe, and a box used to contain navigational equipment. Other expeditions unearthed a woman’s compact, and research has identified that the bones belonged to a woman of European descent, and of Earhart’s size.
A great deal of evidence, then, indicates that Earhart made it to this atoll, then known as Gardner Island. Unfortunately, this would be no easier end for Earhart or Noonan than dying in the Pacific. The island has fish and bird life but, with no tools or skills, survival would be extremely difficult at best. Evidence has also been found of several campfires and broken bottles, possibly used for sterilizing water, but the jagged reefs and violent storms would have required protections Earhart did not possess (Nuwer, 2013). Consequently, the ongoing investigation seems to greatly support that a woman died on that island in that time period, and this, along with the other evidence, strongly suggests that this woman was Amelia Earhart. Without actual proof, however, the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s final flight lives on.
- Gillespie, R. (2011). Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
- Nuwer, R. (2013). “Will we ever… discover what happened to Amelia Earhart?” BBC News. Retrieved 9 July 2014 from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130628-will-we-ever-find-amelia-earhart