What Really Happened to Amelia Earhart?
It’s been 80 years since Amelia Earhart was declared dead in absentia by a court on January 5, 1939. While many years have passed since her disappearance, Earhart’s story still captivates the public imagination. The fate of the most famous female pilot in aviation history is considered to be one of modern history’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
So what really happened to Amelia Earhart? Read on to learn about Earhart’s life, the circumstances surrounding her fateful last flight and the many theories about her disappearance.
Amelia Earhart: A Flight Pioneer
Earhart first became interested in flying at age 23 after visiting an airfield in Long Beach with her father and going on a plane ride. She later recounted the experience in her book “Last Flight” saying: "By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly." Earhart started working odd jobs to save up money for flying lessons and eventually to buy her own plane.
Earhart’s First Circumnavigation Attempt
On March 17, 1937, Earhart set out on her first circumnavigation attempt. Her crew included navigators Fred Noonan, Harry Manning and stunt pilot Paul Mantz. They first flew from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, where they stopped to service their plane, a Lockheed Electra Model 10, that had been financed by Purdue University.
The Second Attempt
Earhart was eager to try again after her first failed circumnavigation attempt. On May 21, 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Oakland, California to start the first leg of their trip around the globe. This time, they chose to travel the opposite direction: from west to east.
While Earhart’s initial crew included navigators Fred Noonan, Harry Manning and stunt pilot Paul Mantz, Noonan was the only crew member on the second attempt. Noonan was an experienced seaman and navigator from Chicago. Earhart and Noonan had met a few years earlier through mutual friends in Los Angeles.
Because neither Earhart nor Noonan knew morse code, Earhart chose to remove the CW (telegraph code key) from her plane. Earhart also decided to remove an antenna that would have allowed her and Noonan to transmit messages at the 500-kilocycle marine frequency.
A Successful Start
After departing from Miami in June, Earhart and Noonan’s flight path took them to Brazil, Dakar, Khartoum, Bangkok and Darwin, Australia. On June 29 they arrived in Lae, New Guinea, their last stop before crossing the Pacific Ocean.
Before leaving Lae, Earhart sent a telegram to her husband, publisher George P. Putnam, that read: "RADIO MISUNDERSTANDING AND PERSONNEL UNFITNESS PROBABLY WILL HOLD ONE DAY." It’s unclear what personnel and radio issues Earhart is referring to in this telegram, but it appears that she was ultimately undeterred; Earhart and Noonan departed for Howard Island on July 2 at 10 a.m. It was the last time that either of them would be seen again.
The Approach to Howard Island
Fourteen hours after her departure, the Itasca received a fuzzy transmission from Earhart about “cloudy weather.” The cutter continued to receive increasingly clearer transmissions from the Electra as Earhart approached.
At this point, those aboard the Itasca realized that a crucial oversight had occurred. The plan for the approach had been for the Electra to hone in on radio signals from the Itasca, using a radio direction finder (RDF) to determine where the ship’s transmissions were coming from, and to then set a course for the signal. On the approach, however, it became clear that the Electra wasn’t able to receive messages from the Itasca due to issues with its radio equipment.
With no reply from the Itasca, Earhart continued to send messages letting those onboard know of the plane’s status. At 7:42 a.m., Earhart radioed in saying “CLNG ITASCA WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE YOU BUT GAS IS RUNNING LOW BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO WE ARE FLYING AT A 1000 FEET.”
After Earhart’s last radio transmission, the Itasca attempted to signal her plane by using their oil-fueled boilers to generate billowing smoke. Those onboard the ship attempted to signal Earhart and Noonan using both voice transmissions and morse code, but any replies received were either very weak or garbled, and the Itasca was unable to confirm any further communication from Earhart.
The Search for Earhart
Once it became clear that the Itasca had completely lost communication with Earhart, the US Navy kicked off an ambitious search and rescue mission. Planes from the battleship Colorado flew over the area where Earhart was last thought to be, including Gardner and McKean islands and the nearby Carondelet Reef.
Citizens Continue the Search
While the official search mission concluded shortly after Earhart disappeared, the unofficial search is still far from over. Perhaps because no physical evidence of the plane or its crew was ever found, or due to Earhart’s popularity, the public has continued to question what became of Earhart and Noonan.
The Electra Crash-Landed in the Pacific
The theory that Earhart’s plane simply ran out of fuel while she and Noonan were searching for Howard Island is seen as the most plausible. Her last messages to the Itasca indicated that she was running dangerously low on fuel, and there weren’t many other landmasses for the Electra to safely land on.
The Plane Landed on Another Island
An alternate theory suggests that Earhart was able to land safely, but on a different island than planned. The International Historic Aircraft Recovery Group believes that Earhart landed safely on Gardner Island, a sandy strip of land now called Nikumaroro.
The Jaluit Harbor Photograph
In 2017, a discovery in the National Archives led many to believe that Earhart had landed safely on nearby Jaluit Island. The photograph, which was discovered by a retired federal agent, depicts Jaluit Harbor with several individuals standing on a pier. Facial recognition experts have determined that two people in the photograph are good matches for Earhart and Noonan.
Earhart Was Taken Prisoner by the Japanese
The theory that Earhart was a Japanese prisoner is still popular to this day, despite the fact that very little evidence exists to support it. The idea was first proposed in the 1960s and was supported by the book “Amelia Earhart Lives,” written by former Air Force major Joseph Gervais.
Earhart Was a US Spy
In his book, “Lost Star,” Randall Brink argues that Earhart and Noonan were never actually supposed to land at Howard Island. Brink asserts that Earhart’s circumnavigation attempt was a cover for her work as a US spy. His theory is that the purpose of Earhart’s trip over the Pacific Ocean was to identify and monitor Japanese island military installations and report back to the US.
Earhart Took an Alternate Identity
Even less plausible is the theory put forward by author Joe Klass — that Amelia Earhart was first captured by the Japanese, held prisoner, eventually rescued by US forces and returned to the US under a different identity. Klass promoted the theory that Earhart, tired of the spotlight, chose to take on a completely new identity: as housewife Irene Bolam.
She Was Abducted by Aliens
Hands down the craziest theory on Earhart’s disappearance is that on the day she disappeared, she made contact with an alien spacecraft, and was either shot down or abducted. This theory persists despite the fact that its origins are unclear, and there is absolutely no evidence to support it.
Film and Television Coverage
“Star Trek: Voyager” wasn’t the only TV show to include a plotline about Earhart. The true crime series “In Search Of” devoted an episode to the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance in 1976. After the episode, titled “In Search Of Amelia Earhart” premiered, a number of documentaries about Earhart debuted. One of these was the PBS documentary “Amelia Earhart: The Price of Courage.”
Will We Ever Really Know What Happened?
While Earhart’s disappearance has been the cause of much speculation and debate, it’s possible that we will never really know what happened to her and Noonan after they departed from Lae, New Guinea.