Amelia Earhart, or ‘Lady Lindy’, had produced more aerial accomplishments than any female pilot in history. She had already crossed the Gulf of Mexico and flown the Atlantic alone. But on July 2, 1937, while flying what she described to a close friend as ‘her last flight’, the 2,556 mile, last leg of a trek around the world ended mysteriously.
Thirty-nine year-old Amelia and her expert navigator, forty-four year-old Fredrick Noonan, must have been exhausted after having already flown 22,000 miles of their fateful journey. Their journey had begun on May 21, 1937. In a newly rebuilt Electra airplane, Amelia had changed their original flight plan due to adverse weather conditions in the Caribbean and Africa. They had 22,000 miles out of the way and only 7,000 miles remaining in their journey. The 2,556 mile leg from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island was considered particularly hazardous – the 1 1/2 mile long island is difficult to find even with today’s modern aviation equipment. Add to that the fact that the distance they would be required to cover would consume almost all of the fuel in their custom designed Lockheed Electra fuel tanks (they left with 1,000 gallons of fuel, enough to last 20 hours of flying), and you can see that the historic flight was risky to say the least.
As a precautionary measure, the U.S. government had stationed naval ships along Earhart’s route of flight and had ordered the Coast Guard cutter Itasca anchored off the island to provide directional assistance. At 3:45 am, about four hours before her estimated arrival time, Earhart made her first radio contact with the Coast Guard’s Itasca. There would only be a few more of these brief contacts before the world would never hear from Amelia Earhart again.
Amelia made several requests for bearings – at 6:14 a.m., 6:45 a.m., and 7:42 a.m. During her last request she commented that “we must be on you but cannot see you” indicating that she and her expert navigator felt that they must have been right on target but may have been concerned about finding the island. Another contact was made at 8:00 a.m. requesting yet another bearing. At 8:44 a.m. Amelia made her last harried transmission – “We are on the line of position 157 – 337. We are running north and south”. She was never heard from again.
The Search for Amelia Earhart
The fleet of Navy ships and the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, who had never once actually spotted Amelia’s plane, immediately initiated one of the largest search and rescue missions the world has even seen. 40,000 men in 10 ships and 65 government airplanes scoured the Pacific ocean, searching for even the smallest trace of Amelia’s Electra airplane. They reckoned that crash debris or even the lifeboat stored onboard the plane, would have remained visible if the plane had been ditched into the open ocean. During the several days of searching, they found nothing, even though most believed that the empty fuel tanks on the Electra would keep the entire plane afloat. On July 18, after $4 million in costs, the search was called off. George Palmer Putnum, the New York publisher who dreamt up and promoted the attempted flight, continued the search until October at which time he too gave up hope.
Please know I am quite aware of the hazards…I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others. – Amelia in a letter to George Putnum.
Theories of the Amelia Earhart Disappearance
Several theories abound attempting to explain the mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart. One popular theory is that Amelia successfully landed the airplane on one of the smaller uninhabited islands in the area. Modern day searchers have discovered the remains of what appears to be an Electra craft, on one of the islands (location not disclosed). Along with the remains of the craft they found several articles of clothing and evidence the pilots of the downed aircraft may have survived for quite some time.
Some zanier theorists hold that Amelia purposely crashed the plane into the Pacific on a suicide run. Others conclude that she was captured by the Japanese and forced to broadcast to America GIs as ‘Tokyo Rose’.
Another popular theory holds that Amelia guided the Electra north on a clandestine spy mission for the American government to photograph and study the highly secretive Japanese fortifications at Truk, in the Caroline Islands. Shot down or out of fuel, the doomed pilot crash-landed in the Japanese held Marshall Islands and were either executed or jailed. Hundreds of eyewitness reports abound of two Americans pilots, one a woman, coming down in the Marshalls around 1937. To date, the Japanese government has denied these allegations.
Update: Search for Earhart continues
8/13/10 – TIGHAR search accelerates
The ‘Earhart Project’, launched in 1988 by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), seeks to solve the Amelia Earhart mystery using modern day technologies and an extensive worldwide network of investigators. You can view their latest finding on the TIGHAR web site.
10/14/13 – TIGHAR announces new search using manned submarines
A new search will be undertaken by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) which has been investigating her disappearance for years. Costing $3 million, the expedition will use two manned submersibles to search the depths of the ocean around the western end of Nikumaroro in the Pacific.
10/30/14 – Strong evidence found by TIGHAR
The “Maimi Patch” – piece of Earhart’s Electra?
New research strongly suggests that a piece of aluminum aircraft debris recovered in 1991 from Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, does belong to Amelia Earhart’s twin-engined Lockheed Electra. According to researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 77 years ago, the aluminum sheet is a patch of metal (the “Miami Patch”) installed on the Electra during the aviator’s eight-day stay in Miami, which was the fourth stop on her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News:
“The Miami Patch was an expedient field repair. Its complex fingerprint of dimensions, proportions, materials and rivet patterns was as unique to Earhart’s Electra as a fingerprint is to an individual.”
The breakthrough would prove that, contrary to what was generally believed, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, did not crash in the Pacific Ocean, running out of fuel somewhere near their target destination of Howland Island. Instead, they made a forced landing on Nikumaroro’ smooth, flat coral reef. The two became castaways and eventually died on the atoll, which is some 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.
Eerie shortwave radio transcript recorded by 15-year-old girl in 1937
One interesting aspect of the discovery is how a 1937 notebook kept by a young girl may have assisted researchers in finding Earhart’s final location. A 15-year old girl named Betty is listening to her family’s radio from her home in St. Petersburg Florida, tuned to “short wave” frequencies. Her father had run a 60-foot antenna, and the set was capable of picking up transmissions from all over the world. She hears — or believes she hears — the words “This is Amelia Earhart.” This was scarcely uncommon at the time, but what separates Betty from a number of other witnesses is that she kept a notebook of everything she heard and when she heard it.
Below are the chilling pages, documenting what Betty heard on her shortwave radio that day. Included with photocopies of the transcript are TIGHAR’s translation and comments to the right and below the page.