On 2 July 1937, American aviatrix Amelia Earhart departed from Lae, New Guinea on the penultimate leg of her record-breaking attempt to fly around the globe equatorially. Her next destination was Howland Island, a strip of land in the Pacific Ocean less than two miles long, where she would refuel her Lockheed Electra airplane. Amelia never arrived at Howland. The US Navy mounted a massive search and rescue operation, but neither Amelia nor her plane was ever found. Seventy-five years after she disappeared, her final fate remains one of the greatest historical mysteries of the last century.
By the time of her world flight attempt, Amelia Earhart was a prominent name in aviation circles and one of America’s most famous women. Born in Kansas in 1897, she first took to the air as a passenger for ten minutes in 1920, a trip that cost her father Edwin ten dollars. This experience prompted Amelia to save money for flying lessons, which she began under the tutelage of Anita Snook in December 1920.
She purchased her first plane, nicknamed ‘the Canary’ in July 1921 and became only the sixteenth woman to be granted a pilot’s licence. The Canary was later sold due to financial difficulties, but Amelia continued to pursue flying opportunities, undertaking numerous part-time jobs to fund her passion. Aviation was neither a reliable nor viable career path, however, and eventually Amelia settled as a social worker in Boston, still taking to the air whenever time and money allowed and becoming a well-known figure around the local air fields.
Putnam and Publicity
Although a competent flier, Amelia was by no means exceptionally skilled and it was ultimately her courage, determination and the publicity strategies of George Putnam that eventually brought her fame and fortune. Charles Lindbergh had been the first person to fly across the Atlantic solo in 1927 and Putnam subsequently published Lindbergh’s account of the trip. Knowing that adventure stories were much sought by the public, Putnam recognized the profile-raising possibilities that would arise were a woman to make such a perilous journey by air. Amelia Earhart’s name was brought to his attention as a girl with the right sort of image for this endeavour.
Now 30-years-old, Amelia’s sense of adventure was as keen as ever and here was an opportunity she couldn’t refuse. In June 1928, she became the first female to fly the Atlantic, in a plane piloted by Bill Stultz. Although this event was greatly publicized and Amelia’s bravery applauded, she felt her newfound fame was in some ways unjustified, as her role of ‘Commander’ had not involved handling the plane at any stage. Nevertheless, she embraced her status as a media personality and Putnam kept her firmly in the public eye through a series of lecture tours. Along with various advertising endorsements, these lectures generated enough money for Amelia to continue flying and she was soon known as the number one woman in American aviation.
After refusing his proposals at least once, Amelia married George Putnam on 7 February 1931. With his support, in May 1932 she flew the Atlantic solo, landing in Derry in Northern Ireland. She was the second person to ever make the flight alone and the first woman. With records in speed and altitude already under her belt, the Atlantic flight cemented her celebrity pilot status and Putnam continued to ensure that every media opportunity was capitalized upon.
In addition to setting several records in aviation, Amelia was a dedicated spokesperson for women’s rights and a firm believer that women were equally as capable as men of having fulfilling careers and achieving great feats. In the late 1920s she helped to found The Ninety-Nines, an organization for women pilots which still exists today. In 1935, she became women’s counsellor at Purdue University in Indiana, where she conducted a survey into whether female students wanted to pursue careers after graduation. Ninety-two per cent of those women who completed the survey said they did. Purdue provided much of the funding for the Lockheed Electra in which Amelia would endeavour to become the first woman to fly around the world. She dubbed the Electra her ‘flying laboratory’.
Amelia first attempted to circumnavigate the globe in March 1937. Also on the plane were technical advisor Paul Mantz, Harry Manning and renowned navigator Fred Noonan (pictured with Amelia). The venture ended abruptly, however, as when taking off from Hawaii for the second leg, the Electra crashed on the runway. Although nobody sustained any injuries, the plane itself was severely damaged. Amelia claimed that a tire had blown, but some witnesses indicated that the accident was actually the result of pilot error. It would not have been Amelia’s first crash, by any means. In spite of this setback, she remained determined and on 1 June began her attempt again to fly around the world again, this time travelling from west to east and with Noonan as the sole passenger.
Although they experienced numerous delays on their journey, by 2 July 1937, Amelia and Noonan were ready to leave New Guinea. Over 20,000 miles were behind them but they were now embarking on the most dangerous and difficult leg over the Pacific Ocean. It would take at least eighteen hours to reach Howland and the US Navy Coastguard cutter Itasca was waiting off the island to send the Electra radio bearings which would guide Amelia to land. After Howland, Amelia’s final destination was California, where her husband was already arranging press calls to welcome the triumphant arrival of the first woman to ever fly around the world.
Lost over the Pacific
After learning that Amelia had left Lae, Itasca anxiously awaited signals from KHAQQ, her call sign. It was over fourteen hours into her flight when the ship first identified her making contact, but the signals were weak. When Amelia’s voice was heard, she did not acknowledge any signals sent from Itasca. Fears that she could not hear Itasca were confirmed in a strong transmission logged at 7.42am, after nineteen hours in the air:
‘We must be on you but cannot see you. But gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio…’
Itasca’s requests for Amelia to transmit on different frequencies so they could take a bearing were met with static. She was heard for a final time, however, around an hour later, when she said:
‘We are on the line 157-337…We are running on line north and south’.
Two hours later, nothing further had been heard and Itasca began steaming north in search of the lost Lockheed Electra.
Nine ships and sixty-six aircraft became involved in the search for Amelia and Noonan in the following days, an effort that cost an estimated four million dollars but yielded no positive results. This official mission was called off on 18 July. After privately funding other searches which also proved fruitless, George Putnam had Amelia officially declared dead in 1939. By this time her life and disappearance had already acquired something of a mythic status in the public imagination.
Both in the immediate aftermath of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance and in the intervening years, several theories have been forwarded as to what happened to her and Noonan when they failed to reach Howland Island. The ‘crash and sink’ theory asserts that the Electra simply ran out of fuel somewhere over the Pacific and inevitably came down in the ocean. Whilst this is entirely plausible, other explanations have been more far-fetched, such as the claim that Amelia was captured by Japanese troops and forced to become the one of the World War Two radio propagandists known as Tokyo Rose. It was also suggested that she secretly returned to the USA and assumed a new identity, that of Irene Craigmile Bolam. Mrs Bolam herself refuted this theory repeatedly.
The ‘crash and sink’ theory is often the most widely accepted explanation of Amelia’s fate, however research undertaken by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) supports another possibility: that the Electra came down on Gardner Island, a small atoll in the Phoenix Island group around 300 miles south-east of Howland.
An Island Castaway?
Gardner Island is today known as Nikumaroro and is part of Kiribati. During the search for Amelia in July 1937, signs of recent habitation were reported by US aircraft passing over Gardner Island, but no further investigations were made as it was believed to be colonized. In fact, the atoll had been uninhabited since 1894. Whilst many radio distress calls reported in the days after 2 July were revealed as hoaxes, some were considered genuine. If Amelia was calling for help, her plane had to be on land for the radio equipment to function. TIGHAR have demonstrated that numerous bearings taken from the radio signals thought to be genuine pass in the vicinity of the Phoenix Islands. In July 1937, nobody else in this area had a working radio.
TIGHAR have led several expeditions to Nikumaroro over the past twenty-three years and have recovered various artefacts that point to an American woman of Amelia’s era. Amongst these items of physical evidence are two pieces of glass that exactly match the mirror in a 1930s cosmetic compact and parts of a woman’s shoe. TIGHAR have also identified possible aircraft wreckage in a 1937 photograph and have found traces of a castaway campsite.
Could Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan have made it to land and survived for a time as castaways on Nikumaroro? TIGHAR’s research to date tantalisingly suggests that this is what happened, although nothing has been found that concretely proves their theory. However, another expedition is heading to Nikumaroro today [2 July] to search for the lost Electra in the ocean surrounding the island’s coral reef. Seventy-five years after Amelia Earhart failed to reach Howland Island, will the mystery of America’s favourite missing person finally be solved?
See also Jemma’s article on the Cottingley Fairies.