Of all the American female aviators in history, Amelia Earhart has captured the world’s imagination the most. The longevity of her story, perhaps, can be credited as much to her own iconic image as to the mysterious and unfinished ending of her tale.
In honor of Amelia Earhart Day (July 24th), we look at the evolution of the famous pilot’s career, the mystery surrounding her demise, and what’s being done today to solve it. As most readers are aware, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in the Pacific without a trace on July 2, 1937, during an attempt to fly around the world in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra aircraft. Earhart would have been the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Now, 75 years after her disappearance, the non-profit organization TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) has stepped up their decades-long effort to solve the puzzle of what happened to Earhart and Noonan that fateful July day.
Dubbed The Earhart Project, TIGHAR first organized an official investigation into the plane’s disappearance in 1988. Since then, they’ve led several expeditions and have returned to the remote island of Nikumaroro, part of the Pacific nation of Kiribati, where they believe additional evidence of Earhart’s crash may remain. At the time of her disappearance, Amelia Earhart was one of the most famous women of her generation and is, even today, the most well-known female aviator of all time. She was the first woman to cross the Atlantic as an airplane passenger in 1928. This experience made her eager to break records as a pilot instead of a passenger, which made her feel like she was “just baggage.” Earhart became the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic in May 1932. She also flew solo from Honolulu to Los Angeles, making her the first person, male or female, to fly over both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Though she was not considered an enormously talented aviator, she was determined to pave the way for other women to achieve their best in all fields. Her dedication led her to win several speed and distance records in aviation.
By 1937 Earhart had established herself as a major pilot at a time when aviation was making regular headlines. Married to master promoter and publicist George Palmer Putnam, she cultivated her image as a modern woman, with her iconic short hair and leather jackets. As her career wore on, though, Earhart become tired of the publicity she generated. She decided to pursue one last aviation goal: to become the first woman to fly around the world. Earhart and co-pilot Fred Noonan embarked on the journey on March 17, 1937, taking off from Oakland, California.
From the start, the trip was plagued with problems, including mechanical issues and weather challenges. But she and Noonan forged on. They had completed 22,000 miles of the trip when they landed in Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. She had become ill with dysentery but was determined to finish the trip; only 7,000 miles of the historic journey remained. Earhart and Noonan’s goal on July 2 was to reach Howland Island, which was located about 2,500 miles away, between Hawaii and Australia. They never made it to their destination. Immediately after their disappearance, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized a massive search effort to try to find Earhart, Noonan, and anything that may have remained of their plane. Despite pouring about $4 million dollars into the rescue effort, few solid clues were turned up. Earhart’s husband George Putnam continued the search, working with naval sources to try to determine their fate. But by 1939, the search was called off and she was officially declared dead.
Both conspiracy theories and plausible guesses about what befell Earhart and Noonan emerged after their disappearance. While some of the more outlandish theories argued that they had deliberately crashed or that Earhart was a spy captured by the Japanese, most experts believed that she and Noonan either crashed and plunged into the sea or that they landed on Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) and lived for a short period before perishing. Despite the discouraging results of past searches, over the years, some promising pieces of evidence have come to light, showing that Earhart and Noonan may not have died on impact. Investigations have located pieces of clothing, small tools, and even a piece of Plexiglass that could have been from her plane on Nikumaroro. Experts have also studied documents that reveal that Earhart’s plane had more fuel that originally thought, along with eyewitness accounts that have placed her on the island. Until now, though, none of these leads have resulted in conclusive evidence.
Most recently, the TIGHAR team discovered a jar of what they believe to be anti-freckle cream broken into several pieces on Nikumaroro. Earhart’s dislike of her freckles was well-known, and TIGHAR researchers believe this could be a solid lead connecting her to the island. In addition to the jar, they have also found a zipper manufactured in the 1930s and a piece of a woman’s compact; investigators also came across fish and eel bones on the island that indicated preparation by non-natives. Could these, too, be clues that Earhart and Noonan had survived for a period of time on the island?
These items have given researchers a shadowy but persistent hope that there may be more to find. Specifically, TIGHAR experts say that a photo taken in October 1937 reveals an object sticking out of the water near the shoreline of Nikumaroro. The items in the photo, they say, have a striking resemblance to a Lockheed Electra strut and wheel. Will TIGHAR finally “find” Amelia Earhart, providing a true end to her story three-quarters of a century later? Other than answering the question of what happened to Amelia Earhart in the physical sense, questions will always remain about how her story would have ended differently had she lived. Would Earhart have continued to break aviation records? Would her star have continued to rise, or would she have receded away from the public eye? Would she continue to press for change for women, or would she have retired quietly? We will never know the answers to these deeper questions, but perhaps, in the near future, we may know much more about the final chapter of Earhart’s fascinating life.
Visit TIGHAR online at www.tighar.org to follow updates about The Earhart Project’s latest expedition.