The Mysterious Amelia Earhart

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
What happened to Amelia Earhart? It was the question on everyone’s mind when she disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. The 39-year-old was the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic Ocean, skyrocketing her to international fame. Despite all her public acclaim, the disappearance of Earhart shocked the nation. Years after her disappearance, she was presumed dead, but still to this day, no evidence of her disappearance has been recovered. Here, we’re digging into the history of the famed pilot to try to uncover the story of the mysterious Amelia Earhart. 

What Happened?

In 1936, Earhart began devising a plan to fly around the entire world. Her aim was to make the longest flight around the planet, 29,000 miles, surpassing the distances of other pilots in previous years. She modified her classic Lockheed Electra 10E to allow for more fuel storage, humorously calling it her “flying laboratory.” She selected Fred Noonan, an American flight navigator and sea captain to help guide Earhart on her journey. Soon, her plan was being set into motion.
During her first attempt, Earhart set out from Oakland, California on March 17, 1937. Due to issues with the propeller hubs, Earhart and her team was forced to stop for repairs in Honolulu, Hawaii. Three days later, the crew went to take off again when an issue with the landing gear set Earhart back even further from reaching her goal. With the aircraft experiencing severe enough damages, it was sent back to Oakland for repairs, and the mission was called off. 
Her second attempt began with an unpublicized stretch between Oakland and Miami. After a successful flight, she announced her plan to circumnavigate the globe. Earhart and Noonan left Miami on June 1, 1937 and after several stops in South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, the pair finally landed in Lae, New Guinea. So far, 22,000 miles had been completed, leaving the remaining 7,000 to fly over the Pacific Ocean. It appeared that Earhart was going to hold the new record for the longest flight around the world.

A Lockheed Electra plane.On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae, intending to land at Howland Island 2,556 miles away. Around 3 PM, Earhart reported she was going to drop from 10,000 feet to accommodate for thick clouds. Two hours later, Earhart reported she was at 7,000 feet traveling at 150 knots. This was among the last known communications from Earhart. Their last known position was above the Nukuman Islands, roughly 800 miles into their journey. 

Search Efforts

Beginning one hour after her disappearance, the United States Navy launched one of the largest search missions it had ever conducted. For three days, a search was conducted around Howland Island, guessing on Earhart’s possible location based on when she made her last communication. A week into the search, a naval aircraft flew over the uninhabited Phoenix Island, then known as Gardner Island, south of Howland Island. The pilot reported that there were clear signs of habitation, but no sign of a plane or life. 
Search efforts lasted until July 19, 1937. After $4 million had been spent with little information gathered, the search was suspended. Looking back, we’re able to recognize the search strategies implemented at the time were rudimentary, with little strategy put into where it was taking place. Earhart’s husband vowed to keep the search going. He requested that she be declared dead so he could become the trustee of her estate in order to fund private searches of the Pacific Ocean. Earhart was officially declared deceased on January 5, 1939. 

What Are the Theories?

Most people agree that Earhart and Noonan crashed into the ocean and sank before they could free themselves from the wreckage. It’s possible that they ran out of fuel while searching for Howland Island. A mistake could have been made while navigating to the island. The aviators were crossing several time zones. Had there been a slight miscalculation, it could have set them at least 60 miles off their target. Navigator and aeronautical engineer Elgen Long and his wife spent the better part of 35 years studying this theory. Long concluded that due to poor planning and a lack of fuel, Earhart crashed into the ocean not far from Howland Island.
Another theory posits that in their inability to locate Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan would have searched for other islands to land on then send up a transmission for help. The favored island in this hypothesis is Gardner Island. This is where a Navy pilot saw evidence of life, and speculated that Earhart could have landed the plane in the island’s central lagoon before swimming ashore. However, it was later uncovered that this human evidence was the result of the SS Norwich City wreck, not Earhart’s. In October 1937, a group of people walked around the island, but found no proof of Earhart’s plane. In April 1940, a set of bones were found on the island, but after examination, he concluded that they belonged to an adult male. 

Amelia Earhart.In 2012, a photo taken of a reef off the coast of Gardner Island in 1937 was enhanced. In the image was what looked consistent with the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra, Earhart’s plane. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) searched the area more thoroughly, and found an aluminum panel matching the Electra, along with a piece of Plexiglass that was used for the window in that model of aircraft. Due to technological problems, TIGHAR was unable to probe underwater for any further remains. However, in 2017, after noticing the distinct rivet pattern in the aluminum, researchers suspected this was not Earhart’s plane. Villagers of a nearby island said their ancestors might have moved the debris from another crash. For researchers, it was another dead end. 
One of the most controversial theories involves the Japanese. While navigating the Pacific on water, some claim Noonan and Earhart were captured by Japanese forces. This theory came to light in 1990, when a Saipanese woman claimed to have witnessed their execution. However, no evidence has been uncovered to support her story. Others guessed that the Japanese might have shot down Earhart’s plane. Islanders on Marshall Island claim to have witnessed a crash in the ocean, and a U.S. Army Sergeant found suspicious unmarked graves near a former Japan prison camp on Saipan, a nearby island. Many of the theories having to do with Japan are disputed by claiming those who found the crashed aviators would have favored the opportunity to rescue the Americans and be regarded as heroes. Today, theories involving Japanese forces have largely been discredited. 

What Are the Legends?

Along with the evidence-based speculation as to the disappearance of Earhart and Noonan, there arose an equal number of legends that gained public popularity. Some claim Earhart was spying on the Japanese in the Pacific for President Roosevelt. In 1949, the U.S. Army Intelligence stated this theory was factless, but nonetheless it has persisted. Another theory is that Earhart survived the flight and managed to move to New Jersey, where she assumed a new identity. However, once again, this was a theory with no substantial evidence. 
The mystery of Amelia Earhart has captured the imaginations of Americans for over 80 years now. As with most mysteries in American culture, a variety of theories have risen to try to explain what may have happened. Today, the most popular explanation states that Noonan and Earhart crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Howland Island due to misguided navigation, or a shortage of fuel. In short, we may never fully understand what happened to Earhart, but her story will never cease to inspire and enthrall those who listen.