On 2nd July 1937, a brave, determined woman and her navigator, Fred Noonan, flew toward a tiny Pacific Island called Howland Island. It was to be one of the last stops on her attempt to fly around the world. Nearing the destination, Amelia Earhart radioed the Itasca, a United States Coast Guard cutter sailing off Howland’s coast, to ask it to guide her onto land with radio signals. What happened next is an unsolved mystery.
This story starts in December 1917 when Earhart visited her sister in Toronto, over the Christmas period. Earhart saw the returning wounded soldiers from the ongoing Great War. She trained as a nurse’s aide from the Red Cross and began work with the Voluntary Aid Detachment at the former barracks building that had become Spadina Military Hospital. The following year, the Spanish flu pandemic reached Toronto. Earhart was engaged in arduous nursing duties but soon became a patient herself, suffering from pneumonia and chronic sinusitis. Chronic sinusitis significantly affected her flying and activities in later life, and sometimes even on the airfield, she was forced to wear a bandage on her cheek to cover a small drainage tube.
Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 inspired several women to dream of being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. In April 1928, Earhart received a telephone call that would change the course of her life. The call was from Amy Phipps Guest, an extremely wealthy American who had formulated preliminary plans to attempt the transatlantic flight from England. Guest’s plans met with opposition from her family, and after accepting the trip was too risky to attempt, she offered Earhart the chance of a lifetime by agreeing to sponsor the project.
During an attempt at becoming the first woman to complete a circumnavigational flight of the globe in 1937 in a Purdue-funded Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, Amanda Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. They and the plane have never been found.
Solo Firsts and Plans for Round the Globe
On 20th May 1932, 34-year-old Earhart set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, intending to fly to Paris to emulate Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight. After a flight lasting 14 hours, 56 minutes, Earhart landed in a field near Londonderry, Northern Ireland. As the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, Earhart received the Distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honour from the French Government, and the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society from US President Herbert Hoover.
On 11th January 1935, Earhart became the first aviator to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California. In April of that year, she flew solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City. The next record attempt was a nonstop flight from Mexico City to New York.
Between 1930 and 1935, Earhart set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records in various aircraft. By 1935, recognising the limitations of her “lovely red Vega” aircraft in long, trans-oceanic flights, Earhart mulled, in her own words, a new “prize … one flight which I most wanted to attempt – a circumnavigation of the globe as near its waistline as could be”.
The Race to Fly around the World
On 17th March 1937, Earhart and her crew flew the first leg from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii. Due to mechanical problems, the aircraft needed servicing in Hawaii – in the end, the aircraft ended up at the US Navy’s Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. The next destination was due to be Howland Island, a small island in the Pacific but the flight never left Luke Field – during take-off, the forward landing gear collapsed, and both propellers hit the ground. With the aircraft severely damaged, the attempt was called off, and the aircraft was shipped by sea to the Lockheed Burbank facility for repairs.
While the aircraft was being repaired, additional funds were raised, and preparations were made for a second attempt. This time flying west to east, the second attempt began from Oakland to Miami, Florida. The flight’s opposite direction was partly the result of changes in global wind and weather patterns along the planned route since the earlier attempt. On this second flight, Fred Noonan was Earhart’s only crew member. The pair departed Miami on 1st June 1937 and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian sub-continent, and Southeast Asia, arrived at Lae, New Guinea, on 29th June 1937. At this stage, about 22,000 miles of the journey had been completed. The remaining 7,000 miles would be over the Pacific Ocean.
On 2nd July 1937, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae Airfield. Their intended destination was Howland Island – a flat sliver of land 6,500 ft long and 1,600 ft wide, and 2,556 miles away.
The aircraft departed Lae Airfield with about 1,100 gallons of fuel. At around 3 pm Lae time, Earhart reported her altitude as 10,000 feet but that they would reduce altitude due to thick clouds. Around 5 pm, Earhart reported her altitude as 7,000 feet and speed as 150 knots.
Their last known position report was near the Nukumanu Islands (formerly Tasman Islands), about 800 miles into the flight.
In preparation for the trip to Howland Island, the US Coast Guard had sent the cutter Itasca to the island. The vessel offered many services, such as ferrying news reporters to the island and communication and navigation.
The plan was for the Itasca to:
- communicate with Earhart’s aircraft via radio; transmit a radio homing signal to make it easy to find Howland Island without precise celestial navigation;
- Use radio direction finding if Earhart used her 500 kHz transmitter;
- Use an experimental high-frequency direction finder for Earhart’s voice transmissions; and
- Use her boilers to “make smoke” (create a dark column of smoke that can be seen over the horizon).
Through a series of errors or misunderstandings, all of the navigation methods failed to guide Earhart to Howland Island. Sporadic signals were reported for four or five days after the aircraft’s disappearance, but none yielded any understandable information. Nobody knows what happened next, but there are plenty of theories.
Theories for disappearance
Most historians hold to the simple “crash and sink” theory, but several other possibilities have been proposed, including several conspiracy theories, some of which are:
- They landed elsewhere: It has been suggested that Earhart and Noonan survived and landed somewhere else but were either never found or killed, making en-route sites like Tarawa unlikely. Proposals have included the uninhabited Gardner Island (400 miles) from the vicinity of Howland, the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands (870 miles at the closest point of Mili Atoll), and the Japanese-controlled Northern Mariana Islands (2,700 miles from Howland).
- Crash and sink theory: Many researchers believe that Earhart and Noonan simply ran out of fuel while searching for Howland Island, ditched at sea, and died.
- Gardner Island hypothesis: The Gardner Island (Nikumaroro) hypothesis assumes that Earhart and Noonan, having not found Howland Island, would not waste time searching for Howland. Instead, they would turn to the south and look for other islands.
- Japanese capture theory: Another theory is that Japanese forces captured Earhart and Noonan, perhaps after somehow or other navigating to a location within the Japanese South Seas Mandate.
In its official report at the time, the Navy concluded that Earhart and Noonan had run out of fuel, crashed into the Pacific and drowned. A court order declared Earhart legally dead in January 1939, 18 months after she disappeared. From the beginning, however, debate has raged over what actually happened.
The search goes on
Several expeditions have tried to locate the plane’s wreckage. By studying Earhart’s final radio transmissions and calculating what is known about the aircraft’s fuel supply, researchers have narrowed their search to a 630-square-mile area of ocean. You can read what National Geographic say here.
In 2021, an image suggesting Amelia Earhart’s plane was submerged at the Taraia spit in Nikumaroro lagoon (formerly Gardner Island) was seen. It is believed it may be Earhart’s final resting place. To discover more, visit https://roadtoamelia.org/
Amelia Earhart is one of history’s most prominent figures in aviation, having inspired numerous movies, books, and plays. Born in 1897 in Kansas, Earhart rose to fame because of her trailblazing accomplishments as a female aviator. At the time, being both a woman and a pilot meant being met with many obstacles, and even her own family discouraged her from learning how to fly. However, despite those challenges, she set many records in aviation and became the first female pilot to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean.
On 6th May 2021, /PRNewswire issued a Press release suggesting that Amelia Earhart’s plane may have been found submerged at the Taraia spit in Nikumaroro lagoon, formerly known as Gardner Island and believed to be the final resting place of the pilot and her navigator. You can read about it at: https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/amelia-earharts-plane-possibly-found-in-nikumaroro-lagoon-301285325.html
Source and Further Reading
- YouTube Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LC5ukgIzHL0
Picture Credit: “Amelia Earhart” by miss_rogue is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0