Earhart felt guilty about
her fame because she'd only been a passenger on the transatlantic flight, not
the pilot. To remedy this on May 20, 1932, exactly five years after Lindbergh,
she soloed from Newfoundland to Ireland and became the first woman to fly the
Atlantic alone. This earned her audiences with princes, kings and presidents.
She became the first woman to be honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Three months later she broke the woman's non-stop transcontinental speed record
by flying from Los Angeles, California to Newark, New Jersey, a distance of 2448
miles in 19 hours and five minutes. In 1933 she broke the record again by
repeating the trip in 17 hours, 7 minutes and 30 seconds. In 1935 she became the
first pilot, man or woman, to solo from Hawaii to California. Three months later
she became the first to solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City. Then three weeks
later she again soloed from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey.
invited to join Purdue University as a visiting counselor for women students.
She loved her role there and the University decided to establish a special fund
for aeronautical research. Fifty-thousand dollars was given to Earhart to outfit
what she called her "Flying Laboratory": a Lockheed Electra twin-engined
airliner. She had the seats removed and extra fuel tanks put in their place.
With these changes the plane had a fuel capacity of 1204 gallons which gave it a
range of 4,500 miles.
The Around the World Flight
With this new plane
Amelia decided it was time to go for one of aviation's most difficult
challenges: a flight around the world. A team was quickly put together to
support Earhart on her flight. Paul Mantz, an experienced pilot, was hired as
technical adviser. Captain Harry Manning and Commander Fred J. Noonan were
selected as navigators. Clarence Williams prepared the maps and charts for the
flight. It was decided to fly from east to west, so on March 17th, 1937, the
Electra took off from Oakland, California heading for Hawaii.
The first leg
of the trip went flawlessly and the plane arrived in Honolulu fifteen hours and
fifty-two minutes later. The plane refueled and on March 20th it taxied out onto
the runway to make the long trip to tiny Howland Island where the U.S. Navy had
recently constructed a emergency landing strip. The plane, heavily loaded with
fuel, responded sluggishly when Earhart applied the throttle. The plane lurched
to the left then swung right. Earhart tried to compensate, but couldn't. The
Electra groundlooped, the gear collapsed and a wing was torn open. Fortunately,
though fuel poured from ruptured tanks across the ground, there was no fire.
Manning, Noonan and Earhart suffered no injuries, but the Electra had to be sent
back to Lockheed's facility in Burbank for repairs. It was never clear exactly
why the accident happened. Some blamed a blown tire, while Earhart herself
believed that the fuel had not been distributed evenly throughout all the tanks
causing a weight imbalance.
It took less than two months to repair the plane
and a new attempt was scheduled to start on May 20th. Because of the delay,
Captain Manning was unable to continue on as navigator and only Noonan flew with
Earhart. Seasonal weather conditions prompted them to change the flight to go
west to east. The first stop for the Electra (after leaving Oakland) was Tucson
Arizona. On June 1st Earhart left U.S. airspace at Miami, Florida on her way to
The flight went without major incident for over a month. The
plane had small repairs done to it along with several routine engine overhauls
as needed. By July 1st they had reached Lae, New Guinea. About seven thousand
miles remained to be covered. Most of it was over the wide, empty expanse of the
Pacific Ocean. The first leg would take them to Howland Island, a distance of
2556 miles. The plane was loaded almost to capacity with gas. Because Earhart
didn't want to dilute her tank of high octane fuel used only on takeoff with the
low octane fuel available at Lae, the Electra left 50 gallons short of its 1151
The Electra roared down Lae's 3,000 foot runway at 10:30
a.m., July 2nd. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was stationed off of Howland
ready to assist by sending a homing signal to Earhart to guide her in. The plane
flew overnight and should have approached Howland and the Itasca the next
morning, which because the plane was crossing the international dateline, was
Picking tiny Howland Island out of the vast Pacific was a
difficult navigational problem. To solve it, Noonan had several tools. The first
was celestial navigation. By sighting two stars 90 degrees apart from each other
on the horizon and then measuring their height above the horizon, Noonan could
use a set of prepared tables and a clock to figure his position. If the sky was
overcast, and one of Earhart messages from the plane seemed to imply that,
Noonan might not have gotten a two-star fix. If this was the case, he could have
directed Earhart to fly by "dead reckoning." This navigational method is simple,
but prone to error. Noonan would just figure out where the plane was on the map,
then use a compass to calculate the course the aircraft should fly to get to the
destination. Because compasses are sometimes inaccurate and the distance was
long, the Electra could get many miles off course without the crew noticing.
The final method was to home in on the Itasca's radio signal. But, reports
from the Electra seemed to indicate it never received a strong enough signal to
make that possible.
Even if Noonan couldn't get a star fix, when the sun
rose he could use a measurement of its height to figure a line-of-position. This
calculation would tell the Electra's crew where they were east-to-west, but not
north-to-south. They would have to fly north and south along the right line to
find Howland Island. This seems to be precisely what happened. At 7:42 A.M. the
Itasca picked up the message, "We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is
running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet."
The ship tried to reply, but the plane seemed not to hear. At 8:45 Earhart
reported, "We are running north and south." That seems to suggest that for at
least an hour Earhart and Noonan were flying along that line-of-position
searching for Howland.
Those were the last words heard from the Electra. By
that afternoon it was obvious the plane had either gone into the sea, or landed
someplace other than Howland. The U.S. Navy started a massive search. Some
262,281 square miles of the Pacific were examined, but no sign of the Electra or
its crew was found. Noonan and Earhart were declared dead, and the great mystery
of "What happened to Amelia Earhart" began.
Conspiracy Theories Appear
In the first few days following the disappearance, there were some 300
reports of messages being received from Earhart's crashed plane. Undoubtedly,
most, if not all of them were either hoaxes or misunderstandings.
conflict that would become World War II was brewing in the Pacific and soon
after her disappearance it became a popular idea that she had been captured by
the Japanese, or that Japanese forces had shot down her plane, or that she was
working with the U.S. government on a secret mission against the Japanese. This
story was dramatized in a 1943 film, Flight for Freedom starring Rosalind
Russell as a Amelia-Earhart-type flyer. The script followed Earhart's life story
precisely, and extended it by suggesting that the disappearance was engineered
to allow U.S. Naval forces an excuse to case Japanese military installations.
Shortly after the end of the war Jacqueline Cochran, a pilot and friend of
Earhart, traveled to Japan to investigate the role of Japanese women in the
hostilities. While there she claimed she'd discovered several files on Earhart
which later disappeared. Later, in 1965, retired Air Force Major Joseph Gervias
came to the conclusion that Cochran had actually discovered Earhart herself and
smuggled her back into the U.S.. There Earhart set up residence in New Jersey
under a new name. The woman he named as Earhart denied Gervias' assertions.
In 1960 a woman named Josephine Akiyama came forward
with a tale she said took place while she was living on Saipan (a small Pacific
island). In 1937 Akiyama had seen two American flyers there, a man and a woman,
who were being held by the Japanese. Saipan seems an unlikely candidate as an
emergency landing site for the Electra, though, unless Noonan was very, very
Fred Goerner, a CBS broadcaster, took the story seriously and traveled
to Siapan, which was at that time under U.S. administration. He found a number
of residents who remembered the flyers, though there seemed to be no official
record of them. Some reports indicated that the flyers had been executed by the
Japanese, something the government of Japan denied. Goerner hired divers to
search the bottom of the Siapan harbor and they retrieved what looked like
aircraft wreckage. The most interesting piece was what appeared to be an
aircraft starter motor and generator. However ,careful analysis by the
manufacturer proved it was not the one on board the Electra when it left
More stories about Siapan emerged including a report from a man
stationed on Siapan in 1945. He said he'd been shown graves on Siapan that
reportedly belonged to the two mysterious flyers. Another expedition to Siapan
recovered the remains of the bodies, but later examination ruled out that they
were Earhart or Noonan.
Goerner heard other reports that Earhart's plane may
have gone down in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands are much closer to
Howland than Siapan. U.S. Naval personnel stationed in the area during World War
II reported hearing stories from the Islanders that were very similar to those
told on Siapan: Two flyers, a man and a woman, crash landed and were taken
captive by the Japanese. No proof emerged from these accounts either, though
Goerner finally reached the conclusion that Earhart probably crashed in the
Marshall Islands and was later held captive on Siapan.
The Search Continues
Investigations into the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan
continue even today. TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft
Recovery) has an active project trying to determine if the Electra might have
gone down on of a collection of islands called the Phoenix Group which lie on
the same line-of-position as Howland. If the Electra had missed Howland and
turned onto that line heading in a southwardly direction, it might well have
reached one of the small islands of Baker, McKean or Gardner (now known as
Nikumaroro) and crash landed on it. A search of Nikumaroro turned up aircraft
parts similar to those on the Earhart's Electra and a heel from a woman's shoe
from the 1930's. Perhaps these items were Earhart's, but there is no proof as of
yet. Further expeditions to Nikumaroro are planned.
Somewhere, perhaps on
Nikumaroro, perhaps on Siapan, perhaps in the Marshall Islands, maybe at the
bottom of the Pacific, is the evidence that will solve the mystery of what
happened to Amelia Earhart. Will someone find it? Or will this piece of aviation
history remain forever a mystery?