Earhart's Last Flight
1st, 1937 was a fairly quiet day. A steel strike has just ended
in the midwestern United States. Senators and Congressmen called
for strict isolationism to avoid being pulled into the conflict
that would soon become known as World War II. Jesse Zelda was
suing newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst for $40,000 claiming
that Zelda had been attacked by a "vicious, wild and dangerous
ostrich" at the Hearst property in San Simeon. Then the news broke:
LADY LINDY LOST!
EARHART DOWN IN PACIFIC
AMELIA'S PLANE VANISHES
PACIFIC CLAIMS EARHART
These headlines heralded the end of the career of
one of the most popular and successful aviators of the 20th century
and the start of a mystery that would puzzle people for over sixty
years: What happened to Amelia Earhart?
Amelia's Early Years
Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1898 in Atchison,
Kansas. Her father was a lawyer and her mother the daughter of
a wealthy judge. Her parent's difficult marriage had a profound
effect on Amelia Earhart's philosophy of life. Her father, Edwin,
was frustrated because he was never able to provide his wife with
the kind of lifestyle she had become accustomed to growing up
in the judge's house. He gave up his dreams and instead worked
as an attorney for the railroad because the position paid the
most. Even with this good salary, there were money pressures on
Edwin and he began to drink. This lead to an alcohol addiction
and the loss of his job.
Edwin moved his family to Des Moines, Iowa, then
to St. Paul, Minnesota. His alcoholism continued, though, and
he found it difficult to find and keep a job. Finally his wife,
Amy, took the children, Amelia and her younger sister, Muriel,
to live with friends in Chicago while Edwin went to Kansas City
to make a new start.
Amelia saw her father's frustration and unhappiness
and determined that she would be an independent woman who could
share responsibilities equally with a man and not be dependent
on him. She graduated from Chicago's Hyde Park High School on
time in 1916 despite the numerous different schools she'd been
moved through. She assisted in a Toronto military hospital during
World War I and afterward enrolled in the medical program at Columbia
University in New York City in 1919. She did well there, getting
A's in Zoology and French and B's in Chemistry and Psychology.
One of her professors said, "She had a great curiosity and fine
ability to synthesize...who knows what she would have discovered
if she had chosen the research laboratory rather than aviation
as a career?"
It was not to be, though. Her father was able to
open a law office in California and Amelia and her mother moved
back in with him. While there, Amelia attended an air show and
her father arranged for her to take a trial flight. In the air,
Amelia realized she'd found her calling.
Snook with Earhart.
She immediately arranged to take lessons on
an installment plan from Neta Snook, the first woman graduate
of the Curtiss School of Aviation. Later she took additional training
from John Montijo, a former Army instructor. In June 1921 Amelia
Earhart took her first solo flight.
Earhart soon became a fixture around the airfield
in her leather flying jacket, khaki pants, boots and scarf. Her
skill increased with her hours in the air and she won grudging
respect among the male flyers.
In 1922, with the help of her father, she purchased
a sport biplane built by William Kenner. That same year she used
her plane to set her first aviation record which was the maximum-altitude-obtained-by-a-woman-pilot:
While things were going well for Earhart in the
air, her family was having problems back on the ground. Her parents
divorced in 1924. Amelia decided to put her aviation on hold,
sold her plane and bought a car. She used the car to drive her
mother across country to settle in Medfort, Massachusetts where
Amelia's sister, Muriel lived. Amelia returned to her studies
at Columbia University, but withdrew before the semester was over.
Earhart later told friends, "That semester convinced me that I
didn't have the qualities to be an M.D. For one, I lacked the
patience. I wanted to be doing something, not preparing for it."
In 1926 she accepted a position as a social worker
at a settlement house in Boston. She might have made a career
in social work if it hadn't been for a phone call two years later
from a man named George Palmer Putnam.
The Flight of the Friendship
In 1919 a U.S. Naval flying boat had crossed the
Atlantic to Portugal via the Azores Islands. In 1927 Colonel Charles
A. Lindbergh made the first solo flight from New York to Paris.
The world was going wild for aviation and Mrs. Frederick Guest
of London decided that it was time for a woman to make the cross-Atlantic
Mrs. Guest, who was wealthy, purchased a tri-motor
Forkker aircraft and planned to hire a crew to take her on the
flight. After reassessing the dangers involved, Mrs. Guest decided
to back out and allow another girl "with the right image" to take
her place. George Putnam, from the publishing company G.P. Putnam's
Sons, who hoped to publish an account of the trip, started searching
for a replacement. He hoped to find a girl with a flier's license
and an extraordinary amount of courage. He found Amelia Earhart.
Putnam proposed the project to Earhart. She would
have liked to have been more that just a passenger on the flight,
but realized it would still be a great adventure. Wilmer L. Stultz
was selected as the pilot. The Forkker was flown to Trepassey
Bay, Newfoundland and there the crew of three waited for good
weather. On June 17th, 1928 it cleared and the Forkker, which
had been christened Friendship, took off. It landed in
Burry Port, Wales with less than an hour of fuel still on board.
The flight brought instant fame to Earhart including
a ticker-tape parade through New York City. George Putnam assisted
Earhart with her account of the flight published as 20 Hrs.,
40 Mins.. After the book was done, she set out on a lecture
tour and later took a position as Aviation Editor on Cosmopolitan
After Putnam's divorce in 1930 he went on a campaign
to win Earhart as his wife. He proposed several times before she
finally accepted. They were married on February 7th, 1931. George
probably wasn't the perfect mate for Earhart but he did provide
her a business manager and media spokesman all rolled into one.
Most importantly, from Earhart's point of view, Putnam never tried
to curtail her freedom to fly.
George arranged for Earhart to promote everything
from cigarettes (though she didn't smoke) to pajamas to luggage.
She did put the brakes on some of Putnam's plans. When he wanted
to sell a small ribbon meant for children and decorated with her
signature Earhart told him, "Forget it, George. I won't be a part
of cheating youngsters. Adults are supposed to know better, but
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.
Earhart was 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 Puerto Rico.
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 gallon capacity.
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 July 1st..
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.
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
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.
The 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
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 lost.
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 Oakland.
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
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
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?
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