1937 Fifty Years Ago

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The headlines of July 3 stunned the country: EARHART PLANE DOWN … AMELIA LOST IN THE PACIFIC , they read. AE MISSES ISLAND ON LONG HOP … LADY LINDY LOST. Nine years earlier Amelia Earhart had captured the nation’s heart when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a plane. But she had made that journey as a passenger and didn’t feel her fame was justified until 1932, when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Since then Earhart had broken numerous speed records, solo records, and transcontinental flight records, securing a prominent place for herself in aviation’s pantheon of heroes. It seemed incredible that this vital, golden-haired woman of thirty-nine, who said she flew for the fun of it, could be lost somewhere in the endless Pacific.

She had been on what she called her last long-distance flight, a leisurely round-the-world journey that traced the equator from east to west. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had left Miami, Florida, on June 1 in their Lockheed Electra and circled half the globe when they came to the longest and most difficult leg of their trip: the 2,556-mile jump from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island, a two-mile-long, mid-Pacific speck. They took off at noon on July 1 and soon encountered head winds that ate up precious fuel. In the early morning of July 2, Earhart radioed the Coast Guard cutter Itasca: “Gas is running low,” she said. A bad situation grew worse. When they finally reached what they thought would be Howland Island’s location, nothing was there. Earhart radioed the Itasca again: “We are circling but cannot see the island. Cannot hear you.” For a moment she received signals from the Itasca , but she was “unable to get minimum,” she said. “Please take bearing on us… .We are on the line of position 157 dash 337. Will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles. Wait. Listening on 6210. We are running north and south.” It was Earhart’s last message.

By President Roosevelt’s order the Navy searched for two weeks for the downed plane, scouring 250,000 square miles of the Pacific with an aircraft carrier, a battleship, four destroyers, and a minesweeper. Not a trace of wreckage was found. Endless theories immediately sprang up to account for Earhart’s disappearance, including variations on the theme that Earhart and Noonan were spying for Roosevelt over the Japanese Mandated Islands and were shot down and executed.

What most likely happened is that they ran out of fuel and crashed in the ocean, fulfilling Earhart’s wish that “when I go, I’d like best to go in my plane. Quickly.”