- Historic Sites
Seventy-five years ago the "first lady of the air" vanished over the Pacific Ocean attempting to circumnavigate the globe. Today there may be renewed hope of solving the mystery.
Summer 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 2
At 2:45 a.m. on July 2, radio operators across the International Date Line on the Itasca, the Coast Guard cutter sent to guide Earhart to safe landing on the island, heard Amelia for the first time. At 6:14 a.m. she announced that they were 200 miles out. At 6:41 she asked the Itasca to take a bearing on her signal and radio a position. An hour later, a worried Amelia radioed that she had not heard anything from the ship. “I must be on you, but cannot see you,” she reported, adding that “gas is running low.” The radiomen at Howland were receiving a strong signal from Amelia, but she could not hear them.
At 8 a.m. Amelia reported that she had finally heard the Itasca, but could not home in on the signal. Forty-three minutes later, twenty hours and thirteen minutes after lifting off from the runway at Lae, she was back on the air, announcing that they were flying on a compass line of 157 to 337 degrees, searching for Howland. Then there was silence. Earhart and Noonan had vanished.
The government launched the most extensive search ever undertaken for a single aircraft. For 16 days, 10 vessels, 4,000 crewmen, and 65 aircraft searched an area of the Pacific roughly the size of Texas without turning up a single clue.
What had gone wrong? There is no evidence to suggest that Noonan’s navigation was at fault. The real problem was poor communications planning including misunderstandings relating to the times and frequencies when Amelia would transmit and receive. They were confident that they were close to the island, but without being able to take a radio fix on the Itasca, they had no idea in which direction of fly. This time, Amelia had taken one risk too many.
She was gone, but not forgotten. Within four months conspiracy theorists were accusing the U.S. government of using Earhart’s disappearance as an excuse to over-fly the Japanese-mandated Marshall Islands in search of forbidden military installations. The release of an RKO picture, “Flight to Freedom,” in April 1943, popularized the “Amelia the spy” theory. A pair of biographies published in 1960 cited native testimony to suggest that Earhart and Noonan had been captured by the Japanese and held on Saipan. Even more bizarre theories allowed Amelia to survive. One writer suggested she wound up as one of several “Tokyo Rose” broadcasters.
What are we to make of all the conspiracy theories? Is there a small flame of truth flickering somewhere beneath all that smoke? Most likely not. In three-quarters of a century of looking, no researcher has produced a shred of hard evidence to suggest that Earhart and Noonan were either spies or prisoners of the Japanese.
By the late 1980s, while conspiracy theorists continued to churn out books, public interest in the disappearance of Amelia Earhart was on the wane. Then came TIGHAR, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. The story begins in 1984, when Ric Gillespie, a charter pilot and aviation accident investigator, launched a search for L’Oiseau Blanc, the biplane in which French aviators Charles Nungesser and François Coli disappeared during a 1927 attempt to fly the Atlantic.
It was generally assumed that the pair had crashed into the ocean. On the basis of a magazine article suggesting that a fisherman heard the aircraft fly over a remote section of the Maine woods on that day in 1927, however, Gillespie organized an initial reconnaissance of the area. Discovering that enthusiasts were eager to join the search, he established TIGHAR, a nonprofit foundation, in 1985. Twenty-three years and 20 TIGHAR expeditions later, Nungesser and Coli are as lost as ever.
Gillespie envisioned an organization that would do a good deal more than search for missing flying machines. He would promote the highest standards of historic aircraft preservation, staging international symposia in the field in cooperation with museums, and offering classes and field experience for those interested in “aviation archaeology,” the responsible investigation of historic aircraft crash sites. That said, it was the Indiana Jones factor that attracted members, funds, and public attention. There was the allure of participating in the solution of a fascinating historical mystery, including the possibility, if you could afford it, of an adventurous journey to a remote archaeological site in search of aviation’s Holy Grail—incontrovertible evidence of Amelia Earhart.
In 1988 two TIGHAR recruits approached Gillespie with an intriguing proposal, arguing that Earhart and Noonan, having missed Howland Island, might have decided to aim for the British-controlled South Phoenix Islands 350 miles to the southeast. The notion was not a new one. In the wake of the disappearance, the direction-finding radio stations of Pan American and World Airways located at Hawaii, Wake, and Midway Islands had picked up faint, indecipherable signals that seemed to be coming from the Phoenix Islands. Could the lost aviators have landed there and broadcast until their batteries died? Dispatched from Pearl Harbor to participate in the search, the USS Colorado steamed directly to the Phoenix group and employed its three catapult-launched Vought O3U-3 Corsair floatplanes to reconnoiter the major atolls making up the group. If Amelia and Fred were there, the aviators did not see them.