- 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 9 A.M. on the morning of Tuesday March 20, 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped to a podium in the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Dining Room and addressed a roomful of reporters, federal officials, and a sprinkling of female military aviators. Behind her sat the Secretary of Transportation, the foreign minister of the nation of Kiribati, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, underwater explorer Robert Ballard, and Richard Gillespie, executive director of The Investigative Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
Secretary Clinton began by describing her youthful admiration for Amelia Earhart, “a woman who, when it was really hard, decided she was going to break all kinds of limits—social limits, gravity limits, distance limits. Nobody,” the secretary explained, “was there to tell Amelia Earhart she couldn’t do whatever she wanted.”
And now, perhaps, the mystery of Amelia’s disappearance during a 1937 attempt to fly around the world was close to being solved. TIGHAR was returning to a tiny coral spit in the western Pacific in search of her last resting place. “Even if you do not find what you seek,” the secretary concluded, “there is great honor and possibility in the search itself.”
Seventy-five years after she vanished, Amelia Mary Earhart remains our favorite missing person. Along with her friend Eleanor Roosevelt she is perhaps the best known American woman of the 20th century. Hilary Swank, Amy Adams, Diane Keaton and Susan Clark have portrayed her in films. She continues to grace magazine covers, from Air Classics and Air & Space Smithsonian to Marie Claire. “Amelia Earhart, Even Better Than You Think,” read the banner beneath her photo on the cover of Ms., which offered a T-shirt iron-on of Amelia’s portrait in that issue. When Apple issued a set of “Think Different” advertising posters in 1998, Amelia was the first of the iconic figures selected. Steve Jobs wrote the inspirational copy explaining why Earhart, as well as Einstein, Edison, John Lennon, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama were chosen: “Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.”
Amelia Earhart was less than a month from her 40th birthday when she and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared somewhere over the western Pacific on July 2, 1937. She had catapulted to fame just nine years before, when she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic, making the trip with pilot Wilmer Stultz and mechanic Lou Gordon. In May 1932, she became the second aviator, and first woman, to solo the Atlantic, five years to the day after Lindbergh. She set one aerial record after another, climbing into the headlines and working hard to stay there.
Earhart used her celebrity on behalf of the causes in which she believed. She was a leading spokesperson for American commercial aviation. In 1935 Amelia accepted the invitation of Purdue University to join the faculty as a career counselor for young women, an assignment close to her heart. As a teenager, she had kept a scrapbook filled with clippings about women achievers. Once she had the public ear, she spoke out in favor of equal rights for women at every opportunity. Amelia helped to establish Zonta International, an organization for professional women, and the Ninety-Nines, a society for women involved in aviation.
A genuine progressive, Amelia supported political causes in which she believed. She signed a petition from the American Women’s Committee for the Recognition of the Soviet Union, and announced her support for a campaign by the Women’s Committee for Peace and Freedom to cut military spending in favor of increased appropriations to assist the unemployed. A committed pacifist, Amelia nevertheless argued that women should be drafted. She said it was the only way that the sensible half of the population would get some notion of what war was like and put a stop to the whole thing.
Fame came at a price. In order to maintain her status, there was always another flight. By 1935 she was in search of a new challenge and a new airplane to meet it. That fall, Purdue University agreed to supply its new faculty member with $80,000 for a “flying laboratory.” Her husband, promoter George Putnam, managed the acquisition of a twin-engine Lockheed Model 10E Special, a modified version of the ten-passenger Electra that the firm was marketing to the airlines. Fitted with long distance tanks, twin Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines, and a host of special equipment provided by leading aviation manufacturers, Amelia’s new craft was ready for whatever she had in mind.
What she had in mind was a flight around the world at the equator. Her first attempt ended with a ground loop on take-off from Wheeler Field, Honolulu. Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off on the second attempt from Miami on June 1, 1937, bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, on the first leg of their long flight. Over the next month the pair flew across the south Atlantic and Africa, along the foot of the Arabian Peninsula, down through south and southeast Asia to Australia and on to a landing at the isolated port of Lae, New Guinea, on June 29. Three days later, at 10 a.m. on July 2, 1937, the Electra rolled down the dirt runway with 1,100 gallons of fuel onboard and flew off toward tiny Howland Island, 2,556 miles away.
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.
By the fall of 1988, Gillespie had amassed $250,000 in donations, much of it from participants, to finance the first TIGHAR expedition to the tiny island of Nikumaroro, which he believes is the likeliest site for the lost aviators. Twenty-four years and nine expeditions later, Gillespie is still looking. Funding an active program of exploration is expensive. Some support came from the media over the years. The Discovery Channel is reported to have paid $50,000 in 1997 to make a one-hour documentary about one of the trips to the island. A three-person documentary crew from ABC-TV accompanied another trip. Then there was a splashy article in Life magazine. One trip, which included a contract with a firm that conducted sea-bottom searches, cost $483,000. A week before the scheduled departure, the TIGHAR treasury was still $200,000 short. At the last minute wealthy supporters offered no-interest, unsecured loans to close the gap.
It cost Mike Kammerer, founder of the Independent Television Network, $300,000 to purchase media rights to an expedition planned for the fall of 2001. That August, internet sources indicated that an Australian salvage company planned a trip to the island to search a suspected area before TIGHAR arrived. Outraged, Kammerer announced that he would parachute onto “Niku,” accompanied by a film crew and a former Miss World, who would function as “spokesmodel.” Together, they could respond to questions from the media and defend the island against the interlopers. Commenting on his patron’s scheme, Gillespie remarked: “The phrase ‘loose cannon on a rolling deck’ comes to mind.” Fortunately for all concerned, the Australian expedition was cancelled.
It requires a good deal of hype to keep a project like this alive. That is not a problem for Gillespie, as he demonstrated at a 1992 Washington, D.C., press conference. Referring to a half-dozen assorted objects discovered on the island, he argued that the “proof here is apparent for any rational person who looks at it. Present the same evidence to any dispassionate observer, and they will reach the same conclusion. The case is solved.” Others disagreed. Bill Prymak, President of the Amelia Earhart Society, suggested that Gillespie’s finds amounted to “a garbage bag full of nothing.”
As Ric Gillespie notes, “TIGHAR’s case rests on the artifacts found on Nikumaroro.” So, what have they found? A 1996 TIGHAR report documented just 16 artifacts, of which 12 are bits and pieces of assorted aircraft. Nine of those objects are either anonymous strands of wire, or are clearly from airplanes other than Amelia’s. TIGHAR claimed that three pieces of aluminum might have come from an aircraft like the Electra, or maybe not. In the end, the group’s strongest piece of aircraft evidence is a single oddly shaped section of aluminum skin. “There is only one possible conclusion,” Gillespie announced when he unveiled the bent aluminum at the 1992 news conference, “We have found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.” The organization admits that this piece of aluminum is thinner than that used in the construction of the Electra. A comparison of the rivet pattern and other characteristics, however, led TIGHAR to conclude that it might have been a patch used by Lockheed workmen to repair damage to the underside of the fuselage following the Honolulu accident.
Elgin Long, a veteran aviator and Earhart researcher with years of flying experience in the Pacific, wasn’t buying. When Gillespie asked for his opinion on the object, Long recruited a team of experts on the Lockheed Electra, including engineers and workmen who helped to build Earhart’s airplane and were involved in the repairs. They researched the original records, went over drawings and, with a transparent plastic template in hand, surveyed other surviving Lockheed 10s. “We decided,” Long declared, “the fragment could have come from anywhere … anywhere but Amelia Earhart’s airplane.”
Then there are the bones. TIGHAR researchers discovered that 11 human bones were found on the island in 1940, along with a sextant case and parts of a shoe, all of which were forwarded to administrative headquarters at Fiji. The first medical officer to examine the bones pronounced them to be the remains of a Polynesian male. A physician at a medical school on Fiji decided that they were the remains of a “short, stocky European or even half-caste” male.
The bones and other items have long since disappeared, but some measurements of the remains and the medical reports have been preserved. Employing a modern computer program, two contemporary physical anthropologists report that the measurements are “more likely female than male,” and “more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander.” The scientists freely admit, however, that the measurements were “taken over 55 years ago by a now-deceased individual of unknown expertise, with no description of the methods or assumptions employed.” In the end, they conclude: “It is … impossible to know whether the bones … were in fact those of a white female.”
Perhaps TIGHAR’s strongest pieces of evidence are to be found in a collection of nonaircraft relics discovered on Nikumaroro over the years—a thermometer, parts of patent medicine bottles, a broken pocketknife, and other small items. Special attention has been focused on the left sole, heel, and assorted bits of what they insisted was a size nine woman’s oxford of the sort Amelia wore during the flight. In fact, the initial reports from the shoe manufacturer suggested that it was either for a large woman’s foot, or a small man’s. William Foshag Jr., president of the company that manufactured the Cat’s Paw heel, described it as a unisex item, noting that “it could, have been on a man’s shoe.” Unfortunately for the “Amelia’s shoe” hypothesis, Earhart wore size six shoes, a fact confirmed by her sister, and by two surviving pairs of her shoes. Undeterred, TIGHAR measured Amelia’s foot as seen in a photograph, determining that she wore size 8½-to-9 shoes.
The list of odds and ends of American and European manufactured goods collected on the island continues to grow with each expedition. Press releases describing such objects have been distributed at critical moments to keep the TIGHAR effort alive in the media, generating continued public interest. The latest revelation in May 2012 described fragments of what appears to have been a jar of Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment, an American cosmetic.
TIGHAR suggests that while none of these items can be directly connected to Earhart and Noonan, their presence on this remote atoll is convincing circumstantial evidence. Consider that the island, four nautical miles long and a mile-and-a-half across at the widest point, was continuously occupied by Gilbertese natives from 1936 into the 1960s. During World War II the population of the island was supplemented by U.S. Coast Guardsmen manning a Loran navigation station. During the peak years, as many as 200 people were living on the island. We know that number included many women, and at least a few Europeans and one American. That’s a lot of people who could lose or discard the items in question, or run across evidence of the presence of Earhart and Noonan, if there was anything to be found.
But there always seems to be new evidence to keep the hypothesis alive. Early in 2012 a TIGHAR photo analyst determined that the object protruding from the water in a 1937 photo of the lagoon could be the landing gear strut of a Lockheed 10E. The State Department, which had worked with TIGHAR over the years to arrange permission for the repeated searches, was impressed. With Secretary Clinton’s blessing, Gillespie and his team will set off on their tenth expedition to “Niku” in early July. Perhaps the new expedition will uncover hard evidence, the proverbial smoking gun, and prove TIGHAR’s case at long last.
Gillespie and company now face serious competition. For most researchers, the possibility that the aviators went down at sea is still the best bet. If so, the chance of finding them has always seemed remote. In March and April 2002 and again in 2006, Nauticos, a deep-ocean search firm, set out on a 1.5-million-dollar sonar survey of the ocean bottom in the general neighborhood of Howland and Baker Islands, looking for the Electra—17,000 feet down. The group selected a search area based on Elgin Long’s research. They had swept about 630 square miles of seabed, two-thirds of their target area, when technical problems forced them to return to port. Like TIGHAR, they are raising money to complete the job and check ocean-floor anomalies discovered during the first expedition.
Only time will tell if the last resting place of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan will ever be discovered. As for me, I am by no means sure that I want any of the searches to succeed. For seven decades, the mystery of Amelia’s death has fueled renewed interest in her purposeful life.
I would prefer to leave her where she is, and reflect on the 1939 eulogy in song offered by “Red River” Dave McEnery:
There’s a beautiful, beautiful field
Far away in a land that is fair.
Happy landings to you Amelia Earhart
Farewell, first lady of the air.