Most of us know that Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937, while attempting a circumnavigational flight of the entire globe. But we often know it outside the fascinating context of Earhart’s life or the numerous theories surrounding just what did happen during that last, fateful flight. So, what really happened to Amelia Earhart? To explore that, we have to start at the beginning…
Born in Atchison, Kansas in 1897, 30 years before the first transatlantic flight, Amelia Earhart grew up to become a pioneer in aviation history and a champion for women’s rights. A member of the National Woman’s Party, she was close friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed equal legal rights for citizens regardless of biological sex, had it been ratified—though it never has.
She was the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an aircraft in 1928, just a year after Charles Lindbergh’s history-making solo transatlantic flight. On that flight, Earhart was merely a passenger with no training on an aircraft piloted by Wilmer Stultz. “I was just baggage,” Earhart said afterward, “like a sack of potatoes. Maybe someday I’ll try it alone.”
“Someday” proved to be just four years later, when Earhart became the first woman to make a solo transatlantic flight, a feat for which she was awarded the United States Distinguished Flying Cross. In the years between, she had become a celebrity and a tireless proponent of aviation. She went on lecture tours and later joined the faculty of Purdue University as an advisor on aeronautical engineering and a career counselor to female students. Earhart was also a founding member (and the first president) of the Ninety-Nines, an organization for the promotion and support of female pilots.
A trailblazer who wasn’t content to rest on her laurels, Earhart set numerous air speed and distance records in a variety of aircraft, including the completion of the first successful solo flight from Honolulu to Oakland, California. It was this same drive that ultimately led to her disappearance.
For all her success, there was still “one flight which I most wanted to attempt—a circumnavigation of the globe as near its waistline as could be.” To undertake this ambitious flight, which would have been the longest ever attempted at the time, Earhart needed a new airplane; one built to her unique specifications. Her requirements would result in the Lockheed Electra 10E, which she had designed especially for her and dubbed her “flying laboratory.”
Among the changes made to the standard Electra 10E were modifications to the fuselage to make room for additional fuel tanks. After all, while flights circling the globe had been completed before, Earhart's proposed flight would span an unprecedented 29,000 miles. She intended to fly as nearly as possible around the equator, circumnavigating the globe at its widest point.
For such an ambitious undertaking, she would also need a copilot, and for that she chose Captain Harry Manning. He was to act as her navigator on the flight, but he was also a skilled pilot in his own right, as well as a radio operator who knew Morse code. However, various factors scuttled this initial pairing. For the ultimate, fateful—and fatal—attempt, Earhart took along Fred Noonan, a ship’s captain and former navigation trainer for Pan Am who was familiar with both marine and flight navigation.
On May 20, 1937, Earhart and Noonan left Oakland, California in her “flying laboratory,” headed east. Three days later, they arrived in Miami, Florida, where they officially announced Earhart’s plan for a second attempt to circumnavigate the globe. On June 1, they departed Miami and the true voyage began.
Despite the modifications to increase the plane’s range, the Lockheed Electra was not capable of crossing the kinds of massive distances planes regularly do today without refueling, so the expedition would require stops in destinations such as Puerto Rico, Surinam, Brazil, Senegal, India, Burma, and more. On June 29, they touched down in Lae, New Guinea and prepared to begin the longest leg of their journey, flying from there to Howland Island.
An uninhabited coral island, Howland sits at the rough midpoint between Honolulu and Australia. In order to accommodate Earhart’s expedition, three graded but unpaved runways were constructed on the island, near a tiny U.S. settlement called Itascatown, which housed only a few people and existed predominantly to stake a U.S. claim to the island. The settlers also constructed a day beacon, shaped like a squat lighthouse, which they named the Earhart Light—even though it wasn’t a light at all, merely a navigational landmark meant to be visible during daylight hours.
Earhart’s Lockheed Electra never touched down on any of those runways, though. On July 2, Earhart and Noonan departed Lae at 10 in the morning, local time. Their proposed route would take them across more than 2,000 miles of open ocean to the small island, and their navigation was intended to be helped by the fact that the USCGC Itasca—a ship for which the settlement on the island was named—had been sent there ahead of them.
Somewhere in the course of the 20-hour flight, they disappeared. Their last known position report placed them near the Nukumanu Islands, an atoll of Papua New Guinea, some 800 miles into their flight. The last radio messages received from the flight came early in the morning, with Earhart estimating they were within 200 miles of Howland. “We must be on you, but cannot see you,” Earhart radioed, “but gas is running low.” An hour later, she added a position indication and said, “We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.”
It was the last anyone ever heard from her. Within an hour of her last message, search efforts had begun, starting with the Itasca. No traces of Earhart, Noonan, or their plane were ever found. In the years since, numerous theories have been put forth regarding what must have become of them, with the most widely accepted (albeit least sensational) being what’s known as the “crash and sink” theory. It's exactly what it sounds like: the idea being that Earthart and her navigational companion ran out of fuel while searching for Howland Island, crashed, and sank. Radio logs from Itasca indicate that its crew could receive radio signals from Earhart, but she didn't seem able to hear their responses or locate the island.
Others hypothesize that, unable to locate Howland, Earhart and Noonan may have made an emergency landing on some other island, perhaps an uninhabited spit of land where they have since perished and never been found, or maybe one of the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. In fact, a wilder theory even goes so far as to suggest that Earhart was captured and worked as one of the many radio personalities broadcasting Japanese propaganda in English during World War II, collectively dubbed “Tokyo Rose.”
In 1970, a book called Amelia Earhart Lives, written by Joe Klaas, put forth the theory that Earhart had survived and was living in New Jersey under the name Irene Craigmile Bolam. Bolam, a banker and former pilot who was conclusively proven to not be Earhart, filed a lawsuit against the book’s publisher, McGraw-Hill, which withdrew it from the market shortly after it was published and settled out of court with Bolam.
So, what really happened to Amelia Earhart? We will probably never know, though search efforts for the wreckage of her missing plane continue, and the recent discovery of the century-old Endurance on the Antarctic Sea floor offers glimmers of hope for future revelations. For Tom D. Crouch, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, however, the mystery is a big part of Earhart’s legacy. “In part, we remember her because she’s our favorite missing person.”