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Theory #1: Earhart ran out of fuel, crashed and perished in the Pacific Ocean.
This is one of the most generally accepted versions of the famous aviator’s disappearance. Many experts believe Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan got slightly off course en route to a refueling stop at Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. Earhart radioed U.S. Coast Guard ships stationed in the area, reporting that neither she nor Noonan could spot the tiny island where they were supposed to land. According to the so-called “crash-and-sink” theory, the plane eventually ran out of gas and plunged into the ocean, killing both Earhart and Noonan. It then sank, leaving no sign of their whereabouts.
Theory #2: Earhart landed safely on Gardner Island but died before she could be rescued.
In this scenario, Earhart missed her intended Pacific Ocean refueling site, Howland Island, but spotted Gardner Island (now called Nikumaroro), an uninhabited coral atoll nearby. She landed safely but died before she could be rescued. This theory has gained ground in recent years due to the discovery on Nikumaroro of artifacts that could be related to Earhart. Items include an empty jar of the freckle cream she preferred and a piece of Plexiglas similar to that used in the Lockheed Electra airplane she flew. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) recently launched its seventh expedition to the island to search for more clues.
Theory #3: Earhart’s flight was an elaborate scheme to spy on the Japanese, who captured her after she crashed.
Did President Franklin D. Roosevelt enlist Earhart to spy on Japan? If so, the aviator did it in a very roundabout fashion. Earhart’s east-to-west route took her from California to South America, across Africa to India and across the northern tip of Australia en route to a refueling stop at Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. According to the official account, at least, Earhart never got anywhere close to Japan. Besides, her flight was hardly a secret mission: Newspapers around the world tracked her progress on their front pages. The Earhart-as-spy theory emerged from a 1943 film about Earhart called “Flight for Freedom” and starring Rosalind Russell, but no evidence supports its veracity.
Theory #4: Earhart crash-landed, was captured by the Japanese military and died while being held prisoner on the island of Saipan.
In 2017, investigators announced the discovery of a photo, buried in the National Archives for nearly 80 years, that may depict Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan days after their disappearance. According to the team, led by former Executive Assistant Director of the FBI Shawn Henry, Earhart crash-landed in the Marshall Islands, was captured by the Japanese military and died while being held prisoner on the island of Saipan. Retired federal agent Les Kinney scoured the archives for records related to the Earhart case, uncovering a photo from the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) that shows a ship towing a barge with an airplane on the back; on a nearby dock are several people. Kinney believes the plane on the barge is the Electra, and that two of the people on the dock are Earhart and Noonan. The Marshall Islands/Saipan theory of Earhart’s fate isn’t a new one; it first surfaced back in the 1960s, and relies on accounts of Marshall Islanders who supposedly saw the Electra aircraft land and witnessed Earhart and Noonan in Japanese custody. In 2015, Kinney and another amateur Earhart sleuth, Dick Spink, found two metal fragments on Mili atoll in the Marshalls, which they believed came from Earhart’s plane.
Theory #5: Earhart survived a Pacific Ocean plane crash, was secretly repatriated to New Jersey and lived out her life under an assumed name.
A 1970 book put forth a creative solution to the Earhart mystery. The author claimed the famous pilot survived a Pacific Ocean plane crash and was taken prisoner by the Japanese. At the end of World War II, U.S. forces purportedly found her in Japan and secretly repatriated her to New Jersey. There, Earhart took the name Irene Bolam and became a banker. When the real Bolam got wind of the book’s claims, she vigorously denied being Earhart and sued the author and publisher for $1.5 million. (The lawsuit was later withdrawn, though Bolam may have settled out of court.) Numerous experts who investigated Bolam’s life and compared her photos to Earhart’s agree that Bolam, who died in 1982, was not the missing aviator.
Theory #6: Earhart survived and somehow made her way to Guadalcanal.
In 1943, during World War II, several Allied airmen reported seeing Earhart working as a nurse on Guadalcanal. The person they saw probably was Merle Farland, a nurse from New Zealand, who was said to resemble the lost pilot. According to the 1977 book “Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomon Islands,” Farland caused a “something of a stir” on Guadalcanal, where she was the only woman among legions of troops awaiting transport. The rumor of her “true” identity may have been triggered by the hallucinations of soldiers suffering from malaria and other diseases.
Theory #7: Earhart crashed on New Britain Island.
New Britain Island rests at the eastern edge of Papua New Guinea, roughly along the flight path Earhart took on the final few legs of her round-the-world flight. Might she have crashed there? In 1943 an Australian army corporal on patrol in the island’s jungle claimed to have found an aircraft engine bearing a Pratt & Whitney serial number. Earhart’s plane had a Pratt & Whitney engine, but so did many planes used in the area before and during World War II. It’s unlikely that Earhart, who maintained in radio transmissions that she was running out of gas near Howland Island, would have had enough fuel left to fly to New Britain, some 2,000 miles away.
Theory #8: Earhart was captured by the Japanese and became “Tokyo Rose.”
Related to other World War II-era myths that place Earhart in various Pacific Theater locales, including Saipan and Guadalcanal, this story originated immediately after the end of the war. A rumor circulated that Earhart had spread Japanese propaganda over the radio as one of many women collectively referred to as “Tokyo Rose.” Her husband, George Putnam, actively investigated this lead at the time, listening to hours of recorded broadcasts, but he did not recognize his wife’s voice.
Theory #9: Earhart was captured by the Japanese and traveled to Emirau Island.
Emirau Island, off Papua New Guinea, seems an unlikely place to find Earhart because it’s far from the spot where her last radio transmissions occurred. Still, a U.S. Navy crew member in World War II told of being sent to the island and spotting a photo of Earhart tacked up in the hut of a local man. The photo showed Earhart standing with a Japanese military officer, a missionary and a young boy. The sailor alerted naval intelligence officers, who allegedly took the photo from the hut against the owner’s wishes. The photo has never been found. Since Emirau Island had been a haven for Europeans stranded after a shipwreck in 1940, it’s likely the photo contained a lookalike and not the real Amelia.
Watch Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence now.
As Earhart&rsquos Electra approached Howland, she radioed Itasca several messages. On one she exclaimed &ldquoWe must be on you, but cannot see you&rdquo, and in another she reported she was flying on a line running southeast to northeast, though she did not report in which of those directions she was heading. Her signal strength convinced Itasca&rsquos radio operator to go out on deck, in the belief her airplane could be seen. Evidence suggests that were she that close to Howland Island, her remaining fuel did not allow the flying time necessary to reach Gardner Island. She had by then been in the air for 20 hours. Supporters of the Gardner Island hypothesis argue the modified Electra carried enough fuel for 24 hours flying time. If so, they claim, she had more than enough fuel to reach Nikumaroro, about 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.
According to skeptics of the Gardner Island hypothesis, the theory ignores the weather conditions encountered during the Electra&rsquos last flight. It also ignores Earhart&rsquos own transmission reporting her being low on fuel. The headwinds during her flight from Lae to Howland Island exceeded 26 mph, more than double the forecast. She also encountered a heavy storm shortly after takeoff. The storm forced a rapid climb to avoid adverse conditions, which also burned fuel at an unexpected rate. In 1999 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech developed a model showing Earhart&rsquos fuel all but gone by the time she contacted Itasca. Certainly, she did not have enough remaining to fly from the proximity of Howland Island to a landing 350 miles away.
According to the hypothesis of what happened to Earhart on Gardner Island, Earhart landed the airplane on the reef just offshore, or possibly the beach itself, near the wreck of SS Norwich City. Gardner Island is the tip of a seamount, which drops nearly vertically to the seafloor in a series of ledges and cliffs, nearly sixteen thousand feet below the surface. Earhart and Noonan were unable to move the aircraft further inland. Over an unspecified period of time, wave action pulled the aircraft over the edge of the reef. It sank, either being beaten to pieces along the ledges and cliff faces as it descended, or gliding away from the mount, carried by its wings to an unspecified location.
In 2010, forensic analysis of the Bevington photograph revealed something in the water not far from the wreck of Norwich City. The image appeared to be similar to the landing gear from an Electra. Part of the image appeared darker than the rest, which could be the tire, which may have provided enough buoyancy to keep the rest of the landing gear afloat after it broke away from the aircraft. US government photographic forensic analysts corroborated the finding in 2012. The US State Department endorsed another expedition to Nikumaroro, TIGHAR&rsquos Niku VII expedition, to search for wreckage of Earhart&rsquos Electra in the deep waters off the atoll. The expedition claimed to have discovered a debris field, though it did not specify its location for purposes of security.
Amelia Earhart Comprehension Passages & Critical Thinking Activity
What in the world happened to Amelia Earhart? This mystery is over 80 years old! Students are going to love working through this unit and writing their own theories about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart!
This unit is perfect for Women's History Month! Students will learn about Amelia Earhart though a Close Read Biography. This biography builds background knowledge before students delve into the Mystery Lesson!
Your students will love analyzing the different clues and formulating their own theory or hypothesis about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart! This Research-Based Strategy Lesson is based on the theories and practices of leading educational researchers: Harvey F. Silver, Richard W. Strong and Matthew J. Perini.
Engaging Activities Included in this Critical Thinking Unit:
- Mystery Lesson Step-by-Step Lesson Plan
- "An Aviator: Amelia Earhart" Close Read Passage
- First Read - Text Annotation Guide with Right There Questions
- Second Read - Window Notes: Facts, Feeling, Questions, Ideas
- Third Read - Text Evidence Comprehension Questions
- Answer Keys
- "The Final Flight of Amelia Earhart" passage
- "The Final Flight of Amelia Earhart" Window Notes: Facts, Feelings, Questions, Ideas
- Springboard Lesson: "What Happened to the Other Sock" (What is a theory?)
- Letter to Students from "Official Office of Unsolved Mysteries" outlining their task
- 18 Mystery Lesson Clues for Students to Analyze
- Writing Paper for Theory "What Happened to Amelia Earhart?"
- Description of the most popular theories about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart
Additional Activities: Timeline, Biography Poster, Question I Would Ask Amelia
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You may also be interested in this Women's History Biography Unit: Click Here!
The Legend of Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
The mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937 during her around-the-world flight attempt persists to the present day, and is especially alive and well on the Internet. If you were to Google the term “Amelia Earhart Disappearance,” for example, the list of hits would be about 1,950,000 items! Some websites, too numerous to mention, are filled with crank conspiratorial ideas. One, for example, militarycorruption.com, claims that U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was involved in the cover-up of the destruction of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E at Aslito Field on Saipan in 1944. The site doesn’t exactly say why Forrestal would have done such a thing, but the implication is that he was attempting to efface any evidence that might have implicated Earhart in a secret spy mission for the U.S. government.
Nevertheless, the idea that people are still fascinated by Earhart’s disappearance after seventy-three years, whether it is tied up in conspiratorial theories or not, is worthy of note. The government put forth an extraordinary attempt to find Earhart that went on for sixteen days, involved nine vessels, four thousand crewmen, and sixty-six aircraft at a cost of more than $4 million. All of this was to no avail. As Tom Crouch puts it, the contingent of ships and aircraft “searched an area of the Pacific roughly the size of Texas without turning up a clue. Radio operators in the United States and across the Pacific reported receiving everything from surefire messages from Earhart to strange sounds that could have been from her. Authorities dismissed the flurry of reports as either wishful thinking or cruel hoaxes.”
Those wishful thoughts and cruel hoaxes seemed to be a harbinger of things to come. Almost immediately after Earhart’s disappearance, stories about Earhart’s whereabouts began to pop up. Perhaps more important, a few years after Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939, her husband George Palmer Putnam approved a treatment for a film to be titled Stand By to Die, to be produced by RKO, which contained some resemblances to the facts about Earhart’s life and disappearance, for which the Amelia Earhart estate would receive $7500. (Putnam had hoped that his own idea for a film about his wife, which would be called Lady with Wings: The Story of My Wife, Amelia Earhart, would be produced, but there had been no takers, and the Earhart estate was in poor financial condition.) Putnam reluctantly agreed to sign the agreement so long as there would be no obvious similarities between the film and Earhart’s life.
The film was eventually produced by RKO, and it was renamed Flight for Freedom.
It starred Rosalind Russell as a woman aviator, Tonie Carter, whose ambition was to fly around the world, and Fred MacMurray, as Randy Britton, a hotshot pilot who accompanies Tonie on the flight as navigator. Flight for Freedom appears to have laid the groundwork for a whole series of speculations about what happened to Earhart and Noonan. These scenarios range from the idea that the flight had been a secret spying mission for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the notion that Earhart and Noonan had landed on Saipan, and were captured and killed by the Japanese, to the idea that Earhart was captured by the Japanese and had reappeared as “Tokyo Rose,” a name for women whom the Japanese forced to broadcast propaganda to American troops in the Pacific during World War II, or that Earhart had assumed another identity and was discovered to be living in New Jersey.
What probably did happen to Earhart and Noonan? Richard Gillespie, head of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), is an Earhart disappearance researcher who has gained some credibility. TIGHAR has made numerous trips to Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island), a remote coral atoll in the Western Pacific Ocean, the place where the organization believes Earhart and Noonan ended up. They have turned up some interesting finds: an aluminum panel that might possibly have come from an Electra a piece of curved glass that might be a window from an Electra a heel from a woman’s shoe like the kind of footware, Earhart wore, among other items. None of these, however, can conclusively be connected to Earhart and Noonan. Gillespie has written a book titled Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, which puts forth his ideas about the disappearance.
Elgin Long, an experienced pilot and another longtime Earhart disappearance theorist, offers perhaps the most plausible explanation for the disappearance. Having experienced bad weather during the long 4,113 km (2,556 miles) flight from Lea to Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan used up their supply of fuel, and crash landed in the ocean. Long notes the urgency in Earhart’s voice on the radio on the way to Howland Island, when she was trying to locate the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, the ship that was assigned the task of providing navigational and radio links to Earhart and Noonan. Long has written a book (with Marie K. Long) titled Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, in which he puts forth a well-constructed argument that the aircraft came to rest at the bottom of the ocean near Howland Island.
On the significance of the disappearance, Doris Rich, one of Earhart’s biographers, believes that “nothing she might have said or done, no scheme George Palmer Putnam might have designed, could so enhance Earhart’s renown as the mystery of her disappearance. She had been famous. By vanishing she became legendary.” By the same token, her disappearance ironically seems to have overtaken her life’s accomplishments as an aviator and advocate for women’s rights. Susan Ware, author of Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism, points out that “with all the mythology surrounding Amelia Earhart’s last flight in 1937, it is hard to assess her career separately from the ongoing mystery of her disappearance.” Ware suggests that it is Earhart’s life, not the disappearance and presumed death that matters.
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Nevertheless, it is Earhart’s disappearance that has captured the imagination of Americans in the nearly three quarters of a century since she vanished. What does this say about us as a society? The implication, perhaps, is that Americans are prone to believe things that are unproven and unable to think analytically enough to question ideas founded on baseless evidence. Another is that we have an obsessive need to explain mysteries that have no obvious solutions. Whatever the reasons, the ideas about Earhart’s disappearance, like the widespread belief in UFOs, or in the various conspiracy theories that have arisen around such events as the JFK assassination, Watergate, and 9/11, persist and have become part and parcel of the American psyche.
There were signs of people being on the island
Other evidence pointing to the aviators landing on Nikumaroro and becoming castaways surfaced later in the year when the British were thinking of making a settlement there. A British officer said that he came across something that could be seen as an overnight shelter and took a photograph of what people speculate might have been a part of the plane’s landing gear.
In 1938, people arrived on Nikumaroro as part of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme and came across what they thought were possibly parts of the missing plane. In 1940, island administrator Gerald Gallagher discovered bones, the remanents of a pair of shoes, and a box that once contained a sextant. The bones were sent to Fiji to be examined and were believed to belong to a European male. Later expeditions to Nikumaroro discovered evidence of campfires and the remains of fish, clams, and turtles. Based on the fact that the turtle heads were not eaten, researchers concluded that Pacific Islanders were not the finds’ source.
Theory 2: Nikumaroro Castaway
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) is investigating the hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan landed their Lockheed Electra 10E on Nikumaroro Island, a speck of land 350 nautical miles southwest of Howland, when they couldn’t find Howland.
The researchers base their hypothesis on Earhart’s last radio transmissions. At 8:43 a.m. on July 2, Earhart radioed the Itasca: "KHAQQ [the Electra's call letters] to Itasca. We are on the line 157 337." The Itasca received the transmission but couldn't get any bearings on the signal.
The “line 157 337” indicates that the plane was flying on a northwest to southeast navigational line that bisected Howland Island. If Earhart and Noonan missed Howland, they would fly either northwest or southeast on the line to find it. To the northwest of Howland lies open ocean for thousands of miles to the southwest is Nikumaroro.
The line-of-position radio message was the last confirmed transmission from Earhart, but radio operators received 121 messages over the next 10 days. Of those, at least 57 could have been from the Electra. Wireless stations took direction bearings on six of them.
“Four crossed near the Phoenix Islands,” said Tom King, TIGHAR’s senior archaeologist, in a previous interview. “Most messages were at night when the tide was low.”
At the time of Earhart’s disappearance, the tide on Nikumaroro was especially low, revealing a reef surface along the shore long and flat enough for a plane to land. If Earhart sent any of those 57 radio transmissions, the plane must have landed relatively intact.
The TIGHAR researchers theorize that Earhart and Noonan radioed at night to avoid the searing daytime heat inside the aluminum plane. Eventually the tide lifted the Electra off the reef, and it sank or broke up in the surf. The transmissions stopped on July 13, 1937.
Other evidence points to Earhart and Noonan’s fate as castaways on Nikumaroro. Later in 1937, a British party explored the island with the intent of colonizing it. Eric Bevington, a colonial officer, noticed what looked like an “overnight bivouac.” He also took a photograph of the shoreline, which includes an unidentified object that TIGHAR speculates might be a plane’s landing gear.
By 1938 the island was colonized as part of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, one of the British Empire’s last expansions. Colonists reported finding airplane parts, some of which could have plausibly come from the Electra.
In 1940 Gerald Gallagher, the colonial administrator, discovered 13 bones buried near the remains of a campfire. He also found the remnants of two shoes—a man’s and a woman’s—as well as a box that once held a sextant, a navigation device. The bones were shipped to Fiji, measured, and subsequently lost. TIGHAR researchers evaluated the measurements using modern techniques and determined the bones could be from a woman of Earhart’s size and build.
TIGHAR has launched 12 expeditions to Nikumaroro since 1989. Over the course of those visits to the island, they’ve identified a site that matches Gallagher’s description of where the bones were found.
At the Seven Site—the name comes from the shape of the clearing around it—there’s evidence of several campfires, as well as the remains of birds, fish, turtles, and clams, indicating that someone ate there. Based on the way the clams were opened and the fish consumed (the heads weren’t eaten), that someone was probably not a Pacific islander.
Several 1930s-era glass bottles have also been discovered at the site. One of them may even have contained freckle cream, a cosmetic Earhart was likely to have used.
A TIGHAR expedition is currently underway at Nikumaroro, deploying four dogs that specialize in sniffing out human remains as deep as nine feet underground and as old as 1,500 years. “No other technology is more sophisticated than the dogs,” says Fred Hiebert, archaeologist in residence at the National Geographic Society, which is sponsoring the canines. “They have a higher rate of success identifying things than ground-penetrating radar.”
Thanks to an Old Photograph, an Explorer Believes He Can Solve the Mystery of Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance Once and for All
Explorer Robert Ballard, who found the wreck of the Titanic, may finally solve the mystery of Earhart's disappearance.
The fate of Amelia Earhart is one of history’s great mysteries—but it might be solved soon.
Explorer Robert Ballard, who found the wreck of the Titanic and the Nazi battleship the Bismark, believes he can crack the case thanks to a photograph that provides a tantalizing clue as to what may have become of the great aviatrix.
“It’s not the Lock Ness Monster it’s not Big Foot,” Ballard, 77, who is co-leading an underwater expedition with fellow explorer Allison Fundis, told National Geographic. “That plane exists, which means I’m gonna find it.”
Earhart disappeared in July 1937, while attempting to become the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the globe. The prevailing theory—and the one put forth by the US Navy—is that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crashed into the Pacific Ocean en route to Howland Island during the third-to-last leg of their planned 29,000-mile flight.
But in 2012, Ballard was shown a photo taken by Eric Bevington, a British officer, in October 1937, three months after Earhart’s disappearance. It pictures Nikumaroro Island, one of the Pacific’s mostly uninhabited Phoenix Islands, part of the Micronesian nation of Kiribati. A tiny speck poking out of the water on the edge of the photo, known as “The Bevington Object,” is believed by some to be the landing gear of Earhart’s plane, a Lockheed model 10-E Electra.
Eric Bevington took this photo of Nikumaroro Island in October 1937. “The Bevington Object” poking out from beneath the waves at the edge of the photo may be the landing gear of Earhart’s plane, a Lockheed model 10-E Electra. Photo courtesy of TIGHAR/Jeff Glickman.
The photo was first dug up by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, in 2010, as part of their Earhart Project research. In order to enhance the blurry speck on the old photograph, TIGHAR’s Jeff Glickman, a forensic imaging expert, reached out to the government for help. The image ended up at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which employed classified technology to better see what Bevington had captured with his lens. An independent review by intelligence analysts at the Pentagon agreed with TIGHAR’s conclusion that the indistinct object looked like the plane’s landing gear.
Based on the location of Earhart’s last confirmed transmission, it’s possible that she missed Howland Island and continued some 350 miles to the southeast to Nikumaroro, which would have been on her stated navigational line. It would have been an especially low tide that day, allowing her to land on a strip of sandy beach on the atoll, which measures just 4.5 miles long and one mile wide. Over the next few days, 37 radio transmissions that could have been from Earhart were received.
Nikumaroro Island, where Amelia Earhart may have landed her plane during her ill-fated circumnavigation of the globe. Photo courtesy of NASA.
By the time Bevington, the photographer, arrived three months later, the rising waters could have submerged the plane. Nikumaroro sits atop a 10,000-foot-tall underwater mountain, and the Electra may have gradually slid all the way down the slope. During the Navy’s search of the Phoenix Islands later that year, a pilot noted signs of recent habitation on Nikumaroro Island, but no one followed up, not realizing no one had lived there in 40 years.
A skeleton was found in Nikumaroro in 1940, but experts believed it belonged to a man due to the long length of the arms. In 2016, TIGHAR presented forensic analysis of photographs of Earhart showing that her arms were longer than average for a woman. The organization believes that the skeleton, found alongside a woman’s mirror, buttons from a flight jacket, and a jar of Earhart’s favorite anti-freckle cream, is evidence that she died as a castaway on the remote island.
There are many other theories as to what fate befell Earhart. In 2017, the History Channel documentary Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence offered up a photo that appears to show two Caucasians, one male, one female, in the Marshall Islands. The documentary claimed that the image, found in the National Archives, suggests that Earhart was taken captive by the Japanese government, and died a prisoner—and that the US government covered it up.
American aviatrix Amelia Earhart with her navigator, Fred Noonan, in the hangar at Parnamerim airfield, Natal, Brazil, June 11, 1937, shortly before their disappearance during their attempted circumnavigation of the globe. Courtesy of Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.
In support of its Nikumaroro theory, TIGHAR has led 13 expeditions to the island, including underwater dives. But the group has never had access to the kind of technology Ballard and his funders at the National Geographic Society have at their disposal.
Equipped with a state-of-the-art ship outfitted with drones, a multi-bear sonar, an autonomous surface vehicle (a kind of robotic boat), and two remotely operated underwater vehicles with high-def cameras that can dive nearly 20,000 feet under the surface, the E/V Nautilus is poised to finally recover the wreckage of Earhart’s plane.
The results of their findings will be broadcast in a documentary set to air on National Geographic on October 20.
Our enduring obsession with Amelia Earhart's mysterious disappearance
NASA Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Since 1937, humans have done a lot of amazing things: We put a man on the moon, developed the atomic bomb, eradicated smallpox, invented computers, created the internet, cloned animals, transplanted hearts, erected 160-story skyscrapers, perfected the smartphone, and modernized everything from medicine to transportation to warfare.
But one thing no one on Earth — despite many, many attempts — has been able to do is determine what exactly happened to famed aviator Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan on July 2, 1937, when Earhart's Lockheed Electra went down near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. The moment her last transmission was received by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was the beginning of one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.
What is it about Earhart that keeps people interested 80 years after her disappearance? Why does she continue to command attention, leaving us riveted when someone steps forward with what they claim is definitive proof of her ultimate fate? We are as obsessed with the case in 2017 as people were in 1937, and for good reason — there are so many tantalizing theories about her disappearance, each one juicier than the last, that we can't help wondering and guessing what happened.
We ask questions because we want answers, and when we're unable to explain her disappearance and have absolutely no physical evidence to work with — not an airplane wing, not a radio instrument, not even a tattered piece of clothing— we're left with no choice but to use our imaginations.
Think back to when Earhart went missing, just a few years before World War II began to say this was an intense time would be an understatement. She was famous for being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and her much-publicized effort to circumnavigate the globe garnered worldwide attention. Her case had everything a good mystery should: danger, intrigue, urgency, an unfamiliar setting, celebrity. Everyone wanted to know what happened to this daring woman, and as the search continued, so did the speculation.
The most boring theory is also the most likely: that the Electra, running out of fuel and off course, crash landed into the Pacific Ocean and sank, its remains now thousands of feet under the sea. There's also the theory that Earhart wasn't able to land on Howland but did manage to make it to another island, Gardner Island, where Earhart and Noonan met their demise after weeks without food and fresh water. A more sinister theory is that the Electra crashed on Saipan, then under Japanese occupation, and Earhart and Noonan were captured and accused of being American spies. On an episode of Unsolved Mysteries in the early 1990s, several women were interviewed who said they watched as Earhart and Noonan were executed on the island no evidence was ever found to show Earhart and Noonan landed on Saipan, let alone were killed there.
The theories only get more bizarre. One suggests Earhart somehow survived the crash landing on her plane, was captured by the Japanese, and became one of the many women to voice propaganda as Tokyo Rose (her husband, George Putnam, listened to hours of broadcasts, and never heard Earhart's voice). My personal favorite is that she survived a crash landing, but for some reason thought, "You know what? When I get home, instead of continuing to live my life as beloved aviator Amelia Earhart, I am going to become New Jersey banker Irene Bolam." This theory that Earhart secretly returned to the United States and was living as Bolam was presented in a 1970 book, and an irate Bolam sued the author and publisher for $1.5 million. Bolam died in 1982, adamant that she was who she said she was (and that was not Amelia Earhart), and experts agreed that this was a completely far-fetched idea.
On Sunday, the History Channel aired the latest special on Earhart, called Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence. Researchers on the show claimed that a photograph, lost for years in the National Archives, shows Earhart and Noonan in the Marshall Islands, with the Japanese ship the Koshu Maru in the harbor they believe the pair died while being held prisoner on Saipan. Before the program even aired, it was discredited by several people, including Ric Gillespie of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, who thinks his four border collies will be able to sniff out the remains of Earhart and Noonan on Gardner Island, and Clive Irving, who wrote on The Daily Beast that no one on the Koshu Maru ever spoke of seeing Earhart, and on July 3, the day after Earhart vanished, the ship was 1,500 miles away from the Marshall Islands.
One thing we can all agree on is even if Earhart managed to survive a crash landing, she is no longer living — her 120th birthday is on July 24, so it's highly unlikely that she is still out there somewhere all alone, either chuckling to herself over how long she's fooled everyone or wondering when she's finally going to be found. Although if she is, congratulations on setting yet another record, this time as the Oldest Living Aviator to Make People Think She Crashed in the Pacific and Vanished Without a Trace But Really Has Been Eating Coconuts on a Remote Island This Whole Time.
The first time I heard about Amelia Earhart was when I was six years old, and while her disappearance is what hooked me, finding out about the records she set and barriers she broke are what made her one of my heroes. As fascinating as it is to discuss the theories about her final flight, both plausible and outlandish, it's just as important to remember everything Earhart accomplished before she became perhaps the most famous missing person of the 20th century. Let's never forget her spirit of adventure, or the drive to do the impossible that got her into the Electra so many summers ago, flying high above the Pacific, her sights set on breaking another record.
A team of cinematographers accompanied the 2019 expedition, documenting it for National Geographic as Expedition Amelia. The 95-minute film depicts the search, and presents Amelia&rsquos story, in detail. The film also depicts the work of the forensic specialists on the island, and in a laboratory examination of the skull believed by some to be that of Amelia Earhart. All of the efforts shown in the film produced inconclusive results. Not finding the remains of the Electra, for example, did not prove the aircraft wasn&rsquot there. It only proved they didn&rsquot locate it. Dr. Ballard noted it took four attempts to locate the wreck of Titanic before the ship revealed itself. Yet no plans have been announced for further searches for the wreckage of Earhart&rsquos lost airplane at Nikumaroro.
DNA testing of the skull and bone and soil samples recovered from Nikumaroro became the main focus of the search following the expedition of 2019. News coverage following the expedition reported that if DNA evidence suggests that Earhart had been present on the island, additional searches for the airplane would be undertaken. Ballard also stated his intention to use the time following a contracted mapping expedition to Howland Island in 2021 to search for Earhart&rsquos aircraft in the waters there. The 1937 official finding of the US Navy considered she crashed at sea near the island. One reason for that belief is the radio signals received by Itasca were strong enough that crewmen aboard the cutter believed she was nearly within visual range, though no one reported spotting the aircraft.