Searching for Amelia Earhart
People have been looking for her ever since she disappeared in 1937, and they’re still not letting up
|Earhart at the controls of her Lockheed Electra in 1936, the year before she disappeared.|
|(George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers)|
We all love a mystery. unresolved historical puzzles intrigue us. And the general rule seems to be, the more tragic the story, the more appealing the mystery. Was Lizzie Borden an ax murderer? Who was Jack the Ripper? Did the airship Hindenburg fall victim to accident or sabotage? Was Lee Harvey Oswald a lone gunman or part of a vast conspiracy?
The disappearance of Amelia Mary Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, during an attempted flight around the world in July 1937 ranks right up there with the Kennedy assassination on any list of the great historical mysteries of the twentieth century. Seven decades after she vanished without a trace somewhere in the central Pacific, Earhart remains one of the most famous women of her century and our favorite missing person.
The focus on the manner of her death is a shame, for her life was extraordinary. Born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1897, she grew up in genteel poverty, the child of a dysfunctional family. Her father was an alcoholic lawyer who had trouble making ends meet. Her parents kept drifting apart and coming together again until her mother finally left her father for good when Amelia was a young adult. A trust fund established by her maternal grandparents supported her education.
Having graduated from high school in 1916, she attended Pennsylvania’s Ogontz School, a cross between a finishing school and a junior college, served as a nurse’s aide in Canada during the closing months of World War I, and then entered Columbia University with vague plans to study medicine. Having earned high marks and enjoyed the social life there, she fully intended to return to the university in the fall of 1920, following a summer in California with her parents.
Fate intervened when she attended a Los Angeles air show with her father and later arranged to go up for a ride with a pilot named Frank Hawks. A risk taker who made running leaps onto her sled as a child and climbed slippery steps to enjoy the view of Manhattan from the dome of Columbia’s Low Library, Earhart was determined to fly. College could wait.
Her first lesson was with Neta Snook, a female flight instructor, on January 3, 1921. A year and a half later Earhart used all her savings as well as money from her mother and sister to buy herself a twenty-fifth-birthday present, a secondhand Kinner Airster biplane. For the next two years she held down a string of odd jobs, including work as a truck driver, to support her expensive hobby. Finally, in the spring of 1924, she accepted her mother’s offer to pay for a second year at Columbia, sold her airplane, bought a yellow convertible, and headed east.
But her sophomore year would be her last. Having tasted the freedom of the sky, she found the life of a student too confining. She moved to Boston, where she taught English to foreign students, worked at a settlement house, signed up as a local sales representative for Kinner aircraft, and scraped together enough money to buy a share in Dennison Airport, near Quincy, Massachusetts. She acquired just enough visibility to attract the attention of Hilton H. Railey, a pilot and publicity man, who telephoned her in April 1928 to ask if she would like to fly the Atlantic.
There was really only one challenge left. She would become the first to circle the globe at the equator.
Just 11 months before, Charles A. Lindbergh had captured the public imagination with his solo flight from New York to Paris. The publisher George P. Putnam had been quick to take advantage of the flying craze that then swept the nation. He persuaded Lindbergh to co-operate in the development of a book on the flight, We, and followed up that success with Skyward, Richard E. Byrd’s account of the first flight over the North Pole (later disputed) and Byrd’s own Atlantic flight. Discovering that a plan was afoot to fly the first woman across the Atlantic, Putnam seized the opportunity to engineer yet another aerial spectacular that would result in a best-selling book.
The flight began as the dream of Amy Phipps Guest, a Pittsburgh steel heiress who had purchased a Fokker trimotor plane in which she hoped to be flown to Europe. Dissuaded by her husband’s family, she agreed to relinquish her seat on the plane to “the right sort of girl.” Earhart, one of the few women pilots active in the Boston area, was a natural. Tall and lean, with boyish good looks and a mop of light brown hair, she looked like central casting’s notion of a female Lindbergh. The selection committee, which included Putnam, offered her the chance to make the flight, with the pilot Wilmer Stultz and the mechanic Lou Gordon. That flight—Trepassey, Newfoundland, to Burry Port, Wales, June 17 to 18, 1928—catapulted her into the headlines.
George P. Putnam, G.P., as he was known, found the first woman to fly the Atlantic an easy product to promote. The fact that she had been a passenger, “like a sack of potatoes,” as she explained it, seemed not to matter. Her book (20 Hrs., 40 Min.) was out before the end of the year, and it did just as well as Putnam had predicted.
Over the next nine years she would chalk up one major flight after another.
1928: First woman to make a solo roundtrip crossing of the United States.
1930: Set women’s speed record of 181 mph.
1931: Set autogiro altitude record of 18,415 feet.
May 20–21, 1932: First woman (second person) to solo the Atlantic.
August 24–25, 1932: Set women’s transcontinental speed record.
July 7–8, 1933: Broke her own transcontinental speed record.
January 11–12, 1935: First person to solo the Pacific, Hono-lulu to Oakland.
April 19–20, 1935: First person to solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City.
May 8, 1935: First person to solo from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey.
She married George Putnam in 1931, and he published her second book (The Fun of It) in 1932 and kept her busy on the lecture circuit. She had always been fond of men, but not of marriage. She had been engaged once before and had broken it off because she was afraid wedlock would cramp her style. Marriage to Putnam offered obvious advantages but still made her nervous. Just before their wedding, she sent him a note announcing her need for freedom and demanding a “cruel promise” to allow her to escape her “attractive cage” at the end of a year “if we find no happiness together.”
She quickly emerged as a leading spokesperson for American commercial aviation. Her name and image were used to market luggage, pajamas, sportswear, and cigarettes, the latter in spite of the fact that she didn’t smoke. A much-publicized night flight over Washington, D.C., with Eleanor Roosevelt led to a warm friendship with the First Lady.
In 1935 Earhart accepted the invitation of Purdue University to join its 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. She was a member of Zonta International, an organization for professional women, and co-founded the Ninety-Nines, a society for women involved in aviation. The police once shut down a meeting she was attending of the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, but she continued to support leftist political causes. She signed petitions from the Women’s Committee for the Recognition of Russia and for a Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom campaign to cut military spending in favor of increased appropriations to assist the unemployed.
|The course of the final flight and some of the messages that were received.|
She took full advantage of her celebrity, but 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 with which to meet it. That fall Purdue University and several leading supporters agreed to supply their new faculty member with $80,000 for a “flying laboratory.” Putnam managed the acquisition of a twin-engine Lockheed Model 10E, a modified version of the 10-passenger Electra that the firm was marketing to the airlines. Fitted with long-distance tanks, twin Pratt & Whitney 550-horsepower Wasp engines, and a host of special equipment provided by leading aviation manufacturers, the new craft was ready for whatever Earhart had in mind.
There was really only one challenge left. The oceans and continents had been crossed by air, and the world had been circled several times since U.S. Army pilots had first done so in 1924. She would go for a distance record, becoming the first person to girdle the globe by air close to the equator. She hired first-rate technical consultants, including Paul Mantz, a famed Hollywood pilot, and enlisted the support of her friends the Roosevelts. The U.S. government would provide considerable support for the flight, including the use of military facilities in Hawaii and, with Works Progress Administration money, the construction of a new airstrip on remote Howland Island.
She took off on the first leg of the world flight on March 17, 1937, flying from Oakland to Honolulu, accompanied by Mantz and two crewmen. Harry Manning, a ship’s captain and friend, was originally hired to man the radio and navigate the flight. Four days before takeoff, the team decided that she needed a specialist in aerial navigation and recruited Fred Noonan, a veteran of Pan American Airways’ Pacific flights. Departing from Pearl Harbor’s Luke Field on the second leg of the flight just before dawn on March 20, Earhart turned too sharply while taxiing, collapsing the Electra landing gear and badly damaging the plane. She shipped the “flying laboratory” back to California, where Lockheed workers would handle the repairs. Mantz and Manning, out of time for the project, dropped off the team.
Without those two, Earhart and Putnam had a difficult time focusing on the technical issues they would face during a second attempt. The communications plan, for example, deserved far more attention than it received. At the time, Morse code was the standard means of aerial communication, yet Harry Manning had been the only member of the crew who could transmit and receive in code. Earhart would have to communicate entirely by voice. To make matters worse, she didn’t seem completely comfortable with her equipment.
The Electra was originally equipped with a new automatic direction finder, a very sensitive system employing both a loop and a normal antenna to allow the operator to home in on a transmitter. After it was damaged in the Hawaii crash, Earhart replaced the advanced equipment with a less sensitive and not as accurate system that was a few pounds lighter. Moreover, her single period of dedicated instruction in the use of the replacement equipment was cut short.
She and Noonan began their second try at a world flight on May 21, 1937, heading from Oakland, through Tucson and Miami, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Changing weather patterns meant that this time they would circle the globe eastward. 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, Papua 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 and flew off toward tiny Howland Island, 2,556 miles away.
For 16 days, 9 vessels, 4,000 crewmen and 66 aircraft searched an area the size of Texas without turning up a single clue.
Lockheed’s engineers had estimated that Earhart and Noonan could remain in the air for 24 to 27 hours, depending on their airspeed, and cover a maximum distance of up to 3,680 statute miles in zero wind conditions. Traveling at 135 to 150 mph with no wind, they could count on reaching Howland in 17 to 19 hours: with an average headwind of 15 mph, they might cover the distance in 19 hours, with a comfortable 4to 5-hour fuel reserve. Given those figures, Earhart was confident that she could safely complete this longest and most difficult leg of the flight. After all, Noonan was one of the world’s most experienced aerial navigators, and the radio direction-finding equipment should enable her to home in on signals broadcast by the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, waiting for them at Howland.
The radio operator at lae received transmissions from her for seven hours after she took off, but there was no indication that she heard him. At 2:45 a.m. on July 2 (the flight had crossed the International Date Line), the Itasca’s radio operators heard a garbled message in a female voice. The next message, an hour later, was definitely from Earhart. At 6:14 a.m. she announced that they were 200 miles out. At 6:45 she asked the Itasca to take a bearing on her signal and radio a position. An hour later she radioed again, worried that she had not heard anything from the ship. “We must be on you, but cannot see you,” she said, adding that “gas is running low.” The radiomen at Howland were receiving a very strong signal from her, but she couldn’t hear them.
At 8:00 a.m. she reported that she had finally heard the Itasca but could not home in on the signal. Forty-three minutes later, 20 hours and 13 minutes after lifting off from the runway at Lae, she was back on the air, announcing that they were flying on a line of position, a compass line, running from 157 to 337 degrees. Then there was silence. Earhart and Noonan had vanished.
For the next several weeks they were the object of the most extensive search ever launched for a single aircraft. For 16 days, 9 vessels, 4,000 crewmen, and 66 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.
What had gone wrong? The captain of the Itasca believed that the absence of any further messages, coupled with Earhart’s report that fuel was running low, was strong evidence that she went down at sea not long after 8:43 a.m. on July 2. Yet she should have had enough fuel for a few more hours in the air. Elgen Long, an airline pilot with long experience over the Pacific, offers a compelling argument that higher than expected winds aloft, coupled with less than ideal flight conditions, significantly reduced her fuel reserves.
There is no evidence that Noonan’s navigation was at fault. He was following the best navigational practice. He would shoot the sun with his sextant just after dawn and establish a line of position perpendicular to the angle between the line of flight and the sun. Estimating their airspeed, he would move the line of position forward until it passed through their destination. If he was sure they had missed the island, he would have asked the pilot to fly in one direction along the line of position, looking for Howland, and then back across in the other direction.
The real problem was poor communications planning and misunderstandings relating to the times and frequencies when Earhart would transmit and receive. She and Noonan had been 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 to fly. Amelia Earhart had taken one risk too many.
She was gone, but not forgotten. Within four months of her disappearance, conspiracy theorists were already suggesting that there was more to the around-the-world flight than met the eye. In its issue for October 16, 1937, the editor of Smith’s Weekly, an Australian tabloid, accused the U.S. government of using her disappearance as an excuse to overfly the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands in search of forbidden military installations.
The captured-and-executed-by-the-Japanese school of thought was well established by the 1960s; Saipan was the most popular crime scene.
The release of an RKO motion picture, Flight for Freedom, in April 1943, popularized the theory and extended it to make Earhart a participant in a government spy plot. In the movie, U.S. Navy officials persuade an aviatrix named Tonie Carter, portrayed by Rosalind Russell, to “become lost” during an around-the-world flight and land on an uninhabited island where she would be safe while the U.S. Navy used a search to justify a reconnaissance of Japanese fortifications in the area. When the scheme goes awry, Carter sacrifices herself, crashing into the sea to justify the search. Indeed, when U.S. forces captured Saipan a year later, widespread scuttlebutt identified the island as the place where the Japanese had captured and executed Earhart and Noonan.
Air Force Capt. Paul L. Briand, Jr., launched the modern era of Earhart conspiracy theories with the publication in 1960 of his biography Daughter of the Sky. On the basis of testimony gathered by two friends, Majors Joe Gervais and Bob Dinger, Briand introduced readers to the notion that Earhart and Noonan had been held by the Japanese on Saipan.
At the time Briand’s book appeared, Fred Goerner, a radio newsman with KCBS, in San Francisco, was on the same trail. His quest began with an article published in the May 27, 1960, issue of the San Mateo, California, Times, in which Josephine Blanco Akiyama claimed to have seen two American aviators, a man and a woman, in Japanese custody on Saipan in 1937. Goerner’s book, published six years and four trips to Saipan later, fleshed out the story with additional local testimony. As he had it, Earhart and Noonan had conducted an aerial reconnaissance of the Japanese base at Truk (now known as Chuuk), in the Caroline Islands, after which a storm had forced them down at Mili Atoll, in the Marshalls, where they were discovered by a Japanese fisherman, who turned them over to military authorities on Saipan.
The captured-and-executed-by-the-Japanese school of thought was well established by the mid-1960s, and Saipan remained the most popular crime scene. T. C. “Buddy” Brennan, a Houston businessman, interviewed a woman named Nieves Cabrera Blas, who claimed that she had actually seen Earhart executed on the island. The writer Thomas E. Devine cited witnesses who claimed to have watched as the Japanese burned the Electra. A few years later Devine and Mike Campbell presented even more local testimony to the presence of Earhart and Noonan on Saipan. And there were other permutations on the notion of Earhart as spy. Capt. George Carson Carrington postulated an overflight of both Truk and Kwajalein, while James A. Donahue argued that she and Noonan had been doing doubleduty as spies for the British as well as the Americans.
Some of the most bizarre theories allowed Earhart to survive. Randall Brink suggested that she wound up as one of several “Tokyo Rose” broadcasters. Someone else suggested that she had spent the war years as Emperor Hirohito’s love slave.
The evolution of Earhart conspiracy theories spun in a new and entirely unexpected direction in 1965, when Joe Gervais, who had helped set things in motion five years before by gathering testimony of Earhart’s execution on Saipan, met an Irene Bolam at a Long Island party and “just knew” she was Amelia Earhart. He believed she had been repatriated following the defeat of Japan, then remarried and began a new life as a New Jersey housewife.
Gervais ignored Mrs. Bolam’s vehement protests that she was not Amelia Earhart. When an author named Joe Klaas published an account of the case, she sued all those responsible for what she accurately described as “a poorly documented hoax.” The publisher removed the book from the market, but that didn’t end the matter. In 2003, with Mrs. Bolam safely in her grave, another author resuscitated the tale.
Even if we dismiss the most outrageous claims, what are we to make of all the eyewitness testimony placing Earhart and Noonan in Japanese hands? Mustn’t there be at least a small flame of truth flickering beneath all that smoke? Sorry. You don’t have to follow many criminal cases to realize just how fallible witness memories can be. How much less trustworthy are the recollections of events that occurred more than two decades before, gathered from witnesses who speak a different language by interviewers who know what they want to hear?
In a quarter-century of looking, no researcher has produced a shred of hard evidence to suggest that Earhart and Noonan were either spies or victims of the Japanese. What appears to be a twin-engine Lockheed Electra sitting on an enemy runway in a wartime reconnaissance photo turns out to be a similar Japanese plane. Photos purporting to show the fliers in Japanese custody prove to have been taken at some earlier point on the journey around the world. An intriguing unsigned radiogram delivered to George Putnam immediately after the liberation of a Japanese prison camp in August 1945 (“Camp liberated; all well. Volumes to tell. Love to mother”) came not from his wife but from an acquaintance whose mother the publisher had assisted. Every attempt to uncover archival evidence of a government conspiracy has come up empty.
Although conspiracy theorists continued to churn out books, by the late 1980s, public interest in the disappearance of Amelia Earhart was on the wane. Then came The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). The story begins in 1984, when Ric Gillespie, a charter pilot and aviation accident investigator, launched a search for l’Oiseau Blanc, a biplane in which two French aviators, Charles Nungesser and François Coli, had 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 woodsman heard the aircraft crash in a remote stretch of Maine woods, however, Gillespie organized an reconnaissance of that area. Discovering that other enthusiasts were eager to join the search, he established TIGHAR, a nonprofit foundation, in 1985. Twenty-two years and 20 TIGHAR expeditions later, Nungesser and Coli are as lost as ever.
Gillespie, a charismatic fellow, envisioned an organization that would do a good deal more than search for missing flying machines. It would promote the highest standards of historic-aircraft preservation, staging international symposiums in the subject in cooperation with museums and offering classes and field experience in “aviation archaeology,” the responsible investigation of historic crash sites. In the process, he occasionally stirred the ire of antique-aircraft devotees by arguing that their proper goal should be to preserve as much as possible of a historic plane’s original structure, rather than to restore it to flying condition. 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 ultimate mystery.
In 1988 two TIGHAR recruits approached Gillespie with a proposal for an Earhart search. Using contemporary navigation techniques, they explained how Noonan had established the line of position that Earhart had broadcast. Just suppose, they said, that unable to locate Howland, the aviators had decided to make for the next closest land. Flying along the 157-337-degree line of position, there is nothing but water for a thousand miles to the northwest. A turn to the southeast, however, would carry them toward multiple targets in the British-controlled southern Phoenix Islands.
The notion was not a new one. The search authorities in 1937 had recognized that the Phoenix group was the closest land to Howland and the neighboring Baker Island. In addition, Pan American World Airways direction-finding radio stations in Hawaii and on Wake Island and Midway Island had picked up very faint and indecipherable signals in the days immediately following the disappearance. When triangulated, they seemed to point to the Phoenix Islands. It was just conceivable that if Earhart and Noonan had gotten to land, they could have broadcast until their batteries died.
Common sense suggests that if there were something to find on the island, someone would have found it long ago.
Dispatched from Pearl Harbor to participate in the search, the USS Colorado had 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. Early on the morning of July 9, 1937, Senior Aviator Lt. John O. Lambrecht had led the little clutch of planes on an aerial sweep over tiny Gardner Island, once home to a coconut plantation but now deserted. Recognizing signs of “recent habitation,” the aviators had repeatedly circled and buzzed low over the atoll. Failing to elicit any response, they had returned to the Colorado. Much has been made of the failure to follow up on that report. One must remember, however, that the Colorado had just traveled 2,000 miles to search for Earhart and Noonan. Surely, if Lambrecht had thought he had seen anything remotely connected to the missing fliers, his commander would have taken the time to go look.
Gillespie, a dogged researcher, uncovered the 1937 government reports and a good deal of additional information about the area. Just a year after Earhart’s disappearance, British authorities had planted a colony of Gilbertese natives on Gardner Island, which was continuously inhabited from then until the 1960s. During World War II the population of the island was supplemented by U.S. Coast Guardsmen manning a LORAN navigation station. The Gilberts won their independence from Great Britain in 1979 and adopted the name of Kiribati. That year the United States relinquished all claims to the Phoenix Islands in a treaty with Kiribati. Gardner Island, originally named by an American whaling captain in honor of his father-in-law, a U.S. congressman, would now be known as Nikumaroro.
By the fall of 1989, Gillespie had amassed $250,000 in donations, much of it from participants, to finance the first TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro. Eighteen years, four expeditions, and $2,000,000 later, Gillespie is still looking. TIGHAR recently announced a campaign to raise $500,000 to fund the fifth expedition to “Niku” in July 2007, marking the seventieth anniversary of the Earhart flight.
Some support has come from the media over the years. ABC and the Discovery Channel are reported to have paid $100,000 in 1997 to make two one-hour documentaries about an earlier expedition. A three-person documentary crew from NBC-TV accompanied another trip to the island. In 1992 there was a splashy article in Life magazine. One journey, which included a contract with a firm that conducted sea-bottom searches, cost $400,000. 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 captain planned to go 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 his “spokesmodel.” 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 salvager was unsuccessful, and the skydiving expedition was canceled.
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. Discussing a half-dozen assorted objects discovered on the island, he argued that the “proof here is apparent to 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, said that Gillespie’s finds amounted to “a garbage bag full of nothing.”
As Ric Gillespie notes, “TIGHAR’s case hinges upon the artifacts found on Nikumaroro.” So what have they found? A 1996 TIGHAR report documents just 16 artifacts, 12 of them bits and pieces of assorted aircraft. Nine either are anonymous bits of wire or are clearly from airplanes other than Earhart’s. TIGHAR connects just three pieces of aircraft structure to the lost Electra. Two of those items, a piece of aluminum from the interior of an airplane and the remnant of a plastic window, seem to match the specifications for similar items on Earhart’s plane. There is nothing linking them directly to the Electra, however. They could also be from equipment used by the Coast Guardsmen stationed on the island, or from other airplanes. Most of the aircraft aluminum discovered on the island was brought there by islanders as raw material for house construction.
In the end, TIGHAR ’s strongest piece of evidence is a single oddly shaped section of aircraft skin. “There is only one possible conclusion,” Gillespie announced when he unveiled the shard of bent aluminum at that 1992 news conference. “We found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.” The organization admits that the aluminum is thinner than that used in the construction of the Electra. A comparison of the rivet pattern and other characteristics, however, led them to conclude that it might have been a patch used by Lockheed workmen to repair damage to the underside of the fuselage following the accident in Honolulu.
Elgen Long, with years of flying experience in the Pacific and three decades of research into the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, didn’t buy it. When Gillespie asked for his opinion on the object, Long recruited a world-class team of experts on the Lockheed Electra, including engineers and workmen who had helped build Earhart’s airplane or been involved in the repairs. They researched the original records, went over drawings, and, with a transparent plastic template in hand, visited other surviving Lockheed 10s. “We decided,” Long declared, “the fragment could have come from anywhere … anywhere but Amelia Earhart’s airplane.”
TIGHAR also retrieved some non-aircraft relics: a thermometer, parts of a patent medicine bottle, and the left sole, heel, and assorted other fragments of what it insisted was a size-nine woman’s oxford of the sort Earhart had worn during the flight. In fact, the initial reports from the shoe manufacturer suggested that it was for either for a large woman’s foot or a small man’s. William Foshage, Jr., president of the company that manufactured the Cat’s Paw heel, described it as a unisex item. “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 and declared that she had worn size eight-and-a-half to nine shoes. The skeptics are still shaking their heads at that one.
Then there are the bones. TIGHAR researchers discovered that 13 human bones had been found on the island in 1940, along with what was thought to be a sextant case and parts of a shoe, all of which had been forwarded to administrative headquarters at Fiji. The first medical officer to examine the bones pronounced them 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 them and medical reports have been preserved. Employing a modern computer program, two contemporary anthropologists report that the measurements are “more likely female than male” and “more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander.” The scientists concede, however, that they’re interpreting measurements “taken over 55 years ago by a now-deceased individual of unknown expertise, with no description of the methods or assumptions employed.” They conclude: “It is … impossible to know whether the bones … were in fact those of a white female.”
Perhaps TIGHAR is correct, and Earhart and Noonan did reach Nikumaroro. If so, Gillespie has yet to find them. Consider that the island is less than four miles long and just over a mile across at the widest point and that was continuously occupied from 1938 until 1963. A Coast Guardsman on Gardner in 1944 estimated that 250 ex-Gilbertese were living on the island at that time. That’s an awful lot of people who could have lost shoes and imported bits of aircraft aluminum from neighboring islands.
Since 1988 TIGHAR has made repeated trips to the island solely to look for evidence. In addition, it has searched the lagoon and conducted an ocean-bottom survey in the immediate vicinity. Common sense suggests that if there were something to find there, someone would have found it long ago. Perhaps the next expedition will find the smoking gun, but the odds against it seem a lot longer today than when TIGHAR began.
Nonetheless, TIGHAR now faces some serious competition. In March and April 2002 Nauticos, a Maryland-based deep-ocean search firm, set out on a $1.7 million sonar survey of the ocean bottom in the general neighborhood of Howland and Baker Islands, looking for the Electra 18,000 feet down. Nauticos selected a search area based on Elgen Long’s research. It had swept about 630 square nautical miles of seabed, two-thirds of its target area, when technical problems forced the craft to return to port. A second expedition in 2006 completely mapped the area but did not find the Electra; like TIGHAR, the organization is committed to returning again.
Only time will tell if the last resting place of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan will ever be discovered. While we are waiting, those with a taste for some additional reading on the mystery have some good books to choose from. Ric Gillespie and Elgen Long have both produced first-rate accounts of Earhart’s last flight. It should not be too surprising, however, to discover that the two have slanted their books toward their own theories: Elgen M. Long and Marie K. Long’s Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Ric Gillespie’s Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance (Naval Institute Press, 2006). Oddly, Gillespie does not discuss TIGHAR’s 20-year pursuit of the Nikumaroro hypothesis. For a highly entertaining, if decidedly biased, account of that search, see Thomas F. King, Randall S. Jacobson, Karen R. Burns, and Kenton Spading’s Amelia Earhart’s Shoes: Is the Mystery Solved? (AltaMira Press, 2001).
As for me, I am by no means sure that I want any of them to succeed. For seven decades the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s death has fueled interest in her purposeful life. I would prefer to leave her where she is, and to close with the 1937 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.
Tom D. Crouch is senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.