Putting the pieces together
Dick Spink isn’t the originator of the Marshall Islands theory. It first came to global attention during the 1960s with the publication of Paul Briand’s book Daughter of the Sky, as well as CBS correspondent Fred Goerner’s The Search for Amelia Earhart. (The fascination with Earhart continues a crew trying to fly a solar-powered plane around the world is planning to embark on what it calls the “Earhart leg” of its trip, across the unforgiving Pacific.)
Goerner’s book—a bible of sorts to many Marshall Islands believers—argues that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan were taken prisoner by the Japanese after landing in the Marshalls and transported by ship to Saipan, where they died in captivity.
Spink counts himself among Goerner’s disciples, but he didn’t come to faith by reading his book. In fact, he hadn’t read anything about Earhart when he first traveled to the Marshall Islands for a sideline business venture. “I just assumed everyone believed that she disappeared when she sank in the ocean,” he says.
Then, three years ago, Spink was having dinner with Marshallese friends when he asked an innocent question: “Didn’t Amelia Earhart disappear in this part of the world?” A local man answered: “Yes, she landed on our island, and my uncle watched her for two days.”
Spink’s first reaction was to laugh, but he stopped abruptly when he realized the man wasn’t joking. After that, wherever he traveled in the Marshalls, he kept hearing the same story. “So many people said the same thing,” he says. “It’s become part of Marshallese history and culture.”
What began as serendipity became a pursuit for Spink. He interviewed dozens of Marshallese natives, pressing for specifics until he pinpointed a stretch of rough coral shore where two fishermen had claimed they saw Earhart land. Her plane, losing parts as it bounced over the coral, was later dragged to a Japanese transport ship.
Spink has never solicited financial help for his pursuits. But through connections with a company called Parker Aerospace, his quest received a major boost. This year Parker funded an expedition that brought sophisticated equipment to bear on the search area in the Marshalls.
Parker manufactured fittings for the fuel systems of nearly all aircraft made in the 1920s and 30s, including Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and Earhart’s Electra.
Jon Jeffery, a Parker representative who accompanied Spink on the January expedition, says, “When we found that our company had made parts for Earhart’s Electra, that got Parker management excited, and they made the decision to invest in the project.”
Was Amelia Earhart Eaten by Crabs?
Earlier this month, Robert Ballard, the deep-sea explorer who uncovered the Titanic and John F. Kennedy&rsquos WWII patrol boat, among other famous wrecks, set out on a mission to find the aircraft at the center of history&rsquos most enduring mystery: Amelia Earhart&rsquos downed Lockheed Model 10-E Electra.
On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were en route to Howland Island in the Pacific, about 1,700 miles southwest of Honolulu. They were six weeks and and 20,000 miles deep into their trip around the world. By then, Earhart had already become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and from Hawaii to the U.S. Mainland her globetrotting trek would simply be the latest in a line of incredible accomplishments for the aviation pioneer.
Earhart and Noonan, of course, never made it to Howland. Somewhere along the way, the Electra became too heavy and short on fuel, and the pilot and her navigator lost sight of the tiny, two-and-a-half-square-mile island in the middle of the ocean. No one knows exactly what happened next.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Electra simply ran out of fuel and crash landed somewhere close to Howland, sinking thousands of feet into the ocean. That&rsquos what the U.S. government believes, at least. But others think Earhart and Noonan instead landed about 350 nautical miles southeast of Howland, touching down on the coral reef barrier that surrounded Gardner Island&mdashnow known as Nikumaroro Island. They point to the distress radio calls that came from the island over the next several nights following the purported crash.
Over the last month, Ballard and Allison Fundis of the Ocean Exploration Trust have searched the waters off Nikumaroro, while a team of archaeologists from National Geographic have combed the island to find traces of the plane.
During the expedition, NatGeoreported on a theory that might explain what happened to Earhart and Noonan if they indeed landed near Nikumaroro: Noonan died, the Electra floated away, and Earhart lived for weeks on the island with no creatures but the indigenous, three-foot-long coconut crabs to keep her company.
Those crabs, the theory goes, ate Earhart after she perished on the island.
In 1940, British settlers found 13 bones, including a skull, on the island&mdash&ldquopossibly that of Amelia Earhardt [sic],&rdquo according to a telegram sent after the discovery. Upon further examination, doctors said the bones belonged to a short, European male, though some anthropologists disagree with the assessment.
But if the 13 bones did belong to Earhart, what happened to the other 193 in a human skeleton that weren&rsquot found? Credit the crabs: The Brits who uncovered the bones said &ldquococonut crabs had scattered many bones,&rdquo per the Nat Geo report.
To test this theory, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) gave the crabs a pig carcass to feast on. Turns out the crabs swarmed the pig&rsquos body, removed most of its flesh, and moved some of the bones as far as 60 feet away. &ldquoThis tells us crabs drag bones,&rdquo TIGHAR&rsquos Tom King told Nat Geo.
While Ballard and co. are leaving Nikumaroro without the Electra this week&mdashafter a visual examination of 100 percent of the island down to 2,400 feet, Ballard couldn&rsquot find any evidence of the plane&mdashthe search may not be over.
Nat Geo archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert and his team may have found fragments of the skull from 1940 in the Te Umwanibong Museum and Cultural Centre in Tarawa, Kiribati. And forensic anthropologists say it belonged to an adult female.
&ldquoWe don&rsquot know if it&rsquos [Earhart] or not,&rdquo the University of South Florida&rsquos Erin Kimmerle told Nat Geo, &ldquobut all lines of evidence point to the 1940 bones being in this museum.&rdquo They plan to reconstruct the skull and test its DNA in the coming months.
Contrast to Atlantic flight landing
The first land I sighted was the outjutting of Pillar Point, about 21 miles south of the Golden Gate, and Pigeon Point, some 43 miles. I did not recognize the territory at all. As there was a little rain squall directly in my way, I went around to the right. Thus I appeared five miles or so south of where I otherwise would have been—but anyway on the continent I aimed for!
Pulling up over a notch in the hills, directly on my course, I beheld San Francisco Bay before me. Over San Mateo I sailed and six minutes later NR-965-Y and I sat down on the runway of Oakland Airport, approximately 18 hours from Honolulu.
My landing was in marked contrast to that of the solo Atlantic flight. At that time a farmer's best pasture had been my journey's end, and there three Irishmen had come out to see what manner of creature the airplane held. My announcement that I was from America was accepted in dubious silence. At Oakland I did not have to explain whence I came to the thousands of people who waited. Cameras clicked as soon as I opened the cockpit and microphones were raised to catch my important (?) first utterances.
I have said little about the precautions taken in case something went wrong. Mine is a land plane, equipped with wheels. Occasionally such a one has come down safely on water, though the landing is generally dangerous.
There are a number of factors which affect the result. Among them are the roughness of the water, the buoyancy of the craft itself, and its position when it strikes. I had dump valves in the two largest fuselage tanks, which permitted almost instant evacuation of the contents. Empty, these alone had considerable buoyancy—added to that of any wing tanks from which fuel had been used. I felt there was every likelihood the plane would remain afloat for some time.
Paul Mantz, my technical adviser, who in his flying for motion pictures makes airplanes do unbelievable things, helped me plan the best way to bring a high-wing monoplane down on water without somersaulting. The feat has been accomplished and a craft of that type has been known to float for eight days before the crew were rescued. Of course, a steep dive into the sea would so damage any plane that it would tend to sink at once. Similarly, high waves would demolish either unfortunate land or water craft forced down on their merciless surface.
Paul Mantz . . . helped me plan the best way to bring a high-wing monoplane down on water without somersaulting . . . [A] craft of that type has been known to float for eight days before the crew were rescued.
Over my warm flying clothes I wore an inflatable rubber vest, divided into two compartments. Each would blow up instantly when I released the compressed carbon dioxide contained in two little metal capsules at the waist.
Why Amelia Earhart Still Matters
In 1920, a Kansas woman took her first flight&mdashand soon changed the world.
High above the Pacific Ocean in her gleaming two-engine Lockheed Electra, Amelia Earhart soared. It was July 2, 1937, and along with navigator Fred Noonan, she was on her way to their next stop&mdashHowland Island, 1,700 miles southwest of Honolulu. The two veteran flyers were on the last legs of their around-the-world trip, having already completed 20,000 miles in six weeks.
As the plane flew over a desolate portion of the Pacific, it became increasingly clear that they were in danger. The plane was too heavy, they were short on fuel, and the tiny island was always going to be difficult to locate&mdasha two-and-half-square-mile spit of land in a big ocean. As the hours ticked by and the morning sun obscured her view, Earhart's voice rose in panic and confusion as she sent several clipped radio transmissions. Then, as far as the official record shows, silence. That silence would be the quiet beginning of one of the greatest mysteries in American history.
Now 80 years later, that mystery stillfascinates, confuses, and confounds everyone who's searched for the two missing aviators since July 2, 1937.
Who is Amelia?
Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1897, six years before the Wright Brothers first took flight. In her 1932 book Last Flight, she wrote that she saw her first airplane in 1910 at the Iowa State Fair, but that "I was more interested in an absurd hat made of an inverted peach basket which I had just purchased for fifteen cents."
After attending school in Pennsylvania, she worked as a nurse's aid during World War I in Canada. While there, she attended an exhibition featuring flying aces who had just returned from Europe. Watching the planes soar in the sky and buzz the crowd had an enormous impact on Earhart. "I did not understand it at the time," she wrote, "but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by."
[image mediaId='70023c8b-3f80-42b7-aee7-6a54a76b26fc' caption='Earhart before her non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, 1928.' loc='L' share='true' expand='true' size='M'][/image]
In 1920, she took her first flight with soon-to-be-record-breaking ace Frank Hawks. A year later she was one of the few women in flight school, and in 1923 she became the 16th female to get her pilot license from the World Air Sports Federation. A year after Lindbergh returned from his historic flight, Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (albeit as a passenger, something that always bothered her). With this milestone, she became internationally famous and wealthy.
In 1930, she purchased the plane that would carry her into history, the iconic red Lockheed 5B Vega she nicknamed "Old Bessie. It's been on display at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum since its opening in 1976. Then, on May 20th, 1932 and exactly five years to the date of Lindberg's journey, she made her own indelible mark becoming only the second person to pilot a plane solo across the Atlantic&mdashand the first woman. In 1935, she became thefirst person to fly from Hawaii to the United States mainland.
By 1937, Earhart was a noted author, lecturer, celebrity, and role model for women everywhere. She used her fame to encourage others like her to become pilots, founding the organization The Ninety-Nines that is still in operation today. "She always wanted to determine her own course," says Dorothy Cochrane, aeronautics curator at Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. "She just persevered [while] helping to establish aviation as a mode of transportation when it was still considered a novelty."
The Final Flight
In April 1936, when Earhart announced her next adventure would be to fly around the world, it captured the attention of the entire world. With funding from Purdue University, she got possession of the much-hyped "flying laboratory," the Lockheed L-10E Electra, and took to the skies.
On March 17, 1937, Earhart began the journey by flying from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii in under 16 hours. Three days later while taking off from Honolulu, Earhart "groundlooped" the plane, causing extensive damage but thankfully no injuries. Still, it was a grim omen.
Two months later she tried her around-the-world journey once again, except this time she went east. Her route would cross the continental United States, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Asia, down to Australia and then to Lae, New Guinea. It was supposed to conclude by stopping off at Howland Island before she made her way back to Oakland. It was an exhausting 28,595-mile flight meant to follow the equator, and it would have been longer than anything anybody had ever attempted before.
[image mediaId='d0cf81f6-cf7c-4ef8-88b6-bc5998e7ff96' caption='Earhart, and navigator Fred Noonan, depart from an airstrip in Australia, days before disappearing forever, 1937.' loc='C' share='true' expand='true' size='M'][/image]
Earhart and Noonan landed at Lae with little issue on June 30 and departed on July 2 with a loaded plane and full confidence. Their flight to Howland Island was supposed to cover about 2,500 miles and take 18 hours.
The Death of a Legend, the Birth of Many Theories
Theories abound to explain what happened&mdashsome more believable than others. Two stand out as the most prevalent and widely accepted. The first is that they simply ran out of fuel and crash landed fairly close to Howland Island, with the airplane sinking thousands of feet to the bottom of the Pacific.
Officially, the United States government believes this is what happened. Several books, including Elgin and Marie Long's Amelia Earhart: Mystery Solved, makes this case using intuitive flight technique and records of radio transmissions with the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat Itasca, which was supposed to guide the Electra to the island.
Nauticos, known for using high-resolution mapping of the ocean floor and sonar surveys to help government agencies find lost subs, has launched several deep-sea expeditions over the last two decades centered on a radius around Howland Island. As of February 2017, Nauticos' search is still ongoing.
[image mediaId='b594eebd-20a6-4c6d-a698-f9f748c9747c' caption='Howland Island, Earhart's intended destination. In the distance is a small lighthouse, nicknamed 'Earhart's Light.'' loc='C' share='true' expand='true' size='L'][/image]
But Cochrane also thinks the tragedy may have been preventable. Before they even took off, Earhart insisted on leaving behind a 25-foot trailing radio antenna, believing it was heavy and unnecessary. This antenna would have given the Coast Guard a better chance of honing in on her radio signal. Cochrane also emphasizes that neither Earhart nor Noonan had much communications training and didn't know Morse Code, which would have also given a fail-safe way of communicating.
[image mediaId='221a31a9-f441-45b2-9946-a2036d9ed11e' caption='Anti-freckle cream discovered on Nikumaroro island, left, was found by TIGHAR researchers, 2006.' loc='L' share='true' expand='true' size='M'][/image]
To add further risk, tiny Howland Island was a poor choice for a landing spot due to it being only two miles long and a mile wide. However, the U.S. military was looking to establish an outpost in the Pacific as a prelude to World War II and encouraged its selection. In the end, says Cochrane, "it was. an accident waiting to happen."
But some experts like Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), don't buy the "crash and sink" theory and points to a mountain of evidence unearthed by TIGHAR. He believes the two Americans missed Howland Island and continue for another 350 nautical miles southeast, where they were able to land the plane on the surrounding coral reef barrier of uninhabited Gardner Island (today, it's called Nikumaroro Island).
For the next several nights, distress radio calls emitted from near this island, but U.S. Navy search plane were unable to locate the castaways. Gillespie believes that Earhart (and possibly Noonan) lived on the island for weeks, maybe months, before dying. In fact, a human skeleton was found on the island in 1940, though British authorities said after initial examination that the skull belonged to a short, European male.
Gillespie disagrees with that assessment, and says anthropologist Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee reexamined the measurement and believes they are of a female of European origins. In the summer of 2017, TIGHAR, with sponsorship from the National Geographic Society, sent a team of human-remains sniffing dogs to locate the exact spot of the castaway's death. While digging revealed no remains, they are in the process of seeing if human DNA can be extracted from the soil with a technique used to recover Neanderthal DNA. Gillespie admits "it's a long shot," but he's hoping.
[pullquote align='C']"They told 4.32 million people [who watched the show] something that was demonstrably not true."[/pullquote]
Meanwhile, the wilder explanations continue to crop up. Just last month, the History Channel premiered a documentary that claimed a long-lost photo was proof that she and Noonan were captured by the Japanese.
Within days, though, that photo was revealed to likely have predated their flightand couldn't have shown the two American flyers. While Cochrane and Gillespie disagree on what happened to Earhart 80 years ago, they are in total agreement that the photo reputedly showing Earhart and Noonan is bunk. "That theory had been around for years," Cochrane says, "unfortunately, this picture that they found to be definitive is not." Gillespie criticism is even more biting: "They told 4.32 million people [who watched the show] something that was demonstrably not true."
When asked for comment by Popular Mechanics, the History Channel replied with a statement: "HISTORY has a team of investigators exploring the latest developments about Amelia Earhart and we will be transparent in our findings. Ultimately, historical accuracy is most important to us and our viewers."
An Everlasting Legacy
Patty Wagstaff's airplane hangs upside down mere feet from Earhart's at Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. She's a three-time U.S. National Aviation Aerobatic Champion and the first woman to ever win. It was because of Earhart's example that Wagstaff made aviation her career.
"Amelia Earhart let me know that the possibility was there. (she) kept me believing," Wagstaff told Popular Mechanics. While the Earhart's legend has continued to grow over the eight decades, Wagstaff says it's important for us to remember the great flyer wasn't a myth. "What (Earhart) did was extraordinary, but she was an ordinary woman."
[pullquote align='C']"Amelia Earhart let me know that the possibility was there. [she] kept me believing."[/pullquote]
Wagstaff, Gillespie, and Cochrane all say that it doesn't matter a whole lot if the mystery behind Earhart and Noonan's disappearance is ever solved. Gillespie says nothing they find will ever change the aviation history Earhart made. When asked if she ever thinks Earhart will be found, Wagstaff responds simply, "In a way, I hope they don't."
So is all this searching a waste of time and money? Cochrane concedes it probably is, though finding Earhart's DNA or a submerged Electra would help shed light on this 80-year-old mystery. But one thing that isn't a mystery, is that Earhart remains an inspiration for millions, whether veteran pilots or young girls hoping to follow her example.
"She always wanted to make a career out of (aviation) and she did," says Cochrane. "For a woman to do that, it was extraordinary. She took great risks. and was a role model and a figure of courage."
[image mediaId='40981834-c64e-4375-bc2f-51f90ff890b2' caption='' loc='C' share='true' expand='true' size='L'][/image]
What happened to Amelia Earhart?
Though the pilot was confirmed legally dead in 1939, historians are still uncertain about what happened to her. There are now two main hypotheses: that the plane was not refuelled properly at Lae and therefore crashed into the sea and sank, or that she missed Howland and flew to the nearby Gardner Island and crashed there.
There is some circumstantial evidence for both, though not enough to discount a final sensational theory that Earhart landed on an island occupied by the Japanese Empire and was executed as a spy. One piece of evidence for this is the striking similarity between her Electra plane’s parts and those of the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero which saw a great deal of service in World War Two.
A memorial to Earhart at Harbour Grace in Newfoundland, Canada.
Though Earhart fate remains unknown, her legacy is still strong today. The inspiration for 1,000 female transport pilots in World War Two and the receiver of countless posthumous honours, the pilot remains a relatable heroine for our own times.
What Really Happened to Amelia Earhart?
With the exception of two or three famous astronauts, there are only four pilots in the entire history of aviation whose names every American will recognize: Wilbur and Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. In fact the producers of the major Earhart biopic that recently opened figure her first name alone will be enough to draw tens of millions of customers to Cineplexes, to Blockbuster, to Netflix. Amelia. Admittedly she had the good fortune to have not been christened Sally or Martha, and to have inherited a surname so perfect even a romance novelist would reject it: Air-heart.
Earhart’s position in history might seem strange. Her talents as a pilot were questioned, perhaps with envy, by many contemporaries. Her fame grew out of a flight on which she was simply a passenger—as important as “a sack of potatoes,” according to one critic— when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air. And her ultimate notoriety came from a flight that failed—her 1937 round-the-world attempt—at least in part due to some grievous errors of airmanship.
Yet Amelia lives on, while Louis Blériot, Eddie Rickenbacker, Wrong-Way Corrigan, Frank Hawks, Wiley Post and hundreds of other skilled, brave, inventive and once-famous pilots have been tossed into the trashcan of aviation enthusiast history.
Let’s be honest and admit that outside of grade school classrooms, where Earhart’s role as a proto-feminist and all-American hero are still taught, the three questions that continue to fascinate us about her are: 1. How good a pilot was she? 2. What was her sex life like? and 3. Where and how did she die? Her life and times have been exhaustively described in biographies—the best of them by Susan Butler (East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart), Mary Lovell (The Sound of Wings) and Doris Rich (Amelia Earhart: A Biography)—so we’ll cut to the chase.
If I have one advantage over Earhart’s otherwise superb biographers, it’s that as a pilot I have spent thousands of hours flying modern (and vintage) aircraft of performance and complexity equivalent to those that Amelia piloted. And as a pilot of embarrassingly ordinary skills, I have a tiny window into the difference between baloney and prime beef in what has been written about Earhart the aviator.
If she had a fault, it was that she would never have admitted such a lack of flying talent. With one exception, when she acknowledged planting a Lockheed Vega on its nose due to “over-application of the brakes,” accidents were never her fault. They were always due to a hidden ditch, “spectators say a whirlwind hit me,” landing gear weakened by another pilot’s bounced landing, or a mechanical failure. When Earhart crashed an autogyro heavily in 1931, she climbed out of the wreckage and in a moment of candor said, “It’s all my fault.” But she later explained that, heavens, what she actually meant was that it was her fault that her husband, George Putnam, had tripped and broken a rib while rushing toward the wreck.
It would have been better, perhaps, if Earhart confessed to occasionally screwing up, for it was a time when engines routinely failed, pilots got lost because they had no navigation aids other than railroad tracks, and landings in pastures because it was getting dark were part of the game. Of course she crashed now and then. Who didn’t?
Amelia learned to fly during an era, the early 1920s, when the Avro Avians and Kinner Airsters she first flew were vastly more difficult to handle than are the Cessna 150s and Piper Cherokees she’d have been using half a century later. And she quickly progressed to big radial-engine, taildragger Lockheed Vegas and Electra twins that few of her modern amateur pilot critics could even start, much less taxi—and forget about actually flying the beasts.
In fact test pilot Wiley Post declared Earhart’s first Vega, which she flew across the country to the Lockheed factory in California for repairs, “the foulest he’d ever flown,” yet she had safely managed many hours in the big pig. It was so bad that Lockheed traded her a new one rather than fix it.
Earhart flew that single-engine Lockheed across the Atlantic in 1932, becoming the first American woman to solo the Pond. The flight required many hours of night instrument flying, which was a new and relatively untested skill for her and had to be done with what a modern pilot would consider emergency-only “partial panel” instrumentation. At that, her altimeter failed several hours into the flight, and she figured out a way to basically estimate altitude by what power settings the engine would accept, which happened to be a very smart move. She ran into icing at night and at one point spun the Vega, recovering only after breaking out of the clouds low enough to see individual whitecaps. (Anybody who makes light of this has never flown an airplane, certainly never spun one.)
Worse yet, an exhaust collector ring weld failed, and she flew for hours watching right in front of her, through the gap between cowling and fuselage, a pulsing blue flame, knowing the firewall might not hold if the exhaust fractured completely. Then avgas began dripping down the back of her neck from a wing tank fuel-gauge leak above her…
The previous year, Putnam, always in search of publicity, had lined up Earhart to make the first transcontinental flight in a Pitcairn autogyro, its fuselage plastered with the logo of chewing gum purveyor Beech-Nut, the flight’s sponsor. Amelia had no interest in the autogyro’s STOL capabilities but flew it simply as a kind of Goodyear blimp, an odd advertising vehicle that attracted crowds wherever it landed. She crashed her Pitcairn three times, once so close to the crowd at Abeline, Texas, where she was demonstrating it that the Department of Commerce issued what would today be called an FAA violation and wanted to ground her for 90 days, a major penalty. Only the intercession of a few high-placed friends kept her flying, with just a formal rebuke in her file.
But the Pitcairn was so difficult to fly that it was said the incident/accident rate was once every 10 flying hours. A factory pilot crashed Earhart’s own (borrowed) Pitcairn not five hours after it had been repaired. Amelia had unwittingly become a test pilot.
One of Earhart’s major critics, Hollywood pilot Paul Mantz, said she was an impatient and careless pilot. Many assumed he must have known what he was talking about, since he’d flown and traveled with Earhart extensively, and certainly Mantz had the weight of vast experience and flying talent behind his words. But he also was hugely miffed that Amelia had, for a variety of reasons, decided to dispense with him as her “aviation adviser” on the eve of her round-the-world attempt. One has to wonder how much of Mantz’s ill will toward his one-time pal—they were even falsely rumored to have had an affair—was simple resentment and payback.
Another Earhart detractor, young pilot Elinor Smith, was an acquaintance but also a competitor, which may have flavored her words. (Smith was convinced George Putnam had seen to it that she didn’t get sponsorship for any of her own flying projects, which would hardly make her a fan of his wife.) Smith was a demo pilot for Bellanca, and Earhart was considering buying a Bellanca. So she flew one with Smith, who many years later re called that Amelia had done a dreadful piloting job—so dreadful that Giuseppe Bellanca supposedly refused to sell her one of his airplanes.
But that was still early in Earhart’s flying career, and virtually all her flight time had been in low-powered lightplanes such as her Airster and Avian. The Bellanca was the first high-performance single she’d ever flown, so perhaps Elinor Smith should have cut her some slack rather than, years later, perpetuating the Amelia-couldn’t-fly legend.
Soon thereafter, Earhart bought her first Lockheed Vega, which probably was about as demanding to fly as any first-line fighter of the era. Imagine a 250-hour private pilot today buying a P-51D Mustang and soloing it. (Earhart claimed 560 hours at roughly this point, but probably half of it was bogus, what pilots came to call “Parker P-51 time,” after the popular fountain pen. Amelia rarely logged her flight time, and it is difficult to imagine how she could have flown that much between 1921 and 1929, what with 1924 through 1928 being virtually devoid of flight time.)
The inexperienced Earhart had a hard time handling the big Vega, so Putnam initially hired a pro, Bill Lancaster, to do the actual flying. Lancaster was listed as Amelia’s “mechanic,” and the fact that he did much of the piloting was kept quiet. But Amelia couldn’t fake being at the controls during the original Powder Puff Derby, in 1929, and she ran off the end of the runway at a refueling stop in Yuma, Ariz., bending the prop. Characteristically, rather than admit she had misjudged the Vega’s hot landing speed, she said that “something had gone wrong with the stabilizers,” a nonsensical claim.
At the end of the race, in Cleveland, she made a horrendous landing, bouncing and porpoising and nearly ground-looping. Still, even critical Elinor Smith was awed that the low-time Earhart was able to survive flying the big Lockheed. And the famous Lockheed engineer Kelly Johnson, who helped check Amelia out in her next airplane, a special twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10E, thought her a good pilot, “sensible, very studious, and paid attention to what she was told.”
Earhart’s most notorious crash came as she was leaving Hawaii westbound in her Electra on her first round-the-world attempt. Something went bad during the takeoff, and she ended up ground-looping at speed, doing damage that required an extensive rebuild.
Some say a blown tire caused it. Earhart later hinted that Mantz was the cause, since he flew the San Francisco-to-Honolulu leg and made a rough landing that, Earhart claimed, weakened the starboard gear-leg oleo strut, which collapsed to initiate the ground loop. But Amelia had one bad habit as a twin-engine pilot: Even at speeds where the rudders were effective, she still tried to control direction with differential throttles. That can work at the beginning of a takeoff roll, but it’s a big mistake at 80 mph with the tail up and could well have caused the swerve that collapsed a gear leg on the heavily overloaded airplane.
Having twice flown the Atlantic in light twins and made countless transcontinental trips in everything from two-seaters to business jets, I’m awed by Earhart the aviator because she had the ability and temperament to fly day after day, week after week, for five to eight hours a day. Only somebody who has been there can comprehend how physically and emotionally wearying it is to be a single pilot totally in charge of navigating, aviating, weather-guessing and dealing with every aspect of an airplane’s needs in the air and on the ground. Earhart did it when navigation aids, weather forecasting and airport facilities were laughably primitive compared to what today even the rankest student pilot has at her disposal. To read Amelia’s own accounts of navigating across Brazil and the South Atlantic, then crossing bleakest Central Africa under the pounding sun day after day, can’t help but make a pilot admire her strength, intelligence and courage.
Certainly navigator Fred Noonan did much of the hard work, but Earhart was still in charge and, like any captain, bore the ultimate responsibility. She was a pilot who sometimes—and necessarily—was in over her head, urged by her promoter-husband to constantly push her own aviating envelope. Yet Earhart ultimately rose to the challenge and performed beyond the bounds of what far too many of her critics, both then and now, might themselves be able to accomplish.
Earhart grew up spunky and adventuresome, and as an adult she chose to keep her hair in a quasi-masculine tousle and wear pants (though skinny and lanky from the knees up, she felt awkward about her disproportionately heavy legs and ankles). She made her career in a man’s world of airplanes and oily engines, so she was inevitably lumbered with the term “tomboy,” in some circles taken as shorthand for lesbian. There is in fact zero evidence of that being true, though the myth still lingers, as it does around so many strong women. If anything, Earhart was somewhat asexual her emotional drive focused on adventure and accomplishment, not sex and marriage.
When she wed George Putnam in 1931, she presented him, hours before their marriage, with a bold prenup (though the term hadn’t yet been invented). Amelia required that both she and Putnam were to feel free to do as they wished, whether alone or with whomever they wished, and that neither should feel constrained by anything as archaic as marriage vows and monogamy. And if after one year of marriage Earhart decided she didn’t like being someone’s wife, the deal was off.
Earhart had been engaged, before her marriage to Putnam, to young engineer Sam Chapman. Her involvement with Chapman almost certainly was a relationship she agreed to because that’s what a conservative, proper young woman did in the 1920s: got engaged, planned a wedding and married. There was apparently no sexual involvement with Chapman they were just friends and indeed would remain so after she ended the engagement.
There would be whispers and gossip about several of the men with whom Earhart flew and traveled, not only Paul Mantz but also navigator Noonan. Earhart never had more than a friendly relationship with the happily married Mantz, and as for Noonan, just a month before he and Amelia left on their last flight, he’d married a woman who Amelia knew well and who obviously had no qualms about sending her new husband forth with the famous aviator for several weeks of enforced cockpit intimacy. Noonan spent every spare moment during the round-the-world trip posting letters home to his wife—hardly the conduct of a cheating husband.
Some suspect that Earhart was in fact pregnant with Putnam’s child during the round-the-world flight. Either she was susceptible to avgas fumes—her explanation—or Amelia was experiencing frequent morning sickness.
But one of the most tantalizing questions that has come down through the nearly 73 years since Earhart’s comet blazed brightest is whether she had a long-term affair with handsome ex–West Point football team captain, Olympic athlete, former Army Air Corps pilot, entrepreneur and government official Eugene Vidal—father of writer Gore Vidal. The film Amelia spends much of its energy perpetuating the legend, with Hilary Swank (Earhart) and Ewan McGregor (Vidal) vigorously heating the cinematic sheets.
There’s ample evidence that Earhart had a crush on the married Vidal—they were involved in a number of business dealings together—but little to indicate a sexual relationship beyond the insistence of Gore Vidal that Amelia was his father’s mistress. Gore would have been about 10 at the time, so the affair was most likely the imaginings of a fertile young mind amplified over the years.
If Earhart hadn’t disappeared into the Pacific on July 2, 1937, she’d today be as obscure an aviator as Jacqueline Cochran, Louise Thaden, Blanche Noyes, Beryl Markham, Hanna Reitsch, Amy Johnson and a dozen other women pilots who were accomplished record-setters but today are little known to the general public. But tragedy created notoriety—particularly tragedy that took the life of an attractive, mysterious and strangely sexy woman, which was guaranteed to thrum the heartstrings of celebrity-besotted Americans.
How and where Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan died have fascinated everyone from conspiracy theorists to analytical calculators of Earhart’s known and assumed flight tracks, fuel consumption, possible power settings, potential groundspeed, wind drift, navigational sun sights, emergency options, what she had for breakfast and everything else that can be deduced—make that guessed—about her last flight. For the sake of simplicity let’s roll eyes editorially and ignore Elvis theorists who claim Earhart was alive and well in New Jersey, or died in Japan’s Imperial Palace or was beheaded as a spy. Without belaboring the excruciating details and the angry debate that has created an Internet cottage industry, the two leading theories of how she and Noonan vanished currently are:
That when Earhart and Noonan couldn’t find Howland Island, the navigator provided her with a northwest/southeast search track roughly perpendicular to their course toward Howland—capping the T, in effect—and that she took a chance and followed it on the southeast heading, which took her away from Howland, to an uninhabited atoll today called Nikumaroro. There she force-landed and survived, making several pleading radio calls while the Electra’s batteries lasted, until lack of fresh water and food brought them a slow and painful death.
This theory is espoused by the U.S. organization TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery), which has so far spent about $4 million searching Nikumaroro during four expeditions. TIGHAR has recovered some encouraging artifacts, but nothing that can unquestionably be connected to Earhart or her Electra. TIGHAR’s Richard Gillespie and a multitalented team will next attempt to find more artifacts on Nikumaroro that can be scrupulously recovered and preserved, then tested for an Earhart DNA match.
A second intriguing theory is that Earhart had a carefully considered fallback plan if she failed to find Howland: She would do a 180 and fly back toward New Guinea and hope to blunder across one of the substantially larger islands that lay to the east of it—perhaps New Britain, which had two airstrips at Rabaul.
Australian wreck-chaser David Billings, who is openly contemptuous of TIGHAR’s methodology, claims that in 1945 an Australian army patrol on New Britain stumbled across the corroded hulk of a radial engine and nacelle, plus the overgrown airframe of a twin-engine airplane of some sort. Busy fighting late-war Japanese holdouts, the soldiers had only enough time to retrieve a metal “repair tag” wired to the engine mount, and the tag—which has since disappeared—is said to have denoted the engine’s type and the serial number of the airplane for which it had been repaired. Both matched Earhart’s Electra, construction number 1055 with two Pratt & Whitney S3H1 Wasp engines. Billings claims to have a crude map of the patrol’s route, and penciled onto its margin are the very same numbers and letters.
Billings and volunteers have tramped the New Britain jungle hoping to stumble across the wreckage just as the Aussie patrol did 65 years ago, but so far no luck. He realizes they need an expensive helicopter-borne magnetometer search if the wreckage is still there, by now totally overgrown and perhaps even buried.
Actually, there’s a third theory that she searched frantically for Howland, found nothing and finally ditched or perhaps crashed into the Pacific. Having flown many hours in twin-engine aircraft in the Caribbean and the Bahamas—similar to the islanded areas of the Pacific—I can tell you that finding a tiny island on the sea when there are clouds in the sky (and there were many when Earhart arrived in the vicinity of Howland) is a fool’s errand: Every cloud creates a perfect shadow the size and shape of an island, for dozens of miles in every direction.
Once when I was low on fuel in a Shrike Commander twin, I radioed the airport operator at the tiny Caribbean island of Grand Turk and asked him to step outside and tell me if he could hear my engines. Just as Earhart begged the Coast Guard cutter Itasca to home on her, I begged Grand Turk to tell me yes, they could hear me. They couldn’t. So I know her terror, know what it’s like to fly from one phantom shadow to another. I survived. She didn’t, but I know what happened to her, because it almost happened to me.
So perhaps it’s time to stop, and leave the lady where she lies. The search for Earhart has become an expensive yet ultimately pointless exercise. Ric Gillespie of TIGHAR at least admits that it’s not the Earhart legend that drives him but the chase—the deduction and analysis, the footwork and fundraising, overcoming obstacles for a goal that is not gold bullion sunk in a Spanish galleon, or a rich-veined Dutchman’s Mine, or strange Nazi secrets entombed in a U-boat it’s the intellectual exercise.
Country singer Iris Dement certainly didn’t have Earhart in mind when she wrote “Let the Mystery Be,” but she might as well have.
Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain, so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
That might be the most meaningful way of all to honor Amelia: Let the mystery be.
Stephan Wilkinson is a former executive editor of Flying magazine. For further reading, he recommends the Earhart biographies by Susan Butler, Mary Lovell and Doris Rich, and notes you can learn more than you need to know about her last flight at tighar.org and electranewbritain.com.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.
Records Relating to Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan disappeared during their attempt at a round-the-world flight in July 1937. The National Archives contains records relating to the proposed flight and the search for their airplane.
"Amelia Earhart prior to last takeoff." Records of the U.S. Coast Guard, RG 26, NAID 6708612.
Letter from Amelia Earhart to President Franklin D. Roosevelt regarding her world flight. November 10, 1936. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. NAID 6705943 (3 pages)
Amelia Earhart, July 1936. Records of the Army Air Forces, RG 18, NAID 6708609.
U.S. Navy Report of the Search for Amelia Earhart, July 2-18, 1937. Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, RG 38. NAID 305240 (96 pages)
Report, p. 1, dated January 7, 1939, on information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, RG 38, Entry 81, General Correspondence, 1929-1942, File A4-3/Earhart, Box #70
Report, p. 2, dated January 7, 1939, on information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, RG 38, Entry 81, General Correspondence, 1929-1942, File A4-3/Earhart, Box #70
Report, p. 3, dated January 7, 1939, on information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, RG 38, Entry 81, General Correspondence, 1929-1942, File A4-3/Earhart, Box #70
The lists below provide more detailed descriptions of records in the National Archives in Washington, DC, College Park, MD, and San Francisco, CA.
National Archives in Washington, DC, and at College Park, MD
The list indicates records held in Washington with [DC] and in College Park with [CP]. Please note the location if you are requesting information about ordering copies.
Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group 24 [DC]
Includes the deck logs of the USS Colorado, Ontario, and Swan, vessels engaged in the search for the lost Earhart plane in the vicinity of the Howland and Phoenix Islands during the period July 1-19, 1937. The total number of pages of log entries for the period of the search is 71.
Records of the United States Coast Guard, Record Group 26 [DC]
Available on Reference Microfilm – 4 Rolls
Correspondence File "601 Itasca" for 1937
1. Cruise report of the Itasca for the period during which it was searching for Amelia Earhart, together with a letter and two cables. 14 pages.
2. Track chart showing the area searched by the Itasca. 1 page.
Correspondence File "601 Amelia Earhart"
1. Copy of the radio log of the Itasca. June 9-July 16, 1937, with official remarks and opinions. 106 pages.
2. Copies of cables and radiograms, February-April and June-July 1937, relating to preparations for the flight and to the search for the plane. 159 pages.
3. Transcripts of the logbook of the Itasca, June 22‑26 and July 1-23, 1937. 57 pages.
4. Copy of the communications log of the Itasca. 43 pages.
5. Photographs of Amelia Earhart, the plane, and related subjects. 26 items.
Records of the Hydrographic Office, (Record Group 37) [DC]
Includes a 25-page file of correspondence and newspaper clippings relating to the proposed Earhart flight and the search for the plane. File Designation – A4-3 Box 22. General Correspondence.
Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, (Record Group 38) [CP & DC]
A1 entry 351 - 84 page "Report of Earhart Search by U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, July 2-18, 1937." Available online: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/305240 [CP]
Includes a file on Amelia Earhart among the general correspondence of the Office of Naval Intelligence. This file consists of 170 pages of correspondence and reports relating to the flight of Amelia Earhart but also includes a report, dated January 7, 1939, on information that Earhart was a prisoner in the Marshall Islands. Entry 81, General Correspondence, 1929-1942, File A4-3/Earhart, Box #70 [DC]
General Records of the Department of Commerce (Record Group 40) [CP]
General Correspondence Files 101232 and 83272/126 relating to Amelia Earhart. 45 pages.
General Records of the Department of State (Record Group 59) [CP]
Decimal File 811.76940 EARHART, AMELIA/1: Document dated June 17, 1928, concerning her flight from the United States to Europe with Wilbur Stulta. 6 pages.
Decimal File 841.413 EARHART/1: Document dated August 9, 1930, concerning dedication of a monument to Earhart at Burryport, Wales. 2 pages.
Decimal File 811.001 HOOVER, HERBERT/2629: Musical composition dated July 29, 1932, dedicated to "Lady Lindy" from two British composers. 5 pages.
Decimal File 124.023/33: Documents dated August 8, 1932, concerning an advertisement in the Keystone, a jewelry trade magazine, in which Earhart endorsed a Swiss-made watch in a letter written on American Embassy stationery. 5 pages.
Decimal File 093.115/111: Citation dated July 23, 1937, including a replica of a medal presented to Earhart at the Gimbel Brothers Banquet in Philadelphia, honoring her as "Woman of the Year for 1932," and cover letter to the Secretary of State with acknowledgement. The medal replica is bronze, 15/16 inches in diameter, inscribed "Amelia Earhart, First Woman in the World to Fly Alone Across the Atlantic Ocean." 2 pages.
Decimal File 862i.01/333: Letter dated June 17, 1939, from Senator Gerald P. Nye to the Secretary of State, and the reply. Nye's letter concerns allegations in an Australian weekly that the search for Earhart was used as a cover for espionage against Japanese possessions in the Pacific. There is a reply from the Secretary of State denying the story. A photographic copy of the newspaper articles is included. 9 pages.
Decimal File 800.79611 PUTNAM, AMELIA EARHART/1-212: File dated June 1936-May 1940 concerning Earhart's flight around the world. Many of the documents are despatches and instructions relating to clearance for her flight from countries over which she proposed to fly. Some material concerns her disappearance and the subsequent search for some trace of her or her aircraft. Also includes unverified reports of her whereabouts. 364 pages. There is also a 19-page index to this file.
General Records of the Department of the Navy, (Record Group 80) [DC]
Includes an 84 page "Report of Earhart Search by U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, July 2-18, 1937." There is also a 27-page file concerning her proposed round-the-world flight. File Code A4-5 (5) (361030-4) General Correspondence 1926-1940.
Records of the Office of the Adjutant General, (Record Group 94) – Army Records [DC]
Includes an 81 page file relating to the Trans-Pacific and round-the-world flight of Amelia Earhart.
Records of the Office of Territories (Record Group 126) [CP]
Central Classified Files, 1907-51, Equatorial Islands.
Aviation-General, file 9-12-21. December 3, 1936-May 12, 1938. Correspondence relating to Earhart's round the world trip stop at Howland Island and the Itasca's search efforts. 133 pages.
Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, (Record Group 165) [DC]
Includes 17 pages concerning Amelia Earhart among several files of the Military Intelligence Division. These consist of a 10 page summary of her flight, several reports concerning her goodwill flight to Mexico in 1935, and two letters dated July 8, 1937, and November 1, 1939, from civilians who claimed to have received messages from Earhart.
National Archives Gift Collection (Record Group 200) [CP]
Papers donated by Leo G. Bellart, a crew member of the Itasca:
1. Radio log of the Itasca. 3 pages.
2. Newspaper clippings relating to the search for Amelia Earhart. 20 pages.
3. Correspondence of Leo G. Bellart. 67 pages.
4. Scrapbook containing various types of information. 152 pages.
Records of U.S. Army Overseas Operations and Commands, (Record Group 395) [DC]
Include among the records of the Air Officer, Hawaiian Department, the proceedings of a board of officers to investigate the crash of Amelia Earhart at Luke Field on March 20, 1937, and a report, dated July 27, 1937, on the search for her plane. The proceedings total 56 pages and the report 10 pages.
Records of the Federal Aviation Administration (Record Group 237) [CP]
Correspondence Files 805.0, 805.3 and 835 relating to Amelia Earhart. 329 pages.
National Archives at San Francisco
Records Relating to Amelia Earhart's Flight and Search Efforts
RG 181 Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments, 14th Naval District, Commandant's Office
General Correspondence (unclassified) 1925-1942.
A4-3/Earhart "Report of Earhart Search by U.S. Navy & U.S Coast Guard 2-18 July 1937" (94 pgs)
A4-3/Earhart  [2/15/37 to 3/2D/37] (273 pgs) (This file contains correspondence and radio messages related to the earlier failed start.)
A4-3/Earhart  [4/4/37 to 7/6/37] (Radio Messages) (250 pgs)
A4-3/Earhart  [7/6/37 to 7/9/37] (Radio Messages) (181 pgs)
A4-3/Earhart  [7/9/37 to 7/12/37] (Radio Messages) (157 pgs)
A4-3/Earhart  [7/12/37 to 7/20/37] (Radio Messages) (162 pgs)
Commandant's Earhart Search Charts, 1937
U.S.S. Lexington Proposed & Actual Time Search Track (5 ft. long)
U.S.S. Colorado, U.S.S. Swan and U.S.C.G. Itasca Search Areas July 2-11, 1937 (4 ft. long)
Track of USS Lamson 11 July 19 July 1937 while engaged with Earhart Search Group (2 ft. long)
Photostat of above 8 1/2 X 11 (1 pg)
Howland Island layout 8 1/2 X 11 (1 pg)
USS Lexington and Attached Aircraft Tract Chart, Earhart Search 13-18 July 1937 (3 ft. long)
Track of USS Swan 3 July 21 July 1937 (3 ft. long)
Itasca Search for Earhart Plane 2-18 July 1937, 12" X 12" (1 pg)
Same as above 20" X 12" (2 pgs)
USS Drayton (366) Navigational Chart Earhart Search, 11-18 July 1937, 8 1/2" X 11" photostat (1 pg)
Tract of USS Cushing Earhart Search Group 11-18 July 1937, 14" X 11 1/2" photostat (1 pg)
Tract of USS Colorado, USS Swan and USCG Itasca
Earhart Search #2 1937 [Position Plotting Sheet showing areas searched by Itasca 2-6 July 1937& by Swan 6,8 July 1937] (4 ft. long)
Earhart Search #26 1937 [Plot Chart Showing Plots of Search Ships & Planes] (5 ft. long)
Earhart Search 1937 [Chart showing all planes and ships' tracks and search areas.] (5 ft. long)
[Earhart Search Chart] [Same as above some corrections] (2 ft. long)
Tract of USS Cushing Earhart Search Group, 11-18 July 1937 (2 ft. long)
12TH NAVAL DISTRICT - COMMANDANT'S OFFICE
General Correspondence (Unclassified) 1926-1939
(NM 72, Entry # 38) box 490 RA 3051 B
A21(1) General Correspondence [Earhart Flight & Search, [#1] [21 Jan. 1937 to 21 July 193/] (92 pgs)
A21(1) General Correspondence [Earhart Flight & Search Radio Messages 20 June-19 July 1937] [#2] (174 pgs)
NAVAL STATION #129 AMERICAN SAMOA - COMMANDANT'S OFFICE
General Correspondence (Unclassified) [313-D8G-3440, (V9723), RA 2268B]
File: A4-3 (1) Earhart Flight [15 Feb 1937 to 20 July 1937] (Messages & Correspondence) (114 pgs)
In the news . . .
PL - MARSHALL ISLANDS, JALUIT ATOLL, JALUIT ISLAND. ONI # 14381 JALUIT HARBOR. Citation: U.S. National Archives, Records of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Record Group 38, Monograph Files Relating to the Pacific Ocean Area, NAID 68141661)
View in National Archives Catalog
News reports and a television documentary in July 2017 suggested that this image, part of the National Archives' holdings, may show missing pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Frederick Noonan on the Marshall Islands after her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937. The National Archives' mission is to preserve and provide access to the historical records. We encourage you to review the records in order to form your opinions.
The Second Attempt
Earhart was eager to try again after her first failed circumnavigation attempt. On May 21, 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Oakland, California to start the first leg of their trip around the globe. This time, they chose to travel the opposite direction: from west to east.
Their new route was necessitated by changes in weather conditions. This time, Earhart and Noonan planned to first fly from Oakland to Miami, Florida, before making their way across South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Ocean, hugging the equator the whole way.
How Star Trek Explained Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance
Every few years, a new theory emerges that claims to solve one of the 20th century’s greatest mysteries: What happened to Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan during their attempt to circumnavigate the globe? The most recent theory, based on a photo that purports to show Earhart in Japanese custody, suggests that she didn’t die mid-flight, but instead as a prisoner. It’s already been debunked.
As with most mysteries of this kind, the public will likely never accept a definitive conclusion. But we can always wonder—and that’s exactly what another version of Earhart’s end does. Here, then, is a fictional, but inspiring end to Earhart’s story pulled from the mythology of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek Universe, where the story of the pioneering pilot picks up 400 years later, on the other side of the Milky Way galaxy…
The Federation Starship USS Voyager and its Captain, Kathryn Janeway, seemed to have suffered a similar fate to Earhart. While on a routine mission, the ship, along with its 150 member crew, were whisked away to the Delta quadrant against their will and stranded almost 60 years of travel (at top speed) away from Earth. With no clues to their disappearance or any trail behind them, Voyager was marooned without any way to call home in a part of the Galaxy where no human existed or has ever travelled to. Or so they they thought.
One day, while traveling through the vast expanse of the Delta quadrant on a journey that many on Voyager would probably never see the end of, a strange material is picked up by the ship’s sensors: rusted metal. Given that there’s no oxygen in space, the detection was out of place. But not any stranger than finding a 1936 Ford pickup truck floating in the vacuum of space, which is what Voyager encountered a few moments later. The crew brought the vehicle into their loading bay and examined the 20th century relic. They also scanned for nearby wormholes and temporal anomalies to try and explain the extreme displacement, but found nothing.
The Voyager’s crew examined the pickup and found a working AM radio. After turning it on, they received an SOS distress signal emitting from a nearby planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere. They quickly set course for the world, which sits in the third position from its host star, much like Earth. Upon arrival, they determined that the SOS signal came from a continent in the planet’s northern hemisphere. The crew established that due to the atmospheric conditions on the planet, they could not safely beam down an away team to investigate and couldn’t safely land a shuttle pod.
Desperate to figure out how a human-made object made it so far into the galaxy and who was sending out a Earth-native SOS signal, Captain Janeway decided to land Voyager on the planet’s surface. Such an action is rare due to Voyager’s massive size, but was justified given the possibility of determining how a human presence could possibly be so far from home. Why the urgency? Because their findings could help Voyager find a way back to Earth.
After touching down on the planet’s surface, two Voyager teams are dispatched to investigate a detected power source and the SOS signal, which is nearby. The team led by Captain Janeway pursued the signal and soon discovered another relic from the 20th century: a Lockheed Model 10 Electra twin-engine airplane. The plane was made famous after it was thought to have crashed and sunk into the ocean in 1937 along with its passengers, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. Just over the hill, another team discovers a cave in the location where Voyager detected the emitting power source.
Amelia Earhart and her ill-fated Lockheed Electra airplane. National Archives
With Captain Janeway joining those in the cave, they came across a handful of cryostasis chambers, which are generally used to keep lifeforms alive in deep sleep for long periods of time. The crew determined that the chambers are still powered on and that their inhabitants are alive, but barely. Upon examining the first chamber, the crew finds a Japanese soldier still in uniform and next to him, an African-American man dressed like a farmer. A quick analysis using Voyager’s database determined that the clothing is from the mid 1930s. Further down the line of deep sleep chambers, they find another man and woman.
Upon further examination, Captain Janeway noticed that the female was wearing a leather jacket with gold wings pinned above the breast pocket and a name printed below it: A. Earhart. Janeway, taken back, immediately explained to her crew that Earhart was one of Earth’s first female pilots and the first female aviator to cross the Atlantic ocean. During a meeting back at Voyager , Janeway continued to explain that Earhart’s disappearance 400 years prior was one of history’s “celebrated mysteries.” She also mentioned that one of the most ridiculed notions surrounding the case was that Earhart was abducted by aliens. Janeway’s first officer, Commander Chakotay, quickly pointed out that may have been the case.
A decision is made by Janeway to wake Earhart and the others. She ordered a quick review of “ancient” Earth customs while only human members of the crew were selected to open the cryostasis chambers. This would prevent the abducted humans from being shocked or frightened. Before waking them, the crew disarmed the Japanese soldier for safety but little did Voyager’s crew know, another one of them was armed: Fred Noonan, Earhart’s navigator. The abductees soon regained consciousness and are baffled by what has happened. The last thing they remembered was going about their business in 1937.
Almost immediately after waking, an angered Noonan demanded answers. Janeway explained that it is the year 2371 and they are very far from home, likely following an abduction by an extraterrestrial species. Earhart didn’t buy it at first but when Janeway reasoned with her and offered to show her Voyager, she began to listen. The lost pilot described to Janeway the moments before losing consciousness. Earhart and Noonan saw a “huge light” before their Electra plane stopped mid-air and began moving backwards. An angered Noonan still doesn’t buy the abduction story and pulls out his gun. The now-awakened abductees took a few members of Voyager’s crew hostage in the cave and demanded answers.
Captain Janeway continued to make the case for what really happened and revealed that one of her crew members is of another species. Earhart countered by explaining that she’s travelled the world and has seen people do strange things to their bodies. She also argued that just because that crew member appears different, doesn’t mean that “Martians have invaded.” Another crew member gleefully interrupted and explained that actually, it was humans who invaded and colonized Mars in 2103.
Captain Janeway revealed to Earhart that because of her, generations of women became pilots and even inspired Janeway herself to pursue a career that would lead to commanding the Starship Voyager. Earhart argued that “starships” only existed in the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Janeway pleas with the abductees that Voyager’s crew just wanted to help them and tells Earhart about the aftermath of her disappearance. Janeway explained that no trace of the Electra was ever found and that rumours surrounding the flight included the possibility that Earhart and Noonan were on a government-sanctioned mission to gather info on the Japanese. “No one was supposed to know about that,” Earhart responded.
A still-confused Amelia Earhart pulled out her compass but is left with more questions when it simply doesn’t work. Soon after, Janeway received a call from Voyager warning that other life-forms have been detected outside the cave and that a security team was being dispatched to investigate. Noonan heard this and grew angrier, demanding that they use their communications to contact the United States, and specifically, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover was the first director of the FBI and held the position in 1937.
Outside the cave, weapons fire was heard. The team dispatched from Voyager was under attack. They all exited the cave to head over to Voyager when Noonan was hit by blaster fire. Janeway quickly cornered two attackers who were dressed in armored grey suits from head to toe. After disarming them, Janeway told the attackers that she is human and asked for an explanation. “We are human too,” said the attackers as they removed their headgear, explaining that they feared her and Voyager’s crew were members of an alien race called the Briori. Both sides agree to lay down their weapons and one of the attackers introduced himself as John Evansville.
Back at Voyager , Evansville accused Voyager of kidnapping the “37’s”–what him and his people who live on the planet call those found in the cryostasis chambers. He was also shocked to learn that they were actually alive. Evansville and his people had not entered the cave or “shrine” as they call it, in generations. The reason? Earhart and the other abductees were part of a group of 300 humans who were kidnapped from Earth in 1937 by the Briore. After being brought to the planet in the Delta quadrant, they were held as slaves and forced to do hard labor.
The humans eventually led a revolt against the Briore, killing them and seizing their weapons and technology. It seems the Earhart, Noonan and the others discovered by Voyager’s crew were never awakened after being abducted and probably slept through the slave revolt. Evansville explained that the 37’s are his ancestors and that 15 generations later, over 100,000 of the 37’s descendants occupy 3 human cities on the planet. The Briore never returned.
Captain Janeway asked if the interstellar starship used by the Briore to abduct the humans from Earth in 1937 still existed, but is disappointed to learn that it’s been destroyed. This crushed her and the Voyager crew because they were hoping to use it to return home.
Evansville explains to Janeway that life is great on their planet and that they’ve built 3 beautiful cities. This planted the idea in Janeway and her crew that maybe they should stay and continue their lives on this planet among fellow humans. In Janeway’s Captain’s log, she described the civilization as “thriving and sophisticated” and says her experience touring the cities was “amazing.” Now, the dilemma is whether to give her crew the choice to stay on the planet that reminded them of Earth or force them to continue on a risky journey that may never end. Janeway and her first officer make the decision to continue toward home but leave the decision of whether to stay or not up to each individual crew member.
In Voyager’s mess hall, Earhart and the other abductees sat around a table for a meal made by the ship’s cook, Neelix. Using the food replicator, he prepared them pot roast and green beans with jello for dessert. Noonan, who quickly recovered from his wounds and toured the human cities of the planet, said life there seems better than on Earth–indicating that he wouldn’t mind staying. The farmer, whose rusted pickup truck led to this series of events, enthusiastically said that he could fulfill his dreams of building a large farm on the planet and is excited about the prospect of a new frontier. The Japanese soldier explained that there are many Japanese descendant on the planet and describes the civilization as a “paradise.”
Amelia Earhart, now a mythological and heroic figure in human history, isn’t sure what to do. Should she attempt to return to Earth aboard the starship Voyager ? On the command deck, Earhart’s curiosity for flight is seen as her eyes lit up when exploring the ship’s many functions. A crew member informed her that Voyager can travel at warp 9.9 or 4 billion miles per second and easily hop from planet to planet. Earhart responded by asking if she could “take the ship out for a spin.”
Unsurprisingly, Amelia Earhart was enchanted by the idea of traveling through space and even learning to pilot Voyager. But ultimately, she saw the world that the descendants of the 37’s built as her home. This is where the Earhart mystery ended, and where her new life began. She decided to stay behind.
Not a single member of Voyager’s crew remained on the planet with the 37’s and among the civilization built by the generations of humans that followed them. Instead, they were willing to risk following Janeway on the seemingly never-ending journey home. Seven years, many casualties, and a few shortcuts later, Voyager would finally return to Earth.
Robin Seemangal has been reporting from the newsroom at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the last two years for the Observer with by-lines also in Popular Science and Wired Magazine. He does in-depth coverage of SpaceX launches as well as Elon Musk’s mission to send humans to Mars. Robin has appeared on BBC, Russia Today, NPR‘s ‘Are We There Yet’ Podcast, and radio stations around the world to discuss space exploration.