Amelia Earhart Day: Aviator's disappearance during 1937 solo transatlantic trip remains shrouded in mystery

Eight decades later her whereabouts remain unknown and no one seems to have a valid explanation as to what may have gone wrong during that fateful flight


                            Amelia Earhart  Day: Aviator's disappearance during 1937 solo transatlantic trip remains shrouded in mystery
Amelia Earhart (Keystone/Getty Images)

America's most celebrated aviator, Amelia Earhart made history when she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1937. But, she never made it to her destination. In a series of unfortunate and strange events, she, along with her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared midway through her trip. Eight decades later her whereabouts remain unknown and neither does anyone have a valid explanation as to what may have gone wrong. However, the circumstances surrounding her disappearance have fuelled the enduring mystery with a myriad of speculatory stories. 

First solo transatlantic flight

Earheart and Noon departed on their first transatlantic flight bound for the Pacific Ocean from Lae, New Guinea. This was one of their last segments in their historic attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Their destination was Howland Island, about 2,500 miles away, where a US Coast Guard cutter, the Itsaca was waiting for them. But the two never arrived on the Island. Riding the winds under overcast skies and equipped with possibly faulty radio transmitters, her twin-engine Lockheed Electra plane was quickly using up all the fuel supply, and they lost contact with the Itasca somewhere over the Pacific on July 2, 1937. It ensued in one of the largest search-and-rescue-missions, complete with ships and planes dispatched from the US Navy and Coast Guard. They scoured some 25,000 square miles of the ocean, but to no avail.

: American aviatrix Amelia Earhart (1897 - 1937) with her navigator, Captain Fred Noonan, in the hangar at Parnamerim airfield, Natal, Brazil, 11th June 1937 (Getty Images)

In an official report, the Navy ruled that Earhart and Noonan had run out of fuel, crashed into the Pacific, and drowned. Nearly 18 months after her disappearance, in January 1939, a court order legally declared both Earhart and Noonan dead. Through the course of the trip, Earhart had sent her husband various letters, diary entries, and other documentable material that were eventually published in 'Last Flight' (1937). Since her disappearance, the debate over what happened to Earhart and Noonan has been a longstanding one, and millions of dollars have been spent on relentless search efforts.  The mysteriousness of it captured the public's fancy which contributed to several alternate theories that have emerged in the last 80 years or so. Some of the theories are covered below:

Castaway

The last radio transmission that Earhart made came in at about 8:43 am local time. On the morning she disappeared, she reportedly said she was flying "on the line 157 337...running north and south." These were the indication for the set of directional coordinates, that described a line running through Howland Island. In 1989, 52 years after her disappearance, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) launched its first expedition to Nikumaroro, a secluded Pacific atoll under the Republic of Kiribati. TIGHAR and the director, Richard Gillespie propounded that Earhart and Noonan continued south along the 157/337 line, that the pilot had reported before the disappearance, for some 350 miles, and made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro (then, Gardner Island). They believed that the two had lived on the uninhabited island as castaways until their eventual death.

American aviatrix Amelia Earhart (1898 - 1937) talking to friends from the cockpit of her Moth on the day of her trip to Northolt (Getty Images)

US Navy planes had scored the area around Gardner Island during the rescue mission in 1937, a week after her disappearance but saw no indication that Earheart and Noonan had landed there. However, they did report signs of habitation on the island, although no one had lived on the reef island since 1892. In 1940, parts of skeletal remains were retrieved from a remote area in Nakumaroro by British officials. A physician who examined and measured the bones concluded that they belonged to a man. The bones were later lost, but the measurements had been documented.

In 1998 TIGHAR analyzed the measurements and claimed that they most likely belong to a woman, with European ancestry and somewhat matched Earhart's height of five-feet-four. A forensic examination of the bone measurement was conducted by a team of anthropologists from the University of Tennessee in 2018, in collaboration with TIGHAR. They found that "the bones have more similarity to Earhart than to 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample," according to the university's official statement.

Captured by the Japanese

An alternate theory suggests that when Earhart and Noonan were unable to reach Howland Island, they were forced to make an emergency landing at the Marshall Islands. At the time, the sprawling chain of atolls and volcanic islands was under Japanese occupation. The theory says the Japanese captured Earhart and Noonan and took them to Saipan, an island located some 1,450 miles south of Tokyo as prisoners of war. It is believed that they were tortured there because they were mistaken to be spies from the US government, and died in custody, or were most probably executed.

Aviatrix Amelia Earhart (1898 - 1937) in Newfoundland (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The Japanese prisoner theory has been circling around since the 1960s when a Marshall Islander at the time claimed an "American lady pilot" was being held in Saipan in 1937. The story had been passed down through the generations. Other theorists also suggest that Earhart and Noonan were actually US spies and their globetrotting trips were an undercover effort to fly over and observe Japanese fortifications in the Pacific. This was more than four years before the Pearl Harbor attack and Japan had not yet become America's enemy in World War II.

Some also proposed that Earhart didn't die in Japanese custody. Instead, she was released and re-admitted as a US citizen under an assumed name. In the 1970s, arguments arose that a New Jersey Woman named Irene Bolam was the repatriated Earhart. Though Bolam herself denied the claim, even going as afar as to say that they were "a poorly documented hoax", they persisted well after she died in 1982. 

Mystery continues

American aviator Amelia Earhart smiles May 22, 1932, upon arriving in London, England having become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic alone (Getty Images)

TIGHAR has organized several expeditions to Nikumaroro since 1989, having discovered fragments ranging from pieces of metal (possible parts from an airplane) to a broken jar of freckle cream. However, there isn't any solid evidence to prove that Earhart's plane had landed there. As the controversies and theories continue to rage, many researchers and historians that have been looking into Earhart's disappearance maintain that the crash-and-sink theory is a valid and accepted explanation for Earhart's unfortunate fate.

A deep-sea exploration company, Nauticos has led over three expeditions since 2002 using sonar to scan the area along the Howland Island near where Earhart reportedly last was. They have covered nearly 2,000 square maritime miles without finding a single trace of Earhart or any possible wreckage of the Electra. The story and truth behind Amelia Earhart's final flight will remain shrouded in mystery until the wreckage or some other piece of palpable evidence is found.