High above the Pacific Ocean in her gleaming two-engine , Amelia Earhart soared. It was July 2, 1937, and along with navigator , she was on her way to their next stop—Howland 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.
But all was not right.
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—a 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 still 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 she wrote that 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."
In 1920, she took her first flight with soon-to-be-record-breaking ace . A year later she was one of the few women in flight school, and in 1923 she became the 16th female to get . A year after , Earhart became (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 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—and the first woman. In 1935, she became the mainland.
By 1937, Earhart was a noted , , , and role model for women everywhere. She used her fame to encourage others like her to become pilots, founding the organization that is still in operation today. "She always wanted to determine her own course," says , 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, . With 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 "" 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. 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.
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.
They never made it.
The Death of a Legend, the Birth of Many Theories
to explain what happened—some more believable than . 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 , 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.
, known for using high-resolution mapping of the ocean floor and sonar surveys to , has launched several deep-sea expeditions over the last two decades centered on a radius around Howland Island. As of February 2017, .
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.
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 (TIGHAR), don't buy the "crash and sink" theory and points to a 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, emitted from near this island, but U.S. Navy search plane were unable to locate the castaways. Gillespie believes that . In fact, a , 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 . In the summer of 2017, TIGHAR, with sponsorship from the National Geographic Society, sent 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 . Gillespie admits "it's a long shot," but he's hoping.
Meanwhile, the wilder explanations continue to crop up. Just last month, the History Channel premiered a documentary that claimed was proof that she and Noonan were captured by the Japanese.
Within days, though, that photo was revealed to and 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 Seniorhelpline, 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 mere feet from Earhart's at Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. She's a three-time U.S. National Aviation Aerobatic Champion and the . 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 Seniorhelpline. 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."
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 . "For a woman to do that, it was extraordinary. She took great risks...and was a role model and a figure of courage."