The name of Amelia Earhart is well-known for a variety of reasons. During her career as a world-class pilot, she became known around the United States.
A pioneer of the aviation industry, Earhart was the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, before going on to set many other records throughout her distinguished career.
Earhart attempted another flyng expedition in 1937. Tragically, Earhart never returned from this expedition, and questions surrounding the disappearance remain all these years later.
We review this disappearance in this article. There is a reader’s poll at the end of the article, which we hope you vote on. We will all be able to see what the consensus is among our readers as to what happened.
Amelia Earhart was born in Kansas, USA, in 1887. As a child, Earhart had a penchant for exploring, and a natural intrigue around air travel.
After attending college, Earhart was 23 at the time of her first flight – which kick-started a lifelong love affair with aviation. As a result of this flight, she started learning to fly.
In 1923, when Earhart was aged 26, Earhart was granted a Pilot’s license. She became just the 16th woman in the US to do so.
Over the next decade, Earhart would forge a highly-distinguished aviation career. Her crowning achievement came in 1932, when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Her journey took almost 15 hours, but upon returning, she received a hero’s welcome. Over the years, Earhart became a celebrity – helped by a blossoming friendship with President Herbert Hoover.
Earhart became known as the “Queen of the Air”, and attracted several endorsement deals, such was the level of her fame.
Other achievements included becoming the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California. Some speed records were also set.
Earhart aimed to complete the grandest achievement of them all – a circumnavigation around the globe. She started her preparations for this in 1936.
Her plan included flying alongside a man named Fred Noonan – who was a navigational specialist. Noonan was set to join or some of the journey, before Earhart completed the rest of the route alone.
Earhart took off from California in March of 1937. However, mechanical problems resulted in Earhart only making it to Hawaii.
Repairs were made, which allowed Earhart to attempt another lift-off. Again though, trouble brewed. An uncontrolled ground-loop took place, which ruined the aircraft. It would take three months for another attempt to be made.
In June 1937, Earhart was ready again. She was joined by Noonan. They launched their expedition from Florida. Over the following hours, they made scheduled stops at South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.
They then made their final scheduled stop in Papua New Guinea, near Australia. Just 7,000 miles remained in their journey.
Their intended final destination was Howland Island – an American territory around 1,500 miles from Hawaii.
Earhart and Noonan left Papua New Guinea, with their hope of completing the 7,000 remaining miles very much alive.
What happened over the next few hours isn’t entirely known. But Earhart and Noonan were unable to make it to the finish line.
USCGC Itasca – a huge US Navy ship – was positioned at Howland Island to assist with the final descent. Their intention had been to guide the aircraft to the island using radio communication.
However, it appeared that some equipment aboard Earhart’s aircraft was faulty. While transmissions from Earhart were received, it seems that she was unable to receive transmissions. Problems too with frequencies led to further communication troubles.
Earhart sent a transmission that said their gas was running low, and that they were at an altitude of just 1,000 feet. The signal from this transmission was strong – suggesting the aircraft was in the immediate vicinity of Howland Island.
Yet Earhart was unable to find the island. A further hour later, another transmission arrived, with Earhart and Noonan stating that they believed they had reached Howland’s chartered position.
But in reality they hadn’t. The US Navy tried in vain to communicate via Morse code, but the duo were not heard from again.
Communication problems hampered any rescue effort. Earhart and Noonan believed that they had found the island, but this was clearly not the case.
The US Navy spent three days searching for Earhart in the area around Howland Island. Searches continued for weeks, but, after organising the most expensive search mission in American history at the time, the search was called off.
In total, 150,000 square miles were searched. Privately-funded searches would be carried out for years. Tragically, there was never any trace of Earhart, Noonan, nor the aircraft.
While private searches continued, there were no new leads thrown up. Fred Noonan was declared legally dead in 1938. Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead in 1939.
In the decades that followed, several new theories arose, including apparent photographs of wrecked planes, claims of sightings of Earhart and Noonan and more.
But nothing concrete ever materialised. Given the age of Earhart and Noonan, had they even survived the trip, they wouldn’t still be alive to tell the tale.
The nature of the disappearance of Earhart and Noonan mean that many different theories have been proposed. Some seem more plausible than others, though all could have feasibly happened.
We take a look at the evidence for all of the theories:
Theory One: Crash and Sink
The crash and sink theory is arguably the most likely outcome given the circumstances. This theory suggests that Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel while desperately trying to find Howland Island, before eventually plunging into the sea, leading to death.
The aircraft’s communication problems meant that they had to find the island on their own – without assistance from the US Navy ship, as had been the original plan. Noonan may have struggled to navigate.
However, given the fact that 150,000 square miles were searched, with no trace of Earhart or Noonan ever found, could cast doubt on this theory.
Theory Two: Landing on Nikumaroro Island
If Earhart and Noonan survived the flight, this theory would become the most likely. This theory proposes that Earhart and Noonan decided to land on Nikumaroro Island, which is a small atoll located near to Howland Island.
From there, Earhart and Noonan may have become stranded. It is possible that they would have awaited rescue there, before eventually starving to death.
Many have suggested that an experienced pilot like Earhart wouldn’t have spent precious minutes looking for Howland Island. Nikumaroro Island would have been the most realistic location.
However, various expeditions to Nikumaroro Island ailed to yield any trace of the aircraft, or Earhart and Noonan. While human remains were found during one search, it wasn’t clear if they were those of Earhart and Noonan.
A photo from 1937, taken from the reef at Howland Island, appeared to show a “blurry object sticking out of the water”. Some historians suggested that this could have been Earhart’s doomed aircraft.
However, it would beg the question, that if this were true, how did the US Navy not manage to spot the aircraft approaching and then crashing next to the island.
Theory Three: Japanese Capture
Another theory that has been proposed is that Japanese forces captured Earhart and Noonan. This could have happened if the aircraft had accidentally navigated to an area in the South Pacific which was under Japanese control.
In fact, a 1966 book suggested that the aircraft crashed on the island of Saipan – which was a Japanese territory. Saipan is however over 2,700 miles away from Howland Island, leading to some discrediting this theory.
In 1990, the American broadcasting channel NBC aired an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. In this episode, they interviewed a Saipanese woman who claimed to have witnessed the execution of Earhart and Noonan by Japanese soldiers. The authenticity of this interview was never determined.
Other supporters of this theory have cited witnesses suggesting that they saw Japanese troops methodically cutting an aircraft into small pieces, which could be consistent with the aircraft never being found.
But given how Earhart and Noonan appeared to be close to Howland Island, this theory does seem unlikely. It is also questionable as to why Japanese forces would want to execute the duo – with the Second World War still many years away.
Theory Four: New Identity
There have also been suggestions that Earhart and Noonan staged their disappearance and assumed new identities. There is limited evidence for this.
This theory emanates from a 1970 book that was based on the research of Joseph Gervais. Gervais met a woman named Irene Bolam in 1965. After their meeting, Gervais became convinced that Bolam was Earhart.
Gervais heavily researched his theory. Author Joe Klaas then wrote a book called Amelia Earhart Lives. The real Irene Bolam reacted furiously however, and filed a seven-figure lawsuit.
An out of court settlement was reached, and Klaas’ book was withdrawn from the market. Bolam was able to produce proof of her existence before Earhart’s disappearance.
However, this didn’t stop more books to be released, and the speculation to continue. Even after Bolam passed away, some supporters of this theory requested that fingerprints were taken, but this request was denied.
While this theory does seem far-fetched, there remains a strong community who remain convinced that Earhart faked the disappearance and assumed the identity of Irene Bolam.
Now that the above theories have been outlined, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
The ultimate fate of both Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan is unknown – and all of these years later, it remains unlikely that we will ever get a definitive answer.
Earhart certainly left a strong legacy behind, and her achievements will always be remembered. In the modern day, her accomplishments have widely been seen to be well ahead of her time.
If the flight did indeed end in disaster – in some ways it was a fitting way to go out, doing so while doing the very thing she had devoted her life towards.