Fred Noonan was a highly-respected navigator who took part in many landmark flights, helping him become a pioneer of aviation.

Noonan tragically disappeared in 1937, while navigating for a circumnavigation of the globe by pilot Amelia Earhart.

Sadly for Noonan, his disappearance has been somewhat forgotten, such was the fanfare behind Earhart. However, Noonan still left a strong legacy.

We review the disappearance of Noonan 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.

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Fred Noonan was born in Illinois, USA, in 1893. During his early adult years, he worked in the maritime industry – partaking in several ships, taking part in voyages.

This included efforts in World War I, which he assisted in, helping USA and its allies to victory. Following the war, he continued to work on ships.

Seeking a new passion in life, Noonan took flying lessons in the late 1920s, and received a commercial license in 1930. He subsequently worked as a navigator for many airports.

As Noonan became more and more well-known, he started to board flights to aid ploots on certain missions. This included a landmark flight in 1935 from California to Hawaii.

Noonan played a big role in calculating Pan American World Airways’ flight paths across the pacific ocean. By 1937, he was seen as one of the world’s very best navigators.

Noonan’s brilliance put him on an inevitable collision course with Amelia Earhart – who had forged a position as one of the most well-known people in the United States due to her aviation feats.

Earhart hoped to complete what was considered to be the greatest achievement of all – a total circumnavigation around the globe. Earhart contacted Noonan – who agreed to accompany her on the mission as her navigator.

After much preparation, Earhart and Noonan first attempted the circumnavigation in March 1937. Unfortunately, mechanical problems curtailed their initial effort.

Repairs were made, which resulted in a second attempt being made. However, an uncontrolled ground-loop took place, which ruined the aircraft. It would take three months for another attempt to be made.

The Disappearance

In June 1937, the duo were ready again. They launched their expedition from Florida. All went as planned initially, with the duo making scheduled stops across South America, Africa and Asia.

Continuing with their onwards trajectory, they made their final scheduled stop in Papua New Guinea, near Australia. Just 7,000 miles remained in their journey.

Earhart and Noonan intended to finish their journey at Howland Island – an American territory 1,500 miles away from Hawaii. However, they would tragically never make it to Howland.

Precisely what happened to Earhart and Noonan once leacing Papua New Guinea is unknown. The US Navy’s large ship the USCGC Itasca was positioned at Howland Island to try and provide assistance with the final descent.

However, two-way communication between Earhart and Noonan and the US Navy could not be established. Radio communication did not work properly, causing big problems.

It seemed that some equipment aboard Earhart’s aircraft was faulty. While transmissions from Earhart were received by the US Navy, it appeared 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 and Noonan were 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, with no further communication being made.

The Investigation

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 launched an unprecedented search, which continued for weeks. They covered a remarkable 150,000 square miles of land and sea, but there was still no sign of Earhart and Noonan.

The search, which at the time had become the most expensive in American history, was eventually called off. Privately-funded searches were carried out for years. Despite vast efforts being made, no trace of Earhart, Noonan or the aircraft was ever found.

Later Developments

While private searches continued, no new concrete leads ever appeared. Eventually, 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 in truth, these areas were never more than speculation. Due to the age of Earhart and Noonan, had they even survived the trip, they wouldn’t still be alive to tell the tale.

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Theories [restart here]

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.

Reader Vote

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.

What Happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan?


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.

Noonan was able to leave a strong legacy behind, and he is remembered for his navigation skills. He is often referred to throughout the media in aviation-based shows.

One potentially fitting positive in a case of negatives concerns the potential manner of death. If the flight did end in disaster – at least Noonan was able to pass away doing what he loved.

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