The Disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Frederick Noonan Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Frederick Noonan

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Constituting one of the most famous missing-person stories in the world, the events surrounding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Frederick Noonan, are quite intriguing. This entry looks at Earhart's aviation background, theories as to what actually went wrong on the airplane, and what finally happened to Earhart and Noonan.

What Had Amelia Earhart Done?

The Start

Amelia Earhart was known as America's premier aviatrix. After a short ride at an aviation fair in Long Beach, California, she began taking flying lessons in the summer of 1920. Her teacher, aviation pioneer Anita Snook, had some doubts about Amelia's true skill as a pilot, doubts that would be echoed in the future. In any case, Amelia began putting her name in the record books fairly soon after her lessons started. In October 1922, she flew to 14,000 feet, setting a women's altitude record. Amelia later sold her plane and drove her mother from California to Boston, where Amelia invested money in an airport and in promoting flying. She was employed as a social worker when she had an invitation that would thrust her into the aviation spotlight.

Twice across the Atlantic

Pilots Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon and their supporter, George Putnam, were looking for a way to publicise a trans-Atlantic flight. This was after Charles Lindbergh made the first solo flight across the Atlantic, so a multi pilot flight drew comparatively little interest. After having Earhart called to meet Putnam, the decision was made that she would be asked along for the flight. This would be big news, as it would be the first trans-Atlantic flight involving a woman. In reality, Earhart, having had no experience outside of single engine aircraft, would be a passenger on the Fokker tri-motor. After a delayed start, the group left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 18 June, 1928. Most of the flight was through fog, which would also have caused Earhart problems, as she was not capable of instrument flying. After landing in Wales, all attention was on Earhart, even though she had contributed nothing to the flight. Afterwards, she went on a touring circuit and flew across America in September 1928 for the National Air Races. In 1932, Earhart returned to competitive flying with a bid to cross the Atlantic solo. She would fly from Newfoundland to the British Isles in a modified Lockheed Vega exactly five years after Lindbergh. Earhart landed in Londonderry, Ireland, concluding a flight that would put her in the record books as the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo, the only person to cross it twice, the female non-stop distance record holder, and the holder of the shortest Atlantic crossing time.

Across the Pacific

Earhart's next flight was to be her most impressive yet. She decided to try flying from Hawaii to the California mainland, a trip that had already claimed the lives of ten pilots. She flew from Wheeler Field, Hawaii on 11 January, 1935. Successfully landing in Oakland, California, Earhart confirmed her popular status as an excellent pilot, and she was nicknamed the Lady Lindy. She spent much the next several months on the road, lecturing and touring around the United States. She accepted a job at Purdue University, but the call of the air was still strong within her.

The Last Flight

If at First You Don't Succeed...

In late 1935, Earhart began planning for what she called 'the one last big trip in [her]'. The plane she was going to fly would be the Lockheed Electra. This was a powerful twin-engine aircraft, one of the more advanced planes of the day. Her navigator was Frederick Noonan, a former navigator with the PanAmerican Pacific Clipper. The trip originally had her flying from California to Hawaii, continuing around the world in that direction. However, after a successful flight to Hawaii, Earhart botched her take off attempt, causing severe damage to the plane. It was shipped back to California, and she started to make plans for another attempt.

... Try, Try Again

Since her next attempt would be later in the year, Earhart decided to switch directions in her flight. She would fly from California to Florida, then on around the world. She departed Los Angeles, California on 21 May, 1937, soon after she received her repaired aircraft. She flew uneventfully around the globe to Lae, New Guinea, setting several records in the process. After her takeoff from Lae, however, her fortunes took a turn for the worse.

Earhart and Noonan left Lae for Howland Island at 10.22am local time on 2 July. She remained in radio contact with New Guinea for about seven hours. At about 3am the next day, Earhart made her first contact with the Coast Guard craft Itasca. She radioed again at 3.45am, her message consisting of two words, 'Earhart. Overcast.' At 4am, Itasca radioed back, asking for her position. 45 minutes later, Earhart called in again, but she was too faint to make anything out. At 6.15am, Earhart radioed again, asking for a bearing on her signal. It was, unfortunately, too weak and too short for a bearing to be taken. She radioed for a bearing again at 6.45am, fifteen minutes after she should have landed at Howland Island. Again, her signal was too weak for a bearing to be made. Three more radio calls were made by Earhart from 7.45am to 8.00 am, each one saying that she must be close to the craft but unable to see it and that her fuel was running dangerously low. She asked for a bearing each time, but her signal was becoming progressively weaker. The next contact from her came at 8.45 am, almost 40 minutes after her fuel should have run out. She radioed:

We are on line of position 156-157, will repeat message... we are running north and south...

This mysterious transmission was the last time any confirmed message from Earhart was ever heard. A major search party went to find her, but not a trace of the either the plane or Earhart and Noonan was found.

What Was the Problem?

It was Noonan!

One theory places blame with Noonan, the navigator. He was an alcoholic and a hard person to control even when he was sober. In fact, he was fired from PanAm because of his alcoholism. He claimed (and Earhart initially believed) that he had gotten over his drinking. However, by Earhart's account he got drunk in Calcutta and again in Lae. One may wonder why Earhart would have used Noonan as her navigator. Indeed, the only benefit he had was that he would work for next to nothing.

No! It was Earhart!

However, Earhart had problems as well. She was known as an excellent pilot, but, in fact, she was referred to as a poor pilot by other pilots who knew her. The Electra was her first twin-engine craft, and she spent little time learning to fly it. One of her contemporaries described her as 'an inept pilot who would not take the advice of experts'. She was also an horrific navigator and was unfamiliar with the plane she was flying; her calculations during the flight to Africa put her off course by over one hundred miles. In addition to this, Earhart was very bad at sending and receiving Morse code. She preferred to transmit by voice, even though Morse code was a much more reliable (easily sent/received) form of communication. In fact, Earhart disliked Morse code so much she disposed of her Morse radios and their associated trailing antenna. This was perhaps a fatal mistake, as the leaving the trailing antenna behind made her remaining radios (voice) less powerful.

Theories as to What Happened

Ditched in the Sea

No conclusive evidence has ever been found, be it part of the plane or bodies, to say that Earhart and Noonan reached land. Confusing the search for remnants is the fact that the islands of the South Pacific are filled with aircraft wreckage. Much of it came from the battles of World War II. This means that any wreckage found is almost useless in determining Earhart's and Noonan's fate unless it contains a serial number.

Captured by the Japanese

One theory states that Earhart and Noonan were spies for the US government, who, at this time, felt that war with Japan was inevitable. Earhart may have landed on an island and, along with Noonan, been captured by the Japanese. Reports from natives seem to indicate a captured woman flyer and a man were held on Saipan for several years.

Earhart Landed on an Island

Fuzzy radio transmissions heard by the search party for several days after the crash seem to indicate Earhart and Noonan survived and were on an island somewhere. The transmissions were in English and in a female voice. The majority of the transmissions were almost completely unintelligible, but a few of them could be understood. The ones that were heard (more) clearly included the following information:

'... we are on line of position 156-157...'
'... don't hold... with us much longer... above water... shut off...'
... ship on reef... south of equator...

These transmissions, which never included an identification of the sender, were separated by hours of silence. If they were from Earhart, they give some hints as to what happened to her and Noonan.

Nikumaroro Island, over 300 miles away from Howland Island (her intended destination), is a prime candidate for her crash site. It is one of few islands in Earhart's 'line of position 156-157', one of its landmarks is a shipwreck on the southern shore of the island, which itself is several degrees south of the equator.

What About the Hours of Radio Silence?

For years, investigators wondered why the transmissions, if they were Earhart's, were separated by hours of silence. The silent times seemed to occur randomly, with no reason for the times at which they were heard. This mystery held until Thomas Gannon and Thomas Willi decided to check their theory of Earhart's disappearance. They proposed that Earhart and Noonan crash-landed on Nikumaroro Island, the plane on part of the island that is underwater during high tide. This would mean that the radio could only work during low tide on the island. Willi and Gannon tested their theory against Nikumaroro Island's high- and low-tide times. All but one of the broadcasts were made during Nikumaroro's low tide time.

Now What?

Nikumaroro Island has been extensively searched numerous times. Each time nothing more than anecdotal evidence was found: a cigarette lighter (Noonan smoked), a size 9 shoe sole (Earhart wore a women's 9). Nothing with any stronger tie to Earhart, Noonan, or the aircraft has ever been found, but the search goes on...

Further Reading

  • ellensplace.net is a website devoted to Earhart that has a biography and pictures.

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