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The Mysterious Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was the first woman that successfully completed an intercontinental solo-flight. She established many speed- and distance records and the world still sees her as a pioneer in aviation. She disappeared during a flight over the Pacific Ocean. Official investigations concluded she died in a plane crash over the ocean, a simple crash-and-sink. Yet, the disappearance has been shrouded in mystery and has been fruitful ground for theories about her actual whereabouts. 

One of the most compelling reasons to consider she survived was that for days after her disappearance, supposedly radio-operators received distress signals on the same frequency that Amelia’s plane used, occasionally even able to disseminate her voice between the static. As such, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart became one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century… What happened to her? Did they simply crash and sink, or did they survive the crash somehow? Well, very recent research actually corroborates the claim that Amelia survived her plane crash, and died as a castaway… giving yet another twist to an already fascinating case.

Amelia Earhart

Earhart as a child

Amelia Earhart was born on the 24th of July 1897. Her childhood is described as a happy one. Both her parents let Amelia and her sister should be raised to be independent women, quite an exceptional stance during the late 19th and early 20th century. The fact she was free to explore what she wanted proved to be a blessing for the naturally adventurous Amelia. Because of her father’s work as a claims officer for the Rock Island Railroad. The family often moved house. Their mother homeschooled Amelia and her sister until she was 12. 

After going to public school and graduating high school, Amelia enrolled in nursery school and was deployed during the First World War to treat wounded soldiers.

After the war, a friend of Amelia’s took her to a so-called aviation fair. It completely changed Amelia’s life. She became infatuated with aviation and aeroplanes. Yet she did not yet pursue a career and started studying medical studies at Columbia University. Within two years she dropped out and moved back in with her parents that now lived in California. During this time she visited another aviation fair and was even allowed to join a short flight. This was the moment Amelia decided she wanted to pursue a career in aviation and started saving up money to start flying courses. Her parents supported her ambition, and as such, her aviation adventure began.

She cut short her hair, bought flying equipment such as a leather jacket and jumped into the flying. Other female pilots taught her. In 1921 she purchased a yellow Kinner Airster biplane, nicknamed ‘the Canary’. A year later she broke an altitude record for 4300 metres, securing the record for female pilots. And on the 5th of May 1923, Amelia became the 16th woman in the United States to acquire her pilot’s license.

Now, during all this time, the history of aviation, and especially the firsts of aviation didn’t exactly lay dormant. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly over the Atlantic Ocean in his custom-built monoplane. Amelia was offered the opportunity to be the first woman to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. She did so, in 1928, accompanying pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot Louis Gordon in their Fokker Trimotor. After nearly 21 hours the plane landed at Pwll, South Wales. It became a sensational headline.

She quickly rose to prominence, becoming a real celebrity. In the United States she attended many aviation congresses and gave speeches about the discipline. And during all of it, she continued flying planes. In 1931 she even broke a new altitude record in a Pitcairn PCA-2. That same year she married the publisher George Putnam. After Putnam proposed to her six times, that is.

In 1932 Amelia settled a new record: she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to Great Britain. She flew the Lockheed Vega 5B, a high-wing monoplane airliner. With this action she captured worldwide attention. Three years later, she became the first person to fly from Hawaii to California. After this, she felt she was meany to do something more significant and basically wanted to explore and fly over the entire world. All in all, between 1930 and 35 she set 7 women’s speed and distance aviation records, using multiple aircraft.

Disappearance

Amelia started planning her round-the-world journey for nearly two years and a specific aeroplane, the Lockheed Electra 10E, was built for this exact purpose. The first attempt failed because of an uncontrolled ground-loop during take-off. The plane was badly damaged and required repairs. 

In June that same year Amelia announced she would fly east-ward and try to circumnavigate the globe. Together with aviator Fred Noonan she set off to cross the Pacific ocean. Okay, so this journey actually went very well. They departed from Miami, Florida on June 1st. They then crossed the Atlantic Ocean via South America, arriving in Africa. Here they stopped and refuelled and flew over the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. You can see the route they took on-screen, and as you can probably tell, they were nearly done. All that was left when they arrived in New Guinea was to cross the Pacific Ocean. 

During their flight on July 2nd, from New Guinea to the small Howard island, Amelia radioed several times that the plane was about to run out of fuel. The radio signal rapidly deteriorated until it was lost altogether. It seemed that the couple crashed into the Pacific Ocean, nearby the Nukumanu islands.

When there ceased to be radio contact a large-scale rescue mission was set up. Those involved in the rescue mission requested radio-amateurs and professional radio operators alike to monitor the radio frequency Amelia had been contacting radio operators on during her flight. Naval vessels were instructed to look out for her in the area actively. Now, because the Pacific Ocean is quite large to put it mildly, you wouldn’t expect any success with it. At least I wouldn’t. But what makes Amelia’s disappearance so curious is that, well, people listening to the frequency of Amelia’s aircraft actually received radio messages!

In total, 56 people had heard over 100 radio broadcasts on the frequency. Many of the radio broadcasts were unintelligible because of the poor connection, but some claim transmissions were clear enough to recognise the voice of Amelia. It seemed she, together with Noonan, was alive. On July 7th, five days after the disappearance, an amateur radio operator in Canada received the last transmission supposedly sent by Amelia. It transmitted the message ‘Can you read me? This is Amelia Earhart. Please come in’. Because of the low quality of the radio broadcasts, it was impossible, with 1937 technology, to determine the exact location from where they were sent. 

On the 19th of July that year, the US Navy decided to stop the search for Amelia and Noonan. It had been the most extensive, and expensive search and rescue mission in the history of the United States at that point. Amelia’s husband and others directly involved protested heavily. They felt the navy was taking the easy way out. Yet their complaints didn’t make a difference and the search was halted. Following this, Putnam set up a private rescue mission, but that too bore no results.

After the search mission was cancelled, people started to speculate about the fate of Amelia. Conspiracy theories even started to surface. Because it was during the 30s, right before the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War and eventual Second World War, many claimed the Japanese shot down her aircraft, suspecting it of espionage. Others claimed Amelia did, in fact, survive the crossing of the ocean, but when she reached her destination, she changed her identity and started a new life.

Although this theory had never been conclusively proven, in 2017, the History Channel released a documentary that claimed Amelia survived the flight. The photo you’re seeing right now is supposedly of Amelia sitting on a dock on the Marshall Islands. The picture was discovered in the National Archives in Washington. Apparently, the photo was taken in 1937 and Fred Noonan too stood among the people. The documentarians claim that the couple emergency-landed on the Marshall islands after running low on fuel, and were subsequently captured by the Japanese. Experts were not convinced, and pointed out the irregularities between the picture and the way Amelia looked. But actually, and this is pretty funny, a Japanese blogger, Kota Yamano, disproved the theory within 30 minutes. He found the exact same photograph in the Japanese national archives. It featured on page 44 of a travel story named ‘about the southern sea. The story was published nearly two years before Amelia and Noonan vanished, in October 1935.

The History Channel-theory definitely was one of the most recent and sensational ones. But besides the surfacing of many theories about Amelia’s and Noonan’s whereabouts over the years, none of the theories could be proven with certainty.

The planned route

Recent investigations (2016-2018)

The History Channel documentary wasn’t the most recent investigation into the matter, and it certainly wasn’t the most serious. In 2016 the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery published their hypothesis that Amelia survived the plane crash. They claimed it was more likely she, together with Noonan, crashed on or nearby an island and survived there for days, if not weeks. A two-year-long investigation followed.

  In 2018 results of this investigation into the fate of Amelia were published. Now, they based themselves on human remains found in 1940 on the Nikumaroro island. This island, also known as the Gardner island, lies somewhat secluded to the east of Papua New Guinea and Australia. The research claims that these bones were Amelia’s. They re-examined the measurements of several bones. In 1941 a study concluded the bones were male, and modern research now disputed these findings. So, why not just analyse the DNA of the bones? Well, the bones have been lost over the years. So basically, this new study bases itself on the reports from 1941, and they dispute their findings using modern technology.

The researchers do note that the remains may be from someone else. For example, in 1929, 11 people died in the vicinity of the island following a shipwreck. And because the bones themselves are lost there is no way to positively conclude the remains aren’t from a Pacific islander either. The bones do match Amelia’s body measurements, and from all documented persons that the remains could be from Amelia Earhart is the most likely, according to the report. 

More clues point towards Amelia and Noonan surviving the initial crash. In another study, conducted that same year, reports of several radio-operators were compared with results and research based on modern technology. It appeared that Amelia could very well have made the radio broadcasts from 1937 from her airplane. Those radios were generally used for short-distance communication which explains why many listeners only heard static or had awful connections. Yet the radio signals were, to a certain extent, workable in order to pinpoint the location from where they were sent. They pointed to Nikumaroro island. 

The hypothesis goes as follows. If the sea-tide lowered the motors of the airplane were able to generate electricity that powered the radio just enough to broadcast emergency signals. Researchers compared the time of day in radio reports of 1937 to the tides on the island, and they matched their hypothesis. According to the researchers, after a while, a strong sea current dragged the aircraft off the island into the sea. From then on it was impossible to send out emergency broadcasts. It doomed Amelia and Noonan, who probably passed away on the island shortly after.

Either way, whether the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan was a simple crash-and-sink, or they ended up as castaways on a Pacific island, or perhaps they survived and remained in Japan or started a new life, one thing’s for sure. And that is that for over 80 years the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has boggled the minds of many, and we still don’t know for certain what happened to her.

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