Earhart’s attempt to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe began on May 21, 1937. She took off from Oakland Municipal Airport in San Francisco Bay in her personally designed Lockheed Electra 10E. Making the flight with her was Fred Noonan, a skilled navigator who was experienced in both marine navigation and flight navigation. The first leg of the trip was an unpublicized flight from Oakland, California to Miami, Florida. When she arrived, she publicly announced her plans to fly around the world.
Earhart and Noonan departed Miami on June 1, 1937, making numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia before arriving at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29. By now, they had completed about 22,000 miles of the voyage. On July 2, she and Noonan departed from Lae with about 1100 gallons of gasoline.
They had to fly another 2,500 miles before they reached their next stop, Howland Island – an incredibly small, uninhabited coral island in the Pacific Ocean. A special airstrip had been constructed on the island to accommodate the planned refueling stopover, after which she would head to Hawaii, and finally to Oakland, California.
The Coast Guard cutter Itasca was waiting at Howland Island to guide Earhart. In 1937, we didn’t have radar, so the Itasca was sending up smoke from the ship's funnel to help Earhart spot the island. The expected flying time was about 20 hours, and the aircraft was expected to arrive at Howland the morning of July 2. The reason she was to arrive on the same date as she left Lae is that she would be crossing the international date line.
Up to this point, Earhart and Noonan had relied on radio communication to send updates about their location, and to help get them safely from one location to another. But from the start, there were serious problems. Neither Earhart nor Noonan knew Morse Code, so she decided to get rid of the telegraph code key transmitter on her plane, feeling it would just be "dead weight". Instead of Morse code, Earhart planned to communicate by voice at higher bandwidths.
In addition to ditching the telegraph transmitter, she made another colossal mistake. She also got rid of a trailing antenna that would have allowed her to use the 500 KHz marine frequency. Without this antenna, she would only be able to use a limited number of frequencies to communicate with those on the ground. But ditching the trailing antenna did something far more dangerous. It prevented ships and marine shore direction finding stations from taking radio bearings on the plane, so no one on the ground would have any way of knowing where she was if she lost radio communication.
Fourteen hours and fifteen minutes into her flight, the Itasca received a garbled transmission from Earhart. She said something about ‘cloudy weather’, but the rest of the message was unintelligible. Though the messages themselves would eventually become clearer, their content became worrying. Earhart radioed, "We are circling but cannot see the island. We cannot hear you." Although the Itasca had been transmitting continuously for hours, she apparently had only received one message from the ship.
Earhart continued to broadcast on schedule, roughly on the hour and half-hour, and the strength of her radio signal indicated that she was close to Howland Island, but she said that she was still unable to see it.
Howland Island is very low, and the shadow of clouds could have made it difficult to distinguish the island from shadows. Because the island they were aiming for was so small, even a slight error in navigation would put them in a perilous situation.
Earhart’s radio transmissions are the real beginning of her mysterious disappearance.
6:44 a.m. – Earhart radioes, “Will whistle in microphone, about 200 miles out approximately, now whistling.” She was whistling into the microphone in the hopes that someone could hear her and get a bearing on the plane. But for some unknown reason, she stopped transmitting the whistling sounds after a short time and wasn’t heard from again until a half-hour later.
7:11 a.m. – Earhart radios, "Please take bearing on us and report in half hour. I will make noise in mic -- about 100 miles out."
8:12 a.m. – Earhart radios, “We must be on you but cannot see you, but gas is running low, been unable to reach you by radio, we are flying at 1000 feet."
8:28 a.m. – Earhart radios, "We are circling but cannot hear you, go ahead on 7500 with a long count either now or on the schedule time on 1/2 hour."
8:30 a.m. – Earhart radios, "We received your signals but unable to get a minimum. Please take bearing on us and answer 3105 with voice."
Amelia Earhart’s last confirmed words were spoken on July 2, 1937 at 8:43 a.m..
“We are on line 157/337 north and south,” she said. “We will repeat message. We will repeat this on 6210 KCS.”
After that message, repeated calls from Itasca went unanswered and it was assumed that the Electra had gone down somewhere in the Pacific near Howland Island.
Within hours of Earhart's disappearance, President Roosevelt authorized a massive search-and-rescue mission of unprecedented scale. Ships and planes from the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard scoured some 250,000 square miles of ocean. But after searching for two weeks, no trace of the plane, or of Earhart and Noonan was ever found.
In its official report, the Navy said that Earhart had run out of fuel, crashed into the Pacific, and drowned. But from the very beginning, not everyone agreed. And over the years, many theories have come out and have been put to the test. Some seem very logical, scientific, and plausible while others are simply outlandish.
In my opinion, the most convoluted theory about Earhart’s disappearance is that she not only survived the crash, but that she returned to the US and lived out the rest of her life under an assumed name in a small town in New Jersey. The name that Earhart supposedly took, that being Irene Bolam, was an elaborate cypher that spelled out in degrees and minutes of latitude and longitude the precise location of the beach where Earhart crashed after being shot down by the Japanese. But Irene Bolam wasn’t just some fictional character. She was a real person, a businesswoman and resident of Monroe Township, New Jersey.
In 1965, Joseph Gervais was invited to speak at a gathering of retired pilots. Gervais was a highly decorated veteran of World War II, The Korean War, and Vietnam. He served as a command pilot of B-24, B-29 and C-130 aircraft, with over 16,000 hours of flight time.
After speaking at the event, Gervais was introduced to Irene Bolam by one of Amelia Earhart's friends. As soon as he laid eyes on her, Gervais immediately thought that Bolam looked like an older version of Amelia Earhart.
Besides the physical similarities between the two women, Gervais claimed that Mrs. Bolam wore two medals that day – awards that had been presented to Earhart during her career. From that day on, Gervais began researching her past to prove that Irene Bolam was in fact Amelia Earhart.
Using Gervais' shoddy research, in 1970 author Joe Klaas published the book Amelia Earhart Lives. After the book’s release Mrs. Bolam furiously denied the book’s allegations saying, “I am not a mysterious woman, I am not Amelia Earhart—this is nonsense!”
McGraw-Hill pulled the book from the market shortly after its release, but it was too little too late. Bolem submitted a lengthy affidavit refuting the claim, then filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the publisher. The evidence Bolem presented to the court included her 1937 private pilot's license, and her marriage certificate.
After the book was published, Earhart researchers examined photos of Bolam taken the day she met Gervais. Although Gervais claimed that the medals she wore that day belonged to Earhart, upon closer examination it was clear that they didn’t even resemble those awarded to Earhart.
The defendants filed a motion with the court to dismiss the case, but it was denied. In 1976, McGraw-Hill reached a private settlement with Bolam for an undisclosed amount.
Upon Bolam's death, Gervais sought permission to photograph and fingerprint the body, but it was denied. In 2006, a criminal forensic expert was hired by National Geographic to study and compare photographs of Earhart and Bolam. He cited many measurable facial differences between them, concluding that the two people were not the same.
End of story? Not quite. Three additional books were subsequently published that continued to claim that Mrs. Bolam and Amelia Earhart were one and the same person despite all of the evidence to the contrary.
One widely embraced theory of what really happened to Amelia Earhart is that she and Noonan missed Howland Island, then crash landed on a remote island.
Flight accident investigator Ric Gillespie has been investigating Earhart’s disappearance for several decades. In his book, Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, Gillespie hypothesizes that Earhart and Noonan didn’t crash into the Pacific, but rather landed on the reef of Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro. The island is on the 157/133 north-south line that Earhart mentioned in her last transmission. It’s just 356 miles from Howland Island, her intended destination, and it was the only nearby landmass substantial enough to serve as a landing strip.
Nikumaroro was well within the Electra’s range, even taking into consideration the fact that it was low on fuel. Gillespie believes that after crash landing on the shore, Earhart and Noonan sent radio transmissions to the Itasca. These messages were never picked up by the Coast Guard cutter, but many believe that they were heard by dozens of civilians around the world.
Immediately after Earhart's last official radio transmission, other radio messages were picked up – not by the military, but by people who just happened to be listening to their radios. They were shocked when they heard Earhart’s pleas for help, and they reported the messages to the authorities. While some of these transmissions were obvious hoaxes, many researchers believe that several others were genuine.
What Gillespie found most intriguing about the radio signals that were picked up in the week following Earhart’s disappearance is their alignment with the high and low tides on Nikumaroro. If the plane landed during low tide and was stuck in shallow water, then Earhart and Noonan could only send out distress calls when the plane's engine could run without flooding. This would have been only when the tide was low, usually late at night, or early in the morning. And indeed, transmissions that were heard by various people around the world occurred only when the tide at Nikumaroro was low.
Another compelling bit of evidence about these mysterious radio transmissions is the fact that private citizens who didn’t know each other all heard similar messages. At first, they were pleading for help, then after a few days they became more desperate.
Five days after the disappearance, on July 7, Thelma Lovelace of St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, heard a woman’s voice coming over her radio. “Can you read me? Can you read me?” the voice said. “This is Amelia Earhart … Please come in. We have taken in water. My navigator is badly hurt. We are in need of medical care and must have help. We can’t hold on much longer.” Gillespie believes that this was Earhart’s last broadcast to be picked up by a civilian, or anyone else for that matter, and that the pair died as castaways.
You might ask, ‘If the Navy was listening for Earhart’s radio messages, then why were civilians able to pick them up when the military weren’t?’ Well, for one thing, the Electra’s radio was designed to communicate only within a few hundred miles. If the plane crashed 356 miles away, direct radio broadcast wouldn’t have been heard.
In order to understand how civilians could have heard Earhart’s calls thousands of miles away, you have to know a little bit about how radio signals work. In addition to regular signals, radios simultaneously transmit harmonic signals. These travel upward, skip off the ionosphere, then bounce back to earth. This type of ionosphere-bounce transmission is popular with Ham radio operators because these bounced signals travel far greater distances than direct signals. So, even if a direct radio signal couldn’t be heard by ships over 300 miles away, one that bounced off the ionosphere could easily have been heard thousands of miles away.
Critics of the theory that the plane crash landed on Nikumaroro point out that three Navy planes flew over the island on July 9, a week after Earhart’s disappearance. They reported seeing signs of recent habitation, but they didn’t see any sign of Earhart, Noonan or the plane. One theory suggests that the tide dragged the plane out onto the coral reef on July 7, and it was pushed under the water where it couldn’t be seen from the air two days later.
Skeptics question why Earhart and Noonan weren’t spotted during the three fly-overs. Although Nikumaroro is a small island, it’s covered with thick, dense vegetation. If Noonan was gravely injured when the plane crash landed. It’s possible that he died soon after the last transmission. Earhart may have also been injured. If she was too weak to come out from whatever shelter she sought on the island, if she was unconscious, or even if she simply happened to not be on the beach when the plane passed over, she wouldn’t have been spotted from the air.
One gruesome theory about why Earhart and Noonan’s bodies were never found on Nikumaroro has to do with one of the island’s inhabitants – the giant coconut crab. These monstrous creatures grow to over three feet long, and can weigh as much as 9 lbs. Their large claws have the force of approximately 675 lbs of pressure. For comparison, the strength of a human grip is only around 67 lbs.
Experiments involving pig carcasses have shown that coconut crabs can remove the flesh from a body within two weeks, and they have been seen dragging the bones away. So, it’s possible – even probable – that if Earhart and Noonan died on the island, the crabs would have picked their bodies clean of flesh, then dragged the bones to various parts of the island, or into the ocean.
Over the years, many expeditions have been launched to find such evidence, and artifacts have been discovered that suggest Earhart and Noonan may have survived for a time on the island. A number of artifacts were found, but to date no one has been able to directly connect these artifacts to Earhart or Noonan
In 1940, a British expedition arrived on Nikumaroro to see if it would be suitable for a settlement. As they scouted the island, they came across a human skull and other bones. These were shipped to Fiji where they were studied by a doctor at Central Medical School. He took a series of measurements that he recorded in his notes, and he concluded that the bones didn’t belong to Earhart, but rather to a “middle-aged stocky male about 5’5″ in height.” Everyone was so convinced that the bones didn’t belong to Earhart that they simply lost track of them, and they were eventually lost.
Today, many believe that the doctor was incorrect in his assessment of the bones recovered on the island. A study published in 2019 by Professor Richard Jantz from the University of Tennessee re-assessed the 1940 measurements. Using modern forensics and a computer program designed to aid in determining age and gender from bone measurements, Jantz concluded that the lengths of the bones were similar to Amelia Earhart’s. But of course, without the actual bones themselves, we can never be certain.
In 2019, famed ocean explorer Robert Ballard led an expedition on Nikumaroro to try to locate Earhart's plane. After days of searching the ocean using state of the art equipment and technology, Ballard did not find any evidence of the plane or any associated wreckage of it. Allison Fundis, Ballard's chief operating officer stated: "We felt like if her plane was there, we would have found it pretty early in the expedition."
One of the most intriguing Earhart theories is that she was on a spy mission for FDR who was her close friend. Roosevelt secretly arranged for her to deviate from her route to Howland Island in order to determine whether the Japanese were building airfields and naval bases on nearby islands. The theory goes that the Electra was shot down by the Japanese, Earhart and Noonan were imprisoned on the island of Saipan, and that they died or were executed about a month before U.S. troops invaded.
The hypothesis fits the recollections of many who were residents on the island when Earhart disappeared. They said that two white pilots were brought to the island in 1937. The witnesses all claimed that one of them was a tall white woman with short hair, and that she was dressed like a man. Some reported seeing the pair executed. Others said that Noonan was executed, but that Earhart died of dysentery.
After the war was over, Earhart and Noonan’s bodies were supposedly exhumed by the US military and shipped back to the United States. The US kept quiet about the recovered bodies to avoid any further incidents with Japan after the war.
No US military or government documents exist to lead credence to the story, and the Japanese government continues to maintain that they had nothing to do with Earhart’s disappearance. But many people still believe that the pair were captured by the Japanese, and that they were held at Saipan prison camp. And there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that this is exactly what happened.
Many theorists point to the transcripts of Earhart’s last radio transmissions. She claimed to have been unable to hear anyone as she made her way to Howland Island, but this might have been a lie. If she was flying a secret mission to spy on the Japanese, the military would have known that her radio conversations were being monitored. She would have been instructed to say that she couldn’t hear the transmission, and that she couldn’t get a read on the Itasca because of radio problems. This would have allowed her enough time to fly over the Marshall Islands, gather information, then return after pretending to have gotten back on course again.
Proponents of this theory point out that Earhart’s behavior during the time she was supposedly lost over the Pacific (and desperately low on fuel) was nothing short of bizarre. Although she was scheduled to broadcast on the hour or half-hour, she was smart enough to know that she should have abandoned that schedule in an emergency.
Throughout the period that she was supposedly lost, there was a total absence of urgency in her transmissions. Considering her situation, she should have been trying continuously to establish two-way communications with Itasca. She and Noonan both knew that sending very long transmissions was the only way the Itasca could get a fix on them. But during each of her broadcasts, she never stayed on for more than seven seconds. Why would she do such a thing? To prevent anyone from getting a fix on her position.
Mike Campbell’s impressive book, Amelia Earhart: The Truth At Last, takes a detailed look at all of the missing Earhart theories. He’s convinced that Earhart and Noonan were sent on a secret mission by FDR, that their plane was shot down by the Japanese and that the Electra was recovered, and that they were prisoners on Saipan. He believes that Roosevelt had direct knowledge of Earhart’s capture, and that files and documents that would prove this, such as intercepts of Japanese transmissions, were removed or destroyed. There was a massive cover-up to protect the president because if word ever got out that he had essentially abandoned Earhart on Saipan, and never even attempted a rescue, his political career would have been in shambles.
Amelia Earhart was just forty-years-old when she vanished somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but her impact on the world of aviation is immeasurable. She is undoubtedly one of the most influential and famous pilots in history, not only because of the stunning number of accomplishments she made in the field of aeronautics, but also because of the legacy of her disappearance.
This past July marked the eighty-fifth anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, and interest in the mystery continues. Books and articles continue to be written, expeditions are launched to investigate the areas where she is thought to have ended up, old theories are tested and new ones are born.
In writing about her life as a pilot, Earhart once described how she felt at the end of a long flight. Whatever the truth is about her disappearance, I think her words best sum up her sense of adventure, even at the end of a long and dangerous journey. She wrote:
“There is no doubt that the last hour of any flight is the hardest. If there are any clouds about to make shadows, one is likely to see much imaginary land. As I approached shore I strained my eyes to see something recognizable, and there was nothing. However, I noticed a low place in the hills, and I thought, like the bear, I would go over the mountains to see what I could see.”