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The Legend of Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance

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The mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937 during her around-the-world flight attempt persists to the present day, and is especially alive and well on the Internet. If you were to Google the term “Amelia Earhart Disappearance,” for example, the list of hits would be about 1,950,000 items! Some websites, too numerous to mention, are filled with crank conspiratorial ideas. One, for example, militarycorruption.com, claims that U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was involved in the cover-up of the destruction of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E at Aslito Field on Saipan in 1944. The site doesn’t exactly say why Forrestal would have done such a thing, but the implication is that he was attempting to efface any evidence that might have implicated Earhart in a secret spy mission for the U.S. government.

Nevertheless, the idea that people are still fascinated by Earhart’s disappearance after seventy-three years, whether it is tied up in conspiratorial theories or not, is worthy of note. The government put forth an extraordinary attempt to find Earhart that went on for sixteen days, involved nine vessels, four thousand crewmen, and sixty-six aircraft at a cost of more than $4 million. All of this was to no avail. As Tom Crouch puts it, the contingent of ships and aircraft “searched an area of the Pacific roughly the size of Texas without turning up a clue. Radio operators in the United States and across the Pacific reported receiving everything from surefire messages from Earhart to strange sounds that could have been from her. Authorities dismissed the flurry of reports as either wishful thinking or cruel hoaxes.”

Sheet Music Cover

This sheet music cover from the National Air and Space Museum's Library Collection is typical of the expressions of popular interest in Earhart's disappearance.

Those wishful thoughts and cruel hoaxes seemed to be a harbinger of things to come. Almost immediately after Earhart’s disappearance, stories about Earhart’s whereabouts began to pop up. Perhaps more important, a few years after Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939, her husband George Palmer Putnam approved a treatment for a film to be titled Stand By to Die, to be produced by RKO, which contained some resemblances to the facts about Earhart’s life and disappearance, for which the Amelia Earhart estate would receive $7500. (Putnam had hoped that his own idea for a film about his wife, which would be called Lady with Wings: The Story of My Wife, Amelia Earhart, would be produced, but there had been no takers, and the Earhart estate was in poor financial condition.) Putnam reluctantly agreed to sign the agreement so long as there would be no obvious similarities between the film and Earhart’s life.

The film was eventually produced by RKO, and it was renamed Flight for Freedom.

It starred Rosalind Russell as a woman aviator, Tonie Carter, whose ambition was to fly around the world, and Fred MacMurray, as Randy Britton, a hotshot pilot who accompanies Tonie on the flight as navigator. Flight for Freedom appears to have laid the groundwork for a whole series of speculations about what happened to Earhart and Noonan. These scenarios range from the idea that the flight had been a secret spying mission for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to the notion that Earhart and Noonan had landed on Saipan, and were captured and killed by the Japanese, to the idea that Earhart was captured by the Japanese and had reappeared as “Tokyo Rose,” a name for women whom the Japanese forced to broadcast propaganda to American troops in the Pacific during World War II, or that Earhart had assumed another identity and was discovered to be living in New Jersey.

What probably did happen to Earhart and Noonan? Richard Gillespie, head of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), is an Earhart disappearance researcher who has gained some credibility. TIGHAR has made numerous trips to Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island), a remote coral atoll in the Western Pacific Ocean, the place where the organization believes Earhart and Noonan ended up. They have turned up some interesting finds: an aluminum panel that might possibly have come from an Electra; a piece of curved glass that might be a window from an Electra; a heel from a woman’s shoe like the kind of footware, Earhart wore, among other items. None of these, however, can conclusively be connected to Earhart and Noonan. Gillespie has written a book titled Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, which puts forth his ideas about the disappearance.

Elgin Long, an experienced pilot and another longtime Earhart disappearance theorist, offers perhaps the most plausible explanation for the disappearance. Having experienced bad weather during the long 4,113 km (2,556 miles) flight from Lea to Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan used up their supply of fuel, and crash landed in the ocean. Long notes the urgency in Earhart’s voice on the radio on the way to Howland Island, when she was trying to locate the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, the ship that was assigned the task of providing navigational and radio links to Earhart and Noonan. Long has written a book (with Marie K. Long) titled Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, in which he puts forth a well-constructed argument that the aircraft came to rest at the bottom of the ocean near Howland Island.

On the significance of the disappearance, Doris Rich, one of Earhart’s biographers, believes that “nothing she might have said or done, no scheme George Palmer Putnam might have designed, could so enhance Earhart’s renown as the mystery of her disappearance. She had been famous. By vanishing she became legendary.” By the same token, her disappearance ironically seems to have overtaken her life’s accomplishments as an aviator and advocate for women’s rights. Susan Ware, author of Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism, points out that “with all the mythology surrounding Amelia Earhart’s last flight in 1937, it is hard to assess her career separately from the ongoing mystery of her disappearance.” Ware suggests that it is Earhart’s life, not the disappearance and presumed death that matters.

Amelia Earhart

Already a celebrity, Amelia Earhart became legendary when she disappeared in July 1937.

Nevertheless, it is Earhart’s disappearance that has captured the imagination of Americans in the nearly three quarters of a century since she vanished. What does this say about us as a society? The implication, perhaps, is that Americans are prone to believe things that are unproven and unable to think analytically enough to question ideas founded on baseless evidence. Another is that we have an obsessive need to explain mysteries that have no obvious solutions. Whatever the reasons, the ideas about Earhart’s disappearance, like the widespread belief in UFOs, or in the various conspiracy theories that have arisen around such events as the JFK assassination, Watergate, and 9/11, persist and have become part and parcel of the American psyche.

Dominick A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum

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30 thoughts on “The Legend of Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance

  1. Pingback: The Legend of Amelia Earhart | The Art of Observing

  2. I have always been fascinated with her life and tragedy. The first time I read about her was years ago, in a Clive Cussler novel called ‘Sahara’. Since then, I’ve realised there is an entire industry built around trying to figure out her last moments on earth. If she crashed into the Pacific ocean, we’ll never find her remains after all this time anyway. So let’s give her, her hard-earned rest.

  3. Love this! I’ve always been fascinated by Amelia Earhart and I’ve posted about her and listed quotes attributed to her on my site frequently. Judging by the response I get from those posts, I see I’m not the only one who finds her personality and her life story so intriguing.

  4. Most likely……she ran out of gas and crashed in the pacific.

    Not glamorous or exciting.

    A shame, but given her thriving on adrenalin. it was a matter of time. This gamble or the one after, this was her fate.

  5. I just watched the movie about her life. I think that she ran out of gas and crashed. You’ll find her inside of the vessel at the ocean bottom.

  6. she will be remembered as the best women flyer in the history of the world. and i think she landed on a island some where in the pacfic.

  7. Fascinating stuff! There’s nothing more intriguing than a legend (and nothing more interesting than the truth). I know this was posted a while ago, but thank you for writing and sharing this article. :)

  8. I love to hear storys about amelia she was a wonderful pilot and her story will forever go unanswered the truth will never be told only the good lord knows the truth

    Bonechia

  9. I luv this! im so shocked that shes still not found. i mean if they searched and spent so much money on it she should have been found!! where is she?

  10. Being a woman in the business world, I find my strength to push on in tough times by being inspired by the likes of Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and even more women in modern times such as Oprah Winfrey. When I look at the challenges these women faced in their lives, my problems and obstacles appear very small indeed. As for Amelia, a strong woman’s life was cut short way too soon.

  11. Amelia Earhart is truly one to give recognition to! She set many records for women, honored her gender , and is definatley worthy of the many awards she has earned. What I believe happened to her, is that she ran out of gas and crashed somewhere over the pacific. She was a magnificent young lady who’s life was cut short. Thank you Amelia Earhart for realizing that women are just as good, and sometimes better than men. You’ve inspired me, and I’m sure many more.

  12. I just read an article about a theory that she landed on Nikumaroro island. Funny thing is if you go on GOOGLE EARTH and zoom in on 4 deg, 39′ 15.90″S , 174 deg 32′ 22.42 W you will find what appears to be the outline of a wing in the Surf off the North Side of Nikumaroro island. Yes I agree she was an inspiration to us all. She will never be forgotten. You can also go on google maps…

  13. Probably the most likely scenario is that she got lost over the Pacific after taking off from Lae, and run out of fuel. She then either crashed or miraculously landed on the water. In either case, the Electra will be on the 4 km deep bottom somewhere in the Pacific and we will never find it. And if we would, it would not change the legend she was, and still is to us today, even though her attempt to fly around the world became obsolete, since soon commercial airliners would do the same.

  14. One thing’s for sure…

    Earhart’s Electra DID NOT crash near Howland Island.

    That area was extensively searched by two different deep-sea exploration companies and they found not a trace of the plane.

    (This gives me a bit of a thrill. I’ve felt for a while that Elgen Long was extremely arrogant and dismissive of other more likely theories. Now he has egg on his face! The story continues… It most likely will be solved by a legal/paper trail rather than archaeology at this point in time I’m afraid… unless somebody finds wreckage that’s indisputably from the Electra.))

    Also, the Gardner Island/Nikamauro Island tail-chase is over. Over two decades worth of wasting time and spreading cockamamie theories and TIGHAR has nothing to show for its efforts! Not a shred of the “evidence” they dug up has panned out.

    There is more support for the idea that Earhart and Noonan ended up in the Marshall Islands and were transported to Saipan than any of the other theories. It has more weight in terms of eyewitnesses and the behavior of federal agencies since World War II.

    Earhart DID NOT return to the US mainland and assume a new identity. She died out in the Pacific. What is fairly certain is that she did not perish on or near either Howland Island OR Gardner Island!!!!

  15. There’s no doubt that this is an alien abduction in an area of the Pacific known to have similar traits as the Bermuda Triangle.

  16. If explorers searched more about her…..i really wanna know what happened to her…In my opinion..there are 2 matters.the first is that she ran out of fuel…and the second is that she was killed by Japanese..or other people because they could think that it was a warplane…

  17. Whatever may have happened , the Earhart-Noonan crew has hever been on Gardner / Nikumaroro since the fuel reserves after reaching the Howland region were insufficient to reach any other land points than Howland & nearby Baker Island . The TIGHAR “clues” and “findings” belong to their “hypothesis” which is a sheer nonsense theory , by them named “scientific” to hold up publicity for commercial reasons only . At davidkbowman.com “Technical Articles” one can find computation in European Journal of Navigation 2008-2011 showing the insufficient fuel load , for 1h05m , whereas for Gardner 2 3/4 hrs would have been necessary .

  18. No one has mentioned the book by Fred Goerner (sp?) from the 1960′s, I think. I recall its title as “The Search for Amelia Earhart.” He makes a case for the spy mission with a camera installed just before the Howland leg. He was a CBS TV newsman in San Fransisco and claims to have interviewed natives who saw a white woman in captivity as well as finding out some documents about Tinian or Saipan were still classified with no explanations forthcoming and lots of other circumstantial “evidence.” Amelia is quoted by her sister (was it?) as saying there were parts of her flight she couldn’t discuss. I found it to be a persuasive book.

  19. I think Amelia Earhart was an inspiration to everyone. To show to everyone that girls can do as much as boys can. that we all have the same interest. Who cares if she was a spy. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that she is known for her bravery.

  20. I think that Amelia Earhart was a remarkable woman and I am currently doing a report on her. When I first heard about her I was so curious and wanted to know what happened to her. I think she landed in the ocean because their is more water in the pacific than land such as a island.You can kinda compare this to the titanic.The boat was found on the very bottom of the ocean and that’s where i think Amelia’s plane is.

  21. TIGHAR ? CREDIBLE ?

    To begin with, the acronym stands for “The International Group For Historic Aircraft Recovery”. They have yet, in 25 plus years, to recover a single historic aircraft. Virtually every piece of “evidence” they have collected is nothing more than 70 plus years of South Seas trash.

    However, they have great propaganda tools, even luring Hillary Clinton into the picture on the last expedition. The latest lure is underwater photos of purported landing gear of an unidentified aircraft several thousand feet down. Like the Cats Paw heel, the dado, the broken freckle cream jar, the rusted pen knife, turtle bones etc, it all amounts to scientific nonsense.

    I am shocked that the Air and Space Museum even cites them in this article.

  22. Be patient and await the release of classified documents from NARA in 5 more years.

    Air and Space has no credibility. A shame. But typical..

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