On June 1, 1937, female aviator and general badass, along with navigator Fred Noonan, took off on their 30,000 journey to circumnavigate the globe by plane. They were only a few thousand miles away from completing their journey when they disappeared, never seen or heard from again. (1)
At the time, Earhart had reached celebrity status for her achievements. She was the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic among many other records, was an extremely successful author and was becoming a household name and face throughout the nation. (1)
However, on July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart was heard from for the last time. She and Noonan were completing one of the most difficult parts of their trip: From Lae, Papua New Guinea to Howland Island. Howland Island is a very small island in the middle of a vast Pacific Ocean. (1)
In a pre-radar era, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was waiting for Earhart at Howland Island, providing directions through radio communication and smoke plumes. (2) Unfortunately, they were sending their communications through bandwidths that their plane was unable to receive - and the batteries were drained on one that may have worked. (3)
Over 14 hours into the flight, Itasca received their first transmission from Earhart, noting cloudy weather. A few transmissions later, they learned that she was supposedly circling in the area, but couldn't see the island and couldn't hear the coast guard. Despite many messages sent to Earhart, apparently, she only received one. (3)
Though the weather was clear at Howland Island, 30 miles northeast it was not. Presumably, if they had flown through that weather, it could have prevented Noonan from navigating accurately. Additionally, the charts they were using were a few miles off, which was more detrimental due to the size of the island. (3)
With low fuel and an inability to communicate with the Coast Guard, Earhart and Noonan likely tried everything they could to get to land. However, after that night, they were never seen or heard from again.
Though the typical wait period to be declared "death in absentia" is 7 years, Earhart's husband requested to have it waived so he could manage her finances and estate, being declared officially dead on January 5, 1939. (1)
ABOUT AMELIA EARHART
Besides Earhart's incredible feats in the air, she was an incredible human on the ground. During WW1, she worked as a nurse's aid and volunteered during the 1918 flu pandemic. (4)
She took health and medicine classes at Columbia, and spent some time as a social worker in Boston. She was a visiting faculty member at Purdue (who funded her final trip) teaching about aeronautical engineering and counseling female students. (1,4)
Earhart was also a strong feminist: A member of the National Woman's Party and one of the early supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment. (1) She even had her own clothing line. (4)
ABOUT FRED NOONAN (5)
Though Amelia Earhart's disappearance is widely known, the same fate of her navigator Fred Noonan isn't. He was a navigator, sea captain and an aviation pioneer, charting many airline routes across the Pacific in the 30s.
He worked on merchant ships throughout World War 1 and as an officer on ammunition ships. After a 22-year career in the water, he moved to the air. He began working for Pan American World Airways as a navigation instructor and an airport manager, and eventually assumed the role of inspector for all of the airports. He navigated many firsts and after a successful career, eventually resigned because he felt he went as high as he could go.
He met Earhart through a mutual connection, and she chose him as his navigator. He was last seen and heard from at the same time as Amelia.
DISAPPEARANCE THEORIES (2)
Even now, 83 years after her disappearance and 81 years after being officially declared dead, there is still so much interest in figuring out what happened. There are 3 main theories about what happened on July 2nd, 1937 and the ultimate fates of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.
1. The Marshall Islands Conspiracy
Though discounted by many, some believe that Amelia Earhart is still alive. (Or rather, was still alive until she died peacefully in the suburbs somewhere, as she'd be 123 years old now.)
Theorists believe that on July 2nd, unable to find their destination, they continued flying to the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands on their remaining fuel and were taken hostage. Though many believe they were killed, others believe they returned to the U.S. assuming new names and new lives.
High School science teacher and Earhart-enthusiast Dick Spink believes this theory, spending over $50,000 of his own money to search the area. He's spoken to many who claim she was their, saying many people have extremely consistent stories of sightings. Some theorists even presume to know their assumed names, believing Amelia Earhart to be Irene Bolam, a New Jersey resident who passed in 1982.
2. The Castaway Theory
A theory with a little more backing than the previous one, many, including The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believe that they ended up landing on Nikumaroro Island, approximately 350 nautical miles southwest of their destination.
During one of Earhart's transmissions, she provided coordinates that have lead researchers to believe that she may be on track to land on this island if she were to pass Howland.
A British party explored NIkumaroro Island, and a colonial officer took a photo that had something in it that looked like it could be landing gear. Once the island was colonized, more airplane parts were found.
In 1940, the colonial administrator found the remains of a campfire with 13 human bones near it, a pair of men's and women's shoes, and a box that had once held a sextant (a navigational tool that Noonan was known for using.) Unfortunately, the bones were shipped to Fiji, measured, and then lost.
3. The Crash & Sink Theory
The 3rd and most plausible theory for Earhart's disappearance is that, while circling around looking for the island, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed over the vast Pacific Ocean. Though no plane or remains have ever been found despite extensive search operations, this is the theory supported by the U.S. government and many researchers of the case.
Because Earhart's last communication noted they were close but running low on fuel, it seems unlikely they were able to make it to a different destination and crashed somewhere in the vicinity of Howland Island. Though numerous search attempts have turned up empty, many feel confident that the plane will eventually be found at the bottom of the ocean. Because sometimes, the explanation that makes the most sense is the right one.
Maybe one day we will know what exactly happened to Amelia Earhart, but regardless, the world lost a really amazing woman that day. Though her official death declaration came 18 months after her disappearance, take some time to remember the incredible life of Amelia Earhart 81 years later today.