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The Search for Amelia Earhart

75 Years Later


The Search for Amelia Earhart
Photo © FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Please know that I am aware of the hazards...I want to do it because I want to do it."
-Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart had many accomplishments, so it's unfortunate that she's most famous for her own disappearance. Amelia's attempted flight around the world in her Lockheed Electra was cut short when she disappeared with her aircraft somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. To this day, the search for Amelia Earhart and her plane continues.

Probably the most famous female aviator ever, Amelia was known for being bold and daring. Some said she was reckless. Others said she was a hard worker. Most everyone agrees that was headstrong and an inspiration to women. Today -- 75 years later-- Amelia's story still encourages women to do what they want to do, regardless of pop culture and the status quo.

Background Information
To understand the theories surrounding Amelia's disappearance, it is helpful to have some knowledge of her circumstances.

Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were on the last leg of their potential record-breaking flight around the world, and it would be the hardest leg of all. They were to fly from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island, a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that was only about 6,500 feet long. The Coast Guard Ship Itasca was stationed at Howland Island to assist Amelia with communications, as well as finding the island. Unfortunately, the Itasca had problems communicating with Amelia and we still don't know why.

We do know that the cloud coverage was worse than expected. One of her transmissions claims she was flying at 1,000 feet and thought that she was close to Howland Island. Keep in mind that the aircraft didn't have a very good range, so she took off with just enough fuel to get there, plus a few extra miles. If she couldn't immediately find the island (likely the case) she would've ran out of fuel over the ocean somewhere. Amelia was able to transmit her position over the radio, and the Itasca was able to hear most of those transmissions, but supposedly the Itasca's return transmissions were not being heard by Amelia. Eventually, all communication was lost and a search was immediately commenced.

Where is Amelia?
To this day, nobody knows what happened to Amelia Earhart and her airplane. There are many different theories surrounding where she could be, but to date there has been no evidence found to correlate any of these ideas.

According to some of the more reputable sources, there are two likely explanations:

  1. Amelia ran out of fuel trying to find Howland Island and crashed in the ocean somewhere near the island. Since no evidence has been found otherwise, this is probably the most obvious and widely accepted theory today.
  2. The aircraft landed on the reef of Nikamuroro, an island about 400 miles southeast of Howland Island. Believers of the Nikamuroro theory think that Amelia and Fred Noonan may have lived on the previously uninhabited island for weeks or even months before their deaths. Items of interest have been found on the island that lead researchers to believe in this theory, such as human bone fragments thought to be that of a tall, European woman, a steel panel possibly from the Electra, and evidence of castaway existence.

Initial Searches
Shortly after Amelia's last radio transmission, crewmembers aboard the Itasca began a search for Amelia and her aircraft. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy searched 250,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, Howland Island and the Phoenix Islands, where it was noted that there were recent signs of habitation, but assumed it wasn't Amelia. The search went on for 17 days, costing the U.S. Government about $4 million, making it the most costly search in the history of the U.S.

When the government gave up, George Putnam, Amelia's publisher and husband, conducted a private search of his own, which focused on the series of islands in the area: the Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, and Phoenix Islands. Putnam's search was also unsuccessful.

While the search efforts for Amelia, Fred Noonan and the Electra ended, researchers were just beginning. Research was conducted for 35 years by an aeronautical engineer, who thinks that she was lost at sea. Others have analyzed the radio transmissions and researched people's wild theories that involve Amelia being a spy for the U.S. and perhaps held prisoner by the Japanese.

Many people have spent countless hours investigating theories, myths and hoaxes. Perhaps she decided to turn the plane around half-way into the flight. Or maybe she staged her death to assume a new identity. Most, if not all, of these myths have been debunked.

The most serious and extensive research has been completed by TIGHAR, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. TIGHAR has been researching Amelia's disappearance since 1988, and has been on at least seven expeditions to the Pacific.

Recent Search
In 2012, TIGHAR went back to the island of Nikumaroru, in the Republic of Kiribati, to investigate further. Members of TIGHAR's NIKKU VII Expedition, part of the Earhart Project, hoped to map the ocean floor around Nikumaroro in anticipation of finding evidence of the Electra. The trip was cut short due to equipment failure, but the group stated that they returned with many good maps and pictures to analyze. TIGHAR continues to search for Amelia and Fred with the belief that they landed on the island of Nikumaroro where they lived as castaways until their deaths.

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