The Last Flight of Amelia Earhart

Possibly one of the most famous mysteries is the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, an intrepid and ambitious woman pilot. She set several records for woman pilots and was to culminate her achievements with a circumnavigation of the globe in her specially equipped twin-engine plane, called the Electra. Howland Island, a tiny speck in the middle of the South Pacific was to be one of the final stops. But Earhart never reached Howland Island. On 2 July 1937, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan went missing over the Pacific as they began the last leg of an attempted aerial circumnavigation of the world. The unresolved circumstances of Amelia Earhart's disappearance, along with her fame, attracted many theories relating to her last flight. Amelia Mary Earhart (born July 24, 1897; missing July 2, 1937; declared legally dead January 5, 1939), daughter of Samuel "Edwin" Stanton Earhart and Amelia "Amy" Otis Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas.

On December 28, 1920, she and her father visited an airfield where Frank Hawks (who later gained fame as an air racer) gave her a ride that would forever change Earhart's life. "By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground," she said, "I knew I had to fly." After that 10-minute flight (that cost her father $10), she immediately became determined to learn to fly. Working at a variety of jobs, as a photographer, truck driver and stenographer at the local telephone company, she managed to save $1,000 for flying lessons. Earhart had her first lessons, beginning on January 3, 1921, at Kinner Field near Long Beach.

While at work one afternoon in April 1928, Earhart got a phone call from Capt. Hilton H. Railey, who asked her, "Would you like to fly the Atlantic?" The project coordinators (including book publisher and publicist George P. Putnam) interviewed Amelia and asked her to accompany pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot/mechanic Louis Gordon on the flight, nominally as a passenger, but with the added duty of keeping the flight log. The team departed Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland in a Fokker F.VIIb/3m on June 17, 1928, landing at Burry Port (near Llanelli), Wales, United Kingdom, exactly 20 hours and 40 minutes later.

At the age of 34, on the morning of May 20, 1932 Earhart set off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland with the latest copy of a local newspaper (the dated copy was intended to confirm the date of the flight). She intended to fly to Paris in her single engine Lockheed Vega 5b to emulate Charles Lindbergh's solo flight.

Earhart joined the faculty of the world-famous Purdue University aviation department in 1935 as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and help inspire others with her love for aviation. On January 11, 1935, Earhart became the first person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California.

In July 1936, she took delivery of a Lockheed Electra 10E financed by Purdue and started planning a round-the-world flight. Not the first to circle the globe, it would be the longest at 29,000 miles (47,000 km), following a grueling equatorial route. Through contacts in the Los Angeles aviation community, Fred Noonan was subsequently chosen as a second navigator because there were significant additional factors which had to be dealt with while using celestial navigation for aircraft. He had vast experience in both marine (he was a licensed ship's captain) and flight navigation.

From Left to Right : Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart, Harry Manning and Fred Noonan, with Lockheed Electra 10E as their background picture. March 17, 1937, Oakland, California.

On St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1937, they flew the first leg from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition to Earhart and Noonan, Harry Manning and Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz (who was acting as Earhart's technical advisor) were on board. Due to lubrication and galling problems with the propeller hubs' variable pitch mechanisms, the aircraft needed servicing in Hawaii. Ultimately, the Electra ended up at the United States Navy's Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. The flight resumed three days later from Luke Field with Earhart, Noonan and Manning on board and during the takeoff run, Earhart ground-looped. While the Electra was being repaired Earhart and Putnam secured additional funds and prepared for a second attempt. This time flying west to east, the second attempt began with an unpublicized flight from Oakland to Miami, Florida and after arriving there Earhart publicly announced her plans to circumnavigate the globe. For the second flight, Fred Noonan was Earhart's only crew member.

On June 1, 1937, she and co-pilot Fred Noonan departed from Miami, after touching down in Florida, Brazil, West Africa, India, Burma, Singapore and Australia, successfully reached Lae, New Guinea on June 29, 1937. This was to be the longest stretch with no land in between Lae and tiny Howland Island in the central Pacific and so their next hop--to Howland Island--was by far the most challenging. Every unessential item was removed from the plane to make room for additional fuel, which gave Earhart approximately 274 extra miles.

Howland Island located 2,556 miles from Lae in the mid-Pacific, is a tiny coral island in the Pacific that had been converted into a landing strip, with a mile and a half long and a half mile wide. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca stationed at Howland, assigned to refuel the plane, and also to act as a radio beacon to help guide her in. Three other U.S. ships, ordered to burn every light on board, were positioned along the flight route as markers. "Howland is such a small spot in the Pacific that every aid to locating it must be available," Earhart said.

Having already completed nearly three-quarters of their epic journey in a Lockheed L-10E Electra twin-engine plane, Earhart and Noonan preparing to set out from Lae, New Guinea to fly 4,113 kilometres (2,556 miles) to Howland Island. At 12:30 P.M. on July 2, the pair took off. Despite favorable weather reports, they flew into overcast skies and intermittent rain showers. This made Noonan's premier method of tracking, celestial navigation, impossible. As dawn neared, Earhart called chief radioman on the Itasca and asked for Itasca's location. She failed to report at the next scheduled time, and afterward her radio transmissions, irregular through most of the flight, were faint or interrupted with static.

At 7:42 A.M., the Itasca picked up the message, "We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet." The ship tried to reply, but the plane seemed not to hear.

In her last known transmission at 8:43 a.m. Earhart broadcast "We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait…"

However, a few moments later at 8:45 a.m. she was back on the same frequency (3105 kHz) with a transmission which was logged as a "questionable": "We are running on line north and south." After that nothing further was heard from Earhart. They never arrived.

American Coast Guard cutter Itasca, was able to pick up garbled transmissions from Earhart, but it was frustratingly obvious that she could neither hear them, nor find the island. The last known transmission at 8.45 AM local time seemed to indicate she and Noonan believed they had reached Howland's charted position, which was incorrect by about five nautical miles (10 km). The Itasca used her oil-fired boilers to generate smoke for a period of time but the fliers apparently did not see it. The many scattered clouds in the area around Howland Island have also been cited as a problem: their dark shadows on the ocean surface may have been almost indistinguishable from the island's subdued and very flat profile.

It is now thought that conditions and a faulty chart conspired against Earhart and Noonan – the island was actually 10 kilometres further east than the position marked on their chart, while the rising sun and broken cloud cover casting island-like shadows on the water must have hindered their search.

Whether any post-loss radio signals were received from Earhart and Noonan remains controversial. If transmissions were received from the Electra, most if not all were weak and hopelessly garbled. Earhart's voice transmissions to Howland were on 3105 kHz, a frequency restricted to aviation use in the United States by the FCC. This frequency was not thought to be fit for broadcasts over great distances. When Earhart was at cruising altitude and midway between Lae and Howland (over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from each) neither station heard her scheduled transmission at 0815 GCT. Moreover, the 50-watt transmitter used by Earhart was attached to a less-than-optimum-length V-type antenna.

A rescue attempt commenced immediately and became the most extensive air and sea search in U.S. naval history thus far. Over the next two weeks Navy planes criss-crossed the area but saw no evidence of life. One pilot reported what appeared to be ‘signs of recent habitation’ on Gardner Island, one of the Phoenix Islands, but although he buzzed the island several times no one made themselves known and there was no trace of aircraft or wreckage.

The search widened to include the Gilbert Islands, a populated group that Earhart had flown over on her way to Howland, on the assumption that she might have tried to reverse her course. But there was no sign of the missing plane or aviators, and on July 19, after spending $4 million and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the United States government reluctantly called off the operation. The official verdict: Earhart had ditched at sea and the Electra had sunk without a trace, carrying pilot and navigator to a watery grave. In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory.

Earhart’s loss was a tragedy and an international news phenomenon. It also quickly gave rise to a clutch of conspiracy theories. An Australian tabloid newspaper alleged that the American Navy had used the search for Earhart as a pretext to overfly the Marshall Islands, a Japanese mandate zone where it was suspected they were illegally building military bases. It was theorized that Earhart was on a reconnaissance mission and was held and executed by the Japanese, but this couldn’t ever be verified. Later this theory inspired a successful 1943 movie, Flight For Freedom, starring Rosalind Russell as a famous aviator named Tonie Carter and Fred MacMurray as the navigator she falls in love with. They plan to get lost over the Pacific to give the navy a pretext for searching the area and checking out Japanese fortifications. Just before taking off on the last leg of the journey, Carter learns that the Japanese are on to her, and that they plan to take her prisoner. So she takes off alone and ditches the plane in the ocean, sacrificing her life so the search can go on. By 1949, both the United Press and U.S. Army Intelligence had concluded this rumor was groundless. Jackie Cochran, a pioneer aviatrix and one of Earhart's friends, made a postwar search of numerous files in Japan and was convinced the Japanese were not involved in Earhart's disappearance.

For serious Earhart researchers the conspiracy theories are simply a diversion from the two most likely scenarios: that Earhart ditched in the open ocean, in which case the wreck of the Electra may still be resting on the seabed, or that she made it to one of the Phoenix Islands but was never rescued and died there. Both theories have been the subject of recent expeditions. The most straightforward explanation for Earhart’s disappearance is the original one formulated by the captain of the Coast Guard cutter. Howland Island was at the limit of the Electra’s range, and after circling for hours in a fruitless search for the island Earhart and Noonan must have run out of fuel and ditched the plane, hoping to make it out in one piece in their life raft and get rescued. Either they didn’t survive the open water landing, or they perished in their life raft – either way, the wreck of the plane might still be intact on the sea bottom, 5 kilometres (3 miles) down.

In 2002 a Nauticos exploration vessel equipped with sophisticated seabed imaging equipment scanned 2,160 square kilometers (834 square miles) of an area near Howland Island pinpointed as the most promising spot by detailed study of Earhart’s final radio transmissions. Unfortunately a blown hydraulic hose meant that they almost lost several millions worth of scanning equipment and the expedition was aborted two-thirds of the way through, having failed to find any sign of the downed aircraft. Although Nauticos claims to remain optimistic about its prospects, it is noteworthy that a planned 2004 follow-up expedition never took place.

Perhaps the most convincing explanation of Earhart and Noonan’s fate is the one advanced by The International Group for Historical Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Their detailed research and analysis have led them to conduct extensive exploration and excavation on the tiny Pacific island of Nikumaroro, formerly known as Gardner Island. Previously it was thought that the Electra did not have enough fuel to make it this far, but TIGHAR have discovered that the plane was fitted with extra fuel tanks that would have allowed Earhart and Noonan several more hours in the air than formerly believed. Assuming that they were proceeding south-east on the 337° bearing Earhart reported in her last transmission, they could easily have reached Nikumaroro, which was within visual range of this course.

TIGHAR have accumulated an impressive array of circumstantial and suggestive evidence to back up their theory. In 1938 there was an attempt to colonise the island and the colonists reported finding evidence that someone had previously camped out on the island, and even claimed to have found a set of human bones, a sextant case and the sole of a woman’s shoe. Excavation on the island itself has revealed evidence of aeroplane parts that had been scavenged and recycled as tools. Many of these undoubtedly came from other aircraft and were the work of the colonists or later visitors, but some may well be from Earhart’s plane.

So far the definitive evidence that would finally confirm the TIGHAR theory has been elusive. Divers have searched the reef and the shoreline for wreckage that can be matched to the Electra but have yet to find it. A search of colonial records appears to confirm the tale about finding the human bones, and the description of the remains recorded at the time matches what would be expected of a Caucasian female of Earhart’s size, but so far efforts to find the bones themselves have not been successful.

Hundreds of articles and scores of books have been written about her life which is often cited as a motivational tale, especially for girls. Earhart is generally regarded as a feminist icon. The home where Earhart was born is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum and is maintained by the Ninety-Nines, an international group of female pilots of whom Amelia was the first elected president.

Sources :
Cross Culture :“Unexplained Mysteries Special” Summer 2007, edited by Rishi Khar;
Lost Histories : “Exploring The World’s Most Famous Mysteries” by Joel Levy;
Mysteries in History : “From Prehistory to the Present” by Paul D. Aron;
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amelia_Earhart

Pics sources :
Cross Culture : “Unexplained Mysteries Special” Summer 2007, edited by Rishi Khar page 9;
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mantz,_Ae,Manning,_Noonan.jpg
The Last Flight of Amelia Earhart The Last Flight of Amelia Earhart Reviewed by Tripzibit on 04:39 Rating: 5

2 comments:

  1. Amelia Earhart always reminds me of the opening credits to the show 'In Search of...' with Leonard Nimoy. It just instantly cues that music in my head.

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  2. This is in my mind the most popular unsolved missing person case in American history. As with any case, circumstantial evidence means nothing 70 years after this happened which in turn means no eye witness accounts either. I think it will be one of those cases that will always have more speculation than answers unless some physical evidence of wreckage or something is found.

    I remember when the actual show called Unsolved Mysteries had this case when it was hosted by Robert Stack.

    Glad to see this one posted though!

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