This month marked the 75th anniversary of the of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan, and the Lockheed Electra they were attempting to fly around the world.
It was July 2nd, 1937 and Earhart and Noonan were in Lae, New Guinea, having spent the previous month flying eastwardly across Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Oakland, California, their starting point, lay only an ocean away.
At 10am local time, their heavily laden plane took off en route to their next fuel stop, Howland Island, a tiny spec of land not much more than a mile long and just north of the equator, some 2,500 miles away.
Dogged by navigational difficulties, radio troubles, and cloud cover on their approach to Howland, the pair were unable to spot the island or the Coast Guard cutter on station to assist them. Further confusing the situation, Howland, it is now said, lay five nautical miles away from its then charted position.
Having flown the distance to Howland, and running low on fuel, they altered course to fly along a North-Northwest, South-Southeast line in order to find it. In the last clear radio transmission picked up by the cutter, Earhart reported, “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.”
Of course, they never made it.
Many believe that Earhart and Noonan met their end by ditching into the sea somewhere off Howland Island. Over the years, however, a growing body of fascinating, yet circumstantial, evidence suggests that Earhart may have landed her plane on the reef of an island called Nikumaroro (then known as Gardner Island) some 400 miles South-Southeast of Howland.
Since the 1990s a group called TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) has sent expeditions to Nikumaroro and found the remains of shoes, glass bottles, and makeup all consistent with items from the 1930s. They found improvised tools made from technologically sophisticated items, a cut piece of plexiglass, for example, whose curvature and thickness match that of a Lockheed Electra windshield. They found evidence of campfires and heard stories from former island residents who had seen aircraft wreckage in the surf in the late 40s / early 50s even though no records exist of a plane being lost there during the war.
TIGHAR’s research has also revealed other finds. One of these was the information provided by a British colonial officer to his superiors in 1940 stating that he had found a skeleton and a sextant box underneath a tree on the Southeast corner of the island. The bones were sent to Fiji that same year for analysis and it was concluded that they had belonged to a male. Although these bones were subsequently lost, TIGHAR was able to track down the examination notes in London, according to a Fox News article. Two independent doctors reviewed the notes and concurred that the bones had belonged to a female of northern European descent.
A photo taken three months after Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance shows the wreck the S. S. Norwich City, which ran aground on Gardner in 1929. TIGHAR’s founder, Richard Gillespie, also believes it also shows the upturned landing gear of a Lockheed Electra protruding from the surf, north of the wreck.
A July 16, 1937 report by Lt. John Lambrecht of the U.S.S. Colorado, detailing a 3-1/2-hour, aerial search of three islands, including Gardner, stated that “signs of recent habitation were clearly visible but repeated circling and zooming failed to elicit any answering wave from possible inhabitants and it was finally taken for granted that none were there.” The island, however, had not been inhabited for 40 years, a fact the pilots were unaware of.
Perhaps the most haunting evidence though comes from pages of a notebook written in St. Petersburg, Florida, on a July afternoon in 1937 (the exact date is unknown). Betty Klenck, 15 years old at the time, sat scanning the dial on a shortwave radio which her father had equipped with a long, backyard antenna. With it she was routinely able to pick up stations from around the world. That afternoon she was startled to hear a distressed voice repeating “This is Amelia Earhart. This is Amelia Earhart.” and began taking notes.
The scene that emerges from these notes is that of Earhart and Noonan, having made a rough landing on the reef, struggling to make contact with the Coast Guard, and Noonan seemingly suffering from a head injury. The interior of the plane was hot and slowly flooding with water as the tide came in. With the water up to their knees, it appeared Noonan wanted to bail out of the plane.
She heard the broadcasts for about 2 hours before her father came home. The calls continued for an hour after that. Later that evening her father reported what they had heard to the local coast guard station and were told that ships were already in the area, and that the situation was under control.
Other shortwave listeners reported hearing transmissions from Earhart saying she was on a reef south of the equator. The majority of the official search efforts, however, were conducted northwest of Howland, which itself is north of the equator.
The TIGHAR expedition mentioned in the video at the top of this post sent an undersea vehicle to search the deep water off Nikumaroro for evidence of Earhart’s plane but the expedition was called off due to difficulties with the rover and the treacherous nature of the underwater terrain.
Again, an eerie kind of luck — seemingly in effect from the moment Earhart left New Guinea — still seems to surround the flight. To this day, definitive clues to the mystery remain hidden.
That said, the evidence, though circumstantial, makes a strong case that Earhart and Noonan landed on Gardner Island, were marooned there, and eventually died.
Was she ever found? That depends what you think of the evidence. I, for myself anyway, feel that the mystery can finally be laid to rest.
One last note: if you line up a compass rose on Howland Island at 337˚, Nikumaroro will land on the other side of the compass rose at about 160˚. That means that Nikumaroro lies almost exactly on the 157 337 line that Earhart said they were flying in her last transmission to the coast Guard.
Try it yourself. Here’s a Google map of the two islands and here’s a link to a compass rose image. Drag the image over the map but don’t unclick. You can line up the compass rose with the islands and see what I mean.
Here’s more on TIGHAR’s search of Nikumaroro:
And here’s a tour of the island from the air: