It’s August 2018, and divers with Project Blue Angel are exploring an intriguing wreckage off Papua New Guinea’s Buka Island. The team have been hunting for the crashed plane of Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances while trying to circumnavigate the world in 1937. And in the decades since, no confirmed trace of the pioneering pilot or her craft has ever been found. But is this new find really what the divers have been searching for?
We’ll get back to that 2018 discovery later, but first let’s find out more about Amelia. She entered the world in July 1897 in her grandfather’s house in Atchison, Kansas. And her mother’s father, Alfred Otis, had once been a federal judge; at that time, however, he was president of a local savings bank.
Amelia’s father, meanwhile, was Edwin Earhart, and her mother was also named Amelia – although she was known as Amy. The young girl had one sibling, too: Grace Muriel, who was a couple of years her junior. Plus, it seems that Amy had her own views on child rearing, as she let her two daughter wear bloomers instead of dresses – thus giving them both more freedom as they explored the area around their home.
What’s more, Amelia and her sister seem to have had something of the daredevil about them. At the very least, they enjoyed shooting rats with rifles and tree climbing as well as collecting worms and toads. And in one incident when Amelia was seven or eight, she built a ramp on the roof of the garden shed that was modeled on a roller coaster she’d seen in St. Louis.
In fact, this childish construction project would enable Amelia to take her maiden flight. After careering down the ramp in a wooden crate, she flew through the air. And although the girl ended up with both a torn dress and a swollen lip, she apparently thoroughly enjoyed her experience on her makeshift sled. Indeed, this occasion would be just the first of many times in which Amelia launched herself skyward.
Yet when a chance to take a flight aboard an actual plane came Amelia’s way, she spurned the opportunity. Back then, the young girl was ten years old when she and her sister visited the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines with their father, and Edwin in turn offered the pair the chance of a trip on a biplane there. Amelia took one look at the flimsy craft, however, and decided that she’d rather have another ride on the merry-go-round.
Meanwhile, Amelia and Grace lived with their grandparents for a spell. There, they were educated at home, with Amelia spending much of her time lost in the world of books – although she ultimately started school in the seventh grade. Within a decade, though, dark clouds began to descend on the Earhart family.
Thanks to Edwin’s alcoholism, you see, he was forced to retire from his job in 1914. Then Amelia’s grandmother died, and the large house in which the future aviator and her relative had lived together for a time had to be sold off as a consequence. Amelia was devastated by this turn of events, too; in particular, she felt as though this was the end of her childhood.
Despite these troubles, however, Amelia graduated from school in 1916 and subsequently enrolled in junior college in Rydal, Pennsylvania – although she didn’t end up completing her course. Then, towards the end of 1917, she went to stay with her sister in Toronto. And while in Canada, Amelia began work as a volunteer assistant nurse at a military hospital, tending the wounded returning from the First World War.
Yet there would be a further ordeal for Amelia to get through in November 1918. In that month, she came down with pneumonia and severe sinusitis, and it took a year for her to fully recover. But even despite her illnesses, she did not waste the time – choosing instead to educate herself in mechanics, read poetry and learn to play the banjo. Attacks of acute sinusitis would plague her for the rest of her life.
Then, finally, in December 1920 Amelia took to the skies in a proper plane rather than on a rickety wooden crate. For that debut flight, she joined air ace of the day Frank Hawks from an field in Long Beach, California. And it’s certainly safe to say that the experience inspired the young woman.
In her autobiography, Last Flight, published in 1937, Amelia remembered that day and its impact on her. She wrote, “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.” And indeed, just over a year later, she took her first flying lesson.
In order to pay for the tuition, Amelia took jobs as a truck driver, a stenographer and a photographer. And that instruction duly came in January 1921 with Anita “Neta” Snook – Iowa’s first female pilot. To fit in with the other women aviators, then, Amelia cropped her hair short and bought a leather jacket for flying. She even slept in the garment for three nights so as not to look too much like a newbie.
Then, six months after that initial session with Snook, Amelia bought a plane. This was a used Kinner Airster biplane finished in vibrant yellow and subsequently christened “The Canary” by her proud new owner. And in October 1922, Amelia took The Canary up to 14,000 feet – the highest any woman had ever flown thus far and the first of many records she would set.
But the next couple of years brought with them further ill fortune. During that period, Amelia’s parents divorced; the family finances also went from bad to worse, meaning the aspiring aviator had to sell her Kinner plane as well as another that she’d bought. And Amelia’s health suffered, too, as a recurrence of her chronic sinus problems necessitated another spell in hospital in 1924.
After recovering from her illness, then, Amelia enrolled at Columbia University. She ultimately abandoned her course because of money problems, however, leaving her to earn employment as a teacher and then as a social worker in Medford, Massachusetts. Yet even while Amelia was working, she found the time to pursue her passion for aviation.
In 1927, for instance, Amelia embarked on the first official flight out of Quincy, Massachusetts’ Dennison – an airfield into which she’d invested a small amount of her own money. The aspiring aviator also worked as a sales person for Kinner aircraft, wrote pieces for local newspapers extolling the delights of flying and became vice-president of the Boston branch of the American Aeronautical Society.
Then in 1928 Amelia got an phone call with an exciting offer: the possibility of becoming the first woman to cross the Atlantic aboard a plane. Such long-distance flights had captured the public’s imagination, – not least because Charles Lindbergh had made his own solo flight the year before. And, naturally, Amelia wasn’t about to turn down such a golden opportunity.
After the fledgling aviator had agreed to the pitch, then, a Fokker plane took off from Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland, on June 17, 1928. Pilot Wilmer Stultz, co-pilot Louis Gordon and Amelia – who was to write up the flight log – were all in tow. And after a flight lasting 20 hours and 40 minutes, the intrepid trio landed at Pwll in Wales. Upon landing, moreover, Amelia is reported to have said that she may yet try such a trip on her own one day – prophetic words indeed.
At the very least, Amelia’s cross-Atlantic flight earned her both publicity and fame. And when she and her two traveling companions returned to the States, they were greeted by a Manhattan tickertape parade as well as a meeting at the White House with President Calvin Coolidge. Meanwhile, the press variously dubbed Amelia either “the Queen of the Air” or “Lucky Lindy” – with the latter nickname supposedly owing to the belief that she looked like Lindbergh.
And Amelia capitalized on her new-found recognition by embarking on a grueling lecture tour of America in 1928 and on into 1929. Commercial endorsements stacked up, too, for everything from clothing to luggage and Lucky Strike smokes, and she used the money she made to pay for her own aviation exploits. Then there was her next goal: to pilot some long-distance flights that would enter the record books.
Amelia proved herself worthy of the challenge to boot, with the aviator completing her first long-distance solo flight in August 1928. On that occasion, she traveled across North America and then back again – a feat that no other woman had ever achieved at the time. And Amelia started to take part in air-racing competitions, including the inaugural Santa Monica-to-Cleveland Women’s Air Derby. Actor Will Rogers dubbed this race the “Powder Puff Derby” – a prime example of the sexism that women were up against during that era.
Amelia seemingly shrugged off any expectations as to her capabilities, however, by breaking the world record for altitude; in 1931, she flew up to a height of 18,415 feet. And her love life hit new heights, too. Yes, after some prevarication on her part – she’d been proposed to six times – the pilot married George Putnam. The couple never had children together, although Putnam was dad to two kids from a previous marriage.
Then, with considerable experience under her belt, Amelia was ready for a truly significant exploit: a solo flight across the Atlantic. On May 20, 1932, she therefore took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, aboard a Lockheed Vega 5B. A mere 14 hours and 56 minutes later, she landed in a field in Culmore near the Northern Irish city of Londonderry. And with this achievement, she became the first woman to fly across the ocean single-handedly.
Awards were subsequently heaped on Amelia, including a Distinguished Flying Cross from the U.S. and a Legion of Honor from the French. And more record-breaking flights soon followed. In January 1935, for instance, the pilot became the first individual to make a solo journey by plane from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California. Later that year – and again flying solo – she also made her way from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey, where enthralled crowds greeted her.
And Amelia achieved yet further aviation firsts during the early 1930s, with the now-famous pilot securing no fewer than seven women’s records for aviation speed and distance. By 1935, though, her eyes were on another prize: a flight around the world.
In early 1936 Amelia therefore started to plan her circumnavigation of the globe. She would not be the first to achieve the feat; a team from the United States Army Air Service had taken that honor as early as 1924. Other aviators had since traversed the planet, too. But the route that Amelia had chosen – which circled the equator – was the longest planned so far at 29,000 miles. In addition, if successful, she would be the first woman to make the journey.
The first step for Amelia, however, was to get the right plane for the task at hand. And with finance from Purdue University, where Amelia was a visiting advisor, she commissioned the Lockheed Aircraft Company to build a customized Electra 10E. Constructed at Lockheed’s plant in Burbank, California, the twin-engined, single-winged plane featured multiple extra fuel tanks.
Amelia also selected Captain Harry Manning as navigator for the journey, with Fred Noonan as second navigator. And on March 17, 1937, the three – accompanied by technical adviser Paul Mantz – duly set off from Oakland, California, bound for Honolulu, Hawaii. In the end, though, technical problems forced them to Pearl Harbor – and then the plane crashed on take-off.
After repairs were made to the craft, however, an undeterred Amelia and Noonan took off again on June 1 from Miami, Florida. And along the planned route, they made stops at locations in South America, Africa and India before landing 22,000 miles later in Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. But, of course, this moment didn’t mark the end of the pair’s journey; to follow, they faced another 7,000 miles of flying across the Pacific.
On July 2, 1937, Amelia and Noonan therefore took off from Lae for the tiny Howland Island – a distance of 2,556 miles away. But their last confirmed position was around 800 miles from Lae, not far from the Nukumanu Islands. And after that, the pair were never heard from or seen again, with their disappearance going on to spawn one of the most intractable mysteries of the 20th century.
Searches for the missing fliers started just an hour after their last radio message. A U.S. Coast Guard ship, Itasca – which had been in position by Howard Island to guide Amelia in by radio – was the first to search. U.S. Navy ships also joined the hunt. But crews on the crafts found nothing; airborne searches similarly drew a blank.
As a consequence, then, the official search by sea and by air for Amelia and Noonan was wound down on July 19, 1937. And while Putnam also launched a privately funded investigation into the duo’s whereabouts, this too proved fruitless. Subsequently, several conspiracy theories of varying levels of plausibility have emerged in the years since the disappearance of Amelia, Noonan and their plane.
For example, one such piece of conjecture posited that Amelia may have landed on Gardner island – also known as Nikumaroro. Undiscovered and marooned, she and Noonan would have died there. And this hypothesis may have been given further weight when British colonial officer Gerard Gallagher found a human skeleton on the island in 1940. The remains were never decisively connected to either Amelia or Noonan, however; and since the bones were lost years ago, they can’t be reanalyzed.
More outlandish theories included the idea that Amelia had survived and returned to the U.S., where she was living in New Jersey under the assumed name of Irene Bolam. The real Irene Bolam took legal action against the publishers of a book making this claim, though, and won an out-of-court settlement. In addition, Bolam also managed to definitively prove that she was not in fact Amelia.
And yet others believed that the Japanese had captured Amelia and Noonan and possibly executed them. Upon further analysis, though, this premise contains many flaws. For one, the nearest Japanese-controlled islands to Amelia’s flight path were the Marshalls – some 800 miles away – and the plane wasn’t carrying enough fuel to make that diversion. It also makes little sense to assume that the Japanese would have killed Amelia and Noonan; after all, they would have been international heroes if they had rescued the pair.
But now we could be on the brink of some concrete news about Amelia – or, at least, about the fate of her plane. Most serious researchers have assumed that the pilot was forced to ditch her aircraft in the ocean. It’s believed, too, that she may have run out of fuel, with the consequence being that both her and Noonan perished in the sea. And finding the crash site would be conclusive proof, it seems, of this theory.
Perhaps hopes were raised, then, when Project Blue Angel divers discovered the wreckage of a plane just off Papua New Guinea. And in January 2019 project director William Snavely told LiveScience, “We’re still exploring to try to find out whose plane it is. We don’t want to jump ahead and assume that it’s Amelia’s. But everything that we’re seeing so far would tend to make us think it could be.”
Researchers first explored the wreckage site in August 2018, after which they now believe that aspects of the debris match the unique features of Amelia’s plane. For his part, Snavely has worked on the premise that the likely crash site would not be found near the pilot’s destination of Howard Island. He thinks instead that Amelia, low on fuel, may have turned back and headed for Buka Island, which has a landing strip.
And unlike some of the wilder conspiracists who have tackled the conundrum of Amelia’s disappearance, Snavely is refreshingly cautious about the find. He told Fox News in January 2019, “While there is no way to be certain yet that this is definitively Amelia Earhart’s Electra, the crash site may hold the clues to solving one of the world’s greatest mysteries.” What’s more, as Project Blue Angel plans to revisit the Buka Island site in spring 2019, an answer to the decades-long mystery may be tantalizingly close.