What happened to Amelia Earhart? That question has been asked countless times over the 82 years since she disappeared on July 2, 1937 on the third-to-last leg of her planned flight around the world. We’ve had a pretty good idea of what happened for a long time but no conclusive proof, and there were high hopes an intensive search this summer in the area from which she was last heard on radio transmissions would finally provide a definitive answer – perhaps by finding fragments of her plane. But unfortunately no such evidence was found, and so the question of what happened to Amelia Earhart remains unanswered.
Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, left Oakland on May 20, 1937 in her two-engine Lockheed Electra 10E plane powered by Pratt & Whitney engines, accompanied by Fred Noonan, her navigator. Circling the globe from west to east, by July 2 she had reached New Guinea and left Lae at midnight on the longest leg of the flight – more than 2,500 miles – to Howland Island, from which, after refueling, she would fly on to Hawaii and then to California.
Howland is a tiny island, less than two square miles in size, that’s an unincorporated territory of the U.S. The U.S. built a runway on the island for her flight. Given the rudimentary communication and navigation instruments available at the time, flying more than 2,500 miles to a speck of land in a vast ocean was undoubtedly the most challenging leg of the entire flight.
Earhart never arrived at Howland. Some thought she was blown off course by the winds, ran out of fuel, and crashed somewhere in the Pacific. But that theory is contradicted by the fact that, between July 2 and July 7, more than 50 radio messages from Earhart were heard by the Coast Guard at Howland, a Department of the Interior radio operator at nearby Baker Island, the Coast Guard and Navy in Hawaii, the Pan Am stations in Hawaii and on Midway and Wake Islands, and a number of individuals in the U.S. and Canada listening on short wave. In many of the messages, Earhart identified herself, gave the plane’s call letters, and said they were down on a small uncharted island and needed help. In one of the last calls, Earhart said they were taking on water, Noonan was badly injured and “we can’t hold on much longer.”
By triangulating from the directional bearings of the radio messages received at Howland, Baker, Midway, Wake, and Hawaii, the Navy focused on the area around Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, a small uninhabited island roughly 350 miles southeast of Howland. On July 9, two days after the last signal from Earhart, three observation bi-planes were launched from the USS Colorado battleship and flew over Gardner. They saw no plane and no individuals. But they did report signs of recent habitation although the island had been uninhabited for many years.
In 1940, a British working party on Gardner came across the partial skeletal remains of a person. Thirteen bones, including portions of a skull, were sent to a medical center in the British colony of Fiji, where they were examined and measured. The bones were subsequently lost but the measurements survived, and in an article published last year a forensic anthropologist reported that he had compared the measurements of specific bones with estimates, based on photographs of Earhart with objects of known size, of her bones, and had concluded there was good reason to believe the bones were those of Amelia Earhart. A series of searches at the site where the bones were found discovered a number of items – a woman’s compact, a piece of a hand lotion bottle, the pieces of a jar of American-made freckle ointment, the heel and partial sole of a woman’s shoe made in the U.S. – that suggested the presence of an American woman.
Several years ago, a group investigating the Earhart mystery gave a photograph taken by a British colonial officer in 1937, three months after Earhart disappeared, of a British freighter that had run aground on a reef of Gardner Island to an American official. The group’s forensic imaging expert thought a speck in the water some distance from the freighter might be a Lockheed Electra’s landing gear. The official gave the photo to intelligence analysts who, after enhancing the image, concluded it did indeed look like an Electra’s landing gear.
The official contacted Dr. Robert Ballard, the founder of the Ocean Exploration Trust who, with the E/V Nautilus underwater research vessel, had discovered the Titanic and many other shipwrecks, and showed him the photograph and the conclusion of the intelligence analysts. For two weeks in August, Ballard and the Nautilus searched, as part of a National Geographic Society investigation, the waters in the vicinity of what was thought to be the Electra’s landing gear. Unfortunately, they found no evidence of the plane.
So we still don’t know what happened to Amelia Earhart. But that may change. Ballard thinks Earhart may have landed on the other side of Nikumaroro, near where the bones and artifacts were found, and plans to search the waters in that area in 2021. A search this summer at the site where the bones and artifacts were found with dogs that can find human remains may have found fragments of the skull found in 1940. And the bones that were thought to have been lost decades ago were found last year in a museum on the island of Tarawa. Researchers plan to obtain the DNA in those bones and in the fragments found this summer and compare it with that of her niece. The niece, the daughter of Earhart’s sister, has the same mitochondrial DNA as Earhart, and mitochondrial DNA can be obtained from bones. We may yet find out what happened to Amelia Earhart.
David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale.