Amelia Earhart, American Idol
When she vanished at the age of 39, she was as big a star as Greta Garbo. Is that why some are still driven to solve the mystery?
Her last inflight radio transmission was little help to a Coast Guard ship waiting below to guide her to her destination: a speck in the Pacific. “We are on the line of position 157-337…. We are running north and south,” Amelia Earhart radioed from her Lockheed Electra 10E as she and navigator Fred Noonan searched desperately for tiny Howland Island on the morning of July 2, 1937. Earhart’s cryptic message came on the next-to-last leg of her attempted around-the-world flight. It continues to vex searchers—and their sponsors—who still search to solve what some consider aviation’s greatest mystery.
Did she crash and sink somewhere near Howland after running out of gas on the 20-hour, 2,550-mile flight from Lae, New Guinea? Did she have enough fuel to set down on some other island along the position line? Or did she wind up somewhere else altogether? One fanciful theory has her being captured by the Japanese in the Marshall Islands and later executed as an American spy; another has her living out her days under an assumed name as a housewife in New Jersey.
Seventy years after Earhart’s disappearance, the larger question may be this: Why continue to search for her?
“Because it’s one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century,” says Dorothy Cochrane, curator of general aviation at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “She was the best-known American woman pilot in the world and she just disappeared off the face of the Earth. People were tracking her flight with great interest at the time and there was a huge search for her. All these little ideas and theories that have come out since—it’s all fueled because her flight was a big deal at the time.”
The 1920s and ’30s were marked by an aeronautical record-setting frenzy. While Earhart was making headlines with her solo flights (thanks in part to promoter-husband George Putnam, the New York publisher), other aviators like high-altitude pioneer Wiley Post, industrialist Howard Hughes, speed champion Roscoe Turner, and speed-hungry Jackie Cochran were grabbing some glory of their own. But only Earhart—the reserved tomboy from Kansas who disappeared three weeks shy of her 40th birthday—still grips the public imagination.
Cochrane subscribes to the crashed-and-sank theory and she doubts the Electra will ever be found. “People want a final ending, but I don’t think we’re going to get it,” she says. “It will always be one of those mysteries. If you find it, it’s all over. I think it’s fun to speculate.”
Ric Gillespie, a former aviation accident insurance investigator and head of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery in Wilmington, Delaware, has raised and spent more than $2 million over 18 years looking for Earhart. He’s led seven expeditions to remote Gardner Island (now called Nikumaroro), south of Howland, where he believes Earhart landed on the reef-flat. His team has found, among other things, what appear to be pieces of aircraft, but nothing that definitively matches the Electra. Gillespie, who has raised several hundred thousand dollars for an eighth trip to the island in July, calls the hunt for Earhart “an American obsession.”
“I don’t know any other way to explain something that’s been the subject of at least 50 books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and TV documentaries,” he says. “It’s one of those things that people can’t let go of. I’ve heard journalists call it the last great American mystery.”
The flight itself was “not historically significant,” says Gillespie, noting that it was possible in 1937 to fly commercially around the world and that newspaper reporters already had done so. Earhart’s goal was not to be the first woman to fly around the world, but to be the first person to circumnavigate Earth near the equator, thereby besting in distance Wiley Post’s around-the-northern-hemisphere flights. But Earhart’s fame—and her husband’s penchant for promotion—made everything she did newsworthy.
Central to Gillespie’s hypothesis are reports of distress calls from the Phoenix Islands made on Earhart’s radio frequency for days after she vanished. (Gardner is part of the Phoenix chain.) The Electra could have broadcast only if it were on land, not in the water. The Coast Guard and later the Navy, believing the distress calls were real, adjusted their searches, and newspapers at the time reported Earhart and Noonan were marooned on an island. “It all comes down to the credibility of the post-crash calls,” Gillespie says. “Either Earhart was on land in the Phoenix Islands or there was a hoaxer in the Phoenix Islands with her radio.”
Equally adamant that the calls were bogus and that Earhart and Noonan ditched in the water is David Jourdan, a former Navy submariner and ocean engineer in Cape Porpoise, Maine, who specializes in deep-sea recoveries. His company, Nauticos, has raised and spent $4.5 million on two deep-sea sonar searches around Howland in 2002 and 2006. Armed with the materials of Earhart researcher Elgen Long, which he had purchased in the late 1990s, Jourdan so far has searched about 1,200 square miles north and west of Howland. From his research, Long postulates that Earhart’s airplane ran out of gas within 52 miles of the island and is sitting somewhere in a 6,000-square-mile area at a depth of 17,000 feet.
“The analysis of all the data we have—the fuel analysis, the radio calls, other things—tells me she went into the water off Howland,” says Jourdan, who sold his company’s deep-water equipment to Houston-based Oceaneering International in 2002 while retaining the rights to the Nauticos name. To Jourdan, “it makes perfect sense” that Earhart would continue flying on her line of position in search of Howland—as she had radioed—until the Electra simply ran out of gas and splashed into the sea. (The “line of position” is a line plotted at a right angle to the direction toward a celestial body, based on its observed elevation above the horizon at a precise time. On the morning of July 2, 1937, the course derived from an observation of the rising sun yielded a line of position of 157–337. The numbers 157 and 337 refer to points on a compass: 157 degrees southeast and 337 northwest; a line drawn through those points would intersect Howland.)
As for the airplane, “it would still be shiny,” Jourdan says. “At that depth, you wouldn’t even expect to find a layer of [silt].”
That’s unsettling for some Earhart researchers. “The notion of seeing images of Amelia’s leather jacket 18,000 feet down [disturbs] me,” says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. Based on the condition of artifacts found aboard the Titanic, which came to rest in the north Atlantic at 13,000 feet, Crouch thinks that not only Earhart’s jacket would have survived, but her shoes and probably her teeth as well.
“I want to know where she is, but there’s something uncomfortable about finding out,” Crouch says. “I’m convinced that the mystery is part of what keeps us interested. In part, we remember her because she’s our favorite missing person.”
Whoever finds Earhart’s airplane stands to make a great deal of money. “From a business standpoint, we’ve always felt it was a great opportunity,” Jourdan says. “There’s a fantastic exhibition you could put together if we have that plane in our hands. A clever businessperson could certainly make something of this. I’m not a treasure hunter, but I’d like to do this and make some income so I could offset the cost [of looking for Earhart] and fund other expeditions.”
He agrees the search for Earhart may be something of an obsession. “There’s some truth to that. It does grab you, but I try to keep it from being an obsession. Ric and I disagree profoundly on the basics, but he’s a good guy and we get along. I encourage any of those people looking anywhere, if there’s any chance you’re right, let me know so I can stop wasting my time and go on and do other things.”