Amelia Earhart’s death is still shrouded in mystery after 80 years

Amelia Earhart and the Lockheed Electra she flew over the Pacific.
Amelia Earhart and the Lockheed Electra she flew over the Pacific.
Image: public domain
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The pioneering pilot, author, designer, and feminist Amelia Earhart was officially declared dead 80 years ago on Jan. 5, 1939. Her plane supposedly disappeared in the Pacific Ocean. Yet to this day, no one can say for sure when Earhart really died.

Despite decades of speculation, investigations, and analysis, aviation historians and anthropologists are still trying to piece the puzzle of her disappearance and death together. They know Earhart was flying a plane across the Pacific—the first female pilot to attempt such a flight. On July 2, 1937, she disappeared, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, during the 2,227 nautical mile trip from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island.

Cries for help

Researchers believe, based on records of 57 credible distress calls analyzed in a report released last year (pdf), that Earhart radioed this message shortly after her disappearance on July 2. “Plane down on an uncharted island. Small, uninhabited.”

A Texas housewife, Mabel Larremore, scanning her home radio, heard the call, followed by 12 hours of silence. The 56 other signals that are thought to have been sent by Earhart in the subsequent six days indicate that she and Noonan were marooned on a small uninhabited South Pacific land mass the British then called Gardner island—now known as Nikumaroro island. The pilot and her navigator were 350 nautical miles north of their intended destination Howland island.

On July 4, a San Francisco resident reported picking up another message believed to be from Earhart, saying, “Still alive. Better hurry. Tell husband all right.”

The last time that a clear, credible transmission from Earhart was reported was on July 7. Thelma Lovelace of New Brunswick, Canada, said she heard the pilot asking, “Can you read me? Can you read me? This is Amelia Earhart … Please come in. We have taken in water, my navigator is badly hurt … we are in need of medical care and must have help. We can’t hold on much longer.”

Based on these and other transmissions, data analysis, and recent physical investigations of radio transmissions from Nikumaroro, Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery—which has been trying to solve this mystery for decades—believes Earhart and Noonan died on Nikumaroro in 1937.

According to Gillespie’s research, their plane, an Electra, likely landed in a reef at the water’s edge. Earhart and Noonan sent their distress signals at night when the low tides allowed the transmissions to be heard, but were careful about how often they reached out because running the radio would also drain the plane’s battery. He suspects that Earhart and Noonan spent their days on the island, seeking food, water, and shade.

The evidence Gillespie gathered on the island and from historical records leads him to believe that on July 7, the tide was so high that it flooded the plane’s transmission and made it impossible for Earhart to make contact again. He suspects that Earhart lived as a castaway for some time after, and that Noonan likely died almost immediately due to injuries. The researcher admits, however, that despite his best efforts, the questions about what precisely happened—and why authorities ignored and discounted the civilian reports of Earhart’s cries for help—will never be resolved completely.

Wreckage from the plane was photographed in the Nikumaroro reef in October of 1937, and parts of the plane were discovered in 1938, when the previously uninhabited island was briefly settled. But by then, American authorities had already declared Earhart dead and concluded that her plane landed in the Pacific Ocean, lost forever.

Forensic evidence

The case was officially closed, but the story continued to unfold. In 1940, three years after Earhart’s plane disappeared, British officials also discovered 13 human bones on Nikumaroro. They initially believed these could be Earhart’s remains. But a physician’s examination that same year concluded the bones were those of a “short, European” man.

Last year, Richard Jantz, director of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, re-examined data from those remains, concluding in a study in Forensic Anthropology that these bones could have belonged to a tall woman and were “likely those of Amelia Earhart.” He argues that Earhart, who stood at five-feet-seven inches, is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a large reference sample. As for previous conclusions about the bones, he notes, “There are many examples of erroneous assessments by anthropologists of the period.”

Lending credence to this conclusion is the fact that the search party that found the original remains also found part of what appeared to be a woman’s shoe nearby, along with an American sextant box—a navigation instrument—similar to the kind Earhart used, and a bottle of Benedictine liqueur, which she was known to carry. A telegram from Gerald Bernard Gallagher, a British colonial officer responsible for the 1940 discovery, to the acting administrative officer of the Central Gilbert Islands District in Tarawa on September 23, 1940, explains:

Please obtain from Koata (Native Magistrate Gardner on way to Central Hospital) a certain bottle alleged to have been found near skull discovered on Gardner Island. Grateful you retain bottle in safe place for present and ask Koata not to talk about skull which is just possibly that of Amelia Earhardt. [sic]

Hero and hustler

Since then, Gillespie, Jantz, and many others have worked together to form a cohesive picture of what really happened. Earhart, who was popular in her day, has only grown more beloved in the public imagination in the intervening years and our curiosity about the pilot never seems to wane.

Today, Earhart is understood to have been much more than just an aviation pioneer. She had millennial hustle long before the new millennium—Earhart wrote books, sewed her own clothes, had a much-admired style that’s still cool and worth copying, and designed a fashion line, apart from working in aeronautics. She was a feminist who helped organize other female “flyers” and was intent on having a career and maintaining her independence—married to a then-influential publisher, George Putnam, in 1932, Earhart insisted that the New York Times address her by her own “professional name” and not Mrs. Putnam.

In other words, she was a woman way ahead of her time. We may never find out what exactly happened to her in the days before she died. But we can be sure that she’s an enduring hero, and that her memory will remain very much alive.