Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart we still search for you
Out there in the ocean blue
Your resting place is still unknown
Did a watery grave become your home?
When radio contact was finally gone
We all knew there was something wrong
Lost forever in that sea of blue
We can only wonder what became of you.
In search of adventure you flew far and wide
With Lady Luck always by your side
When it happened on your voyage home
Lady Luck somehow was gone.
So Amelia Earhart we still search for you
Perhaps we found your missing shoe
But your resting place is still unknown
Did a watery grave become your home?

Poem by Jane Resture

*     *     *     *     *

Leading the search for Amelia Earhart is The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
TIGHAR are concentrating their search around Nikumaroro (Gardner Island), Phoenix Group, Republic of Kiribati. For more information you are invited to visit:

The following is an extract from Amelia Earhart's SHOES - Chapters 2, 3 & 4 which gives a little background on Amelia Earhart and her Final Flight across the Pacific as documented by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).

Is the Mystery Solved?
Amelia Earhart's SHOES
Thomas F. KING    Randall S. JACOBSON     Karen R. BURNS     Kenton SPADING   
on behalf of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR)
AltaMira Press
Walnut Creek, CA 2004

The Lady in Question

Amelia grinned: "hi! I've come from America!"
"Have you now," Farmer Gallagher exclaimed.
- JEAN BACKUS, Letters from Amelia

Where She Came From

This book is not about Amelia Earhart; it's about one investigation into the mystery of her disappearance. But we wouldn't be investigating her disappearance if she hadn't been a remarkable person whose exploits stirred the public imagination and whose loss seemed like everyone's loss. Though her life and career have been thoroughly documented, we need to say a little about them to place her disappearance, and our search, in context.

She was born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1897, and was in Toronto, Ontario, in 1918 serving as a nurse's aid tending wounded soldiers home from world War I when she visited a local flying field and developed what was apparently at first a rather mild interest in airplanes. Moving on to study medicine at Columbia University, she went to California in 1920 to visit her parents. At an air show in west Los Angeles her father bought her a $10 airplane ride, and she was hooked. By the latter part of 1921 she had completed flying lessons, bought her first plane, and entered her first air show - where she set a new altitude record for women, topping 14,000 feet.


The elder Earharts, Amy and Edwin, had a troubled marriage that ended in 1924. Amy moved to Boston, where her younger daughter Muriel was living. Amelia went with her, selling her plane and buying a car. She returned to Columbia, but quit in early 1925 and went to work to support herself and help her mother. Supporter herself and her family seems to have been a powerful and continuing concern in her life. In letters to her mother throughout her career, Earhart routinely included "little checkies" for various amounts, and expressed concern about whether Amy and Muriel were adequately provided for.

Earhart's main employment in Boston was as a university extension teacher, instructing foreign students, she held a second job as a social worker, However, she also arranged with aircraft manufacturer Bert Kinner to demonstrate one of his planes to potential buyers, in return for the opportunity to use the plane herself, so many weekends were spent flying.

Across the Atlantic

In May 1927, Charles Lindbergh succeeded in flying across the Atlantic, and returned to the united States a celebrity. Earhart at this time was still only a weekend pilot, and took a full-time job as a social worker shortly after Lindbergh's flight. In April 1928, however, she was recruited by publicist George Palmer Putman to become the first woman to cross the ocean by air. Flying more or less as a passenger on Friendship, piloted by Wilmer L. Stultz and Luis E. Gordon, she landed in Wales on June 18, 1928. The flight was unsatisfying to her - she said she felt like "baggage' - but it transformed her life. Suddenly she, like Lindbergh, was a celebrity, with contracts for a book, magazine articles, and lectures, as well as arrangements for endorsements on lines of stationery, luggage, and clothing. All arranged by ...


George Palmer Putnam, grandson of the founder of Putnam's Sons publishing house, was generally referred to as "G.P." G.P. was running the publishing house in 1928, and has just published a best-seller by Lindbergh. An adept entrepreneur who reached out well beyond book publishing into the lecture circuit, magazines, and movies, Putnam seems to have had a good idea of what the public wanted during the difficult days of the great Depression heroes, heroines, inspirations. Articulate, adventurous, hard-working, with good solid American roots, Earhart could give the public something of what it wanted, and Putnam knew how to help her do it. He promoted her enthusiastically, and Earhart was no slouch herself. She seems to have been a talented public speaker and a natural writer, and she vigorously put these skills to use.

But she didn't spend all her time writing and speaking. In late 1928 she became the first woman to fly solo across the United States, and by 1929 she was active in air shows, races, and other aerial events. With Putnam's support and salesmanship, she wrote and lectured extensively about everything she did. She wrote well, giving people the feeling that they were participating in her adventures, and she was charismatic as a speaker and especially appealing to young women. A thoroughly modern woman, embodying much of what women in the '30s wanted to be, were struggling to become.

Amelia Earhart.
TIGHAR Collection from Purdue University Special Collections.


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Putnam, forty-three at the time to Earhart's thirty-one, and married to boot, became increasingly involved not only in Earhart's writing contracts, speaking tours, endorsements, and flying events, but also in her personal life. In 1930 he obtained a Nevada divorce and began seriously wooing his protégé. Earhart was busy setting new women's speed records, and helping organize a new airline company; she clearly valued her freedom and was not very receptive to Putnam's attentions. Eventually, though, she softened, and married Putnam in February 1931.

Putnam is also sometimes criticized as an adventurer who took advantage of Earhart's celebrity, or alternatively as a showman who manufactured her celebrity out of whole cloth. Both portraits are probably wrong, or at least far too one-dimensional. Earhart and Putnam seem to have had complementary strengths that they put to good, concerted use. Earhart had plenty of star quality all by herself, but Putnam helped her burnish it, while certainly benefitting from his association with her. They made a very good team.

Solo to Ireland

By 1932, they had gathered together the support to make a solo flight across the Atlantic possible. On May 21 of that year Earhart landed her bright red Lockheed Vega - now in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum - in a pasture near Londonderry, northern Ireland. The farm field where she landed was the property of a family named Gallagher - as we'll see, an odd coincidence.

George Putnam was Earhart's partner in all her adventures, including the last.
TIGHAR Collection from Purdue University Special Collections.

If she had been a celebrity before, she was really a celebrity now. She was received by the pope, travelled in royal style across the Continent, and returned to the united States aboard the Ile de France to a tumultuous welcome in New York City. She plunged back into her life of writing, lecturing, and setting flying records, while G.P. left the book publishing game to become affiliated with Paramount Studios. Earhart became a partner in another new airline company, Boston-Maine Airways - one of the ancestors of today's Delta Airlines.

The Road to the World Flight

In 1914 Earhart began planning another audacious solo flight; from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. She hired Paul Mantz, a skilled stunt pilot, aircraft technician, and charter operator, as her technical assistant, and learned a good - though in the end, it seems, not enough - about the radio operations that were becoming increasingly important for over-ocean pilots. In January 1935 she took off from Wheeler Field in Honolulu and landed about eighteen hours later in Oakland, California. A few months later she flew from California to Mexico City to a huge welcome, and from there to New York.

Earhart was viewed by many women as a role model, and she played the part with vigor. She took part in organizing Zonta International, an organization of professional women, and the Ninety-nines, a women's aviation society. And she became a part-time career counsellor for women in Purdue university in Indiana, an institution that was to play an important role in her final flight.

Looking to the future, Earhart began to work with Mantz to set up a flight school. But there was at least one more record she wanted to set. She wanted to be the first to circle the globe by air at the equator. With Putnam, Mantz, and Harry manning, a sea captain she had met after the Friendship flight, she began to plan.

Heroics or Hype?

Today, as public consciousness of Earhart fades, many who do remember her idolize her as an "American heroine," while others scoff hat her accomplishments as mere publicity stunts. Some see her as a airing pilot with great skill, while others write her off as only marginally competent.

Both portraits probably contain a little truth, but both are certainly too simplistic. Earhart was obviously daring, and she went where few women were going at the time. She became a celebrity, certainly, but she used that celebrity for good causes - notably the rights of women to walk through every door that is open to men. As a pilot she made her share of mistakes, some of which quite likely contributed to her demise. But it was, and is, a rare pilot - or human being - who doesn't make mistakes. As far as we can tell, Earhart was a thoroughly competent professional who completed a lot of tricky long-distance flights at a time when such flights were serious business. Earhart was no more perfect than anyone else - indeed there were gaps in her knowledge, and flaws in her planning, that probably turned out to be fatal. Maybe not the person you'd want at the controls of a 747 carrying hundreds of passengers across the ocean. But if Earhart were alive today that's not likely what she would be doing. She'd probably be working on becoming the first woman on Mars.

This may be a good point at which to say something to those who insist that the very act of seeking a solution to the Earhart mystery somehow denigrates her memory. "Why can't you leaver in peace?" we are sometimes asked. 'Why can't you celebrate her life instead of probing into her death?"

We don't think the two activities - celebrating life and investigating death - are incompatible. In fact, we don't think they even have much to do with one another. We have great respect for Earhart's professionalism, her skill, her charisma, her dedication to her family, to the advancement of women, and to those less fortunate than herself. But why should this respect cause us not to wonder what really happened to her, to invest some effort in trying to find out the respect the people of the United States feel for President Kennedy is not diminished by curiosity about his death, or by attempts to resolve the mysteries that surround it. Likewise, we don't think that curiosity about Earhart's fate, or attempts to find out what it was, in any way diminish appreciation for her life.

At the time of her disappearance, Amelia Earhart was one of the most famous women of her generation. Even today she is probably the best-known female aviator of all time. As the first women pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, she established herself as a major figure in an era when aviation was making daily headlines. The world Flight would make her a legend, even as it ended her life.

The Navigator and the Airplane

Noonan, look for Noonan;
He's the navigator no one knows.
When you search for Noon,
You can go to places no one goes.*

Who Was Fred Noonan?

If Amelia Earhart's life before the World flight is well known, Fred Noonan's is shrouded in mystery. This does not seem to reflect a deliberate effort on Noonan's part to be mysterious; it is just the way things turned out. In the last few years several TIGHAR researchers have put together the "Noonan Project" to dig into his history. Their research has provided a good deal of basic information on this often-forgotten navigator.

Frederick Joseph Noonan was born April 4, 1893, in Chicago. He later said that he left school in the summer of 1905 and headed for Seattle, Washington. According to his maritime records, he soon shipped as an ordinary seaman on the bark Hecla, probably bound for south America. by 1910, rated as able-bodied seaman, he was aboard the British bark Crompton. Three years and six ships later, the records show him rated quartermaster and boatswain's mate aboard the Corinthian.

This was the time when sailing vessels were giving way to steamships, and Noonan served on both, in a wide range of jobs. But he seems never to have stuck in a single billet; he must have displayed a range of skills. He also seems never to have been at a loss for work, however much he bounced around. The records show him shipping as an able seaman, boatswain's mate, and quartermaster on a variety of ships through world War I, sailing widely over the Atlantic and Pacific. In 1918, having luckily missed being aboard SS Cairnhill, when she was torpedoes (he had missed the ship's sailing but all his belonging were lost, he was rated second mate aboard the bard Launberga. After many more voyages at various ratings, by the end of 1923 he had received his officer's papers and was first mate on SS Eastern Victor.

Three years later, Noonan received his master's license, but there's no evidence that he ever served as captain of a ship. We don't know why he didn't, but suspect that in these post-war years thee may have been a glut of senior officers, so he may not have been able to find a berth. Five years later he was relicensed as a master for "any ocean," but at about the same time he left his seagoing career behind and took to the air.

From Sea to Sky

By the end of 1929, Noonan was living in New Orleans with his wife of three years, the former Josie Sullivan of Savannah, Georgia. The Mississippi Shipping Company employed him in various ships' crew capacities, several times as a chief mate. His next-door neighbor, Edward F. Stumpf, later said that Noonan had "quite the sea because he wanted to take up aviation, not necessarily as a pilot, but in a navigating capacity." This he did, joining the New York, Rio & Buenos Aires Line in mid-1930. The NYRBA was a fledging airline that had mail contracts with Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Uruguay. when Noonan signed on it was losing money, however, and was soon acquired by Pan American Airways. It was as a navigator for Pan Am that Noonan would achieve his greatest fame - nest to his notoriety as Earhart's colleague on the lost World Flight.


Fred Noonan at a dinner in honor of AE at a French aero club in Dakar, French Senegal,
probably the evening of June 9, 1937. TIGHAR Collection from Purdue University Special Collection.

Aboard the Clippers

In the 1930s, aircraft manufacturers were building huge "flying boats" that could provide mail, cargo, and passenger service across even the vast expanses of the Pacific. Of course, at the time it was impossible to make the trip in a single hop, but this was the great advantage of the flying boat. It could land and take off on the water, making any calm lagoon or harbor a potential airport.

The United States and the British Empire competed for flying boat rouges across the Pacific, and Pan Am was the U.S. contestant. While the nations negotiated and connived - and at one point almost stumbled into shooting war - over ownership of islands where flying boat based might be established, Pan Am pioneered the actual transpacific routes with its giant Clippers.

An important key to getting across a vast ocean, of course - and particularly to finding a little island where one could land and take on fuel - was navigation. The art and science of radio navigation - homing in on radio beacons, finding their bearing, and flying to them - was steadily being refined, but for the great distances between islands, celestial navigation was the way one found one's way around. Sextants and octants, sun shots and star sightings, dead reckoning and calculations of wind direction and velocity by observing the sea below, these were the stuff of the navigator's trade.

Presumably (though we have no direct evidence), Noonan had learned navigation in his many shipboard jobs, and as the 1930s progressed the adapted what he knew to navigating aircraft. After serving pan Am in several capacities in port-au-prince and Miami, by March 1935 he was the navigator for Pan Am's lead flight crew, under Captain Edward Musick, training for transpacific operations. At the end of that month Noonan navigated a Pan Am Clipper over the gulf of Mexico, across South America, and up the California coast to Alameda, Pan A's brand new Pacific division base on san Francisco by. During the next two years, as lead navigator, he helped pioneer the Clipper's routes to Asia, flying repeatedly to Honolulu, Midway, Wake Island, Guam, and Manila. At the same time, he provided navigation instruction for the airline's junior officers.

Late in 1936 or early in 1937, however, he left Pan Am and at about the same time sought a divorce from Josie. During this presumably turbulent period, too, he became involved in Earhart's preparations for the world flight. His divorce became final in early March 1937, and on March 27 he married again, this time to Mary Beatrice Martinelli, who owned an Oakland beauty salon. Fred and Bea had little time to enjoy married life before Fred was off again, with Earhart, into history.

Was He a Drunk?

It's commonly accepted among many Earhart researchers that Fred Noonan was an alcoholic. Therefore, it is often asserted, he was dead drunk on the flight that ended in the disappearance, and of course the loss of the flight resulted from this debility. TIGHAR's research, including the detailed studies of his life carried out by the Noonan project, doesn't support any of these assumptions.

The first published reference to Noonan's alleged alcoholism treatment is in a 1966 best-seller by journalist Fred Goerner, the Search for Amelia Earhart. Though Goerner's book confidently asserted Noonan's condition in some detail, the only actual evidence cited was thin - an April 4, 1937, auto accident that Fred and his second wife, Bea, experienced near Fresno, California. According to Goerner, the police accident report included the notation "Driver had been drinking.' Efforts to find this accident report, in police files and in Goerner's own files (now at the Mi Museum in Texas) have thus far been unsuccessful.

Since publication of Goerner's book, several of Noonan's former colleagues have been quoted as reminiscing about Noonan's drinking and its results. One account says that during his Pan American days, he slipped in a hotel bathroom, breaking some teeth and forcing Pan American to find a replacement navigator for the Manila Clipper. Another anecdote has him slipping off the dock while approaching the seaplane. Another story recalls that he sat on his glasses in an automobile, and had to buy several replacements. All of these episodes may or may not have been the results of drinking, of course, and all have come to light since 1966, raising the question of whether they were influenced by Goerner's allegations.

We know that Noonan drank. In a letter dated June 9, 1937, to his friend Eugene Pallette, he said he was looking forward to 'a highball together when he returned from the World flight. But social drinking is different from alcoholism, and alcoholism doesn't necessarily result in being blind drunk during a trip in which one's performance is a life-and-death matter.

Noonan's alleged alcohol problem has been cited - speculately - as a reason for his leaving Pan Am; the idea is that he was fired for being routinely impaired. A 1939 book by William Grooch, a Pan Am pilot, gives a different story. According to Grooch, Noonan became fed up with continuing promises on the part of management to improve the gruelling conditions under which pan Am flight crews worked - including flying many more hours per month than the limits established by the U.S. Department of Commerce. When management was unresponsive to entreaties in the flight crews' behalf, Grooch says, Noonan quit. So far, no letter of resignation or notification of termination has turned up in surviving Pan American files. Grooch's account, published two years after Noonan's disappearance, is the only near-contemporaneous written account that has come to light to explain the senior navigator's departure. Barring the discovery of a better source, it has to be regarded as the most credible.

In Lae, New Guinea, during preparations for the flight to Howland, Earhart sent a telegram to Putnam saying that a delay was necessary due to a "personal unfitness." This has sometimes been interpreted as code for Noonan's having been too drunk, or hung over, to navigate. That's one way to interpret it, but there are innumerable others. They had, after all, pushed themselves most of the way around the world in a rather cranky, loud, vibrating airplane, probably often hot, often cold. They had fought through all kinds of weather conditions, landed and taken off over and over. They had eaten all kinds of food, drunk water from all kinds of sources. It would hardly be surprising if one or both of the Electra's personnel had been dangerously fatigued, or just plain sick.

In a 1976 interview, James Colony, who was superintendent of Civil Aviation in New Guinea in 1937, reportedly told of a drinking session with Noonan at Lae on the evening of June 29, the day the airplane arrived from Port Darwin, Australia. In marked contrast to Collopy's story was the recollection of Francis "Fuzza' Furman, who spent several days and evenings with Noonan a few days earlier in Bandoeng, Java. In a 1989 interview with Ric Gillespie, Furman, who had helped oversee maintenance on the world flight's Lockheed Electra during the stop in Java, was adamant that Noonan never had a drink even in social situations where Furman himself was drinking. Either story, or neither, or both, may be true. A recently discovered letter from a reporter who covered the disappearance, and who says he knew Noonan, speculates that Noonan had to be "poured into the plane" before takeoff, but this isn't even offered as a truthful story; it is a guess by the reporter. How educated a guess it was, we have no way of knowing.

What we have in the way of documentary evidence pertinent to Noonan's condition when the flight left Lae is film of the Electra's takeoff. This film, attributed to Sid Marshall of Guinea Airways, shows Earhart and Noonan boarding the plane, and both look quite chipper. Fred mounts the airplane's wing to go in through the hatch, turns, and gives Amelia a hand. Nobody staggers, nobody says AIf Noonan was drunk, or hung over, he was covering it up well.

The Electra was an all-aluminium airplane with a 55-foot wingspan and two 550 hp Pratt & Whitney "Wasp" engines.
TIGHAR Collection, based on drawing by William Harney.

All in all, we haven't found any evidence that Noonan was an alcoholic, though of course we can't prove that he wasn't. If he did suffer from this disease, we can find no credible evidence that it affected his behavior at take-off from Lae. Of course, one can speculate that he drank himself silly once the plane was in the air, or that he bravely held himself together until the Electra left the ground, and then passed out. One could also speculate that he had a nervous breakdown, went blind, or was possessed by the devil. There is - as yet, anyway - no evidence that alcohol abuse had anything to do with the flight's failure.

The Airplane

The aircraft in which Earhart and Noonan attempted their world flight, a Lockheed model 10E Special, was a modification of the Burband-based manufacturer's popular 'Electra' 10-passenger airliner. Debuting in 1934, the Electra was Lockheed's first all-metal, twin-engined design. Together with the Boeing model 247 and the Douglas DC-2, it represented a revolution in commercial air travel. The model 10E, introduced in February 1936, featured 550 hp Pratt 7 Whitney "Wasp" engines, which provided a bit more speed and payload than the standard Electra's 450 hp "Wasp Juniors."

The Electra before departure from Miami, June 1, 1937.
TIGHAR Collection from Purdue University Special Collections.

Lockheed eventually built fifteen of the big-engined version, most of which were purchased by airlines serving mountainous regions. Two Model 10Es were modified for long-distance flying and carried fuel tanks in the cabin instead of passenger seats. These special purpose aircraft were dubbed "10E Specials'' one was built for newspaper magnate Harold Vanderbilt and christened Daily Express. In May 1937, piloted by legendary airline captain Dick Merrill, it made the first commercial transatlantic flight, carrying film of the Hindenburg disaster to England and bringing home film of King George VI's coronation.

The other 10E Special, Lockheed constructor's number 1055 (the forty-fifth Model 10 built), was made for Amelia Earhart. The aircraft was purchased with $80,000 contributed to Purdue University's Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research by David Ross, J.K. Lilly, and Vincent Bendix. Radios and other equipment were donated by aviation suppliers such as Western Electric, Goodrich, and Goodyear. The idea was that Earhart, who had worked for Purdue as a career adviser to female students, would use the aircraft to "develop scientific and engineering data of vital importance to the aviation industry."

Delivered on Earhart's thirty-ninth birthday, July 24, 1936, it ore bureau of Air commerce registration number NR16020. Putnam dubbed it "the flying laboratory," but it was not used significantly in scientific research. Some of its equipment, such as its Sperry "Gyro-Pilot'" automatic pilot, was state-of-the-art, but for the most part its equipment was unremarkable. On paper, the airplane had a top speed of 215 mph, but for long-distance flying it cruised at a far more economical 150 mph. In its final configuration it could carry 1,151 gallons of gasoline and some 80 gallons of oil, giving it a theoretical endurance of more than twenty-four hours aloft. The world flight - circumnavigating the globe at its widest point, crisscrossing the Equator - was planned as a series of 'legs," each requiring less than twenty hours in the air so as to allow a reasonable fuel reserve.


Mr. Noonan told me that he was not a bit anxious about the flight to Howland Island and was quite confident that he would have little difficulty in locating it.



The initial plan for the World Flight had Earhart and her Electra flying west from Oakland to Hawaii and on around the world. Earhart and Putnam recognized that the biggest problem would be crossing the Pacific. Even with extra fuel tanks, it was beyond the Electra's capacity to fly from Honolulu to anyplace near the Equator on the west side of the ocean in a single leg. Building on her notoriety and Putnam's contacts, Earhart discreetly contacted President Roosevelt and the Navy, seeking help for midair refueling, between Hawaii and either Japan or the Philippines. while the Navy was capable of midair refueling, the logistics were cumbersome and the prospect of training Earhart in the techniques a bit daunting. Fortunately, an alternative emerged. As part of its competition with the British for islands that could serve as bases for transpacific airline and airmail routes (see chapter 3), the United States had launched a small-scale program of island colonization. Starting in 1935, William Miller of the U.S. bureau of Air Commerce was charged with "populating" the islands of Howland, Baker, and Jarvis with Hawaiian schoolboys to underscore U.S. rights to the tiny but potentially strategic bits of coral. Miller's boss at Commerce was Gene Vidal (father of author Gore Vidal), a good friend of Earhart's. At Vidal's request, Miller met with Earhart in November 1936, explained what and where the islands were, and suggested that for the World Flight, Howland would make a good stepping stone between Hawaii and New Guinea or Australia. If Earhart used Howland Island as an intermediate stop, she would not need to fuel in midair.

The difficulty, though, was that Howland had no landing field. by June 1936, England had tacitly acquiesced in U.S. control of Howland, Baker, and Jarvis, and control of the islands was transferred to the Department of the Interior, Richard Black took over Miller's job of populating and supplying the islands, and a bit later a Works Projects Administration project was approved to build runways on Howland. In January 1937, construction gear was shipped to the island and grading began. The U.S. government also agreed to assist Earhart's flight by providing a coast guard cutter that routinely serviced the Howland operation, to provide radio communication and direction finding to help guide the Electra to its landing.

When the first attempt at the World Flight got under way, Noonan was aboard to assist but was not identified as its navigator. Captain Harry Manning - navigator Earhart had met years before - filled this position, and Manning said only that "Noonan's going along with us as far as Howland" - that is, the first stop beyond Honolulu. The Electra departed Oakland on March 17 with Earhart, Manning, Paul Mantz, and Noonan aboard, and reached Honolulu without major incident (the starboard propeller froze in fixed pitch, and the transmitter became inoperative due to a blown fuse). On March 20, repairs complete, Earhart started her takeoff roll at Luke field near Honolulu for the hop to Howland. Here disaster struck. For reasons that have never been quite clear, and that are the subjects of endless speculation among Earhart aficionados, the plane "groundlooped" (spun around on the ground), collapsing the landing gear and skidding down the runway on its belly. The Electra was sufficiently damaged that it had to be shipped back to California for repairs.

Noonan had apparently impressed Earhart considerably during the flight to Honolulu, and when the Electra was repaired and Earhart was ready to try again, she and Noonan were the World Flight's crew.

This time they would go east. Having flown a number of shakedown runs, Earhart and Noonan took off from Oakland and made their way to Miami. On June 1 they left North America behind.

To Lae

Earhart and Noonan flew the Electra across the Caribbean to South America, down along the coast to th4 great cape at Natal, then across the south Atlantic to Dakar in west Africa. Actually, they missed Dakar, crossing the African coast a little less than seventy miles north of their intended route. fortunately they were able to land at Saint-Louis in Senegal and back-track to Dakar to prepare for the next series of hops across Africa: Gao, Fort Lamy, El Fasher, Khartoum, Massawa, Assab on the Horn of Africa, and then a long jump along the Arabian coast and across the Persian Gulf to Karachi by the middle of June. As the flight progressed, Earhart regularly telegraphed reports to the New York Herald for publication, discussing the events of the day. These missives were published almost verbatim as the heart of Last flight, her posthumously published book.

The flight proceeded without major problems across the Indian subcontinent and down through Southeast Asia to Singapore, then through Bandoeng, Java, and on to Surabaya on the same island, where engine trouble sent them back to Bandoeng for repairs. In Bandoeng a photograph was taken of Earhart with her foot on the wing of the plane, her shoe neatly positioned on highly visible lines of rivets. Nothing special at the time, but about fifty-five years later TIGHAR would find that photo very interesting.

It was June 27 when the Electra finally left Java, landing the same day at Koepang on Timor. Leaving the next morning, by noon they landed in Darwin, on the north coast of Australia. On June 29 they climbed out of Darwin and flew east-northeast across the Arafura Sea to the rough little port town of Lae, on the northeastern shore of New Guinea.

The Lae-Howland Leg

At Lae, Earhart and Noonan faced the longest and most difficult leg of the entire journey: the 2,500-mile jump to Howland Island. Howland is a miniscule coral island in the mid-Pacific, but it now had runways, and the USCGC Itasca would be waiting there to help guide them in and to refuel the Lockheed for the flight to Hawaii. From there they would make their triumphal return to Oakland. The U.S. Navy seagoing tug Ontario, operating about midway between New Guinea and Howland, would also stand by for messages from the light, and serve as a midflight radio navigation beacon. 

The Lae-Howland leg

The Lae-Howland segment would be the longest Earhart and Noonan had flown. It would require Noonan to find an island only about 1.5 by 0.7 miles across, averaging about ten feet above sea level with no prominent landmarks. All Earhart's previous flights across broad expanses of water had been either to continents, which are hard to miss, or to the Hawaiian Islands - large, mountainous islands with ample radio facilities for direction finding. Noonan's Pan American experience, however, had given him extensive experience navigating over open water and finding small island targets - though none as small as Howland. Pan Am's navigational procedures, which Noonan had helped to develop, used celestial navigation to keep the plane close to its intended line of flight until it was within radio range of its destination. Once in range, both the plane and the station could use radio direction finding to locate one another; the plane could simply home in on the station's signal, or the station could instruct the pilot what course to fly, to bring the flight in safely. 

July 2, 1937

Earhart and Noonan left Lae on July 2 at 10 A.M. local time - 0000 Greenwich Civil time. The takeoff took almost the entire length of the grass runway, which fell off a few dozen feet into the Gulf of Huon. At the end of the runway the plane dipped slightly toward the sea, and continued outward just a few feet above the ocean. Across the International Date line, the local time was 12.30 P.M. July 1 aboard Itasca, waiting at Howland Island. Midway along the route, USS Ontario stood by for radio contact. After some difficulty making contact with stations broadcasting accurate Greenwich Civil time, Noonan had been able to calibrate his chronometers, so all seemed in readiness for takeoff and a smooth, if long, flight.

But the small crowd that gathered at Lae's airfield was the last group of people known to have seen Earhart and Noonan, or at least to have seen them alive.

Lae's radio operator received a few signals from Earhart as she traveled east, and sent weather reports but got no acknowledgement that they had been received. USS Ontario received no messages from her. Itasca began receiving messages some fourteen hours after the flight left Lae. As recorded in the ship's radio log and repeated by dozens of Earhart books and articles, they went like this:

2:45 a.m.: Earhart voice heard, but cannot make out information.

3:45 a.m.: Earhart states that she will listen on hour and half hour on 3105 kHz.

Itasca tried to call Earhart and establish two-way communication, but there was no evidence that Earhart received the ship's signals.

4:53 a.m.: Earhart states "Partly Cloudy."

6:14 a.m.: Earhart wants a bearing on 3105 kHz on the hour, will whistle in microphone, about 200 miles out approximately, now whistling.

Itasca tried to take bearings on Earhart's transmission, but wasn't able to do so.

6:41 a.m.: Earhart requests: "Please take bearing on us and report in half hour. I will make noise in mic-about 100 miles out."

Another attempt to take a bearing failed, and Itasca still had no two-way communication with Earhart.

7:42 a.m.: "KHAQQ  (the call letters of Earhart's plane) calling Itasca we must be on you but cannot see you but gas is running low been unable to reach you by radio we are flying at 1000 feet." 

A separate log kept by the operator of another radio aboard Itasca reports: "Earhart on now says running out of gas only half hour left can't hear us at all."

Itasca's skipper, commander Warner K. Thompson, was getting worried by this time. His radio room kept trying to establish contact, but to no avail.

7:58 a.m.: "KHAQQ calling Itasca we are circling but cannot hear you go ahead on 7500 with a long count either now or on the schedule time on half hour."

As requested, Itasca broadcast 7500 kilohertz (kHz), and this time ...

8:00 a.m.: "KHAQQ calling Itasca we received your signals but unable to get a minimum. Please take bearing on us and answer 3105 with voice."

The other radio log reports: "Amelia on again at 0800 says hears us on 7.5 megs go ahead on 7500 again."

Itasca tried to take a bearing on Earhart's transmission, but again failed. With all the talk of the plane being low on fuel and "on" the island but unable to see it, it must have seemed likely to Thompson that Earhart was about to go into the water, if she weren't there already. But then ...

8:43 a.m.: Earhart on the air; "KHAQQ to Itasca we are on the line 157 337 wl rept msg we will rept this on 210 KCS wait, [(3105/A3 S5 (?/KHAQQ xmission we are running on N ES S line)]    

The "157 337" message is the last message officially accepted as coming from the World Flight; twenty hours and thirteen minutes after leaving Lae, Earhart and Noonan vanished into legend.

To the Rescue

Since Itasca hadn't been able to get a bearing on any of Earhart's signals, Thompson had no way of knowing where the plane might be. After listening in vain for a couple more hours, however, Thompson had to concluded that it was down someplace, and the only thing to do was start looking. But where? The sky was clear in all directions except to the northeast, where a cloudbank hung about thirty to fifty miles out. Presumably reasoning that only if they had been in such clouds could Earhart and Noonan have failed to see the island, Thompson ordered Itasca underway at 10.40 local time and steamed northwest - where he found nothing but open sea.

After studying the facts as they knew them, the commandant of the Fourteenth Naval District in Pearl Harbor concluded that "the most probable reason for missing Howland Island would be that of stronger winds than normally expected in the region, and that the plane had been carried southeast of Howland." The battleship USS Colorado was dispatched to search the area, while Itasca continued to sweep the seas, aided by USS Swan, which had been standing by between Howland and Hawaii.

The Cruise of the Colorado

Over the next few days, the Colorado steamed the 2,000 miles southward to begin the search. Meanwhile new radio signals thought to be from the lost plane were heard on the frequencies Earhart had been using. Lockheed experts said this meant that the plane had to be on land, so that it could turn an engine and recharge its batteries. Some of the signals were received by stations with radio direction finding equipment. Most of the bearings they were able to take, the U.S. Navy found, described lines that crossed in the vicinity of the mostly uninhabited Phoenix islands, some 350 miles south-east of Howland.

This information caused the Navy to alter its approach somewhat. Rather than searching for a place or a raft floating in the vastness of the Pacific, Colorado would use her three catapult-launched floatplanes to search the Phoenix Islands.

Colorado's pilots flew over each of the Phoenix Islands and landed in the lagoon at Hull, the only island of the group with inhabitants. They reported seeing no evidence of the Lockheed or its crew.

Giving Up - Officially

When the aircraft carrier USS Lexington and her destroyers took over on July 12, the search shifted away from the Phoenix Group to the open ocean areas north and west of Howland. Itasca and Swan were sent into the densely populated Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) far to the west of the chance that Earhart had reversed her course, but neither the Lexington's intensive aerial search of the ocean nor the inquiries in the Gilberts turned up any hint of the missing flight. The United Sates also asked the Japanese to search the areas around the Marshall Islands, and official correspondence at the time indicated that the Japanese authorities asked the oceanographic survey ship Koshu to do so. The Koshu arrived in the Marshall Island area on or about July 9 and continued searching for about ten days. A 1949 U.S. Army Intelligence report states that although no documentation could be found in the records of the Japanese Navy, interviews of Japanese officials on Jaliut and elsewhere indicated that both the Koshu and the Kamoi searched the Marshall Islands, with the assistance of a large-type flying boat. Bridge logs of the Kamoi clearly state it was nowhere near the Marshalls during this time, however, and we have no documentary evidence that a flying boat was ever used to search for wreckage. The army Intelligence report also says that no traces of the Electra were found. The Japanese also offered to search the Gilberts, but - understandably - this offer apparently was not accepted.

On July 18 the search was officially called off. The official verdict was that the plane had probably gone down at sea and sunk without a trace. The post-loss radio signals were declared to be wither misunderstandings or outright hoaxes.

Putnam Perseveres

Despite the official verdict that Earhart and Noonan were lost, Putnam apparently still had hope. TIGHAR's research has uncovered a good deal of information on his efforts, and those of the British colonial authorities, to continue the search.

On July 17, just before the U.S. government withdrew its ships, Putnam contacted the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO):

Deeply grateful if steps be taken to search area slightly north of intersection of longitude 170 East and equator contemporaneously with search of Gilbert Island [sic]. Because peculiar intimate nature alleged information this is a confidential personal request to you. Most compelling unusual circumstances dictate although sole obvious reasonableness lies in westward prevailing drift which might well carried floating plane through Gilberts to indicated area. Anyway cannot pass up this bet forlorn as it may be.

In a follow-up telegram, Putnam said he "can't rationalize or make public why. This is written by practical person." We speculate that the proposed search location was provided by a friend of Putnam's, Jackie Cochran, a practicing clairvoyant. The CNO took the proposal up with his advisers and concluded that it wasn't worth pursuing.

Putnam then turned to his good friend Eugene Vidal, head of the bureau of Air Commerce. Vidal brokered a meeting with President Roosevelt, which took place on July 30. No notes on this meeting have yet been found, but apparently Putnam asked that a search be made for an uncharted reef at 2 deg 36'N, 174deg 10'E, bearing 106deg from Makin Island.

The day after the meeting, Putnam wrote to Sumner Wells, the state Department's primary point of contact on Earhart matters, to clarify his request for a search for the uncharted reef. He said that a former copra vessel  commander, his credibility confirmed by a reliable American, reported that such a reef was visited by Gilbertese seeking turtle eggs. He named Captain Isaac Handley of Tarawa as a knowledgeable person on the matter, though it is not clear whether Handley was the copra skipper who reported the reef. We do not know how Putnam knew about Handley.

Wells asked the U.S. ambassador in London to contact the British Colonial Office and request a search, with Putnam reimbursing expenses and paying $2,000 for information leading to a definitive conclusion. Shortly, the Secretary of State for colonies telegraphed the High Commissioner of the Western Pacific in Fiji:

United States ambassador states that evidence, which to many sources seems positive, indicates that miss Earhart was on land two nights following disappearance. Note proceeds to ask if further searcher of Gilbert Islands could be made at expense, if necessary, of husband, Putnam, who urges immediate search of position 174 degrees 10 minutes east, 2 degrees 36 minutes north, where he has reason to believe that uncharted reef exists of which Captain Handley of Tarawa said to know. Reward of 2,000 dollars offered for any evidence leading to solution of disappearance. Please telegraph what action can be taken.

Search for a Spirit Isle

Official British resources in the area were stretched thin, but the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony officials had already alerted government personnel and trading vessels in the area to be on the lookout for evidence of the lost plane, and apparently called out residents of several islands to search the reefs for wreckage. With the cooperation of the Burns Philp Company, a major copra tracking hose, and Captain Isaac Handley himself, they now responded promptly to London's request - though little was reported back to Putnam, generating a good deal of frustration on his part. By August 12 Captain Handley, despite being in poor health and sixty-nine years old, was off with a Gilberts crew of five in a borrowed sailing vessel.

On August 20 Handley returned to Tarawa, and reported to the district officer in charge:


     At the mutual desire of yourself and the manager of Messrs. Burns Philp S.S. Co. I undertook to go in search of Mrs Putnam (sic) alleged to be on an uncharted reef. Position given.

     Nothing known locally of such a reef. There is a native tradition say, there is an isle of Spirits all right in this alleged position but the human eye is not permitted to see it.

     However, after a search of three days within a radius of some twenty miles of given position. And no sign of bird Life. I conclude that it is none existent there.

     The natives of Marakei give the name Katagateman to the supposed isle. Half man half devil that discovered it.

     Sorry the eventure (sic) was unsuccessful. But fate.

                                          Yours faithfully,

                                         (Signed) Isaac R. Handley

It took a while for the results of Handley's search for Katagateman to reach Putnam, who was not immediately satisfied. Eventually, however, even he apparently accepted that Earhart was irrevocably lost. As for Captain Handley - who took the initiative to search for Katagateman even though he disbelieved in it - his fate was a sad one:

The reverend Alfred Sadd ... was brutally slaughtered in Tarawa on the 15 October 1942, together with twenty-one other British subjects, including two greatly respected veteran traders, McArthur and Handley, and several young New Zealanders. The Japanese tried in vain to make Sadd trample on the Union Jack, instead of which ... he gathered it in his arms and kissed it.


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