What Happened to Legendary Aviator Amelia Earhart?

On 2 July 1937, the renowned female pilot Amelia Earhart disappeared on the final leg of a record-breaking round-the-world trip, never to be seen nor head from again. A champion of women’s rights and commercial aviation who exhibited a general spirit of adventure, her mysterious death adds lustre to a glamour that she carries to this day.

From tomboy to flying prodigy

Like many adventurers before her, Earhart’s first explorations were as a child in her neighbourhood. Born in 1897, she was a well-known tomboy in Atchinson, Kansas. She experienced her first “flight” in 1904 thanks to a home-made ramp and a cardboard box. She would later describe this as a life-changing moment.

She and her sister Pidge were both lucky in that their mother, Amy, had no desire to turn them into “nice little girls”. Instead, Amy encouraged them to pursue dreams and interests normally reserved for boys.

These idyllic days were interrupted, however, by the reality of an alcoholic father, the start of school and a move to urban Chicago. Earhart found her escape in books and science, while keeping a scrapbook full of newspaper cuttings about successful women in male-dominated fields. It was these cuttings that might have inspired her to do her bit for the Allied cause in World War One.

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In 1917, after finishing school, Amelia travelled to her sister’s new hometown of Toronto. She volunteered in a military hospital for many gruelling months until the steady stream of casualties finally ceased.

The subsequent outbreak of Spanish Flu left Earhart briefly in danger herself and in need of a year of convalescence. Before she left, however, she attended an exhibition by a Canadian flying ace. She saw first-hand how the war had led to extraordinary developments in the science of flying.

After another failed stab at education – this time at Columbia University – Earhart rejoined her parents, who were now in California. Due to her growing interest in flight, her father, Edwin, took her to an airfield on Long Beach. There, Frank Hawks, a future record-breaking pilot and war ace, took her for a spin.

After this, Earhart was determined to join him in the sky and worked three jobs until she was able to afford flying lessons. Her teacher, “Neta” Snook, was an extraordinary pioneering female aviator in her own right and the first woman to launch an aviation business.

Amelia Earhart and Neta Snook stood in front of a plane

Neta Snook would eventually be overshadowed by her student.

Earhart took to the difficult task of flying with impressive speed. She set a female world record for altitude in 1923 and became only the 16th woman in history to gain an international flying license.

However, Earhart’s family once again regained her attention; a perilous financial situation caused them to move to Massachusetts and Earhart had to face the challenge of providing for them. Despite this setback, she wanted to continue flying, while also making ends meet.

She subsequently became a local sales representative for aircraft as well as a newspaper columnist who promoted aviation, particularly for women.

The first female to pilot a transatlantic flight

By the time of Charles Lindburgh’s transatlantic flight in 1927, Earhart was a local celebrity and an extremely accomplished pilot. As a result, when a search to find the first woman capable of matching the feat ensued a year later, Earhart was the obvious choice. While at work on an unremarkable April day, she suddenly received a phone call asking her, “Would you like to fly the Atlantic?”.

She did not pilot the plane that landed in Southampton from the United States to a rapturous reception, even describing her role as being like a “sack of potatoes”. Yet, it did enormous good for her growing international profile. Soon, Earhart was the star and poster girl for many adverts and products and, as an associate editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, had a forum to express her ideas.

Earhart gained international fame and even met Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the United States.

These ventures eventually financed her solo flight across the Atlantic in August 1928, which made her a genuine international superstar. The following years were a blaze of increasing fame and glory, as races, high-profile flights and a tough and celebrated stance on women’s rights were widely publicised.

At the same time, the respected publisher George Putnam asked her six times to marry him before she agreed with a warning that their relationship would involve “dual control” with no “medieval code of faithfulness”.

More records were set – Mexico City to New York, for example – during Earhart’s glory years in the first half of the 1930s. By the middle of the decade, only one great feat remained: to become the first woman to fly solo around the world.

Though the feat had already been achieved by a man at this point, Amelia’s route would be of unprecedented length and full of risk. An ultra-modern Lockheed Electra plane was built specially for her specifications, and the vastly experienced Fred Noonan and Harry Manning were chosen as her navigators.

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Earhart’s first attempt in March 1937 was a disaster; her plane didn’t get beyond Pearl Harbour before crashing (albeit unspectacularly). Over the following months tweaks were made, a new flightpath was proposed that would go over Africa and South America, and Manning was left behind to make things more simple.

Finally, on 1 June of that year, Earhart set off for her second and final attempt.

What went wrong?

Initially, everything went smoothly. Successful stops and decent flying took Earhart and Noonan 22,000 miles to Lae, New Guinea, by 29 June. Though this might sound slow, the first flight around the world (conducted by a team of US airmen in 1924) took 175 days; Earhart was attempting a record-breaking – and perhaps fatal – speed.

After Lae, the next and final stop before their triumphant return to America was Howland Island, a tiny spit of rock in the middle of the Pacific. As the aircraft approached the island, Earhart was required to use her modern direction-finding system to spot the land through the low clouds. This system was fitted just before flying and it is believed that she wasn’t entirely sure how to use it.

Amelia Earhart's Flight Route

Earhart’s route around the world.

An hour before Earhart’s last broadcast, she called out to the nearby ship Itasca – which was monitoring her progress – and reported that her gas was running low. The final transmission suggested that she believed her location to be Howland Island. Then, suddenly, there was silence.

Though the Itasca let off great clouds of smoke to guide the plane, the aircraft and its passengers were never seen again. People quickly grew worried. The resulting search cost 4 million dollars and was the most expensive in US history at that point. But although efforts by the navy and airforce continued for weeks, no signs of the passengers or the plane were ever found.

What happened to Amelia Earhart?

Though the pilot was confirmed legally dead in 1939, historians are still uncertain about what happened to her. There are now two main hypotheses: that the plane was not refuelled properly at Lae and therefore crashed into the sea and sank, or that she missed Howland and flew to the nearby Gardner Island and crashed there.

There is some circumstantial evidence for both, though not enough to discount a final sensational theory that Earhart landed on an island occupied by the Japanese Empire and was executed as a spy. One piece of evidence for this is the striking similarity between her Electra plane’s parts and those of the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero which saw a great deal of service in World War Two.

Memorial to Amelia Earhart.

A memorial to Earhart at Harbour Grace in Newfoundland, Canada.

Though Earhart fate remains unknown, her legacy is still strong today. The inspiration for 1,000 female transport pilots in World War Two and the receiver of countless posthumous honours, the pilot remains a relatable heroine for our own times.