Unraveling the Mysterious Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the Legendary Aviator | History Hit

Unraveling the Mysterious Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the Legendary Aviator

Celeste Neill

26 Apr 2023
Amelia Earhart in a Stearman-Hammond Y-1
Image Credit: Harris & Ewing, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Amelia Earhart was an American aviator and advocate for women in aviation. She set multiple flying records, including becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. In 1937, during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe, Earhart disappeared over the Pacific and was declared lost at sea.

Despite extensive search efforts, no conclusive evidence of her fate has ever been found. Her disappearance remains one of the most enduring mysteries in aviation history and has captured the public imagination for decades.

Despite her tragic end, Earhart’s legacy endures, and she continues to be recognised as the most famous female pilot in history.

From tomboy to flying prodigy

Amelia Earhart’s childhood was marked by a strong sense of adventure and a desire to break gender norms. Born in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, she was raised by a mother who encouraged her and her sister to pursue interests that were traditionally reserved for boys. This allowed Earhart to explore her passions for aviation from a young age.

In fact, she experienced her first flight in 1904, at the age of seven, thanks to a homemade ramp and a cardboard box. Earhart later described this moment as life-changing.

As she grew older, Earhart’s love for aviation continued to blossom. She read books on the subject and kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about successful women in male-dominated fields. This passion led her to become a nurse’s aide in a military hospital during World War One. 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.

Amelia Earhart in evening clothes. Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Amelia Earhart’s growing interest in flight led her father, Edwin, to take her to an airfield on Long Beach, California, where she went for a ride with Frank Hawks, a future record-breaking pilot and war ace.

After the exhilarating experience, Earhart was determined to learn to fly and took on three jobs to save enough money for flying lessons. Her teacher, Neta Snook, was a pioneering female aviator and the first woman to run an aviation business.

Earhart’s aptitude for flying was evident, and she quickly made progress. In 1922, she set a women’s world record for altitude, and in 1923, she became only the 16th woman in history to gain an international flying license.

In the early 1930s, Earhart’s fame grew as she set a number of aviation records, including becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932.

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.

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”.

Amelia Earhart, circa 1928. Image credit: Los Angeles Daily News, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image Credit: Los Angeles Daily News, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Earhart’s first attempt in March 1937 was a disaster; her plane didn’t get beyond Pearl Harbour before crashing. 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.

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.

Earhart and Noonan by the Lockheed L10 Electra at Darwin, Australia on June 28, 1937. Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Although Amelia Earhart’s fate remains unknown after her disappearance during her 1937 flight around the world, her legacy as a trailblazing aviator continues to inspire people today. Her achievements as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and to set numerous aviation records inspired a generation of female pilots, including the 1,000 women who served as transport pilots during World War Two. In recognition of her contributions to aviation, Earhart has been posthumously honoured with numerous awards and accolades, and she continues to serve as a relatable heroine for our own times.

Celeste Neill