The first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the US mainland, Earhart was a highly-decorated pioneer in flight, as well as a bestselling author and campaigner for equality. She set speed records and distance records, encouraged hundreds of women to take up flying and was generally fairly incredible.
On 2 July 1937 she disappeared somewhere over the Pacific during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe (by the longest route ever taken), with the exact circumstances surrounding her disappearance remaining a mystery since.
Planes were a lot different in those days - the first flight only took place in 1903 - and needed a lot of stops to refuel. Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan were a month into their circumnavigation due to all the necessary stops. They’d gone from California to Miami, then down to South America, then across the Atlantic to Africa, then east to India and Southeast Asia. in all, they’d flown 22,000 miles of their 29,000-mile California-to-California journey when they disappeared.
Their twin-engine Lockheed 10E Electra left Lae, a city in what is now Papua New Guinea, for Howland Island, a tiny uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific belonging to the US. It never made it. Communication was patchy, for reasons that never became clear. Their last bit of radio contact was with a US ship, the Itasca, and raised more questions than it answered.
There have been various theories as to what happened to Earhart and Noonan’s plane. Did they run out of fuel and crash into the open ocean? Were they wildly off course? (They were possibly using celestial navigation during the flight, but failing to take crossing the international date line into account while doing so would, for complicated reasons, result in them being 60 miles away from where they thought they were.)
Theories abounded that something more sinister might have gone on - had they been captured by the Japanese? Were they spies all along? Islands were seared, the sea was searched. Had they overshot the island, which was small and hard to spot? Had they landed on another island and starved to death? Had they somehow ran out of fuel early and crashed straight into the sea?
An uninhabited island, now known as Nikumaroro, but then known as Gardner Island, seemed like a plausible place they might have ended up. 350 miles away from Howland Island, it had a flat area a pilot could plausibly have attempted an emergency landing on and a lagoon which could easily be hiding a crashed plane. It was explored in 1940, and a few things were discovered which seemed to support the idea: human bones, clothing fragments and a sextant that could absolutely have come from a plane.
However, analysis of the bones concluded that they’d come from a man, so that was that gone for a burton.
Amelia Earhart was officially declared ‘missing, presumed dead’ on 5 January 1939, 18 months after her disappearance. Such a declaration would normally take seven years, but Earhart’s husband George Putnam pushed for it to be done sooner, so he could take control of her finances and use them to aid the search for her. He also got remarried four months later, which he couldn’t have done otherwise, but that’s by the by.
People kept going back to Nikumaroro and finding more stuff. A bit of window. A shoe. A can of freckle ointment. An aerial photograph taken at the time of her disappearance was digitally enhanced and found to include something that looked an awful lot like a bit of landing gear. But none of it was objectively traceable to Earhart, or Noonan, or their plane. The male bones found in 1940 even went missing, lost in Fiji after their analysis.
But now, they’ve been re-analysed. The field of forensic osteology has come a long way since then, and the new conclusion, reached by University of Tennessee professor Richard Jantz, is that the bones were…
Jantz compared all the available information about the bones to everything that could be figured out about Earhart’s measurements, using information found on her pilot’s and driver’s licences and combining that with information that could be gleaned from photographs. His findings revealed that Earhart’s bones were “more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a large reference sample”.
The mystery is over, mostly. The exact circumstances that led to it may never be known, but it seems that Amelia Earhart died as a castaway on Nikumaroro. Regardless of her sad end, she casts a long shadow over the aviation world. A fearless flier, early feminist and American hero, the mystery of her death was never anything next to the brilliance of her life.