Amelia Earhart and
her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared somewhere between Australia and
Howland Island on their attempt to fly around the world 80 years ago on
July 2, 1937.
It seems the fateful flight is recalled
on every anniversary of the event, and somebody always has a different
theory on what actually happened.
For the record, Ms. Earhart was married
to the publisher George Putnam, a publicity expert that trumped AE as
a great aviator. The massive publicity campaign was devised as the “All-American”
distaff answer to Charles Lindbergh.
Of course, Amelia was brave and beautiful,
but she most definitely was no Lindbergh—or Beryl Markham, for that
matter—in terms of native and developed aviation skills.
So while TV shows and other media outlets
this month drummed up interest once again, in the ongoing “What
really happened to AE?” enigma, we recall what our reporter, friend,
and ex-Boston Globe aviation editor, the late Art Riley wrote in 1978
in our sister publication Air Cargo News.
Art was alive in 1937 when AE & Fred went missing.
He also followed the story for years and
finally concluding that Amelia—while talented in many ways—lacked
some essential aviation skills. To top it off, Fred, the one time Pan
American World Airways navigator who plotted a course for The China Clipper
and other immortal first flights across the oceans, had a drinking problem.
Art became convinced that despite all “the
blurry sightings” of one or two of the duo in reports that continued
to pop up after the disappearance, AE and Fred had simply flown their
tiny Lockheed 10 until it ran out gas and was swallowed up by the giant
In truth, even in 2017 we find little wrong
in the romantic story of Amelia Earhart.
As we see it, her biggest problem is that
she came up just a little short of land.
Since that time in 1937, the public has
been on a flight of fancy when it comes to AE and Fred.
What a romantic and still invigorating and
Here our editor, Flossie Arend, offers a
hauntingly beautiful take on the last flight of Amelia Earhart.
I can remember,
when I was very little, paging through one of the airport books my father
had written and seeing a picture of a young woman standing next to a small
airplane. I think I noticed her because, like me, she had very short hair—at
the time, my older brother and I received our haircuts from our father’s
barber, so my hair never grew past my ears. She was tall and lithe, possessing
a gamine beauty I found enthrallingly relatable. I liked her smart bomber
hat with its insectile goggles, her unruly, moppish hair, the ease in
which she existed in a tight, cropped leather jacket and buoyant riding
pants. There is a relaxed confidence and serenity in pictures of Amelia
Earhart. For someone with everything to prove, she projects an air of
having absolutely nothing to prove at all.
The cover of the January issue of Smithsonian
Magazine features a gorgeously monochrome Amelia Earhart, and boasts
“New Clues, New Controversy” regarding her disappearance.
Again, Amelia appears calmly angelic in whitewashed tones of cream and
grey and charcoal, and I can’t help but wonder if our fascination
with her isn’t simply because she was the first woman aviator to
fly solo across the Atlantic, but because every portrait of her projects
a dreamy, subdued quality, as if we’re catching someone not meant
to be frozen in film. Her knowing look beguiles us. I challenge anyone
to look at her picture and not read a chilling intelligence and sadness
in those eyes—she looks as if she knew what was coming.
The Smithsonian article vacillates between
the believable and the utterly fantastic. A man named Ric Gillespie harbors
a sheet of aluminum he claims originated from Earhart’s Lockheed
Electra. The sheet was found in 1991 on Gardner Island in the Pacific
Ocean, and Ric and his wife, who founded TIGHAR (The International Group
for Historic Aircraft Recovery) are convinced it belongs to Earhart’s
Lockheed Electra—a replacement piece for a window in the right rear
fuselage. They believe Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crash-landed
on Gardner Island. The only problem with this narrative is that, according
to Smithsonian Magazine, “Navy planes searched the four-mile-long
Gardner Island on July 9 without seeing Earhart.” Still, Ric Gillespie’s
theory would fall under the ‘believable’ category.
Other, less savory, theories abound.
A retired Pan Am navigator named Paul Rafford
Jr., author of Amelia Earhart’s Radio, believes Earhart
was working for the U.S. government (specifically, the Navy) and purposefully
got lost so that the Navy would have an excuse to search the Pacific without
raising any eyebrows amid the rising tensions there. There are other theories
that involve Japan. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “In
July 1944, Army Sgt. Thomas E. Devine arrived on the just-liberated island
of Saipan. At the airfield, he met some Marines guarding a closed hangar
they said contained Earhart’s plane.” Sgt. Devine claims he
later saw the Electra fly over the island, and that it was later “destroyed
by U.S. soldiers.” He believes “Earhart and Noonan flew there
by mistake, were captured, imprisoned and executed as spies.”
There are a few theories that involve Earhart
and Noonan’s being captured: “after failing to make landfall
at Howland, [they would have] turned northwest” and crashed “760
miles away in the Japanese-held Marshall Islands.” The theory has
been accepted as fact in the Marshall Islands: in 1987, the Marshall Islands
issued a set of stamps detailing her flight and crash-landing at Mili
Atoll. Sgt. Devine’s theory was picked up by Mike Campbell, who
wrote Amelia Earhart: The Truth At Last. Campbell
believes Earhart and Noonan landed in the Marshalls in 1937 and were taken
to Saipan, where they were likely executed as spies. He also believes
we’ve all been fed a pack of lies in order to protect the reputation
of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who knew where Earhart was “but didn’t
want to risk a confrontation with Japan.” In an email to Smithsonian
Magazine, Campbell wrote, “Roosevelt could never have survived
public knowledge that he failed to help America’s No. 1 aviatrix
of the Golden Age of Aviation.”
Whatever happened to Amelia Earhart, our
fascination with her disappearance continues. For Dorothy Cochrane, a
curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the
obsession is enough to drive a person mad. “Now that she’s
long gone, why are people holding on to this?” she asked Smithsonian
I can’t speak for all the treasure
hunters, conspiracy theorists, historians, and others interested in finding
Amelia, but for myself, there is something almost unnatural in how naturally
she vanished. One of the most bizarre theories about her disappearance
assumes that she survived the war and lived out the rest of her days as
a woman in New Jersey named Irene Bolam. We seem to want to revive her
in some way—she survived, and lived fully in New Jersey; she was
forgotten by one of our most beloved Presidents, and perhaps if we debase
him, we can exhume her; she slipped away into the Pacific Ocean, and if
we reach deep enough we might raise her up from the watery depths of obscurity.
as long as I can remember, when the night gets very deep and dark, and
the lights have been turned down in our home in Queens, and a fire in
the hearth sends the scent of earthy wood careening across Cunningham
Park, adjacent to our home, my father will put on Joni Mitchell’s
watery dreamscape, “Amelia.” It’s a song that sounds
like flying—it’s full of the hollow airiness of sound that
accompanies flight, the soporific din of air passing over fuselage. But
it also feels aqueous, as if Mitchell recorded it under water, or at least
sang it while bobbing over passive waves at sea. Wherever Amelia Earhart
may be, I take comfort in how much of her I find in that song, and those
lyrics. She may elude us in every picture, but she can still be found
in certain small spaces, if we look hard.
ghost of aviation
was swallowed by the sky
by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly
beautiful foolish arms
it was just a false alarm.”