World, Life, etc

Chasing Amelia Earhart and her magnificent flying machine

By Rebecca Davis 4 June 2012

A pot of freckle cream may be among the artefacts which hold the key to solving one of the great mysteries of the 20th century: the fate of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart. New evidence released late last week suggests that she may have died as a castaway on a small island in the Pacific. But many aren’t convinced. By REBECCA DAVIS.

It has been 75 years since Amelia Earhart disappeared. She was 39 at the time, so the one thing we can be confident about is that there’s no chance she’s still alive. That’s pretty much the only fact the world can agree on, however.

Earhart was an international celebrity, a woman who captured the public imagination for her bravery and pioneering spirit. It didn’t hurt that she was attractive and stylish, too. Gore Vidal once said of her: “Forget Garbo. Forget Jackie. She was in a realm beyond stardom.” Inevitably, the story of what happened to a figure so iconic continues to fascinate, and to prompt new theories.

Existing theories about Earhart’s fate are many and varied – and of differing credibility. After World War II, many believed, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had been captured by a Japanese fishing boat and had died in prison in Japan. Others thought Earhart was a US spy, with the idea being that Earhart had been instructed to ditch her plane off the Japanese coast so that the US Navy could come and rescue her, but actually conduct reconnaissance. Yet another theory holds that Earhart was rescued from a Japanese prison and returned to the US, but assumed a new secret identity.

For the romantics, the conspiracy theory of choice is that Earhart was in love with Noonan, and faked her death in order to elope with him and escape the pressures of fame and her husband, publicist George Putnam. As with the other theories, there is not a scrap of evidence to support this, especially since Putnam had reportedly urged Earhart to take Noonan on the flight because his renown as a navigator was well documented.

Perhaps it’s better to start with what we do know. In 1937, Earhart and Noonan were attempting to fly around the world at the equator, the longest possible route for circumnavigating the globe, so also the most challenging. By this stage Earhart was at the height of her fame. She had crossed the Atlantic twice, first as the first female passenger to do so, in 1928, and then as the first female pilot to fly solo, in 1932.  The magnitude of this latter feat should be conveyed by the fact that she was only the second person to fly solo over the Atlantic ever, after Charles Lindbergh in 1927, and that in the intervening five years two people had died in the attempt.

By 2 July 1937, Earhart and Noonan were in good shape on their circumnavigatory voyage. They had made it to Papua New Guinea. From there, they would make a fuelling stop at Howland Island in the South Pacific, and then fly on to Honolulu before the final leg home to California. Howland Island was really a non-destination, barely inhabited, but a temporary runway had been set up for Earhart there. (This is a sign of the kind of official goodwill and support there was for Earhart’s mission, particularly from the US government, since the female aviator seemed to epitomise all the qualities associated with a particularly positive, independent brand of “Americanness”.)

Earhart’s last radio message, sent from her Lockheed Model 10E Electra plane at 8.43am on the morning of 2 July, recorded that she could not locate the Howland Island airstrip to land on. That was the last anyone heard from her.

The reasons why Earhart and Noonan never made it to Howland Island are uncertain, but there are a couple of things we know. The first is that Earhart’s chart incorrectly marked the location of Howland Island by about five nautical miles (nine kilometres).  The second is that there was a half-hour time difference disrupting communication between Earhart and the nearest US Coast Guard vessel, the Itasca, waiting at Howland. Third, a photograph taken of Earhart’s plane as it took off from Lae in Papua New Guinea seems to show that the craft was missing a belly antenna of some kind.

Whatever the exact reason, they couldn’t find the island they desperately needed to reach in order to refuel. Later aviation experts have described Earhart’s mission as “poorly planned, worse executed”. The dominant theory up to now has held that the pair ran out of fuel and went into the waters somewhere around Howland, never to be seen again. The resulting search for the two failed to find any trace of them or the aircraft, despite the fact that it was the most expensive and intensive search ever undertaken at the time, lasting 17 days. In subsequent months and years Earhart’s Putnam privately funded searches of his own, which also came to nought.

But last week new evidence was presented at a three-day conference on Earhart which suggests a different ending to the Earhart narrative. The evidence was supplied by a non-profit group called The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR (pronounced “tiger”), which is run by Ric Gillespie, an Earhart fanatic who has been working on the case for 16 years. Tighar believes Earhart survived the voyage, was able to bring her plane down on a different South Pacific atoll, or small island, and later perished due to starvation, dehydration or illness. 

The atoll they identify as the site of this drama was known as Gardner Island at the time of Earhart’s crash, but is now called Nikumaroro Island. It is just over 560km south-east of Howland Island. Nikumaroro is part of the Republic of Kiribati, an island nation made up of 32 atolls and one coral island, whose greatest claim to fame in recent years has been that it was the first country to witness the dawn of the new millennium. Less merrily, it is also expected to be the first country to see all its land mass disappear as a result of climate change. Nikumaroro is tiny: 6km long by less than 2km wide, and there is only one area where it is safe to anchor a boat, due to the coral reef and deep ocean.

Tighar has made six archaeological expeditions to the island over the last 16 years. Now their search has reached a tipping point, however, because exactly 75 years after Earhart’s last message, a US Navy mission will use sophisticated equipment to map the waters around Nikumaroro in the hope of finding Earhart’s plane. Some are surprised that Tighar is receiving such heavyweight backing, but this may owe something to the involvement of one Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State. Announcing her support for the group’s mission in March, Clinton said “[Earhart’s] legacy resonates today for anyone – girls and boys – who dream of the stars”.

Clinton recounted how, as a 13-year-old, her mother pumped her so full of Earhart inspiration that young Hillary wrote to Nasa to ask if she could become an astronaut. She was crushed when a reply came back telling her that there would be no female astronauts, but clearly sees Earhart’s example as important in setting her own ambitions.

Tighar thinks Nikumaroro is the place to be looking because when Earhart described her route, during her last radio transmission, she sketched a path that would have included Nikumaroro. They believe that, unable to find Howland Island and running desperately short on fuel, Earhart brought the plane down on Nikumaroro. There, they hold, she used her last remaining fuel to fire up the engines to make distress calls – more than 50 of them.

We have always known about the existence of these distress calls. There were over 100 of them in the hours after her final message, and they were considered hugely important in determining the direction of search for the US Coast Guard. But once they failed to find Earhart, all the calls were dismissed as bogus – possibly as a way of retaining professional credibility for the searchers.

Now, however, the group has used technology unavailable in the 30s – “digitized information management systems, antenna modelling software, and radio wave propagation analysis programmes” – to analyse the signals, and have concluded that over 50 of them are credible and may indeed have emanated from Earhart’s plane. It is thought the plane was then washed off the reef by rising tides.

The radio signals make up one of the two biggest pieces of evidence claimed by Tighar. The second is a photograph that may show the landing gear of her aircraft on Nikumaroro, three months after her death. The photo was taken by a British soldier, and shows “an unexplained object protruding from the water on the fringing reef”, according to Gillespie. Much of the plane is likely to have been destroyed in the intervening years, but it is believed that elements like the engines may still be around. 

The rest of the evidence is made up by a collection of artefacts found on the island, which seem to show the existence of one or more castaways at some point. Among them were two bottles, allegedly dating to pre-1950s, which appeared to have been used for boiling water in a fire, with a length of wire attached to the tops to serve as a handle. Then there’s the pot of freckle cream. Tighar researchers located five shards of glass which originally belonged to one pot, which they have identified as matching the shape of a popular kind of anti-freckle cream sold in the States at the time. Earhart had a “well-documented” aversion to freckles, it is claimed. One of the shards of the jar was found near the bones of a turtle, meaning that it may have been used as a cutting tool.

To bolster their evidence, the group also points to British colonial records. In 1938 the insatiable British attempted to settle Nikumaroro, but their efforts were hampered by a drastic shortage of available drinking water (which would likely kill off any castaway pretty sharpish too). Their colonial reports from that era, however, indicate that the partial skeleton of a castaway was found on the island, together with part of a man’s shoe, and a woman’s shoe, a box containing a sextant, the remains of a fire and bird and turtle bones. Unfortunately, all of these have subsequently been lost.

Tighar founder Gillespie is confident that they may have found Earhart’s final resting place. He told Discovery news: “The bottles and other artefacts we have found at the [archaeological site] tell a fascinating, but still incomplete, story of ingenuity, survival, and, ultimately, tragedy.” Many media outlets are reporting Tighar’s theory as fact. The Global Post, for instance, ran the story under the headline “Amelia Earhart mystery solved: she died on a Pacific island”.

But some aren’t buying the new evidence. The author of the definitive biography on Amelia Earhart, Susan Butler, wrote for Newsweek: “I think – and most knowledgeable people, certainly most pilots believe – the Electra, having run out of gas, rests on the ocean floor in the vicinity of Howland Island.” She points out that Nikumaroro Island was flown over five days after Earhart went missing, and if any of the pilots had seen anything remotely interesting they would certainly have reported it, in order to become the hero of the hour.

Aviation expert Clive Irving told the Daily Beast that in order for Earhart’s radio to have been working to send out distress calls, she would have had to have pulled off an astonishing landing feat, bringing the plane down on the tiny atoll in such a way that the craft remained high and dry to preserve the radio equipment. Irving simply doesn’t think Earhart could have done it: “Earhart, despite her evident nerve, was no flying ace: she had crashed the same airplane during takeoff on Hawaii on an earlier test flight”.

Irving also doesn’t buy the idea that Earhart was carrying freckle ointment. “Would freckle treatment really have featured as a necessity to be carried on a flight where every ounce of weight had to be justified and, if not, discarded?” he asks.

Skeptoid podcaster Brian Dunning says it is entirely feasible that Tighar would find evidence of human habitation on Nikumaroro, because at various points it is known that people have camped there. Pearl divers, he points out, have been frequenting the island since the 1800s. In 1929 a British steamship, SS Norwich City, was wrecked on the island, killing 11 of its 35 crew, and he believes some debris might result from that incident. In addition, he says, there must be some traces of the presence of the British settlers in 1939, or the crew of a 1944 Coast Guard station.

The problem with the group’s methodology, suggests Dunning, is that “it’s done completely backwards. Tighar begins with the assumption that Amelia Earhart crashed, camped out, and died on Nikumaroro. They take everything they find – every anomaly in a photograph or in a story, every piece of bone or man-made artefact found on the island – and try to match it to their assumption, rather than trying to objectively assess its origin”.

These objections seem entirely sound, but that’s unlikely to stop the media juggernaut currently whipping up the story, because Earhart still looms so large in the cultural landscape. There’s an argument to be made that in the States they need Earhart more than ever, in fact. Clinton practically said as much in March, when she opined that in the USA in the 1930s, when the country was worn down by the Great Depression, the figure of Earhart served as a potent figure of hope and inspiration, and could be rallied as such again. “We can be as optimistic and even audacious as Amelia Earhart,” she said. “We can be defined not by the limits that hold us down, but by the opportunities that are ahead”. DM

Read more:

Main photo: Amelia Earhart

Photo 2: Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Nonan



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