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What really happened to Amelia Earhart? 

By Mackenzie Carro

Learning Objective: to evaluate the evidence for various theories about Amelia Earhart’s disappearance and to write an essay explaining which theory is most convincing 

Lexiles: 770L, 930L
Other Key Skills: author’s craft, text structure, interpreting text
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, think about what factors contributed to Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.

The year 1937 had been a spectacular one for Amelia Earhart. She was a world-famous pilot. Her life was full of glamour and adventure. And she was fulfilling a lifelong dream: flying around the entire globe.

Earhart’s around-the-world journey started on May 20 in Oakland, California. From there, she flew over the clear waters of the Caribbean and the vast grasslands of Africa. She crossed over parched deserts in the Middle East, rugged mountains in India, and thick jungles in Southeast Asia.

By the time she reached the island of New Guinea, on June 29, she had traveled 22,000 miles over five continents. In a few days, she’d be back home in the United States.

But then, early on the morning of July 2, something went terribly wrong.

Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were supposed to land on Howland Island about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. But when they looked out the window of the plane, there was no island in sight. All they could see were the bright turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean, just beginning to sparkle in the rising sun.

They were lost.

Now the plane was running out of gas. If Earhart didn’t find somewhere to land—soon—they were going to crash.

Earhart radioed for help.

No response.

She radioed again.

Silence.

Amelia Earhart would never be seen or heard from again.

The year 1937 had been a great one for Amelia Earhart. She was a famous pilot. Her life was full of glamour and adventure. And she was fulfilling a lifelong dream: flying around the entire globe.

Earhart’s around-the-world journey started on May 20 in Oakland, California. From there, she flew over the waters of the Caribbean and the grasslands of Africa. She crossed over deserts in the Middle East, mountains in India, and jungles in Southeast Asia.

By the time she reached the island of New Guinea, on June 29, she had traveled 22,000 miles over five continents.

In a few days, she’d be back home in the United States.

But then, on the morning of July 2, something went wrong.

Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were supposed to land on Howland Island about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. But when they looked out the window of the plane, they saw no island.

They were lost.

Now the plane was running out of gas. If Earhart didn’t find somewhere to land—soon—they would crash.

Earhart radioed for help.

No response.

She radioed again.

Silence.

Amelia Earhart would never be seen or heard from again.

Eighty-two years later, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart remains one of the greatest mysteries in American history. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent searching for her. Dozens of people have combed the deep waters of the Pacific. They’ve studied maps and charts and weather patterns. They’ve scoured islands where she might have landed.

But no one has been able to answer the question: What really happened that July day in 1937?

Eighty-two years later, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart remains one of the greatest mysteries in American history. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent searching for her. Dozens of people have combed the deep waters of the Pacific. They’ve studied maps and charts and weather patterns. They’ve scoured islands where she might have landed.

But no one has been able to answer the question: What happened that July day in 1937?

Jim McMahon/Mapman® 

The Last Flight of Amelia Earhart

The Risks

When Earhart set off to circumnavigate the world, only a handful of pilots had done it before—and they had all been men. This is not surprising. In the early 20th century, many considered the idea of a female pilot to be ridiculous.

Instead of being called aviators, female pilots were given demeaning nicknames like “ladybirds” or “sweethearts of the air.” They were often banned from competing in flying races and denied jobs as professional pilots. It was said that a woman could never fly as well as a man.

Earhart knew better.

In 1920, Earhart, then 23, went to an air show, where pilots performed high-flying stunts for cheering crowds. Marveling at the planes zooming into the skies, Earhart longed to be in the air.

The next day, her father arranged for her to take a ride in a plane. It was a trip that would change her life forever. “As soon as we left the ground,” she would later write, “I knew I myself had to fly.”

A year later, she had her pilot’s license, and in the coming years, she set numerous records. In 1932, she became the first woman—and the second person ever—to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific.

Today, flying over an ocean may not seem like a big deal. At this very moment, thousands of planes are crisscrossing the skies high above the seas. But in Earhart’s time, flying over open water was extremely dangerous.

Flying was still new, and planes had many flaws. Engines fell out, propellers stopped turning, wings tore off, and fuel tanks caught fire. Over an ocean, any one of these malfunctions meant almost certain death for a pilot, because there was no place to make an emergency landing.

Earhart knew the risks, but she had never been one to shy away from a challenge. Even the challenge of flying around the world did not daunt her.

“I want to do it because I want to do it,” she wrote in a letter to her husband. “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

When Earhart set off to circumnavigate the world, only a few pilots had done it before—and they had all been men. In the early 20th century, many thought the idea of a female pilot was ridiculous.

Instead of being called aviators, female pilots were given demeaning nicknames like “ladybirds” or “sweethearts of the air.” They were often banned from competing in flying races and denied jobs as professional pilots. It was said that a woman could never fly as well as a man.

Earhart knew better.

In 1920, when she was 23, she went to an air show. Earhart watched as pilots performed high-flying stunts for cheering crowds. She longed to be in the air.

The next day, her father arranged for her to take a ride in a plane. The trip changed her life. “As soon as we left the ground,” she would later write, “I knew I myself had to fly.”

A year later, Earhart had her pilot’s license. In the coming years, she set many records. In 1932, she became the first woman—and the second person ever—to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1935, she became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific.

Today, flying over an ocean may not seem like a big deal. At this very moment, thousands of planes are crisscrossing the skies high above the seas. But in Earhart’s time, flying over open water was very dangerous.

Flying was still new, and planes had many flaws. Engines fell out, propellers stopped turning, wings tore off, and fuel tanks caught fire. Over an ocean, any one of these problems meant almost certain death for a pilot, because there was no place to make an emergency landing.

Earhart knew the risks, but she was not one to shy away from a challenge. Even the challenge of flying around the world did not daunt her.

“I want to do it because I want to do it,” she wrote in a letter to her husband. “Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

APA/Getty Images    

The Time

In the 1930s, women faced widespread discrimination. When Amelia Earhart got her pilot’s license in 1921, women had been granted the right to vote only one year before, and there was a laundry list of things women weren’t allowed to do. Women couldn’t open a bank account without a male relative’s signature, serve on a jury in most states, or fight in wars.

 

Earhart believed that if she could prove that women could fly just as well as men, the world would have to accept that a woman was capable of doing any job that a man could do. 

Movie Star Fame

As Earhart made her way around the globe, it seemed as though the whole world was cheering her on. By that time, Earhart had become as famous as any Hollywood movie star. Photographers followed her everywhere. Children begged their parents to go to parades held in her honor. Women wore crisp khaki slacks and tied silk scarves around their necks to mimic her signature style.

Back then, America needed stars like Earhart. The 1930s were a time of hardship, a period known as the Great Depression. Millions of people were out of work. Families had lost their homes, and many were going hungry.

For them, Earhart’s glamorous life and thrilling adventures were a welcome distraction from the struggles of their daily lives. 

As Earhart made her way around the globe, it seemed as though the whole world was cheering her on. By that time, Earhart had become as famous as any movie star. Photographers followed her everywhere. Kids begged their parents to go to parades held in her honor. Women wore crisp khaki slacks and tied silk scarves around their necks to mimic her style.

Back then, America needed stars like Earhart. The 1930s were a time of hardship, a period known as the Great Depression. Millions of people were out of work. Families had lost their homes. Many people were going hungry.

For them, Earhart’s glamorous life and thrilling adventures were a welcome distraction from the struggles of their daily lives.

Pictures Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The Fame

When it came to her image, Amelia Earhart was as savvy as any social media influencer today, and she worked hard to keep her fans happy. After all, being a pilot couldn’t pay the bills, but being a celebrity could. Earhart spent most of her time traveling the country and getting paid to give talks about her life as an aviator. She also endorsed dozens of products, had her own fashion line, and wrote several books.

Starting to Worry

Around 10 a.m. on July 2, Earhart and Noonan took off for Howland Island. They probably felt relieved. After weeks of flying, they were severely sleep deprived. But now, at last, they were on the final leg of their journey—almost home.

They planned to fly through the night, crossing time zones, and arrive at Howland early the next morning to refuel the plane.

Finding Howland would not be easy. The island was tiny, a mere fleck of dust in the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean. Back in 1937, no GPS or satellites existed to help pilots navigate. Earhart and Noonan had to rely on a map, a few basic navigation tools, and their own eyes.

The plane did have a radio, which was new technology at the time. But Earhart had never been fully trained on how to operate it. She was always too busy. (A radio expert who was supposed to be on the trip had quit early on.)

Fortunately, Earhart had help from a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Itasca, which was anchored near Howland Island. At midnight, as planned, the Itasca’s searchlights switched on. At dawn, the boilers began puffing out smoke. This way, if Earhart couldn’t see the island from the sky, she could use the lights and smoke as beacons.

By 7 a.m., there was no sign of Earhart and the crew of the Itasca was starting to worry. To make matters worse, her radio did not seem to be working properly. She repeatedly radioed the ship, but while the crew could hear her, she could not hear them.

At 7:42 a.m., Earhart’s voice crackled over the radio.

“We must be on you but cannot see you,” she said. “Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio.”

The crew searched the skies for her silver plane but saw only scattered clouds. They hunched over their radios, sweating and anxious, trying to make contact with her again and again.

Nothing worked.

Around 8:45 a.m., her voice broke through the static for the last time.

“We are on the line 157-337 . . .”

Earhart was giving her location; line 157-337 refers to an area on a map. But the Itasca would never find her.

No one would.

Amelia Earhart was gone.

Around 10 a.m. on July 2, Earhart and Noonan took off for Howland Island. They probably felt relieved. After weeks of flying, they were sleep deprived. But now they were on the last leg of their journey—almost home.

They planned to fly through the night, crossing time zones, and arrive at Howland early the next morning to refuel the plane.

Finding Howland would not be easy. The island was tiny. Back in 1937, no GPS or satellites existed to help pilots navigate. Earhart and Noonan had only a map, a few basic navigation tools, and their own eyes.

The plane did have a radio, which was new technology at the time. But Earhart hadn't been fully trained on how to use it. She was always too busy. (A radio expert who was supposed to be on the trip had quit early on.)

Earhart had help from a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Itasca, which was anchored near Howland Island. At midnight, as planned, the Itasca’s searchlights switched on. At dawn, the boilers began puffing out smoke. This way, if Earhart couldn’t see the island from the sky, she could use the lights and smoke as beacons.

By 7 a.m., there was no sign of Earhart. The crew of the Itasca was starting to worry. To make matters worse, her radio did not seem to be working properly. The crew could hear her, but she could not hear them.

At 7:42 a.m., Earhart’s voice crackled over the radio.

“We must be on you but cannot see you,” she said. “Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio.”

The crew searched the skies for her silver plane, but saw only clouds. They hunched over their radios, trying to make contact with her.

Nothing worked.

Around 8:45 a.m., her voice broke through the static for the last time.

“We are on the line 157-337 . . .”

Earhart was giving her location. Line 157-337 refers to an area on a map. But the Itasca would never find her.

No one would.

Amelia Earhart was gone.

Emily Shur/Expedition Amelia/National Geographic 

The Search

Last summer, ocean explorer Robert Ballard and his crew searched the waters around Nikumaroro Island for the wreck of Earhart’s plane.

What Happened?

When news of Earhart’s disappearance broke, Americans were devastated. How could the world’s most beloved aviator simply vanish?

Nearly a century later, we are still trying to answer this question. There have been many theories, some more plausible than others. One unlikely theory is that she survived, moved to New Jersey, and lived under a fake name to escape the pressures of fame.

Another theory is that Earhart was a spy sent to gather information on the Japanese government. She crashed, was captured by the Japanese military, and died a prisoner. Both the U.S. and Japanese governments deny this claim. But in the 1940s, several people came forward swearing to have seen Earhart on the Japanese island of Saipan.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has a different explanation for what happened.

TIGHAR has been investigating Earhart’s disappearance for decades. The group believes that she and Noonan crashed on an uninhabited island called Nikumaroro and survived for a time on rainwater, fish, and clams. No one found her plane, TIGHAR says, because the tides dragged it to the bottom of the ocean. No one found her body because after she died, it was devoured by the giant coconut crabs that infest the island.

Why Nikumaroro?

The island is not far from Howland. In fact, a few days after Earhart’s disappearance, the U.S. Navy sent a patrol plane to search it. The pilot reported “signs of habitation,” but a ground crew was never sent to follow up. (Later, the Navy released a conflicting report that said there had been no signs of habitation.)

Over the years, TIGHAR has led 13 expeditions to the island. They found makeup, an American-made zipper, and shards of American-made bottles and jars. Did these items belong to Earhart? Maybe. But dozens of people have been to the island and could have left the items behind.

In 1940, bones were also found on Nikumaroro. At the time, two analysts concluded that the bones belonged to a man. More recently, TIGHAR concluded they could be Earhart’s.

What most experts believe is that Earhart ran out of gas and crashed into the ocean. Earhart and Noonan died, and the plane sank.

When news of Earhart’s disappearance broke, Americans were devastated. How could the world’s most beloved aviator simply vanish?

Nearly a century later, we are still trying to answer this question. There have been many theories, some more plausible than others. One unlikely theory is that she survived, moved to New Jersey, and lived under a fake name to escape the pressures of fame.

Another theory is that Earhart was a spy sent to gather information on the Japanese government. She crashed, was captured by the Japanese military, and died a prisoner. Both the U.S. and Japanese governments deny this claim. But in the 1940s, several people said they had seen Earhart on the Japanese island of Saipan.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has a different explanation for what happened.

TIGHAR has been investigating Earhart’s disappearance for decades. The group believes that she and Noonan crashed on an uninhabited island called Nikumaroro and survived for a time on rainwater, fish, and clams. No one found her plane, TIGHAR says, because the tides dragged it to the bottom of the ocean. No one found her body because after she died, it was eaten by the coconut crabs that infest the island.

Why Nikumaroro?

The island is not far from Howland. In fact, a few days after Earhart disappeared, the U.S. Navy sent a patrol plane to search it. The pilot reported “signs of habitation,” but a ground crew was never sent to follow up. (Later, the Navy released a conflicting report that said there had been no signs of habitation.)

Over the years, TIGHAR has led 13 expeditions to the island. They found makeup, an American-made zipper, and shards of American-made bottles and jars. Did these items belong to Earhart? Maybe. But other people have been to the island and could have left the items behind.

In 1940, bones were also found on Nikumaroro. At the time, two analysts concluded that the bones belonged to a man. More recently, TIGHAR concluded they could be Earhart’s.

This is what most experts believe: Earhart ran out of gas and crashed into the ocean. Earhart and Noonan died, and the plane sank.

National Geographic/Gabriel Scarlett    

Divers from Robert Ballard’s crew look for pieces of Amelia Earhart’s plane. The story of Ballard’s expedition is the subject of a new National Geographic documentary, “Expedition Amelia.”

New Clues

This past summer, the search for Earhart made headlines once again. Robert Ballard, the famous ocean explorer who found the wreck of the Titanic, announced that he was going to find Earhart’s plane.

Ballard had always wanted to find the plane, but thought the search area was too vast. Then a friend showed him a photograph of Nikumaroro taken in 1937. The photo shows a blurry object in the water. Digital analysis matched the shape of the object to a piece of Earhart’s plane.

Ballard found the evidence so strong that last August, he and his crew set out for Nikumaroro. They searched for weeks, using high-tech underwater robots, sonar, and drones.

In the end, no trace of Earhart’s plane was found.

But Ballard doesn’t consider the trip a failure. After all, it took four missions to find the Titanic. In 2021, he plans to conduct a search closer to Howland Island.

“This plane exists,” he told The New York Times. “It’s not the Loch Ness monster, and it’s going to be found.”

But until then, the mystery remains.

What really happened to Amelia Earhart? 

This past summer, the search for Earhart made headlines once again. Robert Ballard, the famous ocean explorer who found the wreck of the Titanic, announced that he was going to find Earhart’s plane.

Ballard had always wanted to find the plane, but thought the search area was too large. Then a friend showed him a photo of Nikumaroro taken in 1937. The photo shows a blurry object in the water. Digital analysis matched the shape of the object to a piece of Earhart’s plane.

Last August, Ballard and his crew set out for Nikumaroro. They searched for weeks. They used underwater robots, sonar, and drones.

They found no trace of Earhart’s plane.

But Ballard doesn’t see the trip as a failure. After all, it took four missions to find the Titanic. In 2021, he plans to conduct a search closer to Howland Island.

“This plane exists,” he told The New York Times. “It’s not the Loch Ness monster, and it’s going to be found.”

Until then, the mystery remains.

What really happened to Amelia Earhart?