Howland Island

Unveiling the Mystery: Theories Surrounding Amelia Earhart's Disappearance

In 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan set off on a challenging 29,000-mile expedition to circumnavigate the globe. This attempt would go down in the history books, for both the courage it required and for the mystery it inspired. Today's update post  will take a closer look at the theories surrounding the disappearance of Amelia and Noonan... 

Theory #1: The Crash-and-Sink Possibility  

In life, the simplest explanation is quite often the most plausible one. The Lockheed Electra Amelia was last seen in would have carried enough fuel to reach Howland Island with some extra to spare. Extra fuel would provide contingencies against headwinds or slight errors in the search for Howland, but perhaps this extra allotment was not enough? As the plane closed in on the island, it was expected to be in radio contact with the Itasca. With the radio contact, the plane should have been able to use it to guide direction. Radio Direction Finding (RDF) provided by the Itasca and then to would have steered them to Howland. The Lockheed Electra however, for whatever reason, appears not to have received those radio signals from the Itasca, leaving it without a respective RDF bearing. Although the Itasca was receiving HF radio signals from the plane, it appears to have been a one-way transmission. 

The USCGC Itasca. Photo credit: United States Coast Guard.

The USCGC Itasca, a United States Coast Guard cutter anchored off Howland Island, received Amelia's last confirmed radio message. Photo credit: United States Coast Guard.

Consequently, Amelia may not have been directed to Howland Island, and with little fuel may have been faced with few options. Nearly one year and six months after she and Noonan disappeared, Earhart was officially declared dead in absentia — that is, a presumption of death, which occurs when a person is thought dead despite the absence of direct proof. The Crash-and-Sink Theory is the official position of the U.S. Government regarding Amelia's disappearance.

Theory #2: Gardner Island/Nikumaroro Hypothesis

The Gardner Island hypothesis assumes that Earhart and Noonan, unable to find Howland Island, would have not wasted time searching for it further,  and instead would have turned south to look for other islands.  Radio transmissions suggest they flew past Baker Island, and logic indicates they would have flown over Phoenix Islands (now part of the Republic of Kiribati) next. One of the Phoenix Islands, known as Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro), has been the subject of inquiry as a possible crash-landing site.

Nikumaroro Island. Photo Credit: TIGHAR and Ameliapedia, the TIGHAR wiki.

Both Howland and Nikumaroro Island would have been uninhabited at the time Earhart would have landed there. Photo Credit: TIGHAR and Ameliapedia, the TIGHAR wiki.

A week after Earhart disappeared, Navy planes from USS Colorado searched Gardner Island. The planes saw signs of recent habitation and the November 1929 wreck of the SS Norwich City, but did not see any signs of Earhart's plane or living souls. Around April 1940, a skull was discovered and subsequently buried on Nikumaroro, along with artifacts such as rings, a bottle, a shoe, and a sextant box. There exists a record of a British colonial officer, Gerald Gallagher, radioing his superiors that he had found a "skeleton ... possibly that of a woman", which "look[s] more than four years old to me but there seems to be a very slight chance that this may be remains of Amelia Earhart." Dr. D. W. Hoodless, who analyzed the remains, wrote that "it may be definitely stated that the skeleton is that of a male". 

A bone-handled jackknife that matches one mentioned in Earhart's inventory was discovered in Nikumaroro by Ric Gillespie and his team while excavating for the remains of Earhart's plane.  Full photo credit: TIGHAR and Ameliapedia, the TIGHAR wiki.
A bone-handled jackknife that matches one mentioned in Earhart's inventory was discovered in Nikumaroro by Ric Gillespie and his team while excavating for the remains of Earhart's plane. Full photo credit: TIGHAR and Ameliapedia, the TIGHAR wiki.

Around the turn of the 21st century, researchers used Hoodless's measurements to argue against his conclusions that the bones were that of a male. In 1988, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) began an investigation and sent eleven research expeditions to Nikumaroro, producing inconclusive results. They have suggested that Earhart and Noonan may have flown without further radio transmissions for two and a half hours along the line of position Earhart noted in her last transmission received at Howland, then found the then-uninhabited Gardner Island, landed the Electra on an extensive reef flat near the wreck of a large freighter (the SS Norwich City) on the northwest side of the atoll, and ultimately perished.

Theory #3: Japanese Capture Theory

The theory that Earhart and Noonan were captured by Japanese forces, perhaps after somehow navigating to somewhere within the Japanese South Seas Mandate, is also a plausible conclusion. In 1966, CBS correspondent Fred Goerner published a book claiming that Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed when their aircraft crashed on the island of Saipan, part of the Northern Mariana Islands archipelago. Saipan is more than 2,700 miles away from Howland Island, however. Later proponents of the Japanese capture hypothesis have also suggested the Marshall Islands as a potential final destination of the Lockheed Electra. While still distant from the intended location (~800 miles), the Marshall Islands are certainly possible.

Earhart Light. Photo credit: Joann94024 at English Wikipedia.

Built in the 1930s as a homage to Amelia Earhart, the Earhart Light was a day beacon in Howland Island. Photo credit: Joann94024 at English Wikipedia.

A different version of the Japanese capture hypothesis is not that the Japanese captured Earhart, but rather that they shot down her plane. Henri Keyzer-Andre, a former Pan Am pilot, propounded this view in his 1993 book Age Of Heroes: Incredible Adventures of a Pan Am Pilot and his Greatest Triumph, Unravelling the Mystery of Amelia Earhart. We hope this theory not to be true, but the world is full of mysteries.

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