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Amelia Earhart: Disappearance & Investigation

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Few individuals have inspired such interest and adoration as Amelia Earhart. After her disappearance in 1937, people across the world have wondered, 'What happened?' This lesson explores Earhart's disappearance and subsequent investigations.

Lady Lindy

Few historical figures have inspired more excitement, interest, or intrigue than Amelia Earhart. As you may know, Amelia Earhart was a daring aviator. Now you're probably thinking, what's so exciting about that? Flying an airplane is really no big deal; after all, countless flights zip across the United States and around the world on a daily basis. During the 1920s and 1930s, however, flying was exceptionally thrilling and often quite dangerous.

Earhart began flying in the early 1920s. This was exceptional not only because flight was still a growing area of research and practice, but also because she was a woman. In 1932, she was the first woman to fly by herself across the Atlantic Ocean and only the second person to make the solo flight ever. This massive achievement earned her the nickname 'Lady Lindy' after Charles Lindburgh (the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic). Numerous speed and distance records earned Earhart further accolades.

Amelia Earhart pictured on the right circa 1921
Amelia Earhart 1921

As she neared 40 years old, Amelia Earhart considered flying around the world. Such an incredible accomplishment would truly be the crown jewel of her career. She began the roughly 29,000 mile journey in Miami on June 1, 1937, with co-pilot and navigator Fred Noonan in her zippy Lockheed Electra plane, and the two headed east around the equator. Around 7,000 miles away from completing her trip, tragedy struck, sending the entire world into a state of shock.

The Lockheed Electra plane used by Earhart and Noonan to fly around the world
Lockheed Electra

Earhart's Plan

On June 29, 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan had completed roughly 22,000 miles of their journey. The pair landed in Lae, New Guinea, and planned to continue eastward to Hawaii. The distance between Lae and Hawaii, however, was far too long without having to stop in between. Earhart and Noonan planned to land on a midway point called Howland Island, a teeny tiny island in the Pacific where the U.S. had a landing strip, a weather observation station and people ready to help refuel and resupply Earhart and Noonan.

In addition, because in the 1930s aircraft and navigation were not nearly as advanced as they are today, the U.S. Coast Guard deployed several ships to help Earhart and Noonan on this part of their trip. Two of the ships were to act like beacons and were 'ordered to burn every light on board.' The third ship, the Itasca, was to be their radio contact to assist in locating and landing on such a small island. Earhart and Noonan departed from New Guinea on July 1, 1937.

Their Disappearance

Roughly 24 hours after Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan left Lae, New Guinea, the duo and the plane disappeared. The aviators had spotty communication with the Itasca, with their last message to the boat's crew a confusing statement: 'We are running north and south.' As soon as the Coast Guard realized that Earhart and Noonan had not reached Howland Island, they began to scour the Pacific Ocean in search of the aviators and their plane.

So what exactly happened? How did a plane and two passengers simply disappear from the sky? According to accounts of July 1 and July 2, 1937, there were several factors that hurt Earhart and Noonan. One witness claimed that the plane's radio antenna was damaged, possibly hurting communication with the Itasca. Others claim that Earhart and Noonan's maps were wrong, making it difficult, even impossible, to successfully find and land on Howland Island. Weather may also have played a role in their disappearance, as after taking off from New Guinea, Earhart and Noonan flew into rainy weather.

The Initial Investigation and Conclusion

After weeks of a combined search effort between the Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy, Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, and the Lockheed Electra were still missing. The search efforts proved to be the most expensive efforts of the kind in U.S. history. That gives you just some idea into how important Amelia Earhart was! Although the Coast Guard and Navy failed to return any concrete evidence about what happened to Earhart and Noonan, Earhart's husband, George Putnam, was not ready to end the search. He paid for his own private search, but to no avail.

Amelia Earhart and husband George Putnam
Earhart and husband George Putnam

Roughly a year and a half after the disappearance, both Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were declared legally dead by the U.S. government on January 5, 1939. The U.S. government's best guess was that Earhart's plane ran out of gas, crashed somewhere in the Pacific, and the aviators drowned.

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