Amelia Earhart started flying 50 years before states began considering the Equal Rights Amendment. Given her iconic, trailblazing status, her literal vanishing makes for a human tragedy and represents much unfulfilled promise. However, it also creates easy fodder for those who wish for a more exciting conclusion than a plane crash. The somewhat-still-respectable Nat Geo and the not-at-all-respectable History Channel have broadcast schlock fests promoting creative viewpoints about her disappearance.
Probably the wildest idea is that Earhart served as a spy and was captured by the Japanese, who groomed her to become Tokyo Rose. Competing for least likely scenario is the notion that she was held by Japan, but released after World War II and returned to the United States under an assumed name. The New Jersey banker identified in a book as the one perpetuating this ruse successfully sued the publisher and had the terrible tome withdrawn.
A hypothesis centering on Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan making it to Gardner, another South Pacific island, seems a little more credible by comparison. But these claims evaporate when one considers geography, navigation techniques, and Coast Guard logs.
One of the few areas of agreement between the mainstream and alternative camps is that Earhart and Noonan departed Papua New Guinea on July 2, 1937, bound for a refueling stop 2,500 miles away on Howland, a treeless speck of flat coral measuring barely two square miles.
At 6:14 a.m., the aviating duo radioed to the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was situated near Howland to assist with flight logistics. At the time, Earhart reported they were within 200 miles, but at 7:42, she alerted Coast Guardsmen that her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra was running low on fuel and that she saw no land. Her last known attempt to communicate came an hour later. A massive search conducted by nine ships and 66 aircraft produced no sign of the aviators or their plane.
The best evidence suggests the globetrotting duo ran out of fuel after miscalculating Howland’s location. It was dark, the atoll is tiny, and if they were very far off at all, the smoke plumes the Coast Guard was offering for visual support would have been unseen.
The Itasca crew could only pin the likely crash location to a broad expanse encompassing 23,000 nautical miles north of Howland. The fuel supply would have been insufficient to get beyond this area, and the two certainly would have been incapable of reaching Gardner. Alternative guesses are hypotheses at best, though unrestrained conjecture is more abject description. Claiming that her disappearance was caused by the Pacific Ocean’s version of the Bermuda Triangle would be nearly as convincing.
Earhart’s final radio transmission to the Itasca said they were in the immediate vicinity of Howland. However, Howland’s position was misplaced on Earhart’s chart by about five nautical miles. This would still have placed the island within the her vision, but if piloting or navigation errors were added to the mix, and the plane was beyond those five miles, the results could be fatal.
The only true mystery is exactly where in the ocean Earhart met her doom. Still, members of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) argues that she managed to make it to Gardner, where she and Noonan lived as castaways and made unsuccessful attempts at radioing for help or otherwise escaping their Pacific predicament. This resembles Gilligan’s Island and, in fact, the premise is about as goofy. Gardner sits 350 nautical miles north of Howland and getting there from Papua New Guinea would have required flying in a far more northeasterly direction than someone setting out for Howland would have employed.
TIGHAR, buoyed by the Nat Geo, maintains that debris and bones found on Gardner supports its position. However, the island has been frequently populated since the 19th Century by sundry types, to include pearl divers, colonists, Coast Guardsmen, and yachtsmen. There is no DNA evidence from the bones or other items that tie them to Earhart or Noonan.
An even more outlandish scenario, championed by the (cough cough) History Channel, is that the doomed duo were taken aboard a Japanese boat, which evaded the 4,000 search party members looking for them, and that they were then held as prisoners of war, even though the U.S. and Japan would not come to blows for another four years. The most prominent piece of evidence offered for this position was a photograph in the U.S. National Archives that show a man and woman on Jaluit Atoll.
Fittingly, this idea crashed spectacularly. Japanese military historian Kouta Yamano searched the photo database of Japan’s equivalent of the Library of Congress and it took him half an hour to find the photo in a 1935 book.
These types of conclusions are reached only if one begins with the assumption that Earhart and Noonan made it to Gardner, and then attempts to shoehorn in photos, bones, campfire pits, and artifacts to meet a predetermined storyline. Trying to ascertain if there could by another source for the items is not part of the equation. Instead, proponents jump to the least likely conclusion – that the debris belonged to someone who was never known to have been to the island and who had never planned on doing so.
For example, a partial human skeleton was found in 1940 and its discoverer, Gerald Gallagher, shipped the bones to Dr. David Hoodless, who determined the bones to be a relatively small male of European descent. That was enough for TIGHAR to conclude that the bones belonged to Noonan, as opposed to any of the hundreds of British colonists who were known to have made it to Gardner.
In more pretzel logic, ITHGAR considered the heel of a woman’s shoe found on Gardner to have be Earhart’s. Far more likely was that it belonged to a pearl diver, colonist, military member, or a victim of a 1929 shipwreck in the area. Unless one has a predisposed, insatiable desire to attribute this neglected footwear to a lost aviation pioneer, there is no reason to do so.