THE story of the disappearance of the bold aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan after taking off from Lae for a pioneering trans-Pacific flight in 1937, is an enduring mystery which has given rise to many conspiracy theories and creative explanations.
Was the pair captured by the Japanese, then preparing for war? Killed in a crash in the unknown reaches of the western Pacific? Disappeared in Rabaul’s Simpson Harbour? Abducted by aliens? Survived and assumed a new name under a witness protection programme in New Jersey? All have been proposed.
But a recent documentary on the History Channel based on research by a former FBI detective has unearthed intriguing evidence that Earhart and Noonan may have survived a crash landing in the Marshall Islands and been taken into custody by the Japanese as suspected spies.
Earhart became the most famous aviatrix of all when she completed the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight by a woman in 1932. For this achievement she won worldwide acclaim and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross of the United States, the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honour from France and the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society from UD president Herbert Hoover.
As her fame grew, she developed friendships with many people in high office, most notably America’s first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt shared many of Earhart's interests and passions, especially for women's causes.
But it is Earhart’s attempt to fly around the world at her second attempt in 1937 which became the stuff of legend.
On 2 July 1937, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae airfield in their heavily-loaded Lockheed Electra. Their intended destination was Howland Island, a flat sliver of land two kilometres long and 500 metres across.
Their last known position report came from near the Nukumanu Islands, about 1,300 km into the flight. The US coastguard vessel Itasca had been stationed at Howland Island to communicate with Earhart's aircraft and guide it to the island once they arrived in the vicinity.
Through a series of misunderstandings or errors (the details of which are still controversial), the final approach to Howland using radio navigation was not successful.
Although Itasca received their radio messages, Earhart apparently could not hear the replies. The last voice transmission received on Howland Island from Earhart indicated she and Noonan were flying along a line which Noonan would have calculated and drawn on a chart as passing through Howland.
After all contact was lost, attempts were made to reach the flyers using both voice and Morse code transmissions. It is possible that wireless operators in the Pacific may have heard signals from the downed Electra, but there were no reports of this happening.
One theory is that Earhart and Noonan crash-landed on a lagoon in the Marshall Islands – which were then controlled by the Japanese.
Anecdotal reports from local people suggest that an aircraft was spotted crashing into the water about the time of her disappearance and that the two aviators were picked up by a Japanese ship. This story now seems to have been supported by a newly discovered photograph.
Independent analysts have told History Channel that the photo appears legitimate and unaltered. Shawn Henry, former executive assistant director for the FBI and an NBC News analyst, has studied the photo using face recognition software and feels confident it shows the famed pilot and her navigator.
This most recent theory features in a new History Channel documentary, ‘Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence’, which suggests she and Noonan died as prisoners of the Japanese on Saipan.
Whatever the truth, Earhart was a pioneer and a brilliant woman. She was an international celebrity during her lifetime. Her independence, persistence, coolness under pressure, courage and ambition, together with the circumstances of her disappearance at a comparatively young age, have given her lasting fame.
Earhart is regarded as a feminist icon and hundreds of articles and scores of books have been written about her life, often cited as a motivational story for girls.
Amelia Earhart's accomplishments in aviation inspired a generation of female aviators, including more than 1,000 women pilots of the Women Airforce Service who ferried military aircraft, towed gliders, flew target practice aircraft, and served as transport pilots during World War II.
Another interesting analysis of the photographic 'discovery' can be linked to here - KJ