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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Mysterious Disappearance of “Lady Lindy”

By Tom Morrow

Perhaps no other adventurer has captured the imaginations around the world than American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who was a world-renowned flyer that was lost somewhere in the Central Pacific during an attempt to fly around the world.

Amelia Mary Earhart, born July 24, 1897; disappeared July 2, 1937. She was an aviation pioneer and author. Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, which at that time, was the equivalent of going to the moon. She received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross. She set many other records, wrote best-selling books about her flying experiences and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots.

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart

Trading on her physical resemblance to famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, whom the press had dubbed “Lucky Lindy”, some newspapers and magazines began referring to Earhart as “Lady Lindy.”

During the same period, Earhart and publisher George P. Putnam had spent a great deal of time together. Putnam, who was known as GP, was divorced in 1929 and sought out Earhart, proposing to her six times before she finally agreed to marry him. After substantial hesitation on her part, they married on Feb. 7, 1931.

In 1937, during an attempt to make a circumnavigational flight of the globe, Earhart disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. Fascination with her life, career and disappearance continues to this day. Dozens of amateur and professional researchers and archeologists have spent years hunting of the answer to her disappearance.

Through contacts in the Los Angeles aviation community, Fred Noonan was subsequently chosen as a second navigator. He had vast experience in both marine and flight navigation.

On March 17, 1937, Earhart flew the first leg from Oakland, Calif, to Honolulu, Hawaii.

Upon take off at the Navy’s Luke Field for the second leg of her trip from Honolulu to Howland Island, she crashed before liftoff. Some observers, including a Associated Press journalist, said they saw a tire blow. Earhart thought either the Electra’s right tire had blown and/or the right landing gear had collapsed. Some sources cited pilot error.

With the aircraft severely damaged, the global flight attempt was called off and the aircraft was shipped by sea to the Lockheed Burbank facility for repairs. Earhart and Putnam secured additional funds and prepared for a second attempt. This time flying west to east, the second attempt began with an unpublicized flight from Oakland to Miami, Fla.

On this second attempt, Earhart and Noonan departed Miami on June 1, and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, arrived at Lae, New Guinea, on June 29, 1937. At this stage about 22,000 miles of the journey had been completed. The remaining 7,000 miles would be over the Pacific to California.

Many researchers believe Earhart and Noonan simply ran out of fuel while searching for Howland Island, ditched at sea, and perished. Earhart had radioed the Itasca, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter anchored off Howland Island. She estimated they were 200 miles away from Howland. As Earhart’s plane came closer to Howland, she expected to be in radio contact with the Itasca, which was waiting to refuel Earhart’s plane.

With radio contact, she would have been able to use a radio direction finding receiver to head directly for the Itasca and Howland. But, apparently the plane was not receiving any radio signals from the ship.

Rear Admiral Richard R. Black, USN, who was in charge of the Howland Island airstrip and was present in the radio room on the Itasca, asserted in 1982 “the Electra went into the sea about 10 am, July 2, 1937, far from Howland.” British aviation historian Roy Nesbit interpreted evidence in contemporary accounts and Putnam’s correspondence and concluded Earhart’s Electra was not fully fueled at Lae, New Guinea.

Another long-held theory is that Earhart and Noonan were captured by Japanese armed forces, which inhabited many of the South and Central Pacific islands.

In 1990, the NBC-TV series Unsolved Mysteries broadcast an interview with a Saipanese woman who claimed to have witnessed Earhart and Noonan’s execution by Japanese soldiers. As late as 2017, a somewhat blurry black and white photo emerged and was purported to be a man and woman being loaded onto a Japanese ship in the late 1930s. However, no confirmation has been found.

A recent proponent of the Japanese theory is author Mike Campbell, who cites claims from Marshall Islanders to have witnessed a crash, as well as a U.S. Army Sergeant who found a suspicious gravesite near a former Japanese prison on Saipan, hundreds of miles of north from Earhart’s flight route.

To this day, the 1937 air-sea search Earhart and Noonan was the largest in history.

Earhart’s accomplishments in aviation inspired a generation of female aviators, including the more than 1,000 women pilots of the Women Airforce Service Pilots(WASP) who ferried military aircraft, towed gliders, flew target practice aircraft, and served as transport pilots during World War II.

The home in Atchison, Kan., where she was born is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum and is maintained by The Ninety-Nines.

The search for the fate of Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan continue to fascinate aviation history buffs.

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