Earhart Logo, 23KThe Search for Amelia Earhart:
An Overview

Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. About that there is little dispute. Where and when she died has been hotly debated since the morning she and her navigator Fred Noonan failed to arrive at a tiny island in the Central Pacific on July 2, 1937.

At the time of her disappearance, Amelia Earhart was arguably the most famous woman of her generation and is, even today, certainly the most well-known woman aviator of all time. As the first woman passenger to cross the Atlantic by air in 1928, and the first pilot to fly the Atlantic since Lindbergh in 1932, she established herself as a major figure in a era when aviation was making daily headlines. Married to master promoter and publicist, George Palmer Putnam, she continued to set records flying from Mexico to New Jersey, and from Hawaii to California in 1935.

The World Flight and the Disappearance

The next year she took delivery of a twin-engined Lockheed Model 10E Special “Electra” which had been equipped with extra fuel tanks for long range flights, and in 1937 she set out to be the first person to circle the globe by air close to the equator. After a false start in March which ended in a crash in Hawaii, the airplane was repaired and another attempt was begun in May. Her companion was the finest aerial navigator of the day, Frederick J. Noonan. The former sea captain had pioneered the trans-Pacific routes for Pan American Airways’ fabled China Clipper and had recently resigned from the airline. Together, Earhart and Noonan flew the Electra across the United States from Oakland to Miami, across the Caribbean to South America, then across the South Atlantic to Africa. Flying over the trackless Sahara, they continued around the tip of Arabia and on up to India. They flew across the sub-continent and down though Southeast Asia, through what was then the Netherlands East Indies, to northern Australia and finally eastward to Lae, New Guinea. It had taken almost exactly a month to travel from Miami to New Guinea. Now they faced the longest and most difficult leg of the entire journey: the 2,500 mile jump to Howland Island, a miniscule coral outcropping in mid-Pacific where a runway had been carved out and the Coast Guard cutter Itasca was waiting to refuel the Lockheed for the flight to Hawaii. From there she would fly to Oakland to complete the world flight.

But Earhart and Noonan did not arrive at Howland Island. As she approached the island on the morning of July 2nd, after 19 hours in the air, the radio operators aboard the Itasca could clearly hear her attempts to contact them, but it soon became tragically apparent that she was not able to hear their replies. The last known transmission from the plane came at 08:43 local time.

The 1937 Search
The very first theory about what happened to Amelia was conjured by the captain of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca which was waiting for her at Howland Island. Commander Warner K. Thompson decided that she probably ran out of gas shortly after contact was lost and that she had gone down at sea somewhere to the northwest. He went and looked but found nothing.

The next theory was put together by Naval officers in Honolulu that same evening. After studying the facts as they knew them, it was decided that the search should be conducted along a navigational line running southeastward from Howland. The battleship USS Colorado was dispatched to undertake that mission.

Over the next few days, as the Colorado steamed the 2,000 miles southward to begin the search, radio signals believed to be from the lost plane were heard prompting experts to declare that the airplane had to be on land and able to operate an engine to recharge the batteries. Directional bearings taken on some of the signals by Pan American Airways stations around the Pacific seemed to indicate that the transmissions originated from the area of the Phoenix Group of islands, which lie about 350 miles southeast of Howland. This information caused the Navy to alter its theory somewhat. By use of its three catapult-launched floatplanes, the Colorado would focus its search on the islands of the uninhabited Phoenix Group rather than on the open ocean.

No airplane was seen during the Colorado’s aerial search of the Phoenix Group, although “signs of recent habitation” were noted on Gardner Island. When the aircraft carrier USS Lexington took over the search on July 11th the search shifted away from the Phoenix Group to the open ocean areas north and west of Howland. Other ships were assigned to search the densely populated Gilbert Islands far to the west on the chance that Earhart had reversed her course, but neither the Lexington’s intensive aerial search of the ocean nor the inquiries in the Gilberts turned up any hint of the missing flight. On July 18th the search was officially called off. The official verdict was that the plane had probably gone down at sea and sunk without a trace. The supposed distress calls were declared to be either misunderstandings or outright hoaxes.

Conspiracy Theories

The first allegation that there was more to the story than the U.S. government would admit came from an Australian tabloid newspaper called Smith’s Weekly. The paper’s October 16, 1937 issue charged that the U.S. Navy had used Earhart's disappearance as an excuse to send aircraft over the Marshall Islands where it was suspected that the Japanese were building military installations in violation of a League of Nations mandate. The logs of the ships participating in the search show that they never came anywhere near the Japanese Mandate and subsequent research of Japanese records show that no fortifications or airfields had yet been built. Yet the seed of an idea had been planted which would grow into one of the 20th centuries most popular conspiracy theories.

In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a screenplay of disputed authorship was written entitled “Stand By To Die” which took the Smith’s Weekly idea and added the notion that Amelia was in on the plot. Purchased by RKO Pictures, the story was filmed and released under the title “Flight For Freedom” in April of 1943. Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray starred as “Toni Carter” and “Randy Britton” – characters so thinly disguised as Earhart and Noonan that George Putnam, Amelia’s widower, was paid a fee to forestall a lawsuit.

Life began to imitate art as soon as the film was released. That same week a Georgia Tech administrator, M. L Brittain, who had been a guest aboard the Colorado during the Earhart search, came forward with the news that he had had the feeling at the time that Earhart’s flight was somehow involved with the government. He did not mention why he waited six years to mention it. Aided by rumors that the story might not be entirely fictional, “Flight for Freedom” probably got more play than it deserved. (It’s a terrible film, even for a wartime propaganda vehicle.) By the time U.S. forces invaded the Marshall Islands and Saipan in 1944, the notion that Amelia Earhart may have been “captured by the Japs” was well-established scuttlebutt.

In 1949 rumors about Earhart having been in the Marshall Islands were bolstered by her mother’s statement to the press that she felt that AE had been secretly involved with the government. In response, U.S. Army Intelligence and the United Press conducted independent investigations in the Marshalls and could find no supporting evidence or corroborating witnesses.

The Earhart spy fever seems to have gone into remission until 1960 when three U.S. Air Force officers stationed on Guam produced a long list of names of witnesses on Saipan who supposedly had seen Earhart and Noonan in Japanese custody. The press was quick to report the story although an official USAF inquiry called the allegations “garbage.” It wasn’t long before a woman in San Mateo, California named Josephine Blanco Akiyama was in the news with a claim that, as a girl on Saipan before the war, she had seen Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan taken prisoner. The story captured the imagination of KCBS Radio reporter Fred Goerner who launched an investigation that culminated in a 1966 best selling book The Search For Amelia Earhart which painted Earhart as a government agent forced down in the Marshalls, imprisoned on Saipan, and dying of malnutrition and disease. Goerner’s success unleashed a flood of other conspiracy books by authors who alleged countless variations on the theme, including the charge that Earhart was alive and well and living in New Jersey under an assumed name.

It was inevitable that such nonsense would spark a backlash, and in 1972, public relations executive and Earhart fan Richard G. Strippel wrote Amelia Earhart: The Myth and the Reality which endorsed the government’s original conclusion that Earhart simply ran out of gas and crashed at sea. Among the most vocal proponents of this intuitive theory are retired airline pilot Elgen Long and the chairman of the National Air & Space Museum's Aeronautics Department, Tom Crouch.

The Earhart Project
From its founding in 1985 until 1988, TIGHAR was also a proponent of the crashed-and-sank theory, but in that year two members of the organization – Tom Willi and Tom Gannon – pointed out to TIGHAR’s Executive Committee the navigational logic behind the Navy’s original theory that the flight had ended on one of the islands of the Phoenix Group. The Earhart Project was inaugurated in November of 1988 with the stated purpose of investigating the Earhart/Noonan disappearance according to accepted academic standards and using sound scientific methodology. Now in its fourteenth year, the project has conducted four expeditions to the Central Pacific and has raised and spent something over $2 million in contributed funds.

Valid conclusions can not be drawn from invalid information, and for that reason the Earhart Project began with, and continues to focus on, the gathering and study of the best original source information available pertaining to the Earhart/Noonan flight, disappearance and search. What we have found is a popular mystery shot through with myth and legend. In the course of TIGHAR’s investigation, many new and important observations have been gleaned from an abundance of original archival sources, and several previously unknown historical documents have been found which both correct and significantly add to our understanding of events surrounding the Earhart disappearance. For example: we know now that Earhart departed on her final flight with 1,100 U.S. gallons of fuel – enough for roughly 24 hours of endurance and enough to give her, at least in theory, more than three hours of flight time after she was last heard from. We also know that the Itasca radio log entry which records her as saying that she was “circling” is a strike-over of the erased original entry “drifting.” What she probably said was that she was “listening.”

The facts of the case point to Gardner Island, the place where the Navy flyers in 1937 saw “signs of recent habitation” on an officially uninhabited atoll. Today known as Nikumaroro, the island is part of the Republic of Kiribati. Although colonized by the British with settlers from the Gilbert Islands in late 1938, the atoll was abandoned in 1963 and has been uninhabited ever since. TIGHAR expeditions to the island have recovered a number of artifacts from the deserted and overgrown village which are known to be salvaged aircraft parts. Some of these are of World War II origin, but others are not and appear to be consistent with the Lockheed Model 10E Electra flown by Earhart. At another site on the island, the remains of an American woman’s shoe of the same style and size worn by Earhart were found in 1991. In 1997, further archaeological excavations at this site produced the remnants of a small campfire and a fragment of what appears to have been a label from a can of food. The site was originally discovered by TIGHAR field researchers who were investigating a legend that told of bones, a cognac bottle and an American woman’s shoe said to have been found on the island by the first settlers.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1997, months after the expedition that found the campfire, that a file was found in the national archives of the Republic of Kiribati in Tarawa which confirmed the legend as historical fact with sixteen pieces of official British colonial correspondence. Human remains, the sole of a woman’s shoe, a Benedictine bottle, a campfire and other artifacts were indeed found on the island in 1940 at a site which fits the description of the one later found by TIGHAR. The Colonial Service officer in charge of the island suspected that the castaway who had died at the primitive campsite might have been Amelia Earhart. The bones and artifacts were sent to British headquarters in Fiji for examination and the matter was declared “strictly secret.” In April of 1941, an analysis of the bones by a physician concluded that the individual was probably a muscular middle-aged male of European descent, and that is where the matter appears to have ended. Later that year, other events in the Pacific overshadowed any remaining curiosity about an unidentified castaway on a minor atoll.

More new clues have come in the form of anecdotal accounts by former residents of Nikumaroro who describe pieces of aircraft wreckage on the reef and an airplane wreck in the heavy vegetation along a particular section of shoreline which has not yet been searched by TIGHAR. Digital analysis of aerial photos of the island has corroborated this testimony with indications of metal objects in the reported locations.

New information, new historical documents and new physical evidence – all gathered and assessed according to rigorous scientific standards – have resulted in several field expeditions to Nikumaroro and to Fiji. Click on any of the links below to read archived daily reports, artifact assessments, and plans for upcoming field work.

Niku III Niku IIII Niku VP Niku V Niku VI Niku VII

About TIGHAR Join TIGHAR The TIGHAR Store
TIGHAR Projects TIGHAR Publications Contract Services Field Schools
TIGHAR Forum Contact TIGHAR TIGHAR Home Site Map