Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Amelia Earhart -- 75 Years Later

April 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  July 2nd 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of another of the Twentieth Century's great mysteries, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart (and her navigator Fred Noonan) on her attempt to circumnavigate the world in 1937.  The Titanic claimed over 1,500 lives while Earhart's plane only carried two people.  Nonetheless these two events ranked right up there with the world's greatest mysteries until the Titanic was finally discovered by Robert Ballard in 1985.  It took nearly seventy-five years to find the Titanic and now it has been seventy-five years that people have wondered exactly what happened to Amelia Earhart and what her final fate was.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and 80s I was very much interested in all kinds of unsolved mysteries, supernatural phenomena and other strange subjects (Bigfoot, The Loch Ness Monster, UFOs, Ghosts, ancient astronauts, Easter Island, spontaneous human combustion...).  Most of these subjects remain mysteries or myths, some taken more seriously in the scientific community and the world at large than others.  It was very exciting when the Titanic was finally discovered and the first photographs of the ship made it to TV and the newspapers.  Now it just seems like another underwater site of a sunken ship, and many young people growing up today have no idea just how much of a mystery it's final resting spot was for so many decades.  Amelia Earhart is another ocean-based mystery that continues to persist after all these years.

Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart, Harry Manning and Fred Noonan in 1937

In a way I'm kind of surprised that no conclusive evidence has ever been produced.  Of course looking for a small airplane in the ocean is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack.  But still, it just seems like something would have happened by now.  I guess that's mostly because, like the Titanic, Amelia Earhart's disappearance was a "man-made" mystery.  It's not something supernatural or otherworldly in nature.  At its core it's simply a missing plane that no one has been able to find.

Since Amelia Earhart's ultimate fate is still a mystery it has been subject to many theories and much speculation--both logical and outlandish--over the years.  The two most likely scenarios have Earhart's plane crashing in the middle of the ocean or crash landing on or near a small uninhabited island somewhere in the Pacific along or close to her flight path.  The first possibility would mean that her Lockheed Electra is on the floor of the ocean thousands of feet below the surface, where it would most likely be out of reach of today's technology.  It took seventy-five years for nautical technology to develop to the point where it was possible to pinpoint the location of the Titanic.  Who knows how much longer it will take to find Amelia Earhart's plane if it's as deep underwater as it might very well be.  The idea that Amelia and Fred Noonan might have survived the crash and lived for some amount of time on an island is not only possible, it's also a much more interesting and intriguing idea than the thought of them being killed on impact and sinking to the bottom of the ocean along with their plane.  That's a major reason for the persistence of the theory despite lack of hard evidence.

But there have been many other theories over the years, many of which seem pretty far-fetched.  Some of these theories have included Earhart being captured by the Japanese and being executed or living out the rest of her life in captivity, assuming another identity and living out the rest of her life in secrecy and even being a spy for the U.S. government.  While many of these ideas may seem outlandish, the simple fact that nothing conclusive has ever been proven means that there will probably always be some support for them.  Back when I was a kid it even seemed remotely possible (however unlikely it might be) that Amelia Earhart might still have been alive somewhere in the world.  The simple possibility of it was probably more fuel for the various theories.  You don't really seem to hear so much about such fantastical ideas today.

But since it is still a mystery it seems like every couple of years the search for Amelia Earhart and her plane re-enters the news and the public eye.  Just like when I hear of UFO reports and Bigfoot sightings these days, I always sit up and take note when some new story comes out about someone claiming to have found evidence about Earhart or putting forth a new theory about the mystery.  Which brings us to today...

I didn't even realize that today (July 2nd) was the anniversary of the disappearance until a few days ago when I was at a Barnes and Noble bookstore reading the current issue of The Fortean Times.  The Fortean Times is a great magazine for people interested in the kinds of unexplained mysteries I have always been fascinated by.  This particular issue (June 2012) had a story in it about Amelia Earhart and a new expedition that hopes to solve the mystery once and for all.  Of course that's something people have been trying to do for seventy-five years, but I always hold out hope that this will be "the one".

On July 3rd (the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first search and rescue missions to look for the Earhart's plane after its disappearance) The International Group for Historical Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) will launch its ninth (I believe) expedition to try to find the plane and evidence of Earhart's and Noonan's ultimate fate.

TIGHAR believes the wreckage of the plane is located somewhere near the island of Nikumaroro, which was known as Gardner Island in 1937.  Along with various items and clues found by others over the years TIGHAR has collected a number of pieces of possible evidence on previous expeditions over the years.  They believe that this evidence shows that Amelia Earhart survived the crash and lived on th e island for a time after her disappearance.  For full details about the current expedition and background on TIGHAR and its efforts to date please check out their website.  They will also post daily updates once the expedition begins.  Read those updates here.

Makeup jar (left) found on Nikumaroro Island

Coincidently, just about a month ago an old friend of mine and I got together and watched a few episodes of the old TV show "In Search of...", which we both watched as kids.  The show was a big influence on me and I'm sure it had a lot to do with my interest in all kinds of strange phenomena.  There is talk that "In Search of..." might finally get a legitimate DVD release soon, but in the meantime it's possible to pick up the series on DVDs put together from recordings of a re-tooled version of the show that aired on a couple different cable stations back in the 1990s or so.  It's the same show I watched as a kid, but with new opening titles and other changes that try to mask the fact that the show was produced way back in the 1970s.

"In Search of..." title screen, with Amelia Earhart at upper right

Anyway, I bought one of these sets a couple years ago.  My friend and I watched a few random episodes, and we just happened to see the one about Amelia Earhart (not realizing how close we were to the anniversary of the disappearance).  It was interesting to see what kinds of theories were still popular (or at least still in play) forty or so years ago.  There was still a belief at the time by some that Amelia Earhart might still be alive somewhere in the world.

While it's a foregone conclusion that Earhart and Noonan probably died a long time ago (regardless of what may or may not have happened after the disappearance), it's still a thrilling idea to think that it's possible that the mystery might finally be solved after all these years.  I'll follow the expedition and hope for something new to be discovered.  It seems far more likely that it won't be solved and Amelia Earhart will continue to be a mystery for the foreseeable future, but you never know...


  1. Google honoring Amelia Earhart an American aviation pioneer on her 115th Birthday with special doodle.

    1. I just saw that! It's cool to see Google honoring Amelia. It's also unfortunate (but not surprising) that the first links that come up are about how the latest search for her and her plane came up empty once again.