What Do We Think Happened to Amelia Earhart?

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It’s been over 80 years since Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939. But news of the court-ordered announcement didn’t create many waves — after all, Earhart had already been missing for 18 months.

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, famed aviation pioneer Fred Noonan, disappeared from radio contact while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. Search parties scanned the Pacific for months in hopes of finding evidence of the plane’s remains, or more optimistically, a sign that the world’s most famous female pilot survived.

Earhart’s story has evolved into a legendary tale of exploration and mystery, but people are still hunting for her story’s true final chapter. Did her plane actually crash? Why was the year-and-a-half-long hunt so futile, and will we ever uncover the truth?

Why Didn’t the Search Party Find Her?

Earhart and Noonan were over a month into their historic expedition when tragedy struck. The adventurous aviatrix wanted her final publicity stunt to explore how human beings react under the strain and fatigue of global air travel. It was a lofty goal to achieve in 1937, but the soaring duo lasted a month on their adventure and reported stories from their journey to the U.S. media along the way.

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Their expedition came to a halt somewhere in the central Pacific Ocean while en route to Howland Island from Papua New Guinea. With over 2,700 miles between the two locations, it goes without saying that search crews had their work cut out for them. For starters, the Coast Guard couldn’t track the plane’s whereabouts because Earhart left the plane’s trailing antenna behind. She also failed to radio in her location at regular intervals. In fact, she only radioed in their location seven times throughout their entire trip around the world. It made their rescue an expensive, chaotic mess from the beginning.

As the Navy sailed for clues, planes above scanned over 100,000 square miles in the early stages of the search. Search parties were even set off on potential landing areas like Kanton Island, 420 miles south of Howland Island. The pricey search cost upwards of $250,000 a day with no further clues uncovered. The chance of finding either of the adventurers alive seemed less likely as crews were eventually dismissed from the search. But as each search group was dismissed, more conspiracy theories from skeptics developed.

What Theories Have Already Been Ruled Out?

The question of what happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan conjured up a lot of theories along the way. Even George Palmer Putnam, Earhart’s husband, didn’t think his wife was lost at sea. He believed they made a safe landing somewhere because he heard amateur radio users received messages from the plane’s radio. However, Navy and Coast Guard officials debunked this idea with their superior technology.

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Others floated accusations about Japan’s involvement in Earhart’s disappearance. The conspiracies bubbled up around World War II (which isn’t likely a coincidence) and claimed Earhart was either captured by the Japanese or on a secret mission in Japan. Even President Roosevelt’s name was thrown into the mix with allegations of Earhart being a secret spy for his administration. But in the ’80s, a Japanese journalist combed through Japanese ship records around the time of Earhart’s disappearance and didn’t find any records of her plane.

More recently, a 2017 History Channel documentary claimed Earhart and Noonan were the surprise stars of a pre-WWII photo. The photo shows a group of people on a dock from Jaluit Atoll, one of the Marshall Islands. The documentary claimed Noonan was standing next to a post in the photo, while Earhart had her back to the photographer and sat on the dock with her legs dangling above the water. It didn’t take long for Japanese history blogger Kota Yamano to discover the photo was taken in 1935 for a Japanese-language travel guide about the South Pacific, long before Earhart and Noonan went missing.

So What Do the Experts Think Happened?

In August 2019, famed explorer Robert Ballard led a multimillion-dollar excavation to solve the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance. Ballard, famous for locating the remains of the Titanic, directed a two-week hunt surrounding Nikumaroro, a reef in the Phoenix Islands. He based his hunt on the Bevington Image, a photograph from 1940 that could contain landing gear from Earhart’s plane. Although they came up empty, Ballard believes we’re getting closer than ever to finding the remains.

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Susan Butler, author of East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, has another theory. She believes the plane stayed on course and simply ran out of gas near Howland Island. It’s very reasonable to believe the search crew in the 1930s didn’t have the technology to explore the area well enough. In 2009, billionaire philanthropist Ted Waitt funded a robotic search of the area west of Howland Island to no avail. But Butler believes the remains of the plane were on the other side of the island the whole time. In 2021, Ballard will head back underwater around Howland Island to see if Earhart and Noonan landed near their intended destination after all.

In Amelia Earhart’s 1932 memoir The Fun of It, Earhart explained, “Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.” Earhart likely had no idea her devotion to the skies would cement her as a legend of exploration who would intrigue the world for generations to come. It’s possible that the next few years will provide important discoveries to solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s last flight.