Mystery of fabled female aviator who disappeared still soars


AMERICA:Amelia Earhart caught the imagination of millions. A new attempt to locate her missing plane is under way

DID AMELIA Earhart, the pioneering aviatrix who disappeared with her navigator, Fred Noonan, 75 years ago on July 2nd, on the final leg of their circumnavigation of the globe, crash and sink with her Lockheed Electra 10E aircraft? Some fantastists believe Earhart was captured while spying on the Japanese in the Pacific for her friend President Roosevelt, as suggested in a 1943 Hollywood movie and at least two books.

Earhart’s legend might not be so powerful if the five ships that mounted the costliest, most intensive rescue mission in US history up to 1937 had found her and Noonan. She became a mythical figure, America’s “favourite missing person” in the words of Tom Crouch, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

There was something almost mystical about Earhart’s disappearance, like an Old Testament prophet being translated into the heavens. “A ghost of aviation/She was swallowed by the sky/Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly,” Joni Mitchell sang in her 1976 classic Amelia.

Now another theory has moved to the fore, and there’s a tiny chance the mystery will be resolved next month, when a $2 million expedition by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, known by the acronym Tighar, sets out from Honolulu in a ship equipped with small robotic submarines to search for Earhart’s plane.

When she launched the expedition in the Benjamin Franklin room of the state department earlier this year, secretary of state Hillary Clinton said admiration for Earhart made her want to become an astronaut when she was a child. Earhart “gave people hope and she inspired them to dream bigger and bolder,” Clinton said.

Richard Gillespie, the director of Tighar, believes Earhart and Noonan landed on the reef at Nikumaroro, a tiny atoll in the Republic of Kiribati, 350 miles southeast of Howland, where they had intended to refuel. So many ships, aircraft and radio operators fed the jumble of signals in the days following the disappearance that all were until recently discounted. Using digitised equipment, Tighar concluded that 57 of 120 recorded signals may have come from Earhart.

Tighar has also re-examined an aerial photograph of Nikumaroro taken three months after Earhart’s disappearance, and believes a blurry object in the water might be the landing gear of the Lockheed Electra. According to this theory, the plane was blown off the reef and Earhart and Noonan survived for a time drinking rain water and eating fish, shell fish and turtles.

David Jourdan, a former submarine officer and ocean engineer, spent $4.5 million on two fruitless deep sea missions to the north and west of Howland in 2002 and 2006. Next month’s expedition will be Tighar’s seventh since 1988.

Just a week after Earhart’s disappearance, a naval aircraft from the battleship Colorado flew low over several islands, including Nikumaroro, which was then called Gardner Island. The crew reported that “signs of recent habitation were clearly visible but repeated circling and zooming failed to elicit any answering wave from possible inhabitants and it was finally taken for granted that none were there”. Three years later, in 1940, a British pilot sent a radio message saying he had discovered “a skeleton . . . possibly that of a woman” and a sextant box under a tree on the southeast corner of the island. The remains were sent to Fiji where experts said they appeared to be the bones of a 5’5” tall male. But in 1998, forensic scientists concluded the same remains belonged to a “tall white female of northern European ancestry”. The bones were subsequently lost.

Earlier missions to Nikumaroro found a bone-handled knife like the one Earhart carried, parts of a man’s and a woman’s shoes, a zipper pull from the 1930s, an aluminium panel and a piece of curved plexiglas that appeared to be part of an aircraft window. Researchers recently established that a broken jar found on the atoll was the same unusual size and shape as 1930s “Dr Berry’s Freckle Ointment”. Earhart disliked her freckles and used cream to make them fade.

When Earhart first started flying, she slept in her leather jacket to make it look worn, and cropped her hair short to resemble other women flyers. On the day of her marriage to George Putnam, a publicist and publisher who helped make her famous, she sent Putnam a note saying, “I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly.”

The thought of this brave, modern woman dying of thirst, hunger and exposure on a desert island fills me with sadness. I prefer to imagine her landing in an Irish pasture at Culmore, north of Derry, on a site now marked by the Amelia Earhart Centre. It was May 21st, 1932, and Earhart had battled strong northerly winds, ice and mechanical problems to become the first woman to cross the Atlantic alone. “Have you flown far?” a farmer asked her. “From America,” she replied.

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