It has been more than 80 years since the disappearance of legendary American aviator Amelia Earhart who went missing over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. In the summer of 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off in their Lockheed Electra from Lae Airfield in Papua New Guinea bound for Howland Island, an uninhabited coral island located close to the equator almost halfway between Australia and Hawaii.
From what we know, they never made it to Howland Island, and the world has been searching for them ever since. The United States Coast Guard and Navy were sent to search for Earhart and her navigator. Meanwhile, Earhart’s husband, George Putnam, hired civilian ships to search for his missing wife. Alas, Earhart, Noonan, and the wreckage of the plane were never found despite weeks of searching. People have speculated on the disappearance and what might have happened while scouring the Marshall Islands in search of wreckage or something that could shine a light on what happened.
Like all big mysteries, plenty of theories sprang up about what might have occurred on that fateful summer’s day, the top three of which we will explore below.
The plane crashed in the ocean near Howland Island
The official explanation of what happened to Earhart provided by the United States government was that the plane ran out of fuel and crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Before Earhart’s fateful journey, the United States sent the Coast Guard cutter Itasca to Howland Island to support Earhart in her quest to circumnavigate the globe. The ship was there to provide air navigation and a radio link to help guide the plane to the remote island. For some reason, radio contact between Earhart and the Itasca was sporadic, which remains a part of the ongoing mystery.
Don’t forget, back in 1937, we did not have radar, and the smoke from the ship’s funnel was supposed to help Earhart spot the island. When Earhart and Noonan failed to arrive, the speculation was that they got lost and crashed in the ocean after running out of fuel.
The searched the ocean floor
About 19 years ago, a Maryland ocean research company called “Nauticos” led an effort to locate Earhart’s plane where they believed it might have crashed close to Howland Island.
When speaking ahead of the mission, National Geographic quotes Nauticos president David Jourdan with saying the following:
“We are confident it is in the area we are searching,” said Jourdan. “Of course, we cannot guarantee it because it could be on the outside edge, but we are sure it is in the vicinity.”
Despite searching an area the size of 630 square miles (1,660 square kilometers), nothing was found, as was also the case with later missions that scoured the ocean floor.
Another theory was that Earhart and Noonon, after being unable to find Howland Island, landed the Lockheed Electra on Nikumaroro Island, a tiny coral island located 350 nautical miles southwest of where they were supposed to land. People researching this theory are drawn to a short radio transmission. Earhart told the Itasca that they were flying along “line 157 337.” If this is correct, should Earhart have missed Howland, they could have made it to Nikumaroro.
At the time of Earhart’s disappearance, the tide would have been low enough on Nikumaroro to provide Earhart with a flat reef surface along the shoreline on which a plane could land. Researches speculate that even if the pair could have landed on the island, later high tides would have washed the aircraft out into the ocean.
There were signs of people being on the island
Other evidence pointing to the aviators landing on Nikumaroro and becoming castaways surfaced later in the year when the British were thinking of making a settlement there. A British officer said that he came across something that could be seen as an overnight shelter and took a photograph of what people speculate might have been a part of the plane’s landing gear.
In 1938, people arrived on Nikumaroro as part of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme and came across what they thought were possibly parts of the missing plane. In 1940, island administrator Gerald Gallagher discovered bones, the remanents of a pair of shoes, and a box that once contained a sextant. The bones were sent to Fiji to be examined and were believed to belong to a European male. Later expeditions to Nikumaroro discovered evidence of campfires and the remains of fish, clams, and turtles. Based on the fact that the turtle heads were not eaten, researchers concluded that Pacific Islanders were not the finds’ source.
Captured by the Japanese
Theory number three and the most imaginative of them all is that after being unable to locate Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan flew to the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. Speculation is that the Japanese thought they were American spies and later executed them.
Some people even believe that both Earhart and Nonoon returned to the United States under assumed names with one theory that Earhart became Irene Craigmile and then Irene Bolam after getting married to Guy Bolam.
In his book “Emilia Earhart Survived,” retired U.S. Air Force Coronel Rollin C. Reineck speculates that Earhart ditched the plane in the Marshall Islands and for national security reasons and returned to the USA under an assumed name. He thinks that by landing in the Marshall Islands, the United States used the search for Earhart as a way to perform prewar reconnaissance on the Japanese.
Retired teacher Dick Spink thought that Reineck was on to something, and, after doing his research, was confident that Earhart and Noonan landed on Mili Atoll.
National Geographic mentions a 2015 interview in which Spink said:
“I heard a consistent story from too many people in the Marshalls to dismiss it. They say, ‘She landed at Mili. Our uncles and aunts, our parents, and our grandparents know she landed here.'”
The plane would have run out of fuel
While Spink has his theory of what happened to Earhart and Noonon, other people have called the Marshall Island theory as being impossible to have occurred. Retired pilot and longtime Earhart enthusiast Elgen Long believes the truth of the matter is that the plane ran out of fuel and crashed in the ocean.
“The plane would’ve had to float a long way” to reach the Marshall Islands, quipped Long in a previous interview about the disappearance.
Former World Airways pilot and Lockheed Electra owner Fred Patterson shares Long’s belief saying:
“There’s just no way she made it to the Marshall Islands. I’ve done some long-range flying in that airplane myself, and I know exactly what it burns per hour.”
For now, what happened to Earhart and Noonan remains a mystery and will likely remain so until someone discovers the wreckage of the plane.
What do you think happened to Amelia Earhart? Please tell us your theory in the comments.