Amelia Earhart and the 1937 World Flight

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Amelia Earhart's Lockheed L-10E ElectraAmelia Earhart’s Lockheed L-10E Electra


Earhart joined the faculty of Purdue University in 1935 as a visiting faculty member to counsel women on careers and as a technical advisor to the Department of Aeronautics. In July 1936, she took delivery of a Lockheed 10E Electra financed by Purdue and started planning a round-the-world flight. Not the first to circle the globe, it would be the longest at 29,000 miles (47,000 km), following a grueling equatorial route. Although the Electra was publicized as a “flying laboratory,” little useful science was planned and the flight seems to have been arranged around Earhart’s intention to circumnavigate the earth along with gathering raw material and public attention for her next book. Her first choice of crew was Captain Harry Manning, who had been the captain of the President Roosevelt, the ship that had brought Amelia back from Europe in 1928.

Through contacts in the Los Angeles aviation community, Fred Noonan was subsequently chosen as a navigator. He had vast experience in both marine (he was a licensed ship’s captain) and flight navigation. Noonan had recently left Pan Am, where he established most of the company’s seaplane routes across the Pacific. He hoped the resulting publicity would help him establish his own navigation school in Florida. The original plans were for Noonan to navigate from Hawaii to Howland Island, a particularly difficult portion of the flight; then Manning would continue with Earhart to Australia and she would proceed on her own for the remainder of the project.

First attempt

Earhart and Noonan by the Lockheed L10 Electra during their World Flight, 1937.Earhart and Noonan by the Lockheed L10 Electra during their World Flight, 1937.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1937, they flew the first leg from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition to Earhart and Noonan, Harry Manning and Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz (who was acting as Earhart’s technical advisor) were on board. Due to lubrication and galling problems with the propeller hubs’ variable pitch mechanisms, the plane needed servicing in Hawaii. Ultimately, the plane ended up at the U.S. Navy’s Luke Field on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. The flight resumed three days later from Luke Field with Earhart, Noonan and Manning on board, but a tire apparently blew on takeoff and Earhart ground-looped the plane. The circumstances of the ground loop remain controversial. Some witnesses at Luke Field said they saw a tire blow. Earhart thought either the Electra’s right tire had blown and/or the right landing gear had collapsed. Some sources cite pilot error.

With the plane severely damaged, the flight was called off and the aircraft was shipped by sea to the Lockheed facility in Burbank, California for repairs.

Second attempt

While the Electra was being repaired Earhart and Putnam secured additional funds and prepared for a second attempt. This time flying west to east, the second attempt began with an unpublicized flight from Oakland to Miami, Florida and after arriving there Earhart publicly announced her plans to circumnavigate the globe. The flight’s opposite direction was the result of changes in global wind and weather patterns along the planned route since the earlier attempt. Fred Noonan was Earhart’s only crew member for the second flight. Earhart and Noonan departed Miami on 1 June and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia they arrived at Lae, New Guinea on 29 June 1937. At this stage about 22,000 miles (35,000 km) of the journey had been completed. The remaining 7,000 miles (11,000 km) would all be over the Pacific.

Departure from Lae

On 2 July 1937 (midnight GMT) Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae in the heavily loaded Electra. Their intended destination was Howland Island, a flat sliver of land 6500 ft (2000 metres) long and 1600 ft (500 metres) wide, 10 feet (3 m) high and 2556 miles (4113 km) away. Their last known position report was near the Nukumanu Islands, about 800 miles (1,300 km) into the flight. The United States Coast Guard cutter Itasca was on station at Howland, assigned to communicate with Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E and guide them to the island once they arrived in the vicinity.

Final approach to Howland Island

Through a series of misunderstandings or errors (the details of which are still controversial), the final approach to Howland Island using radio navigation was never accomplished. Some sources have noted Earhart’s apparent lack of understanding of her Bendix direction finding loop antenna, which at the time was very new technology. Another cited cause of possible confusion was that the USCG cutter Itasca and Earhart planned their communication schedule using time systems set a half hour apart (with Earhart using Greenwich Civil Time (GCT) and the Itasca under a Naval time zone designation system). Motion picture evidence from Lae suggests that an antenna mounted underneath the fuselage may have been torn off from the fuel-heavy Electra during taxi or takeoff from Lae’s turf runway.

During Earhart and Noonan’s approach to Howland Island, the Itasca received strong, relatively clear voice transmissions from Earhart but she apparently was unable to hear transmissions from the ship. Earhart’s transmissions seemed to indicate she and Noonan believed they had reached Howland’s charted position, which was incorrect by about five nautical miles (10 km). The Itasca used her oil-fired boilers to generate smoke for a period of time but the fliers apparently did not see it. The many scattered clouds in the area around Howland Island have also been cited as a problem: their dark shadows on the ocean surface may have been almost indistinguishable from the island’s subdued and very flat profile.

Radio signals

After several hours of frustrating attempts at two-way communications, contact was lost. Don Dwiggins, in his biography of Paul Mantz (who assisted Earhart and Noonan in their flight planning), noted that the aviators had cut off their long-wire antenna, due to the annoyance of having to crank it back into the plane after each use.

Her last voice transmission received on Howland indicated Earhart and Noonan were flying along a line of position (157 – 337 degrees, presumably through Howland Island). Subsequent attempts were made to contact the flyers by radio using both voice and Morse code transmissions. Apparent signals from the downed Electra, although usually unintelligibly garbled and/or weak, were received by operators across the Pacific. Some of these transmissions were later revealed to be hoaxes but others were deemed authentic. Bearings taken by Pan American Airways stations suggested the distress calls were originating in the vicinity of Gardner Island. These signals would indicate Earhart and Noonan were on land (or at least partially so) because the Electra’s right engine had to be running in order to charge the power-hungry radio’s battery, though questions of fuel consumption remain. Signals from the plane were heard intermittently for four or five days following the disappearance; however, none of these transmissions yielded any understandable position for the downed Electra. Incredibly, a couple of short wave radio listeners on the US mainland may have heard distress calls on upper harmonic frequencies.

Search efforts

The Itasca made an ultimately unsuccessful search north and west of Howland Island based on initial assumptions about transmissions from the plane. The U.S. Navy soon took over the search and over a period of about three days sent available resources to the search area in the vicinity of Howland Island. Based on bearings of several supposed Earhart radio transmissions (along with her last known transmission giving a line of position), some of the search efforts were eventually directed to the Phoenix Islands south of Howland Island. Naval aircraft flew over remote Gardner Island and reported “signs of recent habitation” but the pilots were not aware the island had been uninhabited since 1892. Other Navy search efforts were again directed north, west and southwest of Howland, based on a belief the plane had ditched in the ocean.

The official search efforts lasted about nine days but Earhart, Noonan and the Electra 10E were never found. At $4 million, the air and sea search by the Navy and Coast Guard was the most costly and intensive in history up to that time but search and rescue techniques during the era were rudimentary. Some of the search was based on erroneous assumptions and flawed information. Official reporting of the search efforts was influenced by individuals wary about how their roles in looking for an American hero might be reported by the press. Despite an unprecedented, extended search by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, no physical evidence was found.

Possible fate

Two possibilities concerning Earhart and Noonan’s fate have prevailed among researchers and historians. As with many aviation mishaps, poor planning is often cited as a contributing cause.

Crash and sink theory

Many researchers believe the plane ran out of fuel and Earhart and Noonan ditched at sea. This “crash and sink” theory, researched for 35 years primarily by Elgen Long and his wife, Marie K. Long, is the most widely accepted explanation for the disappearance.

Gardner Island hypothesis

Immediately after Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance, the US Navy, Paul Mantz and her husband G.P. Putnam all expressed belief that the flight had ended in the Phoenix Islands (now part of Kiribati), some 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has suggested Earhart and Noonan may have flown for two-and-a-half hours along the standard line of position Earhart noted in her last transmission received at Howland, arrived at then-uninhabited Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) in the Phoenix group, landed on an extensive reef-flat near the wreck of a large freighter and ultimately perished. TIGHAR’s research has produced a range of documented, archaeological and anecdotal evidence supporting this hypothesis. For example, in 1940, Gerald Gallagher, a British colonial officer (also a licensed pilot) radioed his superiors to inform them that he believed he had found Earhart’s skeleton, along with a sextant box, under a tree on the island’s southeast corner. He was ordered to send the remains to Fiji where, in 1941, British colonial authorities took detailed measurements of the bones. In 1998, an analysis of the data by forensic anthropologists indicated the skeleton had belonged to a “tall white female of northern European ancestry.” TIGHAR’s executive director Ric Gillespie authored the book Finding Amelia (2006) which describes almost two decades of research regarding Earhart’s world flight attempts.

Artifacts discovered by TIGHAR on Nikumaroro have included an aluminum panel (possibly from an Electra) a woman’s shoe and “Cat’s Paw” heel dating from the 1930s (which resemble Earhart’s footwear in a pre-takeoff photo), a man’s shoe heel, crude tools and an oddly cut piece of clear Plexiglas which is the exact thickness and curvature of an Electra window. The evidence remains circumstantial but Earhart’s surviving stepson, George Putnam Jr., has expressed enthusiasm for TIGHAR’s research.