What was the real fate of pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, who disappeared on July 2, 1937, before reaching their Pacific Island destination on an attempted circumnavigation of the earth?
The mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan when their flight disappeared over the Pacific just over 80 years ago while on an attempted circumnavigation of the globe is the most famous and enduring mystery in the history of flight and one of the most compelling mysteries of modern times. Amelia, of course, was the pilot, a record-setting aviator who was the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic, among numerous other firsts. Noonan, her navigator, was at her side on the would-be round-the-world flight. But on July, 2, 1937, when the pair were over the Pacific and presumably near their destination of remote and tiny Howland Island, they disappeared. Earhart’s last confirmed radio transmission was at just before 9 a.m. The duo was never heard from again. The question remains, what happened to them?
- Survived and Were Captured: Some modern-day researchers and actual searchers believe that Earhart and Noonan landed on or near an island occupied by the Japanese (this was during Japan’s imperial drive four and a half years before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). The theory goes that the pair survived the forced or crash landing of the Lockheed Electra they were flying and were captured by Japanese troops. Some theorists hold that Earhart and Noonan were executed by the Japanese as spies, and others believe that they were interned in a Japanese-run prison. Still others believe that they were secret agents for the United States and were returned to the United States, where they lived out their lives under assumed identities. One author in the 1970s identified a woman living in New Jersey as being Earhart.
- Crash landed and survived but were never found: Another theory holds that the pair survived a crash landing on a remote island but were never found and so died, their location forever unknown. Proponents of this theory point to reports of fuzzy radio transmission many hours after the plane would have run out of fuel. Some searchers have pointed to recovered artifacts as being proof of this outcome.
- Crashed into the Pacific and perished: The least-satisfying theory is that the pair ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific, either dying in the crash or surviving without being found and ultimately drowning. In one of her last radio transmissions sent while searching for Howland, Earhart radioed that the Electra was running low on fuel and had an estimated half hour of endurance left.
The disappearance of Earhart and Noonan was a tragedy of epic proportions. Ships searched for days afterward for the plane but never found a trace of the flight. Since then, searchers have combed beaches and used sonar and satellite photography to try to find a trace of the lost plane or aviators.
The theory that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese and interned has been supported by eyewitness accounts by people who claim to have seen the two in captivity. One such witness claimed to have seen their execution by Japanese forces. None of these sightings, which were said to have taken place thousands of miles apart from each other, have ever been corroborated or verified.
Likewise, the search for evidence of the flight hasn’t turned up credible clues, either. If the flight did crash on a reef of a remote island or in the shallow water of a lagoon, it’s conceivable that the wreckage could one day be found, though there is no evidence that such a crash landing ever took place.
Sadly, by far the most likely explanation is the simplest: Earhart and Noonan’s plane ran out of gas while they were searching for Howland Island (or by then, any spec of land at all), and they crashed into the sea and perished, their airplane sinking to the great depths of the Pacific, never to be seen again. This most plausible explanation is one that just about everyone interested in the disappearance would like to see disproven, a fact that has no doubt led to the enduring interest in the mystery of the lost flight of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.