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Asked by Todd L Ross in
Amelia Earhart
History of the United States
Airplanes and Aircraft

What really happened to Amelia Earhart?

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Todd L Ross
August 29, 2019 9:09PM

Amelia Earhart, the first woman to pilot a non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, disappeared on July 2, 1937, during her attempt to fly around the globe. She was legally declared dead on Jan. 5, 1939, but nobody knows precisely what happened to her. In the years since her disappearance, researchers have posited a number of theories, some of which are more credible than others.

Let’s look at a few possible explanations:

1. She ran out of fuel and crashed near Howland Island.

For decades, this was the most commonly accepted scientific theory for Earhart’s disappearance. At 7:42 a.m. local time on July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, contacted the Coast Guard center at Howland Island, a coral island located about 1,650 miles southwest of Honolulu.

“We must be on you, but cannot see you—but gas is running low,” she said. “Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

About an hour later, she sent her final verified transmission:

“We are on the line 157-337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.”

Since Earhart stopped broadcasting at this point, it’s logical to conclude that for some reason, she and her navigator could not find the island and ran out of fuel looking for it. Noonan would have been using celestial navigation (in other words, the position of the stars) to determine their position; had he not made proper adjustments when the plane crossed the International Date Line, the flight plan could have been 60 nautical miles off course.

Noonan was one of the best navigators in the world, but he might have been severely fatigued from the flight’s rigorous schedule. If he’d made a slight error, the plane would be lost.

2. She made it to an uninhabited island, but died there.

In 2012, researchers from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) presented a study that made the case that Earhart survived her plane crash—and sent distress signals via radio.

"Amelia Earhart did not simply vanish on July 2, 1937. Radio distress calls believed to have been sent from the missing plane dominated the headlines and drove much of the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy search," Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.

"When the search failed, all of the reported post-loss radio signals were categorically dismissed as bogus and have been largely ignored ever since.”

The study concluded that about half of the 120 reported distress signals were credible.

"The results of the study show a body of evidence which might be the forgotten key to the mystery. It is the elephant in the room that has gone unacknowledged for nearly 75 years," Gillespie said.

TIGHAR’s Earhart Project theorizes that Earhart landed safely but died on an uninhabited island called Nikumaroro in the South Pacific while waiting for rescue. The project has combed Nikumaroro since 1989, collecting artifacts like possible aircraft wreckage, a 1930s makeup box, and shoe remnants—but never anything conclusive. They believe that Earhart died at a makeshift campsite and that remains found on the island in 1940 could be hers.

3. She was captured by Japanese forces.

Proponents of this theory believe that Noonan and Earhart were captured by the Japanese military, and that the aviators were either executed or sentenced to die in work camps during World War II.

In 2017, a photograph from the National Archives went viral. According to descriptions accompanying the image, it was taken by a person spying on the Japanese for the United States. The photo appears to show two white Americans: a woman with a short haircut and a man. Take a look at the person sitting on the dock.

The History Channel ran a special on the photograph, which included facial recognition expert Kent Gibson claiming there was “very convincing evidence" that the photo shows Earhart and Noonan.

Others were less convinced—including Gillespie, who strongly supports the Nikumaroro theory.

“Let's use our heads for a moment,” he told the BBC. “It's undated. They think it's from 1937. Okay. If it's from July 1, 1937 then it can't be Amelia, because she hadn't taken off yet.”

“If it's from 1935 or 1938 it can't be her. …This photograph has to have been taken within a very narrow window—within a couple of days of when she disappeared.”

Gillespie also notes that the photo doesn’t show Japanese soldiers in uniform, and that the photo doesn’t closely resemble other photographs of Earhart. Another key piece of evidence: The people in the photo are dressed in clothes that Earhart and Noonan would not have had on the trip.

"Everything about this is wrong," Gillespie said. "I'm astounded."

Kota Yamano, a military history blogger, finally put this theory to rest in July 2017. After a fairly simple web search, Yamano found that the image first appeared in a Japanese-language travelogue of the South Seas—and it was published in 1935, years before Earhart and Noonan disappeared.

4. She faked her own death and assumed another identity.

This is one of the many conspiracy theories surrounding Earhart’s disappearance. We won’t waste time addressing every single theory—some of which involve aliens, ghosts, and interdimensional travel—but the idea that Earhart faked her own death seemed at least somewhat plausible to the National Geographic Channel, which aired a 2006 episode of its Undiscovered History series investigating this premise.

The theory came from the book Amelia Earhart Lives by Joe Klaas and Major Joseph Gervais, who make the case that Earhart survived her flight, moved to New Jersey, and assumed the identity of Irene Bolam, a banker.

The claim was patently untrue. Other researchers looked into Bolam’s past and found a wealth of evidence proving that she wasn’t Earhart—she hadn’t suddenly started her life when Earhart disappeared, and National Geographic hired a forensic expert who showed many substantial facial differences between the two women.

Bolam filed a lawsuit for $1.5 million against the publisher and authors of Amelia Earhart Lives (court records suggest that the parties reached a private settlement), and McGraw-Hill withdrew the book from circulation.

So, what really happened?

Unless scientists find Earhart’s plane—or other smoking gun evidence—we’ll probably never know. However, we can rule out some theories, and the Nikumaroro theory seems especially plausible, given current evidence.

"It's such an iconic mystery, and people hold on to that mystery," Gillespie told USA Today. "They love the mystery."