Women’s History Month: Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific

Amelia Earhart

SAN JOSE, March 25, 2014 —  The recent disappearance of the Malaysian airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, calls to mind memories from another time when the airplane of a 39 year old woman pilot mysteriously disappeared over the vast Pacific Ocean. The young woman, her navigator, and the specially-modified Lockheed Electra 10E aircraft were never found. Yet Amelia Earhart emerged from that horrible fate more famous than most of the people of her time. It will be 77 years in July that her little airplane disappeared, but all kinds of stories, books, and movies have touched on her tragic flight.

On March 20, 2012, Hillary Clinton, while still Secretary of State, announced that the State Department would support a private group’s continuing efforts to discover the truth about what happened to Amelia Earhart. At this event, Clinton and the U.S. Transportation Department Secretary, Ray LaHood, publicly offered their encouragement and support to the privately funded organization, which has become intent on finding the missing Lockheed Electra that disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937. The private organization conducting the search is called The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). This group of professionals has been searching for evidence of the airplane Amelia Earhart flew in her famous attempt to become the first woman to fly an airplane around the world.

From that time, as now, theories about what happened to the missing aircraft were in abundance, and the theory that TIGHAR proposes flies in the face of what most historians have believed since the 1940s – that the specially outfitted Lockheed basically ran out of gas and either crashed or landed for a time on the surface, and eventually sunk into the merciless depths of the Pacific. Earhart’s story is indeed a tragic story, and definitely contains the elements of a dramatic novel. Certainly Hollywood capitalized on it more than once, and the latest rendition was the 2009 version called Amelia, which starred Hillary Swank as Amelia and Richard Gere as her husband George Putnam.

Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. She appeared at the turn of the century, at a time when the United States was going through great changes: cultural, moral, political, social, and technological. Perhaps the scientific developments and the technological innovations enhanced many if those powerful changes. Certainly,   the invention of the airplane eventually shaped the rapid flow and the ultimate outcome of Amelia Earhart’s life. Growing up in the Midwest in the early 1900s may seem to some as a boring beginning to life – akin to watching corn grow.  But Amelia was an adventurous lass, and her childhood story is entwined with her younger sister’s childhood and colored by tales of cooperative exploration of their environment.

Like experiences of many other active children during such times, the Earhart girls engaged in climbing trees, collecting zoological specimens from the wilds of the neighborhood such as katydids, toads, and worms, and hunting rats with rifles (definitely another day and age). One of the more daring and dangerous endeavors involved young Amelia constructing a huge home-made ramp extended from the roof of her grandparents tool shed and ‘flying’ off the ramp through the air. From this primitive initiation into flying through the air, to the moments when she first began her actual flying lessons near Long Beach, California, to the time she earned instant fame as the first woman passenger to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane, she seemed destined to become one of America’s most famous female pilots.

Amelia Earhart certainly generated a positive impact on American women in her day and for many years after. Hillary Clinton pointed out that her own mother was an Amelia fan. Tales of Amelia’s exploits served as an inspiration for Americans during the extremely difficult years of the Great Depression, and apparently even inspired a young Hillary to envision becoming an astronaut when she grew up. But beyond this, during an age when women were witnessing and partaking of the fruition of Women’s Suffrage and testing the waters of newly obtained political power, Amelia Earhart seemed to be the embodiment of the image of such a freshly emboldened and empowered woman. Obviously, her own admiration of Earhart may explain why she took such a high profile position in finding the lost Lockheed Electra.

Hillary’s official backing of TIGHAR’s efforts to solve the mystery, have not brought her hopes for closure to fruition since the March 2012 announcement of government support. The sad truth is that TIGHAR has been trying to solve the mystery since 1988, and seems obsessed with trying to prove their theory that first originated by the U.S. Navy as an initial scenario of different possibilities of what may have happened to the daring aviatrix and her capable navigator. TIGHAR started investigating most of the existing documents surrounding the disappearance of Earhart and discovered documentation that the pair did have more fuel than originally imagined. The theory and persistent hope that drives the TIGHAR operation is that the doomed duo landed on or near an island close to the original destination of Howland Island.  

Over several years TIGHAR has made several efforts to discover whether Amelia Earhart managed to land her airplane on or near a remote island in the South Pacific not too far from where she allegedly crashed into the ocean. Sadly, the airplane’s disappearance still remains a mystery. Nevertheless, TIGHAR has already spent years searching Nikumaroro Island for artifacts or any evidence of people or airplane parts that could prove their theory that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, did not crash into the Pacific, but instead landed on or near this island just to the south of their refueling destination at Howland Island. This theory proposed by TIGHAR is that Earhart and Noonan may have managed a landing and could have survived for some time after the U.S. Coast Guard station at Howland lost radio contact with their aircraft.

TIGHAR has spent so many years of detective work and examination of quite a number of historical documents to get to their reasonable speculation that led the organization to suspect that the most likely place where Earhart and Noonan may have spent their last days was on Garner Islandnow known as Nikumaroro Island). Year after year they have scoured the island (as long as contributions to the cause and sponsorship money would permit) and to their credit have discovered numerous objects and artifacts that could have belonged to Earhart or Noonan as well as airplane parts that possibly were part of the old Lockheed Electra. Yet, this non-profit organization has not been able to produce definitive evidence (physical or photographic) that would validate their theories that the Electra got lodged on a reef in the waters near Nikumaroro.

Still no major revelations have been made, and Amelia’s final resting place will remain a mystery for a while longer. But one must wonder about the jetliner, and despite the incredible technological advancements since the late 1930s, modern day searchers still cannot locate the missing Malaysian airliner which is one of the largest airplanes to fly the skies, how could anyone expect to have located Amelia Earhart’s little Lockheed without such technology? It also heightens the frustration regarding the current technological inability to locate the jetliner. Such a line of thinking also provokes one to wonder how many unique human stories have been ended with the disappearance of this modern day tragedy.

With regard to Amelia Earhart’s story, she not only made history while she was alive, she continues to make history to some extent even after she has passed away. Amelia’s story has long qualified as America’s favorite missing person story. Despite the ceaseless speculation and capitalizing on what happened to her airplane, Amelia wormed her way into the heart of many Americans and the mystery of her disappearance is one of the most endearing unsolved mysteries still. Nonetheless, it is perhaps more important to remember Amelia for how she lived her life and not obsess on her dramatic disappearance.

Amelia Earhart is a prime example of someone who made history on purpose. She was an American woman who continually challenged barriers, not only the limits in the sky, but on the ground and in the public arena. While she was flying, she set altitude records, speed records, and distance records in whatever airplane she flew. She was fortunate to discover what she loved at such a young age. By focusing on what she loved, she earned great fame and success. Such publicity and success was able to provide her with the resources to keep living her dream, which was to simply fly off into the wild blue sky, and when she was free to continue to fly, she continued to make history.

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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.