It was on 2 July 1937 that famed aviatrix* Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, made their final radio contact during their attempt to circumnavigate the globe along the Equator. Earhart and Noonan had departed from Lae, New Guinea on their way to tiny Howland Island, just north of the Equator (it lies at at 0 degrees 48 minutes North, 176 degrees 38 minutes West, almost exactly halfway between Lae and Honolulu, Hawaii.) Their aircraft was a Lockheed L-10E Electra, a twin-engine plane and Lockheed’s first to feature all-metal construction.
Amelia Earhart had a number of aviation firsts to her credit: she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic (a year after Charles Lindbergh’s renowned solo crossing) and later became the first woman to make the crossing as a solo flight, a feat for which she was awarded The Distinguished Flying Cross. Garbed in heavy, unisex flight gear, Earhart bore an uncanny resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, and the popular press gave her the nickname “The Lady Lindy,” which enhanced her image. She was also the first person to make a solo flight from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California, and she held several aviation speed records. By 1937 Amelia Earhart was not only a celebrity but a genuine national hero. Her attempt to circle the globe was eagerly followed in the international press.
The round-the-world flight was not to be the first. That had been accomplished earlier, but it was to have been the first equatorial circumnavigation of the globe. Though it was promoted as a scientific mission, little hard science was actually performed during the journey, and it seems that it was designed to create publicity as much as anything else. Earhart had taken a position at Purdue University in 1935 as a counselor on careers for women, and it was Purdue which funded the purchase of her L-10E.
Earhart and Noonan’s final transmission indicated that they were low on fuel and that they believed they were at the charted position for Howland Island. The United States Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed at Howland Island in support of a tiny settlement that had been established there, was monitoring communications from the Electra, but there were several difficulties, including Earhart’s tactic of changing transmission frequencies periodically. Other radio posts along Earhart’s flightline may have received additional transmissions as well. But Earhart and Noonan never made it to Howland Island and safety.
The disappearance sparked what was then the largest and costliest search and rescue mission in history, but no trace of the Electra nor of Earhart or Noonan has ever been positively identified. As is inevitable in the case of a celebrity vanishing, many speculations, legends, rumors, and fictions have sprung up to explain Earhart’s disappearance: some claim she and Noonan were captured by the Japanese who were fearful of American espionage attempts, others offer the theory that Earhart engineered her disappearance so that she and Noonan could start a new life together under new identities. No tale is too fanciful or too far-fetched to be posited. Yet there is to this day considerable serious and scholarly inquiry as well.
The sudden and complete disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Frank Noonan remains fascinating because it remains unexplained and unresolved. Surely it cannot help matters that U.S. government documents concerning Earhart and her disappearance remain classified.
Adventure is worthwhile in itself.
— Amelia Earhart
*”Aviatrix,” the feminine form of “aviator,” is no longer used these days, but it somehow seems just the right word to invoke the image and impact of Amelia Earhart in her times: girded in a streaming silk scarf and flying goggles, staking her claim in the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of flight.