Earhart had a feeling she might not survive
On Tuesday, 3 July 2012 — 75 years and a day after Amelia Earhart disappeared — an expedition left Honolulu, bound for an uninhabited coral island in the South Pacific. Its mission is to search waters west of the atoll for the wreckage of Earhart’s sunken Lockheed Electra.
There’s evidence, organizers say, that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed on the island and survived there for days or weeks until they died. A newly discovered photo, taken three months after they vanished, shows what may be part of the Electra’s landing gear in deep waters off the island, called Nikumaroro.
Image analysis by U.S. government and other experts was so compelling that the State Department encouraged a new mission to explore the area. Led by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), the privately funded £1.3 million expedition will use robotic sonar technology to search waters more than half a mile deep for the missing plane.
Earhart disappeared on 2 July, 1937, while trying to complete the first round-the-world flight at the equator. Other pilots had flown around the world, but this was the longest, most hazardous route, including a perilous crossing of the entire Pacific. No one had ever attempted the flight. It was the ultimate challenge.
Her friends worried that it was too risky. Louise Thaden, a pilot who was famous for setting speed, altitude and endurance records, wanted her to cancel the trip, but Earhart would not change her mind. If she died she said, it would be doing what she wanted to do. She wasn’t afraid.
Thaden, like Earhart, was passionate about flying, and she understood. “If your time has come to go,” Thaden explained at age 33, “[flying] is a glorious way to cross over. Smell of burning oil, the feel of strength and power beneath your hands [and] in your mind’s eye the everlasting beauty and joy of flight.”
Earhart had a feeling, she admitted to a friend, that she might not survive the trip. But her worst fear was of growing old, so she wouldn’t feel completely cheated if she lost her life.
One month and a day before she disappeared, at dawn on 1 June, 1937, she and Noonan climbed into her Lockheed Electra and took off on their record-attempting flight around the globe. They soared over the Caribbean to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dutch Guiana, and Brazil, then flew across the Atlantic to the west coast of Africa. From there, they flew thousands of miles over barren, uncharted terrain to Eritria, then over Arabia to the Indian subcontinent.
In one of the last letters she sent home, Earhart said it had been a grand trip, an adventure she had always dreamed of. She never felt better.
But by the time she reached her last stop in New Guinea, on June 30, her tone was changing. From there, she had to fly 2,500 miles across the Pacific to a tiny sandspit in the middle of the ocean—a place called Howland Island. Only two miles long and half a mile wide, it was easy to miss, but they had to refuel there before crossing the rest of the vast Pacific.
In one month, she and Noonan had traveled 22,000 miles, with another 7,000 to go before completing their circle around the world. The most dangerous leg was from New Guinea to Howland, and Earhart wanted to fly it the next day, on July 1. But that night, Noonan got very drunk and didn’t get to bed until early morning. Earhart cancelled their takeoff and waited another day.
On the morning of 2 July, she and Noonan took off from New Guinea and headed for Howland Island. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships stood by to guide them in by radio. The weather was clear, and the cutter Itasca was waiting for them off Howland. But Earhart was having serious problems with her radio. She was able to send voice messages but couldn’t receive transmissions. She was never able to establish and maintain two-way communication.
For more than 20 hours, she flew across the ocean, cramped inside her tiny cockpit and unable to get bearings because of radio problems. Lost over the Pacific, she was broadcasting her line of position over and over: “We must be on you but cannot see you…gas is running low…unable to reach you…”
Her voice, according to the Itasca’s radio operator, was blasting through the ship’s speaker so loudly that it couldn’t get any louder. Desperate, frantic, rushed, it was almost a scream.
Then there was silence, and Earhart and Noonan disappeared with the whole world watching. Seventy-five years later, we’re still searching for answers.
Susan Wels is author of Amelia Earhart: The Thrill of ItTagged in: Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, Lockheed Electra, Nikumaroro
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