The headline on the New York Times read: “Miss Earhart Forced Down at Sea, Howland Isle Fears; Coast Guard Begins Search.”
She was one of the world’s most famous pilots and now she had disappeared on a around-the-world flight on a leg from New Guinea to tiny Howland Island in the Pacific ocean.
To this day she has not been found and no one knows for sure what happened to her, the airplane, or her navigator.
There has been plenty of conjecture, some of it bizarre, such as the claim that she was on a spy mission and had been captured by the Japanese.
Roy Conyers Nesbit has written a new book: Missing Believed Killed, that offers a plausible explanation of what really happened. My article is based on his extensive research.
Amelia first burst on the national scene in 1928 when she became the first woman to fly the North Atlantic from New York to London. She never flew the airplane. She was a passenger and log keeper. But that didn’t minimize her achievement to the public.
She was important enough to stand next to Orville Wright during the dedication of the cornerstone of the Wright Memorial at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1928. The occasion was held on the 25th anniversary of the Wrights’ first flight.
Her place in history was assured in 1937 when she became the first woman to fly solo across the North Atlantic. She flew her red Vega from Newfoundland to a field of cows near Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Her husband called her “Lady Lindy” after Charles Lindbergh who had accomplished the feat ten years earlier.
She went on to establish many flying records including cross-country speed records and was the first person to fly solo over the Pacific from Hawaii to California.
By the time she was 38 years old, she knew that her risky career would be coming to an end in the near future, so she wanted to do something adventurous to cap off her career.
She decided to set a new record by flying around the world following a course that would keep her close as possible to the equator.
The feat would require a larger and faster airplane than her single engine Vega. She chose a twin-engine Lockheed 10-E Electra.
The Electra was modified to hold about 1,200 US gallons of fuel by adding 6 fuel tanks in the fuselage and 6 tanks in the wings. This gave a theoretical range of 4,000 miles in still air at airspeed of 145-mph and an altitude of 4,000 feet.
It was known from the beginning that the long flight, which included several over the water segments including the 2,556-mile nonstop flight to Howland Island, would require a navigator to help Amelia.
She was not a knowledgeable navigator and couldn’t perform celestial navigation because of her mathematical inadequacy. Her technique up to this time had been to fly a compass course as accurately as possible and then try to pick up visual landmarks. When flying across oceans she headed toward large land masses which she was bound to reach eventually.
Initially two men were selected for the navigation job. The first was Captain Harry Manning, the commander of the USS, President Roosevelt. The other was Frederick J. Noonan, an experienced ship and aerial navigator who served as a navigator for the Martin 130 China Clipper that flew from California to Hong Kong.
Another man, Paul Mantz, was hired to teach Amelia how to fly the twin engine Electra. When fully loaded, Amelia’s Electra weighed over 3,300 pounds more than the standard Electra. The heavier airplane required very careful handling, especially on take-off.
Amelia soloed in 1921 after 10 hours of instruction. Some pilots said she lacked an instinctive feel for the controls of an airplane. Mantz was concerned with her tendency to jockey the throttles on take-off to correct the slight swings in yaw instead of using the rudder. She did practice diligently under Mantz’s guidance, including spending time in a Link Trainer.
Additionally, it was decided that Mantz would serve as co-pilot on the first leg of the round-the-world flight from California to Hawaii to provide additional tutoring.
The flight to Hawaii was without incident. The next morning they were to fly to Howland Island. Then disaster struck. The machine ground-looped on take-off. It was a miracle that the fully fuelled airplane didn’t catch on fire, but no one was hurt.
They returned to California and sent the airplane back to Lockheed for rebuilding. The repairs took two months and cost $14,000.
The weather underwent a seasonal change so it was decided to make the second attempt flying in a reverse direction to the east. Fred Noonan was still available to make the flight.
One other change was made that later would have tragic consequences. Amelia had the 250 foot trailing aerial removed that was used for obtaining bearings on 500 kilohertz frequency (kHz) that was normally transmitted in Morse code from ground stations. She didn’t like the bother of winding in and out the antenna and neither she nor Noonan were good at Morse code.
She began their second attempt of flying around the world on May 20, 1937. They left Oakland and thence forth traveled to Tucson; New Orleans; Miami; Puerto Rico; Venezuela; Dutch Guinea; Brazil; Senegal; French West Africa; French Chad; Anglo-Egyptian Sudan; Italian Eritrea; India; Burma; Singapore; Java; Australia and on June 29, Lae, New Guinea. They had flown 22,000-miles since leaving Oakland.
While in Australia, Amelia decided to leave the parachutes behind to save weight and because they would be of no use flying over the Pacific. That may have been another mistake.
Their next destination was Howland Island, a small island that was two miles long and a half a mile wide setting about 20 feet above sea level at its highest point.
Two boats were stationed along the route. One, a tug, the USS Ontario, was placed at the halfway point and the other, the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca was positioned near Howland. The Itasca was equipped to receive and transmit radio bearings and provide a visual smoke signal.
Amelia decided to reduce weight further by unloading all surplus equipment and baggage and possibly even the survival kit.
Several witnesses reported that Noonan drank heavily up to the night before take-off. He had a reputation of being a heavy drinker.
At 1000 hours local time (0000 GMT) on July 2nd, Amelia took off and headed for Howland Island, 2,556 miles away. (GMT means Greenwich Mean Time and is the time that is measured from the Greenwich Meridian line located at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England). Her estimated time of arrival at Howland was 1800 hours GMT that was a few minutes after sunrise. On the way she would travel through several time zones.
In her last letter to her husband she wrote:
“Not much more than a month ago, I was on the other side of the Pacific, looking westward. This evening, I looked eastward over the Pacific. In the fast moving days that have intervened the whole width of the world has passed behind me – except this broad ocean. I shall be glad when we have the hazards of its navigation behind us.”
Throughout her flight she transmitted messages every half-hour using her call-sign of KHAQQ, not knowing whether she was heard. The estimated range of the signal was up to 400 miles, but sometimes could be heard much further.
The early part of the flight was in daylight, where being able to see islands helped navigation. The night flight was mainly over open sea and Noonan navigated using stars and planets.
The radio operator at Lae heard Amelia clearly during the early part of the flight. She gave her first position report at about 850 miles out. The Electra was making an average ground speed of about 120-mph, indicating a stronger headwind than expected.
The USS Ontario, stationed at the halfway point never received a signal. An operator on the Island of Nauru, well to the North of the ship, reported receiving a signal but couldn’t make out what she said.
The next transmission anyone heard was on the Itasca stationed near Howland for the purpose of helping guide the Electra to a safe landing. The message came at 1744 hours GMT, only 16 minutes before the Electra was due to arrive.
Amelia indicated she was located about 200 miles out. The weather was not good. There were dark clouds to the northwest of the Itasca and visibility was poor. Amelia, flying under the cloud cover, would not be able to see the smoke signal from the ship from a long distance.
The next message was at 1817 hours GMT. Amelia asked for a bearing and gave her position as about 100 miles out. This was the first indication that something was amiss. She could not have flown 100 miles in the 30 minutes since her last transmission.
At 1912 hours GMT, Amelia transmitted:
“We must be on you now but cannot see you. But gas is running low. Being unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”
At 1929 hours GMT, the operators on the ship heard Amelia say,
“We are circling but cannot hear you.”
The problem with her transmission was that she was transmitting on 7,000 kHz, which was not a frequency that bearings could be taken. The operators on the ship were expecting bearings on 500 kHz, which is the frequency the trailing antenna would have transmitted if Amelia hadn’t removed it earlier in the trip.
It appears that Amelia was unable to hear any voice transmissions sent to her. She never was adept with the operation of her radio and this was a serious problem now.
At 2014 hours GMT, she sent her last message:
“We are on a line of position 157 to 337. Will repeat this message on 6,210 kcs. Wait, listening on 6,210 kcs. We are running north and south.”
The operators on the ship said her voice was heard loud and clear but broken and frenzied.
Amelia’s last desperate message was received 20 hours 25 minutes after take-off from Lae. The estimated range for the 950 gallons of gas on the Electra was 20 hours 13 minutes. They must have crashed a few minutes later somewhere not too far from Howland.
According to the skipper of the Itasca, the sea was very rough with up to 6-foot waves. Later arrivals reported snow showers and severe icing at the Equator.
Paul Mantz believes Noonan made a navigation error and missed the island. He believes that they came down under two possibilities. One was that Amelia tried to land too high above the water and stalled, killing both of them.
The other possibility was that she made a bad judgment and flew into a high roller of a wave with the same result.
If they had landed in the water safely, the Electra would have sunk within a minute or two based on experience with the airplane in WW II.
They originally carried emergency equipment on the airplane including a rubber dinghy, lifebelts, flares, flare-pistol, kite and rations. Unfortunately, the likelihood is that this emergency kit was removed earlier to save weight.
The most likely crash site is within 30 miles West of Howland Island
Amelia anticipated that she might someday crash and be killed. She wrote her own epitaph several years before her last flight:
“Hooray for the last great adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worth while anyway.”