Amelia Earhart: Biography & Disappearance

Amelia Earhart in the Electra cockpit, c.1936.
In one of Amelia Earhart's last transmissions, the U.S. Navy Radio in Honolulu heard a garbled Morse code: “281 north Howland - call KHAQQ - beyond north ... won’t hold with us much longer ... above water ... shut off.” (Image credit: Public Domain)

Amelia Earhart was an American aviator, author and women’s rights activist. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Her disappearance in 1937 during an attempt to fly around the world is a mystery that continues to intrigue people worldwide.

Early life

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas, on July 24, 1897. During Christmas vacation in 1917, she went to visit her sister in Toronto. One day, at an aviation expo, a pilot flew his plane near her. Later, she said, “I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by."

In December 1920, Earhart attended an air show in Long Beach, Calif. She took a short plane ride, and that 10-minute flight changed her life. “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly,” she said.

Just six months after she began flying lessons, she purchased her first plane, a bright yellow, second-hand biplane that she named The Canary. She soon achieved the world altitude record for women pilots — 14,000 feet — in October 1922.

In 1924, however, her parents divorced, and her family’s financial troubles forced Earhart to sell The Canary. She ended up working in Boston.

Lady Lindy

In April 1928, Earhart received an unexpected phone call asking if she would like to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Earhart immediately accepted the offer. She was listed as a co-pilot, but ultimately was not allowed to fly.

Nevertheless, Earhart became an aviation celebrity. The press dubbed her “Lady Lindy,” and George P. Putnam, who had published several stories about Charles Lindbergh, took on Earhart’s story as his next bestseller. Earhart worked closely with Putnam during appearances, lectures and other promotions, and they grew closer. After Putnam's divorce in 1931, he and Earhart were married.

Earhart put her stamp on many industries, including women’s fashion, magazines and airline management. Her true passion, however, always remained with flying. She set a world record for altitude, reaching 18,415 feet, and became president of The Ninety-Nines, an organization dedicated to women’s aviation.

Across the Atlantic, solo

For some time, Earhart and Putnam worked secretly on plans for Earhart to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. This would be the first woman and second solo person to make the flight.

On May 20, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh’s famous flight, she took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, heading to Paris. Almost immediately, the flight was plagued by poor weather, thick clouds and ice on the wings. Earhart knew she wouldn’t make it to Paris and landed in Londonderry, Ireland. “After scaring the cows in the neighborhood, I pulled up in a farmer’s back yard,” said Earhart.

For her 15-hour flight, Earhart received many honors and became an international hero. Between 1930 and 1935, she set seven women’s speed and distance aviation records.

Earhart’s last flight

Nearing her 40th birthday, Earhart said, “I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system…” She hoped that it would be a flight around the world. She wanted to be the first woman to do it.

On June 1, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, departed from Miami with great fanfare. They began the 29,000-mile journey heading east. After 29 days of flight, they touched down in Lae, New Guinea. The remaining 7,000 miles would be done over the Pacific.

The plan required landing on Howland Island, located between Hawaii and Australia and 2,556 miles away from Lae. At only 1.5 miles long and half a mile wide, Howland Island was a difficult spot for landing. Special navigation precautions were taken, including establishing radio communication with U.S. Coast Guard ship Itasca off Howland Island.

At 10 a.m., Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae. They encountered problems with overcast skies and rain showers early on. Some witnesses reported that the radio antenna may have been damaged, and other experts suggest that their maps may have been inaccurate.

As they neared Howland Island, they were unable to make sufficient connection with the Itasca or to land on the island. Earhart’s last communication was at 8:43 a.m.: “We are running north and south.”

Though the Itasca began a rescue attempt immediately and the search continued for weeks, nothing was found. On Jan. 5, 1939, Earhart was declared legally dead.

Theories about disappearance

For a long time, the most likely explanation was that the plane ran out of fuel and the flyers ditched or crashed and then died at sea. More recently, another theory has gained some traction. It holds that the flyers landed on uninhabited Nikumaroro Island, formerly called Gardner Island.

According to the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), Earhart and Noonan survived on the island for several weeks. They caught fish, seabirds and turtles and collected rainwater. Earhart died at a campsite on the island's southeast end. Noonan's fate is unknown.

This theory is based on on-site investigations that have revealed improvised tools, bits of clothing, plexiglass and an aluminum panel. In May 2012, investigators found a jar of freckle cream that some believe could have belonged to Earhart. Additionally, reports of lost distress calls have been reported.

Also, in 1940, a British Colonial Service officer found a partial skeleton on the island, as well as a campfire, animal bones, a sextant box and remnants of a man's shoe and a woman's shoe. The officer thought he may have discovered Earhart's remains, but a doctor believed the skeleton to be male, and American authorities were not notified. The bones were later lost. Recent computerized analysis of the skeleton's measurements suggests that the skeleton was probably that of a white, northern European female.

TIGHAR has led several expeditions to the island and found artifacts that suggest they were left by an American woman of the 1930s. The organization plans more expeditions in the next few years.

In July 2017, a photo discovered in the National Archives caused a buzz when some researchers suggested it showed that Earhart and Noonan had survived the crash and were taken hostage by the Japanese on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands. However, other experts contacted by Live Science said they would need to learn more about the photo before saying whether the evidence met scientific scrutiny.

Additional resources

Live Science Contributor

Jessie Szalay is a contributing writer to FSR Magazine. Prior to writing for Live Science, she was an editor at Living Social. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from George Mason University and a bachelor's degree in sociology from Kenyon College.