In 1936, Amelia Earhart decided to become the first woman to circumnavigate the earth, and began her preparations. She gathered a first class crew, consisting of Captain Harry Manning (first navigator), Fred Noonan (second navigator), and Paul Mantz (technical advisor). The plan was to fly along the equator for the whole journey.
On March 17th, 1937, they took off in a specially customised Lockheed Electra 10E from Miami, but they experienced problems flying across the Pacific and landed in Hawaii. After three days, the Electra took off again, but something went wrong. Earhart lost control, and looped the plane down onto the runway. Though no one was seriously hurt, the plane was severely damaged and had to be shipped back to California for extensive repairs.
The repaired plane (without Manning and Manz), took off again on 1st June and flew toward Africa. From there, the plane crossed the Indian Ocean and finally touched down in New Guinea on June 29th. On 2nd July they set off again for Howland Island, 2,556 miles away, situated between Hawaii and Australia, with the aim of landing on a flat, narrow strip of land 6,500 feet long and 1,600 feet wide. Unfortunately, before they reached Howland, the Electra developed radio problems, and overcast conditions made navigation difficult.
On the morning of July 3rd at 7:20am, Amelia reported her position as 20 miles southwest of the Nukumanu Islands, followed by a second message at 7.42am reporting, “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” At 8.43am there was a further message which is believed to have recorded Earhart and Noonan saying they thought they were running along the north – south line of the island. However, Noonan’s chart of Howland’s position was off by five nautical miles.
After that there was no more contact with Earhart or Noonan, and to this day, it is not known what happened to either them or their plane.
There are two theories that seem to have the greatest credibility. One is that the Electra was ditched or crashed, and its crew perished at sea. The other is that Earhart and Noonan might have flown without radio transmission and landed on the uninhabited Gardner Island. This later theory is based on several on-site investigations that have turned up artefacts such as improvised tools, bits of clothing, an aluminium panel, and a piece of Plexiglas the exact width and curvature of an Electra window.
Sadly, a final, definitive answer to the mystery may well never materialise. The Pacific Ocean is a vast,deep place and much time has passed. For better or worse, it will remain a source of fascination and intrigue for the foreseeable future.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.