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Is this what really happened to Amelia Earhart?

The ongoing search for Amelia Earhart

In July 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae Airfield in New Guinea with the intended destination of Howland Island, a small strip of land in the central Pacific Ocean. The 2,556-mile flight, which should have taken about 18 hours, was just one stage in Earhart’s planned circumnavigation of the globe. But Earhart and Noonan never arrived at their destination. The aviators lost contact with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was anchored off the coast of Howland Island, and they disappeared. This marked the beginning of one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.

The search for Earhart and her missing plane has never ended, and public interest in the fate of the famous aviator remains strong. There are numerous theories — and conspiracy theories — as to what exactly happened to Earhart and Noonan, but a firm answer has yet to be given. Here are some of the key stages in the decades-long search for the pioneering aviator, from the initial sweep of the area to ongoing investigations using the latest technology.

The initial search

The last message that the Coast Guard cutter Itasca received from Earhart was on July 2, 1937, saying she was low on gas. Contact was then lost, at which point the Itasca, which lay at anchor off Howland Island, set out to searchfor Earhart. Not long after, airplanes joined the search from Hawaii, and the Navy battleship Colorado, which carried three observation seaplanes, departed for Howland Island. On July 12, the aircraft carrier Lexington, carrying 63 aircraft, assumed control of the effort. In total, the official government search lasted 16 days at a cost of more than $4 million. The search covered an area of the Pacific roughly the size of Texas, but nothing was found. The general consensus was that Earhart crashed into the ocean and the plane sank, killing both her and Noonan. But the lack of evidence and Earhart’s celebrity status caused the search for a definitive answer to continue.

The private search by her husband

When the official search for the aviators ended on July 18, 1937, Earhart’s husband and publicist George P. Putnam began financing additional search efforts. He started by following tips and advice from naval experts. As things became more desperate, he even turned to psychics in an attempt to find his wife. In October, Putnam acknowledged that any chance of finding Earhart and Noonan alive was gone. Later, in January 1939, Earhart was declared legally dead by the Superior Court of Los Angeles. 

The Nikumaroro Bones

While many historians and investigators believe that the simple “crash and sink” theory is the most likely explanation for Earhart’s disappearance, many other theories have been put forward. Some — such as the idea that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese military or secretly returned to the U.S. to live clandestine lives — are improbable. One theory that does have some legs is the idea that Earhart crash-landed on the uninhabited Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro. Three years after Earhart disappeared, a British official discovered 13 bones, along with male and female shoes, buried near the remains of a campfire on the island. At the time, the doctors who examined the remains believed they came from males. The bones were then lost, but the measurements survived. Modern forensic analysis of the dimensions of the bones suggests they could match Earhart’s frame, but there is no DNA evidence to prove the theory. 

Despite the lack of concrete proof, some experts find the Nikumaroro theory compelling. Since 1988, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has launched several missions to Nikumaroro in search of more evidence. As well as identifying the site where the bones were likely found, TIGHAR has found evidence of several campfires, as well as 1930s-era glass bottles — including one that might have contained a type of freckle cream Earhart likely used. TIGHAR continues to investigate Nikumaroro.

Searching the ocean floor

Two competing marine technology companies are currently engaged in a race to find Earhart’s plane. Nauticos surveyed an area of the ocean floor roughly the size of Connecticut in three separate expeditions in 2002, 2006, and 2017, but so far has come up empty-handed. Rival company Deep Sea Vision, meanwhile, scanned 5,200 square miles of ocean floor in a search costing $11 million — and it might have found something. In January 2024, the company released images from its cutting-edge Hugin 6000 underwater drone that seem to show the fuselage of an aircraft sitting on the seafloor at about 16,000 feet below the surface and less than 100 miles from Howland Island. But is this Earhart’s iconic Lockheed 10-E Electra? Only time — and a physical investigation of the wreckage — will tell. For now, the mystery continues.

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