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Notes For Unsolved: The Odd Vanishing Of Amelia Earhart

Research notes for True Crime Season 2 Episode 5

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**Research compiled for Ryan & Shane on April 13, 2017 by Micki Taylor.

Unsolved: Amelia Earhart

The Facts

  • On July 2nd, 1937, Amelia Earhart -- first woman to cross the Atlantic, and one of the most famous women in the world -- disappeared along with her navigator, Fred Noonan, while attempting to circumnavigate the globe at the equator.

  • The US government believed her plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean.

  • Earhart and Noonan were officially declared “lost at sea” on July 19th, 1937, after an exhaustive search.

Earhart's Career

  • Amelia Earhart was born on July 24th, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas.

  • She served as a nurse’s aid at a hospital in Toronto during World War I.

  • There, she met an officer of the Royal Air Corps.

  • She learned to fly in 1920-1921 and bought her own plane in 1922.

  • Soon after, she set a women’s flight record for altitude -- 4,267 meters (14,000 feet).

  • On May 16th, 1923, she became a certified Aviator Pilot.

    • Interestingly, on her pilot certificate, her birth year is listed as 1898; for reasons unknown, Earhart sometimes said she was a year younger than she actually was.

  • For reference, Lindburgh makes his solo flight from NYC → Paris on May 21st, 1927.

  • In 1928, Earhart became the first woman to cross the Atlantic, albeit as a passenger in a plane with two other pilots.

    • She wrote a book about this experience, 20 Hrs., 40 Mins. -- which became a best-selling book.

  • On May 20th to 21st of 1932, however, she would make the trip again -- this time, alone, flying from Newfoundland to Ireland.

  • She was the second person to ever complete this flight (after Lindburgh).

  • During this trip, her plane suffered a leak in the fuel tank, ice on the wings, and a cracked manifold, which caused the engine to spew flames at one point.

  • On August 24th, 1932, she flew from LA to Newark, setting a record at that time for longest distance flown without refueling. She also became the first female pilot to complete a nonstop, transcontinental flight.

  • She then became the first person to pilot a completely successful solo flight from Hawaii to the mainland in January of 1935.

  • Other pilots had attempted this flight before, but had died trying.

  • Amelia Earhart was a celebrity; she became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.

  • Her career was considered a bright spot during the Great Depression. Between record-setting flights, she also gave speeches talking of the future of air travel and the empowerment of women.

  • Fred Noonan, who would become Earhart’s navigator on the ill-fated trip, worked for Pan Am Airways.

  • He had experience in surveying the Pacific Ocean and was working to determine whether it was feasible to offer scheduled airline service.

The Disappearance

  • By 1937, there weren’t a lot of flying feats left to accomplish that nobody had done before.

  • Earhart set her sights on circling the globe, zig-zagging along the equator, requiring long hauls over water.

  • If successful, she would have been the first female pilot to fly around the world.

  • She left from Oakland, CA, and headed west around the globe.

  • During her first attempt, her plane was damaged when she crashed after take-off in Honolulu on March 20th, and it was sent back to California for repairs.

  • She started her journey again from Oakland on May 21st and traveled east this time.

  • Her journey would have taken her about 29,000 miles over 40 days and included 20 stops, including San Juan, Calcutta, and Bangkok.

  • She flew in a twin-engine Lockheed 10-Electra, which she had purchased the year before with help from the Purdue Research Fund.

  • The plane was known as the “Flying Laboratory” and was made to serve as a place to test new equipment.

  • This was a 10-passenger, high-performance airliner.

  • Engineers at Lockheed specifically outfitted Earhart’s plane with special tanks that allowed it to carry over 1,000 pounds of fuel rather than the usual 200.

  • On the morning of July 2nd, 1937, Earhart and Noonan prepared to leave Lae, New Guinea.

  • She was 39 years old at the time, and Fred Noonan was 44.

  • They were already roughly 22,000 miles into the trip and had about another 7,000 to go before returning to California, where they had started.

  • She planned to stop on Howland Island to refuel. It was to be about an 18-hour flight.

    • Howland Island is only about one mile by two miles.

    • It had a small airfield that no planes had landed at yet.

    • The plan was for Noonan to use the stars for navigation throughout the night, landing on Howland around sunrise the next morning.

    • The Coast Guard’s Itasca, a 250-foot cutter, was notified when Earhart left Lae. It was to be waiting just off the coast of Howland Island to provide communications and weather for Earhart.

  • Leaving Lae, the Electra was carrying the most fuel it had on this expedition -- about 1,000 pounds’ worth.

  • Howland Island is 2,556 miles away from Lae, New Guinea.

  • Because the island was situated just across the International Date Line, Earhart left the morning of July 2nd and was supposed to land in the early morning of July 2nd, local time.

  • Harry Balfour was the radio operator for Guinea Airways in Lae. He and Earhart had planned for her to radio her transmissions at 18 minutes past each hour, and he would radio her at 20 minutes past each hour.

  • Soon after Earhart’s plane took off, Balfour noticed that the headwinds were stronger than anybody had thought and told Earhart as such via radio at 20 minutes past each hour for three straight hours (10:20, 11:20, and 12:20).

    • The speed of the headwinds is important for determining how fast a plane will be going and how long it will take to get to its destination.

    • However, Earhart did not seem to get these transmissions.

    • Around 2:18 p.m. in Lae, Earhart’s transmissions, which she had sent earlier, but whose signals had previously been blocked from coming in intelligibly, came through. She gave her speed (140 knots) and altitude (7,000 feet) and things seemed to be ok.

    • A little over an hour later, her next transmission stated that she had climbed to 10,000 feet. This may have been uneconomical in terms of fuel usage.

    • It’s unclear exactly why Earhart made this climb, but author Elgen Long, a veteran pilot, guesses it may have been to avoid clouds or mountains.

    • This transmission also seemed to have come in sometime later than Earhart had actually sent it.

    • They were still on-course., and it’s believed that the experienced pilot Earhart would have realized the problem with the headwinds by this point.

  • As they neared Howland Island, the plane was likely down to a last, 97-gallon tank of fuel.

  • It is thought that Earhart’s plane must have gotten fairly close to the island, because the Itasca did hear her transmissions, which grew stronger as sunrise came and went.

    • In fact, they thought she was close enough that the radio operator on board the Itasca went outside to look for her plane.

  • In one of her last transmissions, Earhart told the Itasca, “We must be on you but cannot see you,” she radioed. “Gas is running low.”

  • In her final transmissions, Earhart’s voice was described as “frantic”.

  • In Amelia Earhart’s final transmission (which was from 8:43 a.m.) picked up by the Itasca, she said she was flying on line “157” (southeast) and “337” (northwest) and reports vary, but she may have included that they were “running north and south”.

Research Note: Radio Logs are kept shorthand and sometimes are later translated when quoted, which could account for some variations of her final transmission (that and 80 years of people getting small details wrong?)

  • When Earhart’s plane never showed, the Itasca searched the waters northwest of Howland Island.

  • On July 7th, as the Itasca still hadn’t found anything, the US battleship Colorado began to search the waters to the southeast.

  • An aircraft carrier, the Lexington, arrived soon after from its base in San Diego and stayed, searching the region, until July 18th.


  • Amelia Earhart’s disappearance has fueled dozens of theories over the years.


  • Perhaps the most widely-accepted theory is that Earhart’s plane ran out of gas, and she and Noonan died when they crashed into the ocean northwest of their destination.

  • Near Howland Island, the ocean is about 18,000 feet deep.

  • Elgen Long, a veteran pilot who researched Earhart for 25 years and wrote the book Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved with his wife, is a proponent of this theory -- that she simply crashed and sank.

  • Perhaps it’s because this theory is also the simplest explanation that others have come up with countless other theories and conspiracies over the years.

  • Although skeptics have pointed out than an Electra with that amount of fuel should have lasted 24 hours in flight rather than 20, as Earhart’s plane did, analysis by the Jet Propulsion Center at Caltech concluded that, with the headwinds and the 10,000-foot climb Earhart was forced to take early in the flight, her plane would have been out of fuel when she disappeared.

  • Based on what we know about her flight -- about the distance she flew, the amount of gas she had, the headwinds, the 10,000-foot climb, and her trouble spotting Howland Island -- this is the most reasonable theory.

  • From 2002 until last month, March of 2017, a company called Nauticos teamed up with other groups to search a nearly-2,000-square foot Nautical mile (my bad) area of the Pacific Ocean floor where Earhart’s Electra may have sunk.

  • They used sonar mapping to search the seafloor, but have not found evidence of the fuselage.

  • However, it doesn’t sound like they’re giving up quite yet, as technology is always improving.


  • Another theory is that Earhart became a castaway on Gardner Island (now called Nikumaroro), roughly 350 nautical miles south of Howland Island.

  • Nikumaroro is along the 157-337 line Earhart last reported flying along.

  • As her plane lost fuel, it is thought, she spotted the coral atoll of Gardner Island that, at low tide, could have worked as an emergency landing strip.

  • It is thought that Earhart encountered only minor injuries during this landing, but that Noonan’s injuries may have been more serious.

  • In 1939 or 1940, a partial human skeleton was found on Gardner Island. Believing it could have been Earhart, a total of 13 bones were sent to a physician named D.W. Hoodless, who was working in a medical school in Fiji.

  • But Hoodless determined that the bones belonged to a man who was short, stocky, and of European descent.

  • The bones were later discarded as it was believed they could not have belonged to Earhart or Noonan.

  • However, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), using Hoodless’s original measurements of the bones and today’s updated databases, say the bones could also have belonged to a tall(er than average) woman of European descent.

  • Earhart was said to be 5’7” or 5’8”.

  • Forensic examiner Jeff Glickman was also given the measurements. He found that the an upper arm bone detailed in Hoodless’s notes seems to be a close match to his estimate of Earhart’s humerus to radius ratio.

  • Glickman agrees there is room for skepticism here, though. Not only are the notes he’s going off of over 75 years old, but he was also using a photo of Earhart in which her arms are showing to make his educated guesses as to her measurements.

  • Glickman is also a member of TIGHAR.

  • Along with the bones, the discovery (made by Gerald Gallagher, a British colonial officer) included campsite remains and a box for a sextant, a tool used to determine latitude and longitude via celestial bodies.

  • According to TIGHAR director Ric Gillespie, the explanation for why only partial bones were found on the island was because of the coconut crabs that live there. He suggests the coconut crabs carried the bones off into burrows -- and that they may have even eaten her.

  • Coconut crabs grow up to 3 feet long, can break open coconuts with their pincers, and are the largest anthropods living on land.

  • Gillespie has said that a photo taken in 1937 by a British expedition to Gardner Island shows what he believes to be landing gear from a plane sticking up out of the water.

  • He also believes that Earhart would have used her plane’s radio to signal for help for up to a week following the crash -- but that, if the radio had been in the water, it would not work.

  • There were reports of dozens of messages supposedly from Earhart heard in all parts of the world in the days after her disappearance.

  • Some seem to be pretty obvious hoaxes, but other instances do raise some doubt.

Betty Klenck, a teenager at the time, living in St. Petersburg, FL., claims she heard a female voice via her shortwave radio saying, “This is Amelia Earhart. Help me!” and arguing with a disoriented male’s voice.
Klenck also heard the voice say, “Waters knee deep! Let me out!”
  • Klenck listened to the voice coming in clips for three hours and recorded what she heard in a notebook.

  • In some instances, shortwave radio waves can actually be heard thousands of miles away if they are reflected by ionized atmospheric gases in the ionosphere.

  • Klenck’s father reported his daughter’s findings to the Coast Guard, who did not seem to take the claim seriously.

  • Gillespie says he has plotted out the tides on Nikumaroro and that low tides coincided with claims of hearing Earhart via radio.

  • In 1991, Gillespie found a roughly 19” by 23” piece of riveted aircraft aluminum on Nikumaroro. TIGHAR believes it to be from Earhart’s Electra -- specifically, from a shiny patch near the tail (supposedly) seen in the photo on the right:

  • Glickman (from TIGHAR) also did a photo analysis and determined that the distance between rivets on the sample found in 1991 and the distance between rivets on the patch in the 1937 photo above were spaced the same.

  • However, the photo above doesn’t actually show any rivets -- only shadows produced by rivet indentations, which Glickman says he used to make his measurements.

  • According to Elgen Long, the first aviator to fly around the globe over both Poles and the Earhart researcher/author, the piece in question is definitively not from Earhart’s plane.

  • He says that in 1992, he and other experts -- including a Lockheed employee who had worked on Earhart’s plane -- got together to analyze the sheet and said it was not from a Lockheed 10 Electra.

  • In fact, they concluded the piece belonged to a US Navy seaplane from WWII.

  • TIGHAR believes the plane is still somewhere in the Pacific off the western coast of Gardner Island.

  • Navy planes DID fly over Nikumaroro on July 9th, one week after Earhart’s disappearance, and saw nothing.Gillespie claims a storm must have blown the plane into the waters up to two days before then, accounting for why the Navy did not spot the Electra.

  • Along with the aluminum piece, Gillespie also found a partial rubber shoe sole on the island.

  • It is stamped with the words Cat's Paw Rubber Company, USA

  • The sole is said to have been manufactured in the 1930s.

  • The sole was from the same type of shoe Earhart is seen wearing in a photograph taken in Indonesia shortly before her disappearance.

  • However, the sole belongs to a size 9 shoe, which would have been too big for Earhart.

Marshall Islands

  • Yet another theory as to where Earhart actually landed: Mili, a small atoll in the Marshall Islands (which would mean she had gotten about 800 miles off course).

  • The theory was held by many who lived in the Marshall Islands but was also spearheaded by a high school science teacher from Washington State named Dick Spink, who spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money pursuing evidence.

  • He, too, believed he had found portions of the Electra’s fuselage, and experts were brought in to examine the pieces -- but nothing seems to have come of this.

  • Spink, who interviewed many Marshallese locals, goes so far as to say that the belief that Earhart landed there is “part of Marshallese history and culture.”


  • Another theory is that Earhart and Noonan were found and captured by Japanese soldiers who believed the aviator and her navigator to be spies.

  • An Army Sergeant by the name of Thomas E. Devine claimed that, in July 1944, he met a group of US Marines guarding a hangar containing Earhart’s Electra.

  • They were on the island of Saipan, which had recently been liberated.

  • Sgt. Devine says he saw the Electra take flight and that, later that day, the soldiers destroyed the plane.

  • Devine began researching the disappearance of Amelia Earhart when he returned home and was known to share his theory with other researchers.

  • He returned to Saipan in later years to find evidence for his theory that Earhart and Noonan had been executed by the Japanese on suspicion of being spies.

  • In Devine’s theory, however, the aviator would have had to travel in the wrong direction for almost a day to end up near or in Japan. (Saipan isn’t v close to Japan - my bad)

  • Author Mike Campbell, who wrote Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last after working with Devine, presented a bunch of testimonies from US soldiers and those from the areas in question that an American woman and man landed in the Northern Mariana Islands in 1937 and were taken to Saipan.

  • Campbell does admit some of the testimonies contradict one another, especially in terms of how she died (some say she was executed, while others claim she died of dysentery).

  • Some also think that FDR, knowing Earhart was on Saipan, could not risk rescuing her because his approval would drop if America found out he had risked the life of Amelia Earhart.

  • There are other iterations of this theory. Frank Goerner, a CBS correspondent, published a book titled The Search for Amelia Earhart.

  • Goerner’s theory was that Earhart’s plane had landed in the Marshall Islands, and it was there that the Japanese captured her and Noonan, believing them to be spies.

  • They then, he said, were taken to Saipan and died there in captivity.

Irene Bolam

  • Yet another theory, championed by Rollin C. Reineck, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, is that Earhart had a “Plan B” in cahoots with the US government: if she could not find Howland Island, she was to ditch her plane near the Marshall Islands.

  • That way, the US government would be able to perform reconnaissance in the Marshall Islands, which were at the time occupied by Japan, under the guise of searching for Earhart.

  • However, the plan went awry when the Japanese intercepted Earhart and Noonan and captured them, releasing them years later, after the war.

  • Then, Earhart and Noonan returned to live out their lives in the United States under assumed names.

  • Some believe Amelia Earhart moved to New Jersey and changed her name to Irene Craigmile, though she married and became Irene Bolam.

  • Irene Bolam (a real person) died in 1982.

  • In 1970, publisher McGraw-Hill pulled a recently-released book titled Amelia Earhart Lives! that speculated about Irene Bolam being Amelia Earhart in disguise after Bolam sued the publisher, as well as author Joe Klass and his associate Joe Gervais, for defamation.

  • Research Note: It seems Reineck sort of resurrected this theory; it was not his initially. He published a book titled Amelia Earhart Survived

  • Reinick said that when Joe Gervais met Irene Bolam, he believed she was wearing a medallion that looked like one given to Earhart by President Hoover in 1932.

  • However, according to TIGHAR, Gervais took a photo of Bolam and the medallion, though the same shape, does not closely resemble Earhart’s medallion.

  • Reinick also pointed out that Irene Bolam looked a lot like Amelia Earhart.

  • However, according to TIGHAR, the resemblance is not that strong, and comparing photos of Earhart to photos of Bolam taken four decades apart proved nothing.

  • Reinick also showed a side-by-side comparison of Bolam and an age-progressed version of Earhart.

  • However, he did place the age progression of Earhart in clothes similar to Bolam’s and gave Earhart’s photo a similar haircut to Bolam’s.

  • Reinick’s theory rested heavily on the word of a prominent Roman Catholic clergyman, Monsignor James Francis Kelley. Kelley claimed he played a role in bringing Earhart back to the States from Japan and setting up her new life.

  • However, Kelley published a memoir in 1987 that made several unfounded claims -- for instance, that he witnessed actor Clark Gable defy orders to take off in a Black Widow and test the new ejection seat.

  • There is no evidence backing this claim about his link to Earhart, and Kelley did not even mention the Earhart claim in his memoirs.

Aliens, of course

  • Inevitably, some think Earhart may have made contact with aliens, either by accident or knowingly and in collusion with the US government.

  • An episode of Star Trek: Voyager from 1995 capitalized on this idea.

New photo possibly showing Earhart and Noonan in the Marshall Islands circa 1937: (July 5th, 2017)

  • Elgen Long and Frank Patterson, pilot for 25 years and expert in the Electra, think the Marshall Islands would have been too far away for Earhart and Noonan to get there (even by accident). (July 13, 2017)

  • Photo was debunked by 2 bloggers who found the same photo in a book, found in Japan’s National Diet Library, dated 1935 -- two years before Earhart and Noonan went missing.