The Amelia Earhart Mystery


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the Podcast. I'm Editor Candace Keynard joined by fellow editor, Katie Lambert.

Katie Lambert: Hello, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Hi there, Katie. I conducted some very surprising research this week.

Katie Lambert: Was it on Lady Lindy, Queen of the Air?

Candace Gibson: It was. Amelia Earhart, who I think most of us hold in our minds as an iconic figure in America history, in world history really of a very strong and determined and capable woman. The 16th woman in the entire world to be granted her pilots license in fact, and I learned that there are some factors which may explain her disappearance that color her in a slightly different light. And that's not to say that we're not going to celebrate Amelia Earhart, because we certainly are, but I think you'll learn a thing or two just like I did.

Katie Lambert: So, maybe we'll start at her beginnings which were rather humble. She was a Kansas girl. Born in 1897. Her father was a lawyer for the railroad. She ended up being a nurses aid in a military hospital in Toronto and she was actually pre-med for a while at Columbia, which surprised me because who knew but she was only there for a semester.

Candace Gibson: When she was just 10 years old, she was at a state fair when she really had her interest kindled in flying watching the planes swooping overhead and rushing past her and stirring up the wind, she realized that she wanted to do that too and that ambition was cemented in her mind in December of 1928 when the pilot, Frank Hawks invited her on his plane for a flight and she thought, this is it, this is what I'm going to do. So, she bought her first plan in 1921. It was yellow and she named it Canary.

Katie Lambert: And she had flying lessons from Neta Snook who was also one of the foremost female aviators of the day because there weren't many.

Candace Gibson: And a critic has said that here is a turning point for the Amelia Earhart story, for me at least, was that Snook didn't think that Amelia was necessarily skilled enough to become a pilot. Perhaps her ambitions and enthusiasm outweighed her skill and, in some cases, that certainly compensates and it makes up for something you're not entirely good at but for an activity as precise as flying, of course you need to have all of your little ducks in a row.

Katie Lambert: So, Snook maybe thought she had the drive but not the talent.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And that didn't stop her from trying.

Katie Lambert: No, and her first lesson, I like this fact, was 20 minutes long in Snooks World War I Canuck and she charged her $.75 per minute.

Candace Gibson: Snook's connect. You really can't make this stuff up.

Katie Lambert: Yeah.

Candace Gibson: Yet, early in her career, she established her prowess in the sky by setting records for speed and altitude and she became, very slowly but surely, a huge celebrity in the aviation world.

Katie Lambert: In 1928, she was the first female passenger on the Fooker Friendship. They flew from Newfoundland to Wales and it was a big deal because a publicist named George Puttnam was the one that had set her up for this and originally, he'd been looking for someone else but that woman ended up not being able to take her place and Amelia was totally gung-ho to go for this trip. And also in 1928, it was a big year for her; she was the first woman to make a solo return transcontinental flight.

Candace Gibson: And as far as her position on the friendship flights with Wilmer Stultz and Sim Gordon, for them it was old hat, this type of transatlantic voyage but Puttnam was a publicist as much as a publisher and he was trying to put a new spin on it. It was the first time that a woman was on board and she was given the title commander t o lend her a sense of prestige but Amelia was always very clear and very adamant about the fact that she didn't do anything on this site. She was merely there for company. And one could guess, too, that she was watching and observing and learning what exactly people do to conduct themselves on these long flights and later when she would do solo trips, she would remark that the company she kept were the celestial bodies in the sky and it was some of the most beautiful things she'd ever seen.

Katie Lambert: Well, and I think she also felt a little bit guilty about getting so famous for something where she wasn't really doing anything --

Candace Gibson: Right.

Katie Lambert: -- and that gave her the urge to prove herself.

Candace Gibson: Exactly, and not only the urge, it also gave her a bunch of endorsement deals because she needed money to continue on with her flight career.

Katie Lambert: Lucky Strikes Cigarettes for one.

Candace Gibson: For one. In 1929, she went onto add another impressive feat to her resume and that was having to organize the woman's air derby and becoming a founding member and president of the Ninety-Nines. And the Ninety-Nines was a woman's aviation group and this was sort of a post-suffrage effort to get woman to organize and explore their interests. And as women were gaining ground in the aviation industry, they found they didn't have a lot of support from their male cohorts. It was seen as --

Katie Lambert: Surprise.

Candace Gibson: -- it was seen as a men's world and they wanted in and so by offering each other support and sharing industry news, they could better gain ground, get a better foothold and one of my favorite things that the Ninety-Nines did and I should mention too that the name Ninety-Nines was Amelia's idea because when they put out a call for interested parties, ninety-nine women answered. Anyway, they campaigned to overturn the government proposal that would ban women from flying when they were menstruating.

Katie Lambert: Fair enough, Ninety-Nines.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, I said, I'm just going to leave it at that. Just a fun historical fact for everyone.

Katie Lambert: They're still around, for the record. I think they have more than 5,000 members today and they note on their website that most women who have achieved great things in aviation have a been a member of the Ninety-Nines.

Candace Gibson: So, during this time with her involvement with the Ninety-Nines and her speaking engagements, she was also writing for Cosmopolitan Magazine and for other publications and she was actually the aviation editor or aviation writer for Cosmo and I'm --

Katie Lambert: I don't think we have anymore.

Candace Gibson: No, I don't think so. I think it was a much different iteration of the magazine back in that day but in 1935 she was appointed to a consulting position at Purdue University. More women were starting to have careers of their own and she became an advisor to them.

Katie Lambert: Which I think is really significant and it's interesting to note that despite her own ambitions, Amelia Earhart was also an approachable and disarming enough woman that other young women would feel comfortable seeking her council. I think that speaks a lot about her character. And at this point, I think too she was also a bit of a style icon and I know we always like fashion throughout history but she had the leather jackets and close-cropped hair, silk ties and scarves and people thought she was --

Candace Gibson: She was sassy.

Katie Lambert: She was.

Candace Gibson: You can see pictures on the official Amelia Earhart Museum website and plenty of other fan websites out there of her wearing her tight-fitting pants and her boots and the scarf tied around her neck . She was really, really classy.

Katie Lambert: I think she even had a clothing line. I know she had a luggage line.

Candace Gibson: Wow, I did not know that.

Katie Lambert: But in the meantime, even before Purdue, in 1932 she was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She landed in Ireland and I think that's when she finally felt like, yeah, she'd really done something and she also got the distinguished flying cross that year.

Candace Gibson: And she was also recognized by President Herbert Hoover with the National Geographic Society gold medal. So, attention and awards and praises being showered upon her and she's nearing her fortieth birthday and at this time, she's actually married to George Puttnam, the --

Katie Lambert: She rejected him six times for the record before they ever got married.

Candace Gibson: Yes, and we should note too that he was actually married when they began touring together and helping to endorse her career together but he was granted a divorce in 1929. So, by '31, he and Amelia were an item.

Katie Lambert: And he wrote her a very interesting -- she wrote him, excuse me, a very interesting letter where she said, "I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly," and then went on to say that if she thought they were honest, they could avoid any difficulties if one or the other of them became too attracted to someone else so she knew what she was getting into.

Candace Gibson: She did and she called the marriage a partnership with dual control.

Katie Lambert: And kept her own name.

Candace Gibson: She did. And George recognized that for her to keep her celebrity index high, she needed another big flying stunt. And nearing her fortieth birthday, she was ready to become the first woman to fly solo around the world and flying solo around the world had already been accomplished by Charles Lindbergh but she wanted to show that a woman could do it, too, and as a matter of fact, she chose a course that wrapped as tightly around the equator as possible which extended the journey just a bit and also took it through some more difficult terrain, the pacific islands in particular as we'll soon learn were quite challenging to navigate.

Katie Lambert: So, she started in 1937 on this trip and flew from California to Hawaii but a tire blew when they landed in Hawaii which sort of put their plans on hold for a little bit. The plane had to be shipped back to California to be fixed.

Candace Gibson: And we should mention that this plane was the Lockheed Electra. She'd formerly used a Lockheed Vega but the Electra was better suited for long distance flying. And she'd been flying in the Lockheed Vega but switched to the Lockheed Electra which is better suited for long distance flying.

Katie Lambert: They had to restart her journey in Miami. They decided instead they'd just go the totally other way this time since they'd already publicized it.

Candace Gibson: Well, and plus the winds were more favorable in the opposite direction.

Katie Lambert: Exactly, but they didn't want anyone to know that they were actually having to fly their repaired plane from California to Miami so they just didn't make any announcements on that one.

Candace Gibson: Right, and looking back now with a historians eye, you know, you could say it was a prophetic bad start and that this maybe was one clue because there are some sources that say that it was her handling of the plane that caused it to scrap its belly across the runway and to crash and even though there wasn't a fire, it was very badly damaged. Perhaps it was nerves, I don't know but she also had on board a man who, again, some critics say was not the best navigation advisor. This was Frederick Noonan and he'd formerly worked with pacific flight navigation but had reportedly been let go from his previous job for being a little bit too drunk at work sometimes. Again, some of this is based on historical hearsay but a lot of historical sources do say that his method of navigation, which was to use celestial positioning, couldn't be relied upon entirely for an around the world flight. Imagine using just the heavens in the sky to guide you.

Katie Lambert: And what to do you do when it's cloudy?

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And, as we'll see, that was a big downfall.

Katie Lambert: And, so, picture us, we're back in Miami, we've got -- we should be feeling a little bit nervous at this point with that background and we've already had an accident on the trip. We've got Fred Noonan, who we're not entirely sure about and they take off and eventually end up New Guinea on June 29th.

Candace Gibson: And we should note that despite these ominous factors, they'd been doing swimmingly. I mean, absolutely great. This was a trip that was going to be about 29,000 miles and they only had 7,000 left to go. They'd knocked out a substantial amount of the mileage. I mean, we're talking about crossing over South America and Africa and India and Asia, Australia and it was very carefully targeted to where they would stop and refuel and their next stop was --

Katie Lambert: Howland Island.

Candace Gibson: -- Howland Island.

Katie Lambert: Which is more than I think 2,500 miles away from where they were.

Candace Gibson: And Howland Island is more of a toile than an island.

Katie Lambert: Teeny tiny.

Candace Gibson: It's teeny tiny. It's about a mile and a half long, half mile across and she wasn't even going to be able to get to the island exactly without the help of the U.S. Coast Guard. So, she had plans to meet this U.S. Coast Guard Cutter named the Itasca nearby who would help give her exact coordinates and refuel her and allow her to rest for a while.

Katie Lambert: So, they take off on July 2nd for the Howland Island and that's when things start to go terribly horribly wrong. The last positive sighting of them was over the Nukumanu Islands by the Itasca.

Candace Gibson: And the Itasca was attempting to communicate with Amelia and Frederick with a two-way radio. Amelia didn't know Morris code, she wasn't comfortable using it.

Katie Lambert: And furthermore, she didn't necessarily have all the equipment that she did need. She had an antenna and she had radio equipment that operated on a certain frequency but the frequency she was wasn't the same one necessarily that the coast guard was using. And even when they did get on the right frequency, they didn't seem to be getting each other's messages. She couldn't hear them and her last message to them I think, or what's usually recorded as the last message said, "We must be on your but cannot see you but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at a 1,000 feet."

Candace Gibson: And the coast guard couldn't get her to switch to Morris code, which they prefer to communicate. It was much more exact because, like you said, she didn't have the capability to get the messages, she didn't have the right equipment so, essentially, the two parties are incommunicado at this point, conditions are incredibly overcast so Noonan isn't able to help guide them and then nothing, absolute nothing. We're not quite sure what happened but of course, you know, the United States went into a bit of a panic because here was their aviation darling gone, either drowned at sea or washed up on some remote beach and there was a very, very extensive rescue attempt undertaken --

Katie Lambert: The biggest one yet at that time.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, $4 million and it covered about 250,000 square miles in ocean and it was called off in July 1937 and here's the real kicker for me. This is so interesting because Amelia Earhart was officially declared dead on January 5th, 1939 and Noonan was declared dead in June of 1938.

Katie Lambert: They didn't want to give up hope on Amelia.

Candace Gibson: They didn't. Right, they really didn't want to let her go. She was the golden girl.

Katie Lambert: And Puttnam especially. Exactly.

Candace Gibson: Right, and Puttnam, too, I mean, that was his wife out there and she'd written to him before she even left on this monumental voyage, "Please know that I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others."

Katie Lambert: So, that brings us to what exactly did happen Amelia Earhart.

Candace Gibson: And there are several theories out there and some of them are much more conspiracy theory like than based in some sort of evidentiary fact and we're going to cover as many as we can, as many as we were able to happen upon. No pun intended there. One of the most famous is probably that she was captured by the Japanese and that she was taken to Saipan and put to death --

Katie Lambert: And that she was actually a spy for the Japanese. Actually, that was quite a common rumor at the time because you have to remember, to put it in context, that this is when it was very much a policy of isolationism and people not wanting the United States to get involved in World War II so there was a lot of controversy over that and the idea that she was flying halfway across the world -- well, maybe she was spying.

Candace Gibson: And some have even gone as far as to say that she was captured by the Japanese and she became Tokyo Rose. Isn't that interesting? And her husband, George, listened to recordings of Tokyo Rose and said that the voice was not Amelia's.

Katie Lambert: And one of the other theories was that she survived the crash, she and Noonan both, and just went to live on one of the islands until they starved to death which --

Candace Gibson: It's very sad to think about but I suppose it is likely.

Katie Lambert: It actually sounded more possible than becoming Tokyo Rose.

Candace Gibson: Right, precisely. Other reports say that she was living in a disguised type of retirement after all of these supposed missions for the government or else trying to find a graceful way to back out of this very celebrated career and she was either in Chicago or she was in New York under the pseudo name Irene Boulem and this name is significant.

Katie Lambert: It was supposed to represent, I believe, the latitude and longitude of where she was supposed to end up.

Candace Gibson: Of -- right, of the name of a beach where she was supposed to have landed. I don't even quite understand how that works but poor Irene Boulem; she swore up and down, no, I am not Amelia Earhart.

Katie Lambert: And sued them eventually.

Candace Gibson: Right. There were publishers who put together a book based on this theory and Boulem was having no part of it.

Katie Lambert: And a lot of people thought, in general, that it was a staged accident, that that was her point all along and it was, you know, her way out of that way of life.

Candace Gibson: Right, and, so, her sister actually stated -- this is Muriel Earhart Morrissey, that she inquired directly to the Japanese Government, "Do you have my sister?" And the answer was a very strong, "No, we don't." And she held the belief that the plane just simply ran out of fuel and it crashed into the bottom of the ocean.

Katie Lambert: And that's the most accepted theory now though, the crash and sink theory I believe they call it, which is pretty self explanatory.

Candace Gibson: Right, and it is believable to think that her plane crashed and that a $4 million search effort, at the time, could not recover the wreckage because in order to find the wreckage, they would've had to have searched about 17,000 feet deep in the ocean and keep in mind, if she's around the Pacific Islands, there would've been debris from other ships from World War II so in order to identify Amelia Earhart's plane, not only would wreckage have to be located, but search crews would've had to have found the exact serial number that matched her plane --

Katie Lambert: Exactly.

Candace Gibson: -- and search --

Katie Lambert: That's very hard.

Candace Gibson: -- and search and rescue efforts, at the time, were very -- they weren't based on as much science as we have now. I mean, you'd have to be thinking about stuff, like, currents and the weather conditions at the time, and to be fair, they weren't even entirely sure where she was going. They think she got knocked off course by a few -- by several miles actually, but who knows. They just have that last radio transmission so there were several hours between then and probably when she crashed.

Katie Lambert: There are two interesting academic theories that I wanted to discuss because both of them come with a lot of evidentiary support and they're pretty interesting and they suggest that the plane went down in different locations and the first is from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery who thinks that after she couldn't get in touch with the Itasca, she turned her plane southeast and flew toward Gardener Island and this is a considerably larger tract of land and it's pretty topical distinct. There's a large lagoon in the middle and an interesting landmark, too, a wrecked freighter so she could've seen this island and --

Candace Gibson: And thought maybe that was the Itasca.

Katie Lambert: Well, there you go and there was plenty of room to land so she could've brought her plane safely down on the beach and if the plane went down on the beach and she and Noonan walked inland just a little bit, it would explain some strange radio messages that were picked up that came at hour intervals of each other and it was a voice that sounded similar to Amelia's trying to help give some geographical bearings and trying to give some directions to where she could be found and if they came hours apart, that might be because as the tide came in on Gardener Island, the plane would get covered by water and in order to power the radio from the planes right engine, she had to wait for the tide to go out.

Candace Gibson: Which makes perfect sense I think and it's a really interesting theory.

Katie Lambert: It does. And a search of the island in 1938, turned up airplane debris, a skeleton and a woman's shoe. And the skeleton was examined and at first it was identified as an older Polynesian man -- no, not Amelia --

Candace Gibson: No.

Katie Lambert: -- but then another inquiry said that it was probably a European man and then the skeleton was lost but an examination of the notes in 1988 said that it was actually a tallish woman of European descent, somewhere between about 5'5", 5'9" so that actually could've been --

Candace Gibson: Could've been her.

Katie Lambert: -- Amelia and then other searches turned up cigarette lighters, which Noonan smoked so it could've been his, a man's shoe and plexiglass debris that matched Earhart's plane windows.

Candace Gibson: You have to wonder what happened to that skeleton.

Katie Lambert: I know. I know. Well, and this information seems pretty convincing so I was pretty much sold on Gardener Island and then I read about --

Candace Gibson: Until --

Katie Lambert: -- until I read about this other theory which is that in 1945 Australian soldiers on the island of New Britain were traipsing through the jungle and they found wreckage of a plane and it was practically overgrown by all of the foliage, it was so dense they could barely get to it but they managed to get a piece of the plane and a map that they found near it which had some numbers on it, 600HP, S3H1, CNT1055 and these numbers actually correspond to the construction, horsepower and number of engines of Earhart's plane.

Candace Gibson: So, which theory is more convincing?

Katie Lambert: Isn't that wild? I don't know. I don't want to make a judgment. I'm not here to analyze, I'm here to offer the facts.

Candace Gibson: Because we don't know the answer and that's the cool thing. There are all these fascinating loose ends that may never actually be solved for us.

Katie Lambert: It's a historical mystery for sure but it's also nice to remember Amelia, not just for her disappearance which has certainly spawned a number of salacious conspiracy theories but for the fact that she was a very important figure in the early feminist movements. Her beliefs about women being capable of great fetes and being able to try and accomplish and even do better things that men had done first,

these are still relevant concernsCandace Gibson: And one of my favorite quotes from her, it's pretty simple but to me it pretty much sums up Amelia Earhart, is that, "Flying may not be all plane sailing but the fun of it is worth the price," and she was never walking into any of these flights thinking that it would all be fine. You know, she knew it was dangerous when she undertook that last flight; she knew it was dangerous when she undertook her other flights. She'd even crashed a plane before I believe with Neta Snook but she wanted to do it anyways because it was worth it.

Katie Lambert: To her. Exactly. And I think that's important advice to live by, for sure. And if you want to learn more about Amelia Earhart and the history of flight be sure to check out the website at howstuffworks.com.

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