On July 2, 1937, aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan vanished into legend. The two explorers—Earhart piloting, Noonan navigating—were trying to be the first to circumnavigate the globe at the equator, and they’d made it all the way around from Oakland, California eastward to Lae, New Guinea. On the morning of the 2nd their fuel-heavy Lockheed Electra 10E took off from Lae heading for Howland Island, a tiny speck of coral in the mid-Pacific, where they were to refuel and fly to Honolulu, and thence back to Oakland. They didn’t make it. The US Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, lying off Howland, received messages from them—the last saying that they were flying “on the line 157-337”—but couldn’t establish two-way communication or a radio direction-finding fix. Earhart and Noonan couldn’t see the island, or communicate with Itasca. The messages ended, and that was that.
The U.S. didn’t give Earhart up easily. She was a tremendous celebrity--a heroine at a time when people badly needed heroines. First woman across the Atlantic, first woman to fly nonstop across the U.S. First to fly to the mainland from Hawaii. Women’s altitude record holder. She was an inspiration to young women everywhere. You, she insisted and demonstrated, can do anything a man can do. So the nation wasn’t ready to shrug its shoulders and accept that she was gone. Nor was her husband and partner George Putnam, who had been her supporter and agent from the start. Putnam did everything but break down doors at the War Department, the State Department, and the White House, insisting that the Navy, the Coast Guard, the British in the nearby Crown Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands turn the Pacific upside down looking for her.
They tried; the aircraft carrier Lexington, the battleship Colorado, and other Navy and Coast Guard ships and planes criss-crossed the area where she’d last been heard. The British deployed island residents to search the shores of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands for debris, and sent a chartered boat out to investigate a location where Putnam—possibly on the advice of a medium—thought Earhart might be. But everyone came up empty-handed. Earhart’s fate, Noonan’s fate, remain a mystery.
Mysteries demand solutions, and many answers to the Earhart/Noonan mystery have been proposed over the years. They ran out of gas and crashed at sea. They were captured by the Japanese and executed. They were involved in an elaborate espionage operation against the Japanese, and were secreted in other countries, or in the U.S. under assumed names. They were seized by aliens, or blundered through a Bermuda Triangle-type rip in the time-space continuum. Books have been written, television shows produced, archives searched, islanders and World War II GIs and Japanese officials interviewed. Lots of assertions have been made, lots of allegations have been confidently stated but lightly substantiated. Proponents of the various “theories” typically ignore or dismiss all others but their own, though there are some vituperative arguments behind the scenes. But no one has proved anything.
In the late 1980s, a tiny non-profit group in Wilmington, Delaware—The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery or TIGHAR (pronounced “tiger”)—entered the fray. Organized by the dynamic husband-wife team of Ric Gillespie and Pat Thrasher, who continue to oversee its operations today, one of TIGHAR’s purposes is to apply scientific techniques to investigating aviation historical mysteries. TIGHAR had avoided the Earhart arguments because none of the hypotheses put forward seemed testable using available methods, but then two retired navigators, Tom Gannon and Tom Willi, approached Gillespie with a “new” idea that was testable—using, among others, the methods of archaeology. As an archaeologist with Pacific island experience and a dearth of common sense, I got involved in TIGHAR’s work, and we’ve been at it ever since.
Our adventures in pursuit of Earhart and Noonan are recounted in a book that several of my colleagues and I published a few years ago, and republished in 2004 in updated, expanded form, called Amelia Earhart’s Shoes (AltaMira Press, 2004). Ric Gillespie is finishing work on a more exhaustive book about the disappearance, the search, and our studies--particularly a study of the many radio messages received after Earhart’s disappearance that were at first thought to have come from her and later were dismissed as mistakes and hoaxes. We hope that book, tentatively titled The Suitcase in My Closet, will be in bookstores within the next year or so.
Our project is an interdisciplinary one--our all-volunteer research team includes oceanographers, meteorologists, experts in navigation, radio science, island geology and ecology, forensic anthropology, and a host of other fields. In this article I’d like to focus on how my own science--archaeology--is contributing to the study.