Seven decades after Amelia Earhart's tragic disappearance, we might finally have some evidence of what happened to her.
Along with the Bermuda Triangle, the Yeti, and who was Jack the Ripper, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart is one of the greatest mysteries in history. As Ross says in the Friends episode where they play the lottery, he dreams of opening an Amelia Earhart amusement park because he’d always been intrigued by what happened to her. In his own words, “the woman just vanished.” The fact that there isn't that much evidence as to what might have happened to her in her second attempt to circumnavigate the globe has sparked so many theories and hypotheses that only bring more attention to her case. It’s been seventy-one years since her disappearance, and with the new technologies we have at our disposal it should be easier to see what happened. However, many things have happened during this time, but there’s still nothing definite on the case. So, let’s take a look at the life of the great Amelia Earhart and see what we do know about her mysterious disappearance.
Earhart was born in Kansas in 1897. She was the second daughter of Amy and Edwin Earhart. Though her parents really loved her and her sister Grace, they spent a good time of their childhood with their grandparents. It’s said that since they were little girls, their mother had decided to raise her children in a different fashion since she didn’t want them to be the perfect, delicate girls society demanded. For that reason, both girls were encouraged to get a good education, but also to play and dress as any other kid would do. Their mother was very adventurous herself: she was the first woman to climb Pikes Peak in Colorado.
Since she was very young she was taught that women could do anything they wanted, even things that at the time were considered to be only for men. According to biographies of her life, it’s said that even from an early age she used to collect newspaper clippings of women challenging the status quo as an inspiration. She was always certain that she wanted to master a male-dominated professional field, even though it took her several years to know exactly what she wanted to become.
After graduating from high school, she gave college a try, but due to many different circumstances, she didn’t complete her studies. Instead, she dabbled in different areas, took a course on car mechanics, worked as a truck driver, as a social worker in a settlement house in Boston helping immigrants, and as a nurse helping those returning from WWI in Canada. But as we know, flying became her biggest passion and one she fearlessly followed regardless of the gender taboo and the perils the profession implied.
Amelia Earhart was a woman of firsts. She was the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean, first as a passenger in 1928, and then as a solo pilot in 1932. Later that year, she achieved a nonstop flight from coast to coast. In 1935, she also became the first female pilot to fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland, from Los Angeles to Mexico City, and from Mexico City to Newark. Not only that, she was the first woman to earn an Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross for her achievements in the field (not to mention that she’s one of the very few civilians awarded with the distinguishment).
So, what happened to this brave woman who made of the skies her life's stage? In 1936, she started planning the longest flight in the history of aviation: a 29,000-mile flight around the world. Thanks to a funding program from Purdue University, a special plane was created based on her own specifications (this included additional fuel tanks to reduce the number of scales in the planning). In March 1937, accompanied by Fred Noonan (her second navigator), Earhart attempted the greatest journey of her life. However, from the beginning, the plane started having some issues that made them call the flight off, so it could be fixed.
A few months later, the airplane was said to be in perfect conditions to make a second attempt. On June 1st, Earhart and Noonan departed from Miami, making some stops along the way in South America, Africa and finally in Lae, New Guinea on June 29th. So far, they had made it for 22,000 miles, with only 7,000 remaining. That last stretch would be over the Pacific, with Howland Island as the first stop. They took off from Lae, but some time later, communication was abruptly cut. Their last reported location was near the Nukumanu Islands. The radio communication between the plane and the control tower in Howland Island was really poor, and eventually, it stopped completely.
Rescue efforts started just an hour after Earhart’s last message. A set of ships from Howland Island started the search, followed by the US Navy just a couple of days later with one of the most expensive rescue missions in the history of the US. After some weeks had passed, the official search ended without a single clue about Earhart and Noonan's whereabouts. Still, private searches continued until very recently. As a consequence of the non-definite results of the different searches, many theories have emerged, even one claiming that she returned safely to the US under another name to led an anonymous life. However, after seventy-one years, we might be closer than ever to discovering what really happened to her.
In 1940, a British expedition found a set of bones in Nikumaroro. These were sent to Fiji to be analyzed and examined by D.W. Hoodless. He determined that the bones belonged to a European male, and since not so long before, there had been a shipwreck nearby, the case was closed and the bones discarded. However, anthropologist Richard Jantz recently re-examined the data, and according to him, the bones might have been wrongly identified. Through a new computer program called Fordisc, Jantz determined that Hoodless had wrongly determined the sex of the body and that they were more likely to belong to a woman. Moreover, Jantz and his team established that Amelia Earhart’s registered measurements were a better match with the bones found on Nikumaroro than most of the samples registered in the region.
Without being definitive, as Jantz claims, this is the best evidence we have to close the case, though it's pretty much certain that she met a terrible end. Still, what matters about her life isn’t the mystery of her disappearance, but all the work she did to challenge old gender notions and taboos. What matters is the inspirational figure she was (and still is) for young girls and women to pursue their dreams even if they don’t fit society’s standards. And that’s what we have to continue celebrating: the life and achievements of a trailblazing woman who challenged the status quo.
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