No one has seen Amelia Earhart or her shiny silver Electra with serial numbers NR16020 emblazoned on its wing ever since she took off from New Guinea for Howland Island on July 2, 1937, and soon thereafter lost radio contact.
Naturally, rumors of her survival abound even today, almost 80 years later. But thus far even the most promising of reports -- that searchers have finally located sizable chunks of her plane’s debris underwater -- remain unconfirmed too.
What is known, however, is that for days after Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan mysteriously vanished over the Pacific Ocean, the Electra’s weak and garbled distress signals were detected in the vicinity of deserted Gardner Island.
Most notably by various Pan American Airways' stations situated fairly close by.
Evidently then the doomed pair, running on empty, made a crash landing on Gardner where "signs of recent habitation were clearly visible" in aerial photographs taken some weeks later, and where the bones of a Caucasian female were discovered a few years on, but which were promptly "misplaced" forever.
Who wanted Amelia Earhart dead?
Earhart had first tried to launch her roundtrip world voyage in mid March of 1937 via California, but with disastrous consequences: The Electra’s landing gear then inexplicably malfunctioned on takeoff from Hawaii and, if she hadn’t cut the engines immediately, she and navigator Noonan would've both burned to death in a fiery wreck.
Some theorists say, on her second ill-fated bid just three months later, that Earhart’s then-newly refurbished plane was shot to smithereens by Japanese fighter pilots who the unarmed flyer encountered mere minutes before reaching her destination.
Others claim she was captured alive by them and transported to Saipan where eventually she died in custody at some secret prisoner-of-war camp.
But, if foul play was involved in Earhart’s unsolved disappearance and demise, in all likelihood it wouldn't have been at the hands a foreign enemy, but, rather, domestic.
That’s right; rest assured the much loved and revered Earhart also made a number of enemies when she earned her wings and many accolades. Not the least because the famed feminist had a habit of breaking flying records whenever she took to the skies.
And all of these were originally set by men…
Sky’s the limit for a diehard suffragette
Incredible as it seems today, there was a time not so long ago when females were not allowed to vote, run for public office, own property, hold down jobs, join the military, drive automobiles, or, of course, fly aeroplanes.
In fact, that was still the situation in 1897 when Amelia Mary Earhart was born. Four decades later, when the planet’s number one aviatrix somehow perished into oblivion, voting rights for American women had only been in full effect for 17 years.
As seen by the slow progress in obtaining equal rights over the ensuing eight decades, the untimely death of such a high-profile and outspoken feminist was a setback to suffragettes and their cause.
For an independent, spirited woman like Amelia Earhart, breaking the flight barrier had been synonymous with female suffrage, and by soaring to incredible heights in “a man’s world” she had inspired others of her sex to endeavor to achieve the same.
Indeed, the ranks of fearless lady aces in Earhart’s day were fast growing, fueled on the belief they were the ideal long-distance pilots, being smaller in stature than their male counterparts and biologically predisposed to feats of endurance, as opposed to short-lived bursts of strength.
And in those days traveling light to conserve fuel -- without sleep or food -- in hopes of traversing and ultimately taming the mighty oceanic divides, is what the nascent art of transcontinental flying was all about.
Was Fred Noonan the fall guy?
In air or on land, Fred Noonan was one of the world’s most celebrated navigators in the 1920s and 30s, but legend also has it he was a notorious drunk.
Therefore, most historians insist, it “had to be” his drinking or a serious hangover which doomed the Lockheed Electra 10E and its world renowned mistress.
NR16020 fell from the sky due to a navigational error, the story goes, regardless that records reveal Noonan had skillfully directed the aircraft well within range of Howland Island, and the failure to land there arose solely through radio miscommunications.
Noteworthy too is that, as the daughter of an alcoholic father, Earhart had no patience whatsoever for men who couldn’t hold their liquor, making it all the more doubtful that she’d entertain similar misconduct from one who she was forced to rely on for her very survival.
"We must be on you but cannot see you -- gas is running low”
Even solo flying is not completely done solo. All pilots must rely on some assistance for both taking off and landing, and such assistants are either stationed firmly on the ground nearby, or, in Earhart’s case, out at sea, on a U.S. Coast Guard vessel named the Itasca.
On the fateful day of July 2, 1937, Earhart was finishing a fabled and unprecedented roundtrip journey across Earth. She was about to enter the record books again as well, for no flyer before her, male or female, had ever successfully circumnavigated the entire globe, although, to be sure, some had vainly attempted.
To succeed in her heroic mission, she and Noonan would have had to pinpoint a flat strip of uninhabited land floating in the center of the vast Pacific Ocean which from the air looked no bigger than a speck of dirt. So, from the very outset of the dangerous quest, everybody knew at this critical juncture that the two would be flying blind and likely die should anything interfere with radio communications.
But something did, and while the good ship Itasca competently and continually relayed the vital information needed for a safe touchdown on that tiny sliver of land, master aviator Earhart, so close to her elusive mark, was nevertheless unable to respond to those directions.
That is to say, Itasca radio operators heard her repeated, anguished messages for aid loud and clear, but, unfortunately, she couldn’t hear any of their numerous replies.
The reason for this fatal breakdown, as it turned out, was that an important antenna, the one positioned beneath the Electra’s fuselage, had been removed sometime prior to its final flight. A troubling detail which emerged only when investigators carefully reviewed film footage of the plane as it was departing from Lae, New Guinea en route to Howland Island.
Yet no antenna was ever discovered on or near Lae’s airfield, proving the device didn’t just accidentally snap while taxiing along the grassy runway, nor from wind-sheer during takeoff.
Had she survived her inevitable plunge hours later, Amelia Mary Earhart would be an improbable 116 years of age today. That means, one way or another, the time to rescue her and a stranded crew of one has clearly come and gone now.
But even if those still searching actually find her lost Electra with skeletal remains inside tomorrow, it still won’t fully solve this major missing persons mystery, so long as the most significant question about it goes unasked and unanswered:
Who sabotaged Earhart’s radio?