Amelia Earhart Enigma: Three Groups With Three Theories Probe Pacific

Donna McGuire
The Kansas City Star
August 31, 2001
As Amelia Earhart guided her twin-engine airplane toward tiny Howland
Island early on July 2, 1937, U.S. Coast Guardsmen waiting to assist her
grew worried.

Earhart's radio transmissions were too brief for
them to determine her position. And their radio messages weren't
reaching her.

Sixty-four years later, Earhart's disappearance that day over the Pacific Ocean continues to intrigue many people—especially those who yearn to find her plane and solve one of America's legendary aviation mysteries.

Now, three teams embracing different theories are investigating locales hundreds of miles apart:

• A Maryland company is planning an expedition this winter to scour roughly 600 square miles (1,500 square kilometers) of Pacific Ocean floor. Its team believes Earhart ditched her out-of-fuel Lockheed Electra within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of Howland—and that the Electra probably rests today in good condition at roughly the same depth the Titanic was found.

• A nonprofit Delaware group was headed recently for an uninhabited South Pacific island it has searched five times. Its members believe Earhart landed on the island's coral reef and died as a castaway.

• A third group of independent researchers recently dispatched three persons to a North Pacific island. Members of this loose-knit group have believed for decades that Earhart crashed in the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands and was taken prisoner.

Each group thinks it is following the correct clues. Each perceives Earhart's plane as the Holy Grail of aviation and is willing to spend thousands—even millions—of dollars to find it.

George Putnam, Jr., whose father was married to Earhart and who flew with her as a teenager, hopes someone succeeds. Finding the plane would squelch erroneous rumors about his stepmother's disappearance, he said.

Another Earhart relative, though, is tired of the fuss.

"I would just as soon leave it as a mystery," said Amy Kleppner, a retired teacher who was five when her Aunt Amelia vanished during an attempted around-the-world flight. "I guess I don't see a lot of point in digging up bones."

The Day She Disappeared

July 2, 1937, dawned clear at Howland Island with a light breeze and a smooth sea. Aboard the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, crew members and journalists expected Earhart's plane to land between sunrise and 8 a.m.

Though a male pilot already had circled the globe, Earhart would have been the first person to hopscotch around the Equator, at Earth's widest point.

Her Electra, big enough for ten passengers, had been packed with extra gas tanks when it left Oakland, California, on May 20, heading east. By now, it had covered three-fourths of the 29,000-mile (46,600-kilometer) route through Miami, Brazil, Africa, India, and Australia.

Earhart, 39, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, 44, were flying a 2,556-mile (4,113-kilometer) ocean leg from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland, a speck of an island just north of the Equator. From there, Earhart would have just two hops remaining: to Hawaii and California.

Not an easy target, Howland was a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) wide and 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) long.

So that Noonan could use the stars as a guide, Earhart planned to arrive shortly after dawn. To help in this pre-radar era, the Coast Guard would provide radio bearings and generate a smoke plume.

Listening in the Itasca's radio room, United Press correspondent Howard Hanzlik thought Earhart's radio skills seemed amateurish. Her transmissions were too clipped for the crew to get a bearing. Because of miscommunication, Earhart and the crew apparently sent some messages to each other simultaneously—meaning neither side heard those transmissions.

Earhart, who also had radio-receiver troubles, reported hearing the Itasca only once.

"Comedy of Incompetence"

At one point, tears streamed down the face of a desperate Coast Guard radio operator as he begged Earhart to hold down her Morse code key—which researchers say she had left behind in Miami—so he could get a bearing, Hanzlik recalls.

The batteries went dead on a high-frequency radio direction-finder on Howland that could have guided Earhart toward the island. And Earhart never saw the Itasca's smoke plume. It hugged the ocean and dispersed instead of billowing. Smoke might have helped, because Earhart was flying into the glare of a rising sun.

"It was just a comedy of incompetence by both sides," recalled Hanzlik, 91, who lives in California today.

Shortly after 7 a.m., Earhart told the ship: "We must be on you but cannot see you. Gas is running low. Been unable (to) reach you by radio. We are flying at altitude 1,000 feet (300 meters)."

As the situation grew more grave, her speech quickened, her voice rose.

Shortly after 8 a.m., a panicked Earhart reported running north and south along a certain line, but she gave no intersecting position. She said she would try another frequency, but no other message was heard.

Her signal had weakened, the Coast Guard noted. Earhart was flying away from Howland.

Riding to the island with a party intending to greet Earhart, Hanzlik was overcome by sadness. She wasn't going to make it, he realized.

The Itasca began looking for the Electra in the ocean northwest of Howland. Within days, an unprecedented search effort had ballooned to more than 3,000 people, 10 ships, and 102 planes.

They found nothing.

Copyright 2001 The Kansas City Star

What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

Theory 1: She plunged into the sea at the place where she made her last radio contact. Go>>

Theory 2: She had a contingency plan, and would have made sure she had enough fuel to find another runway. She made land, but died on an uninhabited island. Go>>

Theory 3: She somehow made it to the Marshall Islands, where she was photographed sitting on a beach. She was arrested by the Japanese, who may have executed her for being a spy. Or she may have returned to the United States after the war under a new name. Go>>

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