Amelia Earhart: Pioneer Woman in Aviation & Her Strange Disappearance

Amelia Earhart was a record-breaking woman aviator and became one of the biggest mysteries in history when she disappeared during her flight around the world.

May 15, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
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Amelia Earhart inside a Stearman Hammond Y-1 airplane by Harris & Ewing, 1936, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Amelia Earhart developed a deep interest in aviation at a young age and began flying in her early twenties. She became a pioneer woman of aviation by setting and breaking aviation records and attempting to make a flight around the world. Alongside her many aviation accomplishments, Earhart was also a career counselor, lecturer, aviation editor, and photographer. With less than 10,000 miles left in her around-the-world flight, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan lost radio contact and were unable to be found after extensive air and sea searches. The disappearance of Earhart and Noonan has remained one of the biggest mysteries in history, with little evidence as to what could have happened to them.


Amelia Earhart Falls in Love With Flight

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Amelia Earhart (right) as a student pilot with flight instructor Neta Snook (left) at Kinner Field in Los Angeles, California, 1921, via National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution


Amelia Earhart was an adventurous woman used to traveling from place to place as she frequently relocated throughout her childhood. After finishing high school in Chicago, Illinois, Earhart went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she attended a private girls finishing school called The Ogontz School. In December 1917, Earhart visited her younger sister Muriel in Toronto, Canada for Christmas and decided to stay. She left Ogontz in February 1918 and became a voluntary aid detachment nurse at the Spadina Military Convalescent. While working as a nurse aide, Earhart visited a local airfield and attended her first flying exhibition. In 1919, Earhart decided to pursue a college education as a pre-medical student at Columbia University. However, her studies didn’t intrigue her, and she decided to leave the university in 1920 and move to Los Angeles, California to live with her parents.


Earhart’s interest in planes developed as she visited the local airfield in Toronto, but she became more fascinated with flight after taking her first ride in a plane in December 1920 with veteran flyer Frank Hawks. From that moment, Earhart knew she had found her passion. She began working as a clerk at a telephone company and photographer to save up for flying lessons. She took her first lesson on January 3, 1921 with instructor Anita Neta Snook in a Curtiss Jenny plane. In just one year, Amelia Earhart managed to save up enough money to buy her first plane, a yellow Kinner Airster biplane that she called “The Canary.” Earhart used the Kinner Airster to take her first solo flight and also set the women’s record for rising to 14,000 feet.


Breaking Records

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Amelia Earhart sitting in her plane, via National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution


Seven years after Amelia Earhart took her first flying lesson, she received a call from Hilton H. Riley asking if she was interested in becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Earhart accepted without hesitation. Although she would become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Amelia wasn’t the pilot. She accompanied pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot Louis S. Gordon on the Friendship plane in April 1928. The Fokker F7 plane left Trepassey Harbor, Newfoundland on June 17, 1928. The crew landed about 21 hours later at Burry Port, Wales. Amelia Earhart earned a great amount of recognition for the transatlantic trip. President Calvin Coolidge held a reception at the White House for the pilots and Earhart, and a parade welcomed them when they returned to the States.

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A few months after flying across the Atlantic, Earhart published a book entitled 20 Hours 40 Minutes that documented her journey. Earhart also lectured about her trip and was offered the opportunity to become the aviation editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. Earhart participated in the First Women’s Air Derby and placed third in August 1929. To bring other women aviators together, Earhart helped establish the Ninety-Nines club in November 1929 and became the group’s first president in 1931.


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Standing portrait of Amelia Earhart in her aviation gear, 1936, via National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution


By the late 1920s and early ‘30s, Amelia Earhart had broken several women’s speed and altitude records. Earhart was determined to do more as she made plans to make her own solo trip across the Atlantic. She became the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean on a solo trip in May 1932. The remarkable feat earned her a bronze National Geographic Society medal. She also received the Distinguished Flying Cross award from Congress. Earhart gave her account of the journey in her book The Fun of It, published in 1933.


On top of her long list of accomplishments already named, Earhart became the first woman to make a non-stop coast-to-coast solo flight in August 1932. She decided to go on another overseas adventure across the Atlantic on July 7, 1933. The solo transatlantic trip took only 17 hours and seven minutes, breaking the record she previously set on her first solo transatlantic flight. She also became the first to fly solo across the Pacific on January 11, 1935 from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. The flight was 2,408 miles long, and the plane included the first two-way radio of a civilian aircraft.


Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight

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Amelia Earhart in the cockpit of her plane prior to last takeoff, via National Archives Catalog


Amelia Earhart set her sights on becoming the first woman to fly around the world in 1937. The journey was about 29,000 miles and consisted of several refueling stops along the way. Attempting such a flight was dangerous, considering weather conditions and the technology and mechanics of plane capabilities at the time. In March, Earhart made her first attempt to fly around the world, but her Lockheed Electra plane suffered severe damage during the failed flight. With navigator Fred Noonan, Earhart restarted her trip around the world on June 1, 1937 after her plane was rebuilt. Noonan and Earhart departed from Miami, Florida and made it to Lae, New Guinea by the end of the month on June 29.


The next stop after New Guinea was a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific called Howland Island. There were approximately 7,000 miles left of Earhart’s journey. The landing conditions at Howland Island were risky. The island was only a mile and a half long and just one-half mile wide. Earhart was a very skilled aviator, but landing on Howland Island posed a huge challenge, even for the most experienced pilots. Navigation was also an issue. During this time, maps for desolate areas were often inaccurate and unreliable. Earhart and Noonan were in communication with the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca stationed off the shore of Howland Island. Other Coast Guard ships nearby were directed to turn on all of the ship lights to help guide the landing.


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Amelia Earhart standing near her Lockheed 5C Vega airplane while men refuel it for her solo Pacific flight, via National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution


Noonan used celestial navigation as one of his location-tracking methods. During their trip to Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan were met with rain showers and overcast conditions. The weather made it difficult for Noonan to identify their location more precisely. Earhart reported the cloudy conditions to the US Coast Guard. In an effort to keep in contact, the Coast Guard sent Earhart and Noonan transmissions. However, at some point in their flight, Earhart and Noonan were unable to hear the radio transmissions sent. Early in the morning on July 2, Coast Guard cutter Itasca was able to receive a message that Earhart sent relaying, “We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 ft.”


Earhart sent another message about an hour later stating the direction she was flying, which would be the last message the Coast Guard received. Radio signals picked up by civilians were reported the week following Earhart’s disappearance. The signals were compiled by Richard Gillespie, the executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). A number of distress signals that Gillespie claims to be credible may document the final words transmitted by Amelia Earhart.


One of the signals submitted is believed to be the last radio transmission given by Earhart. The final transmission stated, “Can you read me? Can you read me? This is Amelia Earhart… Please come in. We have taken in water, my navigator is badly hurt. We are in need of medical care and must have help. We can’t hold on much longer.” Based on this radio transmission, it’s clear that Earhart and Noonan were in serious distress in what could have been their final moments.


The Search for Earhart & Noonan

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Amelia Earhart (left) with navigator Fred Noonan (right) by The LIFE Magazine Collection, via International Center of Photography


After Earhart and Noonan had lost full contact and never landed at Howland Island hours after their expected arrival, it was realized that they could be in grave danger. Rescue teams were sent out to find them. An extensive sea and air search consisting of nine vessels, 66 aircraft, and 4,000 crewmen were conducted for 16 days. The US Naval Aviation took part in the large-scale search. Air searches were conducted at an altitude of about 1,000 feet, and the visibility distance to see a raft was approximately five miles.


Initial search efforts were abandoned on July 12 after covering about 1,908 miles between each aircraft. Air searches covered about 25,490 square miles of visibility within the first ten days. After air and sea searches covering about 250,000 square miles of ocean and roughly $4 million spent, the mission to find Earhart and Noonan came to an end. Fred Noonan was declared dead on June 20, 1938. Amelia Earhart was declared dead on January 5, 1939.


Remains Found on Gardner Island

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Amelia Earhart posing in front of her Lockheed Electra 10E Special, NR16020 airplane, via


Numerous expeditions to find the remains of Earhart and Noonan or their plane continued as researchers attempted to solve the mystery of their disappearance. TIGHAR launched an investigation to find any remains that could relate to Earhart or Noonan in 1988. Led by Gillespie, the investigation consisted of 11 expeditions around Gardner Island, also known as Nikumaroro, in the Republic of Kiribati. Since search efforts surrounding Howland Island proved unsuccessful, Gillespie believed Earhart and Noonan may have crashed near Gardner Island.


In 1998, historian Peter McQuarrie uncovered British national archives files in Kiribati about the discovery of human remains on Gardner Island in 1940. According to the files, the British administrator of Nikumaroro and British officials had communicated about a partial human skeleton found on the island that was badly damaged. The partial human skeleton was found with the remains of a campfire, birds, and a turtle. Other evidence found with the bones included the sole of a woman’s shoe, a nautical navigation device called a sextant, and a Benedictine liquor bottle. These findings didn’t prove to be Earhart or Noonan’s remains, but researchers believed it was very possible.


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Amelia Earhart with husband George Putnam looking at a map of a projected flight around the world by The LIFE Magazine Collection, via International Center of Photography


The remains were suspected to be Amelia Earhart’s by British administrator Gerald B. Gallagher in 1940. Gallagher contacted the British Western Pacific High Commission in Fiji about the remains, which were sent on a ship to Fiji for analysis. American authorities were never contacted about the remains. The operation to send and analyze the remains was to be kept secret. A senior medical officer on the ship discovered it was carrying the remains. Offended that he had not been asked to evaluate the skeletal remains, the senior medical officer decided to examine the bones without authorization. The medical officer believed the remains to be of an elderly Polynesian man who had been dead for at least 20 years. The bones were later lost, and only the reports discovered in 1998 provide details on the remains.


Forensic examiners and anthropologists who analyzed the reports suggested the bones could be from a European male or a female of similar origin and height to Amelia Earhart. The reports were analyzed alongside measurements of Earhart using photographs, which revealed some similarities. However, forensic anthropologist Ann Ross believed the methodologies used to determine the relationships between the skeletal remains and Earhart’s measurements weren’t reliable. Although some researchers saw similarities between the remains and Earhart’s measurements, the reports only contained data on the remains from those who examined them in 1940 and 1941. Therefore, the analyses conducted to find similarities between photographs of Earhart and the files on the Gardner Island remains were inconclusive.


Theories on the Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

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Amelia Earhart smiling in the cockpit of her Electra plane by Acme Newspictures, 1937, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Although the skeletal remains found on Gardner Island provided researchers with a likely lead to Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance, the data outlined in the reports from 1940 weren’t reliable. Another TIGHAR expedition took place on an atoll in Tuvalu, where aircraft wreckage was found on the shoreline of Nikumaroro in the 1950s. Images were captured of five objects from the area where the aircraft wreckage was reported. It was confirmed that the images met certain criteria to be aluminum debris. The images were collected from aerial mapping photos in 1953, and another object was photographed by the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1988.


Despite these findings, the lack of critical evidence and insufficient data to firmly identify the remains of Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, or the wreckage from their plane keeps the mystery alive. The strongest theory on their disappearance is that Earhart and Noonan made a crash landing on Gardner Island and survived for some period of time but died before they were able to be rescued. If the origin of the remains or wreckage found on Nikumaroro ever comes to light and it’s confirmed that this evidence is unrelated to Earhart’s last flight, it’s also possible that they ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific. Nonetheless, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s deaths continue to go unsolved and remain one of the biggest mysteries in history.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.