What Happened to Amelia Earhart, an American Aviation Pioneer?

Born in 1897, Amelia Earhart was a trailblazer in the field of aviation. Her accomplishments include being the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, setting a new record time for flying from Los Angeles to New York (17 hours and seven minutes), and authoring three books about her experiences as an aviator. 

Unfortunately, however, she would be remembered for something much darker: her 1939 disappearance. To this day, the question, “What happened to Amelia Earhart?” is one of the most prominent mysteries in recent history. 

What Circumstances Led to Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance?

An image of Amelia Earhart standing in front of a plane, 10 years prior to her disappearance
Amelia Earhart in 1928
Photographed for the Los Angeles Daily News
Source: University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections

By 1937, Amelia Earhart had long been established as a figurehead in both aviation and the burgeoning women’s rights movement. That year, she decided to take on the most ambitious aviation journey ever attempted. 

Sponsored by Purdue University—where she worked as a visiting faculty member—the project was called “World Flight.” As its name would suggest, it involved Earhart flying a twin-engine Lockhead Electra aircraft across the entire globe. 

Joined only by her navigator Fred Noonan, she progressed further in her adventure than any naysayer would have expected. However, in the final leg of the expedition, she met a cruel fate, the details of which are still unknown.

Why Was Amelia Earhart’s Around-the-World Journey Doomed to Fail?

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan left a refueling station in Papua New Guinea with the intent of landing at Howland Island, a small island in the Pacific Ocean. There, they would refuel, leave for Hawaii, refuel again, and make their way to California, completing their mission.

Posted near Howland Island was a US Coast Guard vessel called the Itasca. The Itasca was supposed to have been equipped with radio gear capable of directing Earhart’s plane towards the island. 

Unfortunately, due to poor planning, the navigational gear on Earhart’s plane was incompatible with that of the Itasca. Factor in overcast weather, and Earhart’s chances of landing at the only half-mile wide Howland Island were slim at best. She and Noonan never made it to their destination.

Theories as to What Happened to Amelia Earhart

In the 80+ years since their disappearance, no remains of Earhart, Noonan, or their aircraft have ever been found. Of course, Occam’s razor would suggest that the plane simply ran out of fuel, and the two explorers unfortunately fell to their watery graves.

However, dozens of radio signals were transmitted from Earhart’s plane after she and Noonan were declared missing. This suggests that the pair may have met a different fate.

Was Amelia Earhart Captured by the Japanese?

Some believe that, upon realizing that they were unlikely to successfully land in Howland Island, Earhart and Noonan flew northwest and crash-landed somewhere on the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands. Here, Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed.

There is no clear motivation for the pair’s execution, and the theory often veers into the direction of conspiracy, some of its proponents even suggesting—without evidence—that Earhart was a spy for the US government. 

Recently, historians unearthed a photograph that supposedly depicts Earhart and Noonan in the custody of the Japanese military, standing on a dock in Jaluit Atoll, one of the Marshall Islands. However, this photograph has since been officially discredited.

The Amelia Earhart Coconut Crab Connection 

A photo of a coconut crab. Amelia Earhart may have lost her life at the hands of this creature.
Source: Drew Avery – originally posted to Flickr as Coconut Crab {Birgus latro}#2

Another prominent theory is that Earhart and Noonan crash-landed at the nearby Nikumaroro Island, an atoll occupied by coconut crabs.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Coconut crabs come forth irregularly at night to feed, loot, raid and plunder. The crab is known for its ability to crack or pound open coconuts with the strong pincers or two large chelae it possesses in order to eat the contents… The crabs have been known to feast on chickens, kittens, and fellow coconut crabs.”

It is theorized that Earhart and Noonan were eaten by coconut crabs, evidenced by the fact that in 1940, researchers on Nikumaroro found a fraction of a skeleton that may have belonged to Earhart. Nearby, they also found a woman’s shoe, a box used to hold navigation equipment, and a bottle of Benedictine, an herbal-based liquor Earhart was known to drink.

A 1940 examination of the bones by one Dr. D.W. Hoodless returned inconclusive results, and since, the bones have been lost. The scientific community has widely disputed Hoodless’s conclusion, but without the bones, it is impossible to prove that they belonged to Earhart.

Amelia Earhart Remembered: The Amelia Earhart Park

While Amelia Earhart’s legacy will forever be entangled with her bizarre disappearance, her plethora of accomplishments remain a testament to humankind’s potential for greatness. She has been immortalized by the 1980 founding of the Amelia Earhart park in Hialeah, Florida. 

Sitting atop land that once hosted a Naval Air Station, the Amelia Earhart Park is “a sprawling oasis with multiple lakes for wakeboarding and paddleboarding, as well as soccer fields, sand volleyball courts, mountain biking trails, a playground and a petting zoo,” all serving the purpose to keep Earhart’s memory alive. 

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