UP IN THE AIR
Is Amelia Earhart Mystery Solved? Why the Aviator Lifts Our Hearts
As Earhart searchers claim a breakthrough, biographer Susan Butler on the aviator’s enduring legacy.
Good looks, good judgment, good temperament, a will to win, a sense of mission, a taste for adventure, a social worker determined to leave the world a better place than she found it, an extraordinary, record-setting pilot—those words describe Amelia Earhart. She hits every button. And then on her last record-breaking flight, on July 2, 1937, she went missing: No wonder the world won’t let her go. No wonder we are still so enthralled.
Earhart set many flying records, but her most daring achievement was that five years to the day after Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight, she took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, and, after a harrowing flight replete with equipment malfunctions and bad weather, safely landed her red single-engine Lockheed Vega in a farmer’s field in Derry, Northern Ireland. That made her the second person to solo the Atlantic: in the five years in between, of those who tried and failed, two died. After the flight, Gore Vidal said, “Forget Garbo. Forget Jackie. She was in a realm beyond stardom.”
In the years that I was writing my biography of Earhart, I became smitten with her personality. I took to wearing brown, her favorite color, and eating healthy—not fried—balanced meals, as she did. (In nutrition, too, she was ahead of her time.) I would sign my letters “Cheers” as she did. I almost took flying lessons so that I could share her love of flying. Hilary Swank, who played her in Amelia, the movie based on my book, was so smitten with Earhart, she not only copied the way she walked and talked, she did learn to fly.
There have been many searches for her plane, a Lockheed Electra 10-E that went missing on a flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island, a tiny, tiny atoll 2,556 miles distant where she had to land and refuel before continuing on to Hawaii. With her was a fine navigator, Fred Noonan.
In the 1950s a CBS reporter, Fred Goerner, one of many who after the war were convinced that the Japanese had captured her, organized and led four expeditions in search of Earhart and Noonan. He was sure they had been picked up by a Japanese fishing boat, taken to Jaluit, then Kwajalein, and finally Saipan, where they died. In the 1980s a Japanese writer for Newsweek, Fukiko Aoki, interviewed “witnesses” on Saipan and other islands named and realized all their stories were unfounded.
I think—and most knowledgeable people, certainly most pilots believe—the Electra, having run out of gas, rests on the ocean floor in the vicinity of Howland Island. The Electra hasn’t yet been found, because the ocean is 17,000 feet deep around Howland Island, and only recently has technology allowed the construction of underwater vehicles that can endure the pressure at that depth. In 2009 I was on the 46-day second leg of the Seward Johnson’s search for Earhart. The Seward Johnson is a 204-foot research vessel that set out from American Samoa to Howland Island to look for the plane. Behind the search was Ted Waitt, a great admirer of Earhart. There were 29 of us aboard the ship: scientists, oceanographers, technicians, computer experts, and ordinary seamen. On deck were AUVs—autonomous underwater vehicles—12-foot sonar subs painted bright yellow with red rudders, that were sent down every day to comb the ocean floor. Except on the days in transit the AUVs were down looking for the plane 24/7. But the Seward Johnson examined the ocean floor only on the west side of Howland Island, on the theory that the Electra had been held up by headwinds; the east side remains to be searched.
Ric Gillespie and his organization, TIGHAR, are among the last to be searching. (A group has informed me they are searching for the plane on New Britain Island.) I commend Gillespie’s industry, his ability to gather such prestigious people as Hillary Clinton and Robert Ballard to his cause. And Gillespie has devoted the past 16 years to the search. He has mounted nine expeditions to Gardner Island, also known as Nikumaroro, where he is sure the plane crashed.
But Gardner was over-flown, together with two neighboring islands, McKean Island and Carondelet Reef, five days after Earhart went missing. It was one of the first islands searched. If one of the three pilots (who took off in three planes catapulted from the battleship Colorado) had sighted anything even slightly promising, the pilot would have reported it: he would have been the hero of the hour.
Gillespie has come back with bones, bits of a shoe, and a box that he was sure would prove out as Earhart’s: nothing has held up. Now he has found “Earhart’s” jar of Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment? (Did she ever use such a cosmetic? Not to my knowledge.) Upon closer reading, it turns out that the jar was found on the last expedition, is just now being publicized, and is quite possibly not an ointment jar at all, since it appears to be five shards of clear glass that in fact don’t even quite match a Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment jar.
I wish Gillespie luck. I hope he finds the plane—I hope I am wrong to be so skeptical. I will be thrilled when Earhart’s remains are found, because it will mean people’s attention will shift from Earhart’s death to her life. And it was such an eventful, happy, inspiring life.