Amelia Earhart was an American aviator who set many flying records and championed the advancement of women in aviation. She became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first person ever to fly solo from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. During a flight to circumnavigate the globe, Earhart disappeared somewhere over the Pacific in July 1937. Her plane wreckage was never found, and she was officially declared lost at sea. Her disappearance remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century.
Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897. She defied traditional gender roles from a young age. Earhart played basketball, took an auto repair course and briefly attended college.
After the war, she returned to the United States and enrolled at Columbia University in New York as a pre-med student. Earhart took her first airplane ride in California in December 1920 with famed World War I pilot Frank Hawks—and was forever hooked.
In January 1921, she started flying lessons with female flight instructor Neta Snook. To help pay for those lessons, Earhart worked as a filing clerk at the Los Angeles Telephone Company. Later that year, she purchased her first airplane, a secondhand Kinner Airster. She nicknamed the yellow airplane “the Canary.”
Earhart passed her flight test in December 1921, earning a National Aeronautics Association license. Two days later, she participated in her first flight exhibition at the Sierra Airdrome in Pasadena, California.
Earhart’s Aviation Records
Earhart set a number of aviation records in her short career. Her first record came in 1922 when she became the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet.
In 1932, Earhart became the first woman (and second person after Charles Lindbergh) to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She left Newfoundland, Canada, on May 20 in a red Lockheed Vega 5B and arrived a day later, landing in a cow field near Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Upon returning to the United States, Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross—a military decoration awarded for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” She was the first woman to receive the honor.
Later that year, Earhart made the first solo, nonstop flight across the United States by a woman. She started in Los Angeles and landed 19 hours later in Newark, New Jersey. She also became the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the United States mainland in 1935.
Earhart consistently worked to promote opportunities for women in aviation.
In 1929, after placing third in the All-Women’s Air Derby—the first transcontinental air race for women—Earhart helped to form the Ninety-Nines, an international organization for the advancement of female pilots.
She became the first president of the organization of licensed pilots, which still exists today and represents women flyers from 44 countries.
1937 Flight Around the World
On June 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart took off from Oakland, California, on an eastbound flight around the world. It was her second attempt to become the first pilot ever to circumnavigate the globe.
She flew a twin-engine Lockheed 10E Electra and was accompanied on the flight by navigator Fred Noonan. They flew to Miami, then down to South America, across the Atlantic to Africa, then east to India and Southeast Asia.
The pair reached Lae, New Guinea, on June 29. When they reached Lae, they already had flown 22,000 miles. They had 7,000 more miles to go before reaching Oakland.
What Happened to Amelia Earhart?
Earhart and Noonan departed Lae for tiny Howland Island—their next refueling stop—on July 2. It was the last time Earhart was seen alive. She and Noonan lost radio contact with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, anchored off the coast of Howland Island, and disappeared en route.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a massive two-week search for the pair, but they were never found. On July 19, 1937, Earhart and Noonan were declared lost at sea.
Scholars and aviation enthusiasts have proposed many theories about what happened to Amelia Earhart. The official position from the U.S. government is that Earhart and Noonan crashed into the Pacific Ocean, but there are numerous theories regarding their disappearance.
Crash and Sink Theory
According to the crash and sink theory, Earhart’s plane ran out of gas while she searched for Howland Island, and she crashed into the open ocean somewhere in the vicinity of the island.
Several expeditions over the past 15 years have attempted to locate the plane’s wreckage on the seafloor near Howland. High-tech sonar and deep-sea robots have failed to yield clues about the Electra’s crash site.
Gardner Island Hypothesis
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) postulates that Earhart and Noonan veered off-course from Howland Island and landed instead some 350 miles to the Southwest on Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, in the Republic of Kiribati. The island was uninhabited at the time.
A week after Earhart’s disappearance, Navy planes flew over the island. They noted recent signs of habitation but found no evidence of an airplane.
TIGHAR believes that Earhart—and perhaps Noonan—may have survived for days or even weeks on the island as castaways before dying there. Since 1988, several TIGHAR expeditions to the island have turned up artifacts and anecdotal evidence in support of this hypothesis.
Some of the artifacts include a piece of Plexiglas that may have come from the Electra’s window, a woman’s shoe dating back to the 1930s, improvised tools, a woman’s cosmetics jar from the 1930s and bones that appeared to be part of a human finger.
In June 2017, a TIGHAR-led expedition arrived on Nikumaroro with four forensically trained bone-sniffing border collies to search the island for any skeletal remains of Earhart or Noonan. The search turned up no bones or DNA.
In August 2019, Robert Ballard, the ocean explorer known for locating the wreck of the Titanic, led a team to search for Earhart's plane in the waters around Nikumaroro. They saw no signs of the Electra.
Other Theories About Earhart’s Disappearance
There are numerous conspiracy theories about Earhart’s disappearance. One theory posits that Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed by the Japanese.
Another theory claims that the pair served as spies for the Roosevelt administration and assumed new identities upon returning to the United States.
The Life of Amelia Earhart: Purdue Libraries.
Amelia Earhart: Missing for 80 Years But Not Forgotten: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Model, Static, Lockheed Electra, Amelia Earhart: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Exclusive: Bone-Sniffing Dogs to Hunt for Amelia Earhart’s Remains: National Geographic.
Where Is Amelia Earhart? Three Theories but No Smoking Gun: National Geographic.
The Earhart Project: The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).