Hillary Clinton and the US State Department are backing a new search for the remains of Amelia Earhart and her famous Lockheed Electra 10E. In doing so they are attempting to help solve one of the 20th century’s most famous mysteries: What happened to Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan when they disappeared in the Pacific on the fateful day of July 2, 1937.
Many historians have long held that Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel after missing their intended destination of Howland Island, an uninhabited speck of coral in the middle of the central Pacific just north of the equator. Under this theory, they just disappeared into the vast blue of the sea, so far from any land that no trace of them could ever be found.
But researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) have a different thesis. This nonprofit foundation believes it possible that Earhart and Noonan landed on what was then known as Gardner Island, and is now called Nikumaroro, in the Republic of Kiribati. This is another coral dot in the same general area as Howland.
TIGHAR hypothesizes that the daring air pioneers survived on Gardner for some time but eventually perished due to lack of supplies. In recent years the group has sponsored several trips to the island, and brought back artifacts such as a shattered mirror from a woman’s compact and a pocket knife that could have belonged to Earhart.
The group is planning to return in July, during the 75th anniversary of Earhart’s ill-fated attempt to fly around the world. It’s this effort that Secretary of State Clinton pledged to support in a Tuesday speech from State’s Benjamin Franklin Room.
“Now it has been 75 years since she set out in that twin-engine Lockheed Electra to be the first pilot, man or woman, to fly around the world along the longest equatorial route,” said Clinton. “Her legacy resonates today for anyone, girls and boys, who dreams of the stars.”
Why the US support for this effort? Well, for one thing, Clinton herself is something of an Earhart aficionado. She said that when she was growing up in Illinois her mother was an Earhart fan and filled her ears with stories of the aviatrix’s derring-do. This led Clinton to dream of herself becoming an astronaut – so she wrote NASA when she was 13 to ask whether she could qualify.
“NASA wrote me back and said there would not be any women astronauts. And I was just crestfallen,” she said in her speech.
A second reason for today’s government involvement is that the US government was heavily involved with Earhart’s effort in the first place, in part due to its demonstration of American skill and technology during the Great Depression. State Department personnel arranged for visas and safe conduct for Earhart and Noonan and helped shepherd them along the way. On the day she disappeared, a US Coast Guard cutter, the Itasca, was in position off Howland to aid in radio direction finding and resupply.
“At 8.00 A.M., the plane reported reception of the cutter’s signals, but was unable to obtain a minimum for a bearing ... at 10:40 A.M., it was assumed the plane was down and the cutter got under way at full speed to search the area,” reads a Coast Guard report of the Itasca’s mission.
A third reason the Secretary of State has taken the time to acknowledge the TIGHAR search is that it recognizes US ties with South Pacific Island nations – and there’s at least some new evidence that bears on-site investigation.
Modern analysis of a photo of Gardner Island taken shortly after Earhart vanished reveals what may be a piece of aircraft landing gear protruding from waters just off-shore, according to TIGHAR.
Famous oceanographer Robert Ballard, who found the shipwrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck, said that the photo could be a “smoking gun.” He is serving as an adviser to TIGHAR and attended the Tuesday State Department ceremony.
Times today are not as tough as they were in 1937, Clinton concluded, but after long years of recession, war, and terrorism, the US might need something of Earhart’s spirit.
“We can be as optimistic and even audacious as Amelia Earhart. We can be defined not by the limits that hold us down, but by the opportunities that are ahead,” said Clinton.