(1897 to 1937)
(1893 to 1937)
“Amelia is a grand person for such a trip. She is the only woman flyer I would care to make such an expedition with. Because in addition to being a fine companion and pilot, she can take hardship as well as a man—and work like one.”
~ Fred Noonan, Amelia Earhart’s navigator on the World Flight
Fred Noonan9 was one of the most experienced aerial navigators in the world and a pioneer in opening up the Pacific Ocean to commercial aviation. Born in Cook County, Illinois, Noonan began his navigation career at sea. Between 1910 and 1915, he worked on over a dozen ships, rising to the ratings of Quartermaster and Bosun’s Mate. He worked on merchant ships throughout the First World War and by 1919 had become a ship’s officer, eventually gaining his Master’s license.
Noonan earned a limited commercial pilot’s license in 1930, and began applying his maritime navigation skills to aviation. He worked as an airport manager for Pan American World Airways in Port‐Au‐Prince, Haiti, and brought the first Pan Am clipper to San Francisco in March 1935. That same year, he navigated a notable round‐trip flight between San Francisco and Honolulu on the China Clipper, piloted by Ed Musick.
He subsequently became chief navigator for Pan Am, charting all of its Clipper routes across the Pacific and taking part in historic survey flights to Midway and Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and Hong Kong. During these flights, the veteran sea captain was known to carry a ship’s sextant along with more conventional aviator’s navigation tools.
By 1937, Noonan had resigned from Pan Am with plans to start a navigation school. He came to Earhart’s attention through mutual friends within the Los Angeles aviation community, and she persuaded him to join her on the round‐the‐world flight.
Earhart’s model 10E aircraft had numerous upgrades, making it a one-of-a-kind flying machine…
The Lockheed Aircraft Corporation launched its Electra10 10A in 1932 as its first all‐aluminum aircraft, and it included state‐of‐the‐art innovations like variable pitch propellers, retractable landing gear and wing flaps. Building the plane’s surface skin out of aluminum alloy made for a stronger overall plane, because it allowed the skin to share the structural load. It also allowed the plane to be leaner and more aerodynamic in design.
The twin‐engine Electra was designed to establish Lockheed’s line of commercial passenger aircraft, and could accommodate a crew of two and up to 10 passengers. Northwest Airlines was the first airline to use the plane and by the late 1930s, eight U.S. airlines flew the plane as did European, Australian, Canadian and South American customers.
Amelia Earhart’s Electra, designated NR16020, was a modified Lockheed Model 10E with a range of more than 4,000 miles, a cruising speed of approximately 190 miles per hour, and a maximum ceiling pushing over 19,400 feet above sea level. Earhart had numerous modifications made to her 10E to maximize it for long-distance flights. She added more fuel tanks for a total of six in the wings and six in the fuselage, increasing the total carrying capacity to 1,150 gallons of fuel. She also modified the electronic equipment, adding a Western Electric radio and a Bendix radio direction finder—cutting-edge technology at the time. These numerous modifications made Earhart’s Electra a one‐of‐a‐kind aircraft.
Specifications for Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E
Length: 38′ 7″
Height: 10′ 1″
Wingspan: 55′ 0″
Wing area: 458.3 sq. ft.
Empty Weight: 7,100 lbs.
Max Weight: 16,500 lbs., max at takeoff
Engines: Pratt & Whitney WASP R‐1340‐S3H1
Horsepower: 600 Brake Horsepower (take-off) and 550 BHP normal-rated power
Range: ~ 4,000+ miles
Cruise Speed: 190‐194 mph
Exploring an Electra
Our experts document a close replica of Earhart’s aircraft
What may have happened aboard Earhart’s Electra that last morning…
(The following re-telling of Amelia Earhart’s final flight from Lae to Howland on July 2, 1937 is based on research and findings by the Waitt Institute Flight Reconstruction Team. It is a best approximation as to what happened aboard the Electra that fateful day.)11
Lae, New Guinea
Early in the morning on July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan awoke and prepared for their departure from the small grass runway strip at Lae, New Guinea. After receiving some maintenance and a pre‐flight check, Earhart’s Electra was deemed ready for its longest, most challenging flight segment of the entire World Flight.
Weather forecasts were manageable and looked good for most of the route, though the westbound headwinds would reduce their ground speed and lengthen their time in the air. At Howland Island, their final destination, the Coast Guard cutter Itasca was stationed with men and equipment ready to assist in maintaining, refueling and sending the Electra on its next leg to Hawaii.
The Final Flight Begins
At 10 a.m. local time (0:00 GMT), Earhart and Noonan barreled down the runway in a heavy Electra. The fuel quantity on board was sufficient for the planned 18‐hour flight, plus four hours of extra fuel—Earhart’s typical safety margin. Once airborne, Earhart observed the forecasted thunderstorms roughly 300 miles east that likely impeded a direct flight path along the coast of New Britain, and across northwestern Bougainville Island.
Earhart set a heading approximately 20 degrees right of the direct track to Howland, flying east to Choiseul island, immediately south of Bougainville, to avoid the dangerous weather further north. At Choiseul Island, she turned back to the northeast with a plan to rejoin the direct track from Lae to Howland at Nukumanu Island, which would provide an excellent and visible checkpoint for their location.
After making a radio call to report their position near Nukumanu Island, Earhart must have noticed the sun setting behind them. They were flying in good weather, and were aware that the headwinds were blowing at 23 knots, or 26.5 mph, only slightly greater than predicted. This wasn’t a concern, as they knew that forecasts for the second half of their flight called for a reduction in these headwinds.
Electra Misses USS Ontario
Up ahead, the Navy’s USS Ontario was positioned along Earhart’s direct track as a guide to check their location and progress. However, at just 185 feet in the length, the Ontario was probably too small to sight and lacked the ability to communicate via radio with Earhart. She overflew it, possibly never seeing it.
Shortly afterwards, Earhart did see a ship’s lights, reporting via radio, “… a ship in sight ahead…” It was the merchant steamer SS Myrtlebank, en‐route to Nauru Island from New Zealand. In the vicinity of the SS Myrtlebank, just south of Nauru Island, Earhart also reported seeing the lights on Nauru Island that she expected to visually acquire. These lights must have been easily visible in the dark, night ocean and told Earhart that they were making their expected progress toward Howland.
The moonless night and good weather, with reduced and steady winds, afforded Noonan an excellent evening of smooth flying and celestial navigation. In the darkness outside his navigator’s window, Noonan could employ 11 of the 57 brightest stars in the night sky and four of the best planets to fix his position and progress across the Pacific. These were tasks Noonan knew well, as one of America’s most experienced and competent air navigators in 1937.
Howland 200 Miles Away
After 17 hours and 45 minutes of flight, Noonan’s navigation fixed their position at 200 nautical miles from Howland Island, a calculation that was likely accurate to within as little as four nautical miles. The flight appeared to be nearly perfect at this point, and it nearly was, except for a likely failure of a very important instrument used in setting engine power levels for minimum fuel consumption, called the Cambridge Fuel Analyzer. This instrument was necessary to gain maximum range for their fuel load, and without it, fuel consumption would increase.
The Electra’s Cambridge Fuel Analyzer had been problematic since their stop in Miami nearly a month earlier, and had suffered significant failures, multiple times, in the 10 days before leaving Lae. But it had been repaired in Lae and upon departure, likely functioned without any problem.
Fuel Analyzer Failure
This failure possibly occurred in the time between 0418 GMT and 0900 GMT, at four to nine hours into the flight, where a return to Lae would have taken almost as much time as continuing to Howland. At this point, Earhart likely concluded that the risk of landing at Lae’s unlit field on a moonless night was far higher than the risk of continuing in good weather to Howland, at slightly increased fuel consumption, and arriving just after sunrise.
A decision to continue to Howland with the inoperative Cambridge Fuel Analyzer would have to be managed as best they could. That would mean an unavoidable, nearly 48% reduction in fuel reserves upon reaching Howland’s vicinity. Earhart and Noonan would have just 90 minutes to locate the island, rather than the four hours planned in her safety margin.
Critical Navigational Error
An additional adverse factor arose as Earhart approached Howland from her position 200 miles west. From either a navigation calculation error, or a poor estimate, Earhart reported about 100 miles out from Howland, when she was actually 146 nautical miles west of the island. The implications were critical—Earhart commenced her descent approximately 40 nautical miles further west than she had planned, arriving to the sight of an empty Pacific Ocean.
When Earhart and Noonan needed their best effort, it may have unintentionally fallen short. Research concludes that after 16 hours awake, human performance severely degrades and judgment and is significantly impaired. Both Noonan and Earhart had been awake for nearly 24 hours. Noonan was up early getting time checks of his chronometers, and Earhart had flown a 30‐minute test flight at 6:30 a.m. that morning.
Search for Howland
At 1912 GMT, Earhart believed she had reached where Howland should be. With no land in sight, she commenced a confined area search near the arrival point. Seeing nothing west or east, she circled for a few minutes to clear her mind, and set about a systematic plan to search for Howland and Itasca.
Where is Howland Island?
Sixteen minutes later, Earhart headed north on their sun Line of Position, a course line running between 337 and 157 degrees determined from Noonan’s sight‐reading at sunrise. Forty‐five minutes later, she reported that she was on that course line and likely flew back and forth on it at maximum endurance speed in a search pattern looking for Howland Island, Baker Island, or the Itasca.
After searching for 61 minutes, Earhart had used nearly two‐thirds of her entire fuel reserve, which was critically low. She had made several radio reports and was having trouble communicating with the Itasca. Despite her best efforts, she could not get a bearing on the Itasca’s position via her Bendix radio direction finder. Itasca was also unable to obtain a bearing on Earhart, mostly due to radio transmission times less than what was needed to complete this process.
She made her last call at 2013 GMT – “We are on the Line of Position 157‐337, will repeat this message on 6210 KCS. Wait listening on 6210 KCS… We are running north and south.”
While continuing to search for a sign of Howland, Earhart’s tanks ran dry between 2013 GMT and 2100 GMT. The left engine likely quit first–it powered the only generator on the aircraft–and the radios required this generator to transmit and receive. On a single engine, the Electra could maintain flight, but fuel exhaustion for the right engine was now only minutes away. Earhart would soon have to ditch the aircraft, hoping she and Noonan would survive the landing and be rescued before nightfall.
The U.S. Coast Guard fails to find Amelia and becomes the first of many unsuccessful search efforts over the years…
Official Search (1937)
Approximately an hour and a half after the last recorded message from Earhart, the USCG cutter Itasca12 searched the area surrounding Howland Island to no avail. The U.S. Navy soon joined the hunt and all other available resources were subsequently sent to the search area near Howland Island, but no evidence of Earhart and Noonan was located. Four days after the flyers’ last radio transmission, the captain of the battleship Colorado was ordered to coordinate all naval and Coast Guard search efforts.13
Naval aircraft from the Colorado flew over the Phoenix Islands, and then again north, west and southwest of Howland Island, but no trace of the Electra was found. Unsuccessful search efforts by the Itasca, Colorado, Navy aircraft carrier Lexington and other ships continued until July 19, 1937, covering 150,000 square miles and costing up to an unprecedented $4 million dollars.14
Putnam Search (1937)
At the conclusion of the official search, a private search of the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island, Fanning Island, the Gilbert Islands and the Marshall Islands was financed by G.P. Putnam, but again, no trace of the Electra was found.15
TIGHAR Searches (1989-2010)
Based on pre-1939 accounts of a plane wreck with two survivors on Gardner Island, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR)16, founded by Richard Gillespie in 1985, believes Earhart’s Electra may have landed on the then uninhabited island (now Nikumaroro) in the Phoenix Group, approximately 400 statute miles southeast of Howland Island.
Gillespie maintains Earhart’s plane could have put down safely on a particularly flat and open stretch of Nikumaroro’s coral reef just north of where a British freighter, the SS Norwich City, ran aground in 1929. Standing on the shipwreck in 2001 and taking a photo of the reef at low tide, Gillespie is convinced that landing the Electra here—especially with her big, low-pressure tires—was entirely possible.
Key support for the theory comes from analysis of radio transmissions allegedly made by Earhart and received at Honolulu, Wake Island and Midway Island radio operator stations. But numerous questions exist also, not the least of which is whether or not the Electra could transmit any signal with inoperative engines and generators, especially following an off-field landing or water-ditching.17
The research of many investigators indicates it would be unlikely that Earhart flew another three or more hours beyond Howland Island, once that location could not be identified. If Earhart’s last transmission was at 2013 GMT, an hour after arriving at Howland, and they commenced to divert to Gardner Island, then Earhart would have had to arrive at Howland Island with more than five hours of fuel remaining.18
TIGHAR has led 10 expeditions 19 to the island since 1989 in search of evidence to support their theory; however, while some interesting artifacts have been discovered, none has yet been positively identified as being from the Earhart mission. The most recent Niku VI expedition (20) took place May - June 2010, returning with over a hundred artifacts, hundreds of bones and reams of new data, observations and measurements, all of which are still being cataloged, analyzed and interpreted. TIGHAR is hoping to conduct yet another expedition to Nikumaroro to search the deep water off the west end of the atoll for the Earhart Electra aircraft sometime prior to July 2012, the 75th anniversary of the Earhart disappearance. 21
Timmer/Zajonc/Williamson Search (1999)
In 1999, venture capitalist Dana Timmer worked with Williamson and Associates of Seattle along with businessman Guy Zajonc to launch a six-week underwater search for Amelia Earhart’s Electra aircraft. Although it reportedly produced some interesting targets, positive ID of the aircraft was not obtained.22
Nauticos Search (2002)
Nauticos Corporation 23, founded by its president, David Jourdan, funded a 2002 Nauticos Expedition 24 to locate Amelia Earhart’s lost Electra. Led by famed Amelia Earhart researcher Elgen Long 25, who along with his late wife Marie wrote Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, the search was scheduled to last 60 days but was cut short due to equipment failure. While no evidence of Amelia’s plane was discovered, approximately 600-square nautical miles were scanned using a deep sea sonar system developed by Nauticos.
Nauticos/Waitt Institute Search (2006)
Nauticos and the Waitt Institute worked together on 2006 search for Amelia Earhart 26, using a 6,000-meter towed search system configured with sonar and imaging sensors. Although the Electra was not discovered in this search either, the at-sea team did successfully map the search grid and came away with a fairly high degree of certainty that Earhart was not in the area surveyed.
Importantly, the expedition provided the Waitt Institute with a wealth of knowledge and insight, which in turn gave birth to the CATALYST Program and its strategic focus on using state-of-the-art technology and inspired collaborations to accelerate deep sea exploration, scientific research and sustainable ocean policy.
Speculation and some rumors that defy logic…
Two predominant theories emerged after the disappearance of Earhart and Noonan.
- Elgen Long “Crash and Sink” Theory27 - Many researchers, including Elgen Long and his late wife, Marie K. Long, believe Earhart and Noonan crashed and sank in the Pacific after the Electra ran out of fuel.
- Gardner Island Hypothesis28 - Following the line of position noted in the last transmission, Earhart and Noonan may have landed on the uninhabited Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) in the Phoenix Island Group.
Due to Earhart’s fame and her mysterious disappearance, many myths, urban legends and unsupported claims29 have arisen to account for the loss of Amelia, but have been dismissed for lack of evidence. From rumors that Earhart was spying for Franklin D. Roosevelt, to speculation she was Tokyo Rose to stories she remarried and assumed a new identity, such theories remain largely unsubstantiated.
As noted by researchers Goldstein and Dillon, “Considerations of logic and feasibility rarely, if ever, have any effect upon those whom a conspiracy bug has bitten.”30