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This Day in History: Amelia Earhart’s final flight ends in mystery

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

On this day in 1937, Amelia Earhart departs from Lae, New Guinea in a twin-engine airplane. She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, would never be seen again.


By that point in her career, Earhart was a renowned and much-loved aviator. But she hadn’t always been. Her first hint that she would love flying came when she was in her early 20s. She was in Toronto attending an exposition with a friend. The two girls watched from a clearing as a stunt pilot entertained the crowd.

“I am sure the sight of two young women alone made a tempting target for the pilot,” Earhart later wrote. “I am sure he said to himself, ‘Watch me make them scamper.’ After a few attempts one did but the other stood her ground.”


The moment was unforgettable. “I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by,” Earhart wrote.


Unsurprisingly, Earhart went on to take flying lessons and to earn her pilot’s license. She worked hard, and she was fearless! Her big break came in 1928 when she was invited to participate as part of the crew on a transatlantic flight. The journey would make her the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.


Earhart jumped at the chance, although she was perhaps disappointed by her relatively minor role. She was responsible for keeping the plane’s log, which made her feel like “just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.” The rest of the world disagreed! The transatlantic journey catapulted her to fame, which she leveraged into support for more flying expeditions.


She set speed, distance, and altitude records. In 1932, exactly five years after Charles Lindberg’s first transatlantic flight, Earhart piloted her own solo flight. She was the first woman to complete such a trip across the Atlantic.


By 1937, Earhart was preparing for her last major aviation feat. She wanted to circumnavigate the globe, but she wanted to do it along the Equator—the longest possible route. Her first attempt failed, but Earhart was determined. “I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system,” she said, “and I hope this trip is it.”


Her second attempt at circumnavigating the globe began on June 1. She and Fred Noonan took off from Miami, headed on an easterly course. By June 29, they had arrived in New Guinea. They had flown 22,000 miles and had only 7,000 miles to go. But the next leg would be the hardest.


The next stop was Howland Island. It was tiny, and it would be difficult to spot from the sky. Earhart was relying on Noonan’s celestial navigation skills and a U.S. Coast Guard ship to help her find the island.


Earhart and Noonan departed from New Guinea on July 2. The day became overcast and cloudy, hampering navigational efforts. Finally, the Coast Guard vessel heard from Earhart, but communications indicated that Earhart was having trouble finding the island. “We must be on you but cannot see you,” she radioed, “but gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at altitude 1000 feet.”


Earhart’s plane never showed up.


A massive search was undertaken, but Earhart was ever found. Did she crash in the ocean? Did she survive as a castaway? Was she taken captive by the Japanese? Most likely, we will never really know. But we can know what drove her to attempt the flight.


“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she wrote to her husband before her flight. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”


Good advice for anyone, isn’t it?

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