By mid-July 1937, the search for Amelia Earhart and her twin engine Lockheed Electra airplane had come up empty.
The heroic American pilot and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were missing for weeks in the central Pacific. They should have landed at tiny Howland Island in early July and then hopscotched home to Oakland, California, thus completing the first round-the-world plane voyage via the equator.
Earhart knew the 2,250-mile flight from New Guinea to Howland was the trickiest part of the journey; finding that speck of land using celestial and radio navigation would be a race against diminishing fuel. The Itasca, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, was stationed near Howland to help her home in on the island, but Earhart and the naval vessel failed to connect. Crew aboard the Itasca, in agony, could hear Earhart, but she couldn’t hear the ship. “We must be on you but cannot see you — but gas is running low,” she reported in one of her final transmissions. “Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”
You’ve read to this point, and you’re in agony, too, right? Or at least captivated by the mystery of what happened 80 years ago this month to Amelia Earhart, icon of flying and early-20th-century female derring-do. It is a puzzle Earhart obsessives have never stopped trying to solve. Which brings us to two new clues, involving a photograph and four forensic dogs — Marcy, Piper, Kayle and Berkeley.
The aging black-and-white photograph, discovered in the National Archives, shows a busy dock scene at Jaluit Atoll in the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands. There’s a slim person with short wavy hair sitting on the dock, facing away from the camera, who looks like Earhart. Nearby is a man who resembles Noonan. The blurred photo, featured on a new History Channel documentary, lent credence to one of many theories: that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese. Alas, days after the photo was publicized, a Japanesse blogger determined the picture had appeared in a Japanese book published two years before Earhart’s fateful flight. So much for that hypothesis.
Among other Earhart theories, one group believes her plane bypassed Howland and landed 350 nautical miles to the south on Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro in Kiribati. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery just made another trip to the island, where numerous clues could prove Earhart and Noonan met their fate, lost and marooned, on Gardner. Last month, the group, which includes the National Geographic Society, arrived at Nikumaroro with four forensic dogs capable of detecting the scent of human bones. Why? A British doctor in 1940 reported finding such bones on the island. Other intriguing detritus turned up, including a U.S.-made jackknife, a zipper pull and a small jar that some speculate contained freckle cream of the type Earhart used. Ooh, feeling chills?
National Geographic reports that the pups detected a spot that may hold traces of human remains. A German laboratory will test soil from the spot for DNA that — if you believe in long shots — could put Earhart or Noonan at the site.
Or this could be another clue that leads nowhere. Given that Earhart and Noonan were low on fuel, the most likely location of the Electra is somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific.
Yet all these decades later, the story of Amelia Earhart endures. She was a record-setting pilot, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, whose spirit of adventure ultimately led to her doom. Her body and plane are still missing, but because Earhart’s legend survives, she was never truly lost.