Quintessential America

Finding Amelia

Research teams believe they will find what happened to famed flier Amelia Earhart this fall. When they do, the girl from Kansas who captured our hearts and died on a remote Pacific island will come home to us at least in spirit.



She’s out there somewhere. Lost. But we’ll find her because we sort of have to. History demands it. She is unfinished business, the ultimate missing person. The ships searching for her are inching ever closer to where she last looked into the sky and asked for help. You need not wonder what she said. Dozens of radio operators in the Pacific heard her on frequency 3105 kHz, even after her Lockheed Electra crashed. Even with decades of lurid conspiracy theories and Earhart mania of different degrees, the truth of her passing may be more remarkable than any fable. The revelation is just a matter of time now.

When? Ah yes, when. Maybe this autumn, because the posse is closing in. There is evidence, suggestion, hints, and photos. By September, perhaps. The world will go agog if we find her, because it always did when it came to her.

Too bad Amelia Earhart is dead. She’ll miss the party. She would have loved the hum of anticipation and wonder she always caused in others.

She’s been dead 77 years, though she still lives in the world’s imagination just as she did then. The bouncing curls, the freckles, the daring aviator who always nursed one more mile from her propellers, one more mile from the last mist of gasoline in the tank. She made it impossible to believe that a woman could not scale any mountain a man could.

She dared the world to deny her if it could. She was the female Lindbergh. Even looked like him facially. She achieved every honor and testament open to a female aviator. But there was something even more to her.

As famed author Gore Vidal once said: “I have walked the streets with many famous people in my time, from Greta Garbo to Paul Newman to Eleanor Roosevelt. No one got the crowd that Amelia got. She was – I must say – it was beyond stardom. It was a strange continuum that she and Lindbergh occupied. They were like gods from outer space.”

The search

The world has been fixated for 77 years on finding Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. But for 24 years, the Indiana Jones role in this adventure epic has been Ric Gillespie who runs The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a nonprofit foundation of researchers, historians, and explorers. They find lost planes when no one else can. Now, they have a resounding blip on their scopes. They’re almost positive they know where she is or, more accurately, was.

Gillespie and his Earhart Seekers will return to one island in the Pacific in September. The unpopulated dot – the Nation of Kiribati atoll named Nikumaroro, once was called Gardner Island. It sits in the Phoenix Group of islands 1,800 miles southwest of Hawaii and 350 miles southeast of Howland Island, Amelia’s target on July 2, 1937. Franklin Roosevelt built a landing strip there just for Earhart. This is a part of the world far remote from civilization. You can get very lost there.

She was only 16 hours from home after flying round the world when she and Noonan got lost. Sixteen hours from the pinnacle of a life dedicated to pioneer daring.

Niku, as they’ve nicknamed the island, is a green and tan jewel. It is an elongated, triangular coral atoll with dense vegetation and a wide central marine lagoon. Nikumaroro is 4.7 miles long and 1.6 miles wide. The island shines like a beacon seen from the sky. It’s rimmed by a wide reef that slopes sharply into a deep abyss.

Gillespie believes this reef is where Earhart landed. And where she survived. And later sang out for help with her little radio that was strong enough to be heard in California. In fact, many listeners picked up distress signals on the frequency she alone had been assigned, but dismissed the faint voice as a prank because Earhart was “dead.”

When Robert Ballard discovered the final resting place of Titanic on Sept. 1, 1985, he became an international celebrity and our deep, cultural passion for the ship was reignited. Finding the remains of Amelia Earhart’s plane might touch off a similar frenzy. But Gillespie and his archeologists already have been here nine times. He’s found things. As he coyly suggests, what he has found makes the blips on his mental radar bleat loudly.

Take for example, the small cosmetic jar found on Niku. When its five pieces were reassembled, it could easily be a jar of Dr. Berry’s Freckle Ointment, a concoction once used to fade freckles. Earhart had freckles. She hated them. She would not have finished the first 22,000-mile equatorial circumnavigation flight of the globe and descended from her twin-engine Electra cockpit with a face full of untreated and undisguised freckles.

More evidence? A photo taken three months after the crash by a British Colonial officer, but ignored until three years ago, shows the shadow and outline of what appears to be an Electra landing gear sitting wheel-assembly upright near the reef. Gillespie’s team found a bone-handled pocketknife of the type Earhart carried, and piles of fish and bird bones indicative of a Westerner trying to survive.

“We have hints as to how long she did survive,” Gillespie told reporters in 2012. “Based on the amount of (animal) bones, she survived a number of weeks, maybe months. This is a whole chapter in Amelia Earhart’s life that no one ever knew. It’s heroic stuff.”

Even in 1937, Earhart’s technical support team was sure she did not crash close to her original flight path. She was lost, as she had been before. But she had plenty of gas to reach “Niku.”

Why we loved her

We love mysteries and phantoms even more than solutions. When Amelia Earhart flew into historical myth never to return, she managed to remain both dead and alive, a symbol, a star. But she was remarkably real as a person, and literally, the pilot of her dreams. She was an icon for women’s rights and opportunities. She pushed hard and loudly as a social activist most of her life. Her famed sartorial style was brazenly androgynous, which was the flapper motif of the era.

She grew up in Kansas and Iowa, and was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents, but her family was uprooted by financial misfortunes. Grandma disliked Earhart’s tomboy ways, but to no avail.

Earhart was something of a mechanical whiz who built her own roller coaster and drove a truck to earn money to buy her first airplane. When she graduated from Hyde Park High School in Chicago, her yearbook photo inscription took note of her: “A.E. - the girl in brown who walks alone.”

In some areas, her legacy remains a mottled Impressionist painting rather than a detailed mechanical drawing. She was a good pilot who crashed often and got lost. But all pilots did then. Aircraft engineering was a work in progress.

She was the most famous of all female pilots, but contemporary fliers of both genders noted there were other female pilots who were probably far more skilled and dedicated to the craft – Ruth Law, Louise Thaden, and Gladys O’Donnell, for example. But she possessed what no other female pilot had ever had, or ever would: She was a brand.

Her identity as Amelia was shaped by adventurer, Barnum-style promoter and future husband, George Palmer Putnam. She was already a fully formed GM-like Amelia Earhart when they met, but he taught her to be a star and profit from it. She was good at the fame game and chased it avidly. She was an entrepreneur and her business was Amelia Earhart.

She flew anywhere she could on any pretense. Higher, farther, over long stretches of land and ocean. Putnam even concocted the fraudulent, “first woman to fly the Atlantic” promotion in 1928 to steal Lindbergh magic. But Earhart was only a passenger in a plane piloted by two men. She was so embarrassed by that stunt that she returned four years later to achieve the flight on her own.

Whenever she touched down, Putnam always arranged an adoring crowd and waiting photographers. There are thousands of photos of her, and very few show her smiling widely facing the camera. She had a perceptible divide between her front teeth, and Putnam trained her to keep her mouth closed when she smiled. She pretended for years that her hair was naturally curly which was considered in that day to be a sign of good genes.

Her life was a series of dare deviltry, but that’s what ambitious fliers did then. World War II would make such stunts seem grandiloquent, narcissistic, and impractical. Critics called her a showboater.

Even her admirers warned that her last flight was one unnecessary stunt too many. Earhart’s biographer Susan Butler quotes one of them, Captain Hilton Railey, who helped launch her career. She was, he wrote, “caught up in the hero racket.”

If it turns out that her plane is on Niku and evidence demonstrates she survived for a month as well, it will not be news she would have liked. She systematically turned back the odometer on her age so that she would never be 40. She despised growing old. If she did survive for a few weeks after the crash, then she would have celebrated her 40th birthday on a deserted Pacific island, with the megahertz signal calling out for help that never came.

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David Rutter is a regular contributer to Quintessential Barrington.

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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They'll all be about Americans doing what we do best — sharing, helping, living.