As I write this, the missing Flight 370 is still big news. It's been missing a long time now, and there is no hope of survivors of course. Flight 370 will quite possibly join another well known aviation mystery of the sea, that of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
Most of those old enough to be interested in reading STUMPY'S MACHINE certainly know the name. Amelia Earhart was not the first of America's famous Aviatrixes, nor the last, but probably the best known, due in part to the mystery. In an attempt to fly around the world, she and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished without a trace on a trans-Pacific leg of the flight.
Amelia was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, but as a passenger. Using that adventure as a springboard, she built a career in aviation, both in distance flights and cross country races. Despite what publicity at the time claimed and the legends that grew up around her after she was lost, Amelia was no more than a "fair" pilot. Much of her fame was created by her husband, publisher of newspapers and owner of radio stations. In reality, she was not really prepared for such a flight, but they agreed that she would do the globe girdling flight and then retire.
Originally, the well known aviator and Hollywood stunt flyer Paul Mantz would handle navigation on the flight. The plane chosen was a Lockheed Electra, a sleek twin engine aircraft. The flight was to begin with a hop to the Hawaiian Islands. Then the toughest part of the trip across the vast Pacific would follow when Amelia and Paul were at their sharpest.
She made it to Hawaii, but crashed on take off for the next leg of the flight with full load of fuel. Fortunately there was no fire, and neither was hurt. The plane was shipped back to Lockheed, and Mantz again took movie work during that period. Amelia rested as best she could, but was said to be deeply shaken by the crash. Several eye witnesses to the accident said that she had just plain lost control of the aircraft.
While at Lockheed, the plane had more powerful radial engines installed, new radio equipment which she never bothered to train on, and a huge fuel tank installed in the passenger area, physically separating her in the cockpit from the navigator's station near the rear door. The fuel tank added a lot of weight, but would also add to the aircraft's range.
In later years rumors would swirl that Amelia had been recruited by the government to spy on Japanese bases in the Pacific, and that the government had paid for all the upgrades to the airplane. It was said that camera compartments and removable window covers had been installed for this purpose while the major modifications were being done. So far there is some circumstancial written and photographic evidence, but no proof of this theory, and the government denies any such involvement.
For whatever reason, Paul Mantz did not make the next attempt. He was supposed to be "tied up with movie work," but rumors drifted around that he had lost confidence in Amelia's piloting, or didn't like the huge fuel tank's placement, or didn't like her husband's interference in plans for a new flight.
Another mystery was that this second attempt would go in the opposite direction around the world. Instead of flying the Pacific first, she would go East across the United States, then cross the Atlantic, and so on. This would put the tough open ocean flying toward the end of the flight when she would be most tired after many days in the air.
With Paul Mantz out of the picture, his spot was eventually filled by Fred Noonan, a former pilot for Pan American Airways on their "China Clipper" flying boat fleet. He had even pioneered parts of the Pan Am routes and was experienced as a pilot and a navigator. However, he was also a known drinker and could be hard to handle. Some people in aviation suspected that this was probably why he was "available" for the Earhart flight. To the common sense aviation expert, all of the above seemed very mysterious, and rumors of the day became legends in the future.
At first everything went well, and many photos and newsreel films show a smiling Amelia and Fred. But by the time they had reached the Orient, the smiles were gone and the rigors of the flight were well etched on their faces. Reports from various fuel stops allowed that Fred was drinking again. Twice they had to have minor repairs done to the plane, and photos show different window arrangements, helping to later cement the story that she was spying on the Japanese.
It IS certain that the Japanese were well aware of her and beyond her popularity in Japan had stationed their own agents at every scheduled stop to keep an eye on her. Due to an engine problem, she was delayed an extra day at her last known stop, but any possible Japanese connection cannot be proved or disproved.
The final take off was said by some to be a bit ragged and she almost didn't make it, the plane flying quite a way low over the water. From that point onward she flew into history and mystery. When she didn't land at her next stop at Howland Island by following the radio homing beacon sent out by a U.S. Coast Guard ship anchored there, it was presumed that she ran out of fuel and crashed to her death at sea.
Some say she was forced down onto a Japanese controlled island and held until executed during the war. Several G.I.s reported seeing her Lockheed Electra when they captured various islands, in at least one case it was being burned by the Japanese as American troops attacked. Unfortunately, there were MANY similar twin engine airplanes scattered all over the Pacific by the end of WWII, a couple were known to be Electras.
There was even a story that she was brainwashed and was one of the "Tokyo Rose" broadcasters. There was even the report that she survived the war in a prison camp and ended up marrying an airline executive. The woman in question staunchly denied that to the day she died.
The mystery had been compounded by several reports by Ham radio operators that they heard weak radio signals from her for many hours long after the plane would be out of gas. This gave rise to several other theories of her disappearance. One of which seems quite likely to have been just what happened.
This theory says that Amelia and Fred knew they were in trouble when they reached the point where Howland Island should have been. From reports unearthed after the war, radio operators at several locations heard both her and the homing ship's calls to each other, but they were each ON DIFFERENT FREQUENCIES. Only later did it come to light that Amelia was unfamiliar with the radio equipment she had for long distance communication, and had not bothered to train on it. A fatal oversight!
At the time, navigators were trained to turn from their main course and fly back and forth along an arc on either side of their base course until they picked up some land mark they could get their bearings from. If this line is plotted correctly, the island they would have found with a beach big enough to make an emergency landing on would probably be the uninhabited Nikmararu.
The theory goes on that they made a safe landing on the beach, probably thinking they would wait there to be found and with the plane refueled would go on with the flight. They could keep working the radio using the electrical generator on the right engine to keep sending. This would tend to explain how radio operators could hear her broadcasting many hours after she should have been killed.
Unfortunately if this theory is correct, fate played a doubly cruel trick on them. First of all, the island was uninhabited because there was no source of fresh water. Second, during the night a storm blew up and probably washed the plane off the beach to it's destruction. With no chance of survival otherwise, they may have rigged up a funnel to catch rain water. Such an funnel made from aircraft aluminum was found several weeks later by nearby islanders as well as the bodies of a man and a woman, which they buried.
This theory developed slowly, then a photo was found which was taken on the island in about 1946 which showed the landing gear strut and partial tire sticking up out of the surf on the reef surrounding the island. It could have been on a Lockheed Electra flipped on it's back in the water. It was gone a few years later, probably washed over the reef in a typhoon to slide down into the deep waters of the Pacific. Again however, this can only be considered circumstantial evidence since all kinds of aircraft littered the Pacific after the war.
In the 1990's the first of several expeditions went to the island to try to prove that it was the final resting place of Amelia Earhart. They found small bits of an airplane of at least similar vintage and type, a woman's shoe sole of the type and size Amelia was wearing, and the graves. It took years to get permission to exhume the bodies, but that ended up be a dead end as their condition could not prove or disprove the theory.
Since then other artifacts have been found and a deep sea search for the remains of the plane is done every year during good weather. But so far there is no definitive proof either way. Personally, I think their are only two possibilities which fit the known facts and common sense. The landing on Nikamuraru or she DID go down somewhere in the vast Pacific. Earhart has been missing since 1937 and despite the likelihood of the island theory, she is STILL missing. Will Flight 370 take 77years to find?