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Forensic News and Education Blog

The Myth of Amelia Earhart and Why Most People are Looking in the Wrong Place

Few disappearances of an aircraft have generated more controversy and false ‘leads’ than that of the one piloted by Amelia Earhart in 1937. During a failed attempt at circumnavigating the world, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, never reached their scheduled refueling stop on Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. The mythos of Earhart- the media darling, the swashbuckling adventuress, the woman who broke down barriers- helped to spawn generations of stories, cons and conspiracy theories. Those unfounded confabulations pull more press than the conclusion that is driven by the evidence.

The most widely publicized idea is that put forth by a group known as The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). They have been peddling the same tired idea since the mid-1980s with exactly what she . Nothing more substantial than idle gossip, their entire hypothesis is that Earhart and Noonan wound up marooned on an atoll called Nikumaroro (at the time called Gardner Island). Decades of searches, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent and there has been not a single shred of incontrovertible evidence to support their speculation. The organization has a history of grand gestures in front of the press followed by either quiet retractions or corrections of the earlier announcements or simply letting the news fade away when they cannot independently back it up.

Led by a "born showman" (Zwick, 2012) who pockets over half of the money that is donated to the organization, TIGHAR has managed to hide behind the desire for closure on the death of a woman who has become an icon. It has also helped raise the profile of the aviation archaeology, unfortunately, largely due to the longest running wild goose chase in the history of the field. However, even though it has distracted the public and diverted funding away from other cases that can and should be resolved, TIGHAR has helped largely keep some of the even more ridiculous hypotheses on the fringes. The most recent example being the rapidly discredited supposed picture of Noonan and Earhart in the custody of the Japanese.

To anyone who keeps to a burden of proof that remotely approaches a scientific standard, there is one option that stands out. It is the least attention grabbing but fits with what is known about Earhart’s character, degree of flying skill and the nature of flight across large expanses of water. The simple truth is that Earhart and Noonan missed Howland Island entirely. The plane ran out of fuel and either crashed or was ditched into the open waters of the Pacific before sinking thousands of feet to the bottom.

This explains the lack of evidence from decades of searches. This fits with Earhart being at best a marginal pilot whose name only became common knowledge through the media empire she married into. She was the epitome of the overconfident, under-qualified pilot whose ambitions led her to take risks that ultimately killed her and her navigator. It has happened numerous times since then in a variety of circumstances.

The truly sad part in the growth of the Earhart mythos is that-despite being best known for a colossal failure and being known almost entirely because her husband could order media coverage of her flying- she has become seen as some sort of role model for young women. She overshadowed other women pilots who actually broke barriers and set a more positive example for future generations. The vast majority of people when asked can tell you who she is.

How many can tell you about Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African-American or Native American descent to obtain a pilot license?

What about Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly alone from Britain to Australia and who died serving her country during World War II?

Or Helen Richey,and was one of the first female flight instructors and the first woman to be hired as an airline pilot in the United States?

None of that, however, detracts from the point that chasing wild rumors and speculations- no matter how ingratiating or charming the mouthpiece may be- will not bring us any closer to closing the Earhart case. The answers lay somewhere in the deep cold waters of the Pacific no matter how much some may wish they lay elsewhere.