When Amelia Earhart was hailed as the first woman to fly the Atlantic in 1928, one British newspaper sniffed, “Her presence added no more to the achievement than if the passenger had been a sheep.” Technically that was correct since she sat in back while a male pilot and navigator guided the airplane a year after Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris by himself. Despite the parades that welcomed her back to the United States, Earhart acknowledged, “I’m a false heroine, and that makes me feel guilty. Someday, I’ll redeem my self-respect.”
That she did. The tomboyish, tousled-hair pilot became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932. She went on to set flying records for both men and women, making the first flight from Hawaii to California and setting a speed record from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey, by taking a shortcut across the Gulf of Mexico.
By 1937 about the only record left was to fly around the world. Earhart took off May 20 from Oakland, California, with her navigator. Fred Noonan. The plane was to fly east roughly along the equator. In Miami, the 38-year-old Earhart told a reporter, “I have a feeling there is just about one more good flight left in my system and I hope this is it.” It was spoken to the reporter in secrecy. Only after her twin-engine Lockheed Electra was one hundred miles off the coast and headed for Puerto Rico did that world learn that Earhart had set out to do what no one had done before.
Through the month of June, Americans followed her across Africa and Asia. She survived buckled landing gear in Chad, sandstorms in Middle East, and monsoons near Calcutta. Trouble with the plane’s navigational instruments was repaired in Bandung, Java. In Australia, facing their longest flights across the Pacific, Earhart and Noonan dumped some baggage to lighten the load, including their parachutes. “A parachute would not help over the Pacific,” Earhart said.
When they arrived in Lae, New Guinea, on June 30, the female pilot and her navigator had traveled about 22,000 miles in forty days. She hoped to be home for the Fourth of July. But again, the navigational equipment was malfunctioning. Its performance was crucial, as the small plane would be aiming for Howland Island, a speck in the central Pacific 2,556 miles away. Already, back in Miami, Earhart had removed a 250-foot wire trailing antenna because it was too cumbersome. Over the empty seas the antenna might have picked up radio waves to guide the plane to the tiny island.
Earhart and Noonan took off July 2 (July 1 in the United States) at 10:30 A.M. with 1,150 gallons of fuel, more than enough for the journey. Two American ships were stationed on either side of Howland Island to offer assistance. Tracking radios heard regularly from Earhart through the day and the following night. At 6:45 A.M. the next day Earhart radioed with some urgency, “Please take a bearing on us, and report in half hour. I will make a noise in the microphone. About one hundred miles out.” At 7:42 A.M., three minutes before her scheduled broadcast, Earhart pressed, “We must be on you. But cannot see you. But gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at altitude 1,000 feet.” At 7:58: “We are circling but cannot hear you.” Apparently, the plane’s radio was unable to receive messages.
At 8:45 A.M. Earhart gave their position – at least as recorded by the plane’s troublesome navigational equipment – then said, “We are running north and south.” That meant Earhart was zigzagging over the ocean hoping to spot land. It was the last the ground crews heard from the pilot. At 10 A.M. it was presumed that the plane would have run out of fuel.
Still there was the desperate hope that Earhart had been able to land the plane in the choppy sea, where it was designed to float. It was also possible that she could have landed on the beach of another island and was awaiting rescue. As Americans, stunned by Earhart’s disappearance, followed intently, a massive naval and air search swept 250,000 square miles for sixteen days before giving up. Based on her last radio transmissions, naval officials believed she most likely ran out of fuel and crashed within one hundred miles of Howland Island.