Amelia Earhart dominated headlines in the early 20th century, breaking record after record for her daring aviation exploits, her fame peaking in 1932 when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.


But today she is best known for her apparent demise, in 1937, when she disappeared while attempting to become the first woman to circumnavigate the world by plane.

On 2 July 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, set out from Lae Airfield in Papua New Guinea, bound for Howland Island – a tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean where they planned to refuel. But they never arrived.

The press seized on the story, with the US president at the time, Theodore Roosevelt – a friend of Amelia Earhart – mounting a search and rescue mission for the missing aviators.

Author Clare Mulley, who discussed Earhart on the HistoryExtra podcast, described the scale of the search mission: “Four massive ships went out, and Eleanor Roosevelt was aboard one of them.

“There were 4,000 men involved at a cost of $4 million, and it became a political nightmare.”

After a fortnight, the search was called off. Despite repeated attempts to find the pilots, and a flood of reported radio signals from Earhart, she and Noonan were never found.

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Who was Amelia Earhart?

Since her childhood, Earhart had been drawn to adventure. Born in Kansas in 1897, her early life was rather precarious.

“Her parents were some of those early Americans who crossed through the States in a horse and cart – they were pioneers of a different kind,” says Mulley.

“Her father was a troubled character, and sadly became an alcoholic. Although her mother was a minor heiress, they burned through the money and Amelia grew up with quite a bit of instability.”

The Earhart family also shied away from many social conventions of the time. “Amelia’s mother was quite ahead of her times in many ways,” says Mulley. “She would dress Amelia and her younger sister, Muriel, in bloomers and let them go out to play – which was quite shocking at the time, when girls were meant to be in white pinafores.”

Earhart herself was quite the thrill-seeker. “When she was seven, her father took her to the St Louis World’s Fair, and Amelia loved the look of the rollercoaster. When she came home, she stole some wood and knocked together her own rollercoaster from the roof of her father’s tool shed.”

It was at another state fair, when Earhart was ten years old, that she first encountered the machinery that would become her life’s obsession: an aircraft. However, her first impression of a plane was far from what you might expect. She later recalled: “It was a thing of rusty wire and wood, and not at all interesting.”

As Mulley points out, at the turn of the 20th century, aircraft were far from the sleek metal machines that take to the skies today. “These pioneering aircraft were very fragile,” says Mulley. “Some of them used bamboo and canvas, and very thin planks of wood. They were terrifying bits of machinery.”

Unimpressed by aviation, Amelia initially pursued a career devoted to helping others. She was deeply affected by seeing wounded soldiers returning home during the First World War, and went to Columbia University in New York to study medicine. However, when funds fell too low, she was forced to drop out. Amelia then found a job at Denison House in New York, where she was “teaching English and citizenship skills to settler families in America”.

When did Amelia Earhart start flying?

It wasn’t until 1920 that Amelia first flew in a plane. “Her father paid $10 for her to go up on a joyride, and she had 10 minutes in the air,” says Mulley.

“It was an open biplane, and would have been very dangerous – there were no parachutes.” This was a life-changing experience for her, and the aviator recalled: “I knew I had to fly.”

However, becoming a pilot – especially a female pilot – in the 1920s was no easy task. Money was a large barrier, and Amelia worked an assortment of odd jobs to pull together the funds needed to gain her pilot licence, from selling sausages to stenography.

She also faced another problem, as Mulley points out. “Amelia found that no male pilots would take her up on their planes, because of social propriety issues. She eventually found a female pilot called Netta Snook, who was just one year older than Amelia, who took her up and taught her to fly.”

Amelia Earhart's early fame

In 1921, Amelia bought her first plane: a yellow Kinner Airster she nicknamed ‘the Canary’. It was in this plane that she set records for women’s altitude, flying to a height of 14,000 feet.

However, it was a record-setting flight in 1928 that really put her name on the map. Fascinatingly, the flight wasn’t originally Earhart’s idea: instead, an American heiress called Amy Guest had been determined to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

There was a catch, however: “Guest wanted to be a passenger, not a pilot. But her family thought it was far too dangerous, and in the end Guest succumbed to the pressure and stepped aside. So she set out to search for a woman who could replace her.”

Guest had an exacting set of criteria: the person she would choose to take her place needed to be a woman, and to have received a proper education. “Earhart fitted the bill,” says Mulley, and in June 1928 she clambered into the passenger seat of a seaplane to fly over the Atlantic.

Amelia famously hated the journey, saying: “I felt like a sack of potatoes.” However, her exploits still captured people’s imaginations. When Earhart arrived on the other side, she was met with instant fame.

Amelia Earhart in the cockpit of her biplane in front of a crowd of fans
Amelia Earhart waves to fans from the cockpit of her biplane (Photo by Getty)

Commercial opportunities flooded in: Amelia wrote an account of her experiences, lent her name to advertise products including Lucky Strike cigarettes, and even created her own fashion line of practical clothing for women.

Her publisher, the well-connected George Putnam, was one of the driving forces behind her fame. According to Mulley, the two were very similar: “Putnam, like Earhart, wanted to break frontiers. He published a lot of adventure books on expeditions, and would go on some of those expeditions himself. And Amelia had a great need to set world records and knock down barriers.”

The pair were soon romantically involved – despite the fact Putnam was already married when they first met. They wed themselves a year after he divorced his first wife.

Amelia Earhart's transatlantic solo flight

In the 1920s and 1930s, aviation was a dangerous game. This was a time before parachutes were standard in planes, and scores of pilots died after taking to the skies.

One of Earhart’s record-setting flights – her successful attempt in 1932 to be the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic – was particularly fraught with danger.

Mulley recounts: “When she was flying over the ocean, she saw that flames were coming out of her exhaust. That wasn’t particularly uncommon, but I think what probably frightened her the most was that the fuel gauge was leaking.”

If any fuel dripped into the flaming exhaust, the craft would turn into a fireball. “At that point, she flew the last of her journey quite low over the water, because she said she’d rather drown than burn to death.”

Although Earhart managed to survive that flight, eventually landing in Northern Ireland to the amazement of the farmers who found her, her final journey in 1937 was a different story.

Amelia Earhart's disappearance: what happened on her last flight?

In 1937, Amelia was running out of records to set. However, one remained. “No woman had ever circumnavigated around the entire world,” says Mulley. “Earhart decided that she wanted to do this as her last great world record, before she turned 40.”

Earhart charted a route that would see her circumnavigate around the equator, bought a Lockheed Electra to fly in and enlisted two navigators to join her: Fred Noonan, renowned for his talent for celestial navigation, and Henry Manning.

Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, examine a map
Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, with a map of the Pacific that shows the planned route of their last flight (Photo by Getty)

They set off from the US in March 1937, but their plans soon fell apart. Manning dropped out after they reached Hawaii, but it was a botched take-off that scuppered the attempt entirely.

“We don’t know if it was pilot error or technical fault,” says Mulley, “but the aircraft went into a ground loop, spinning on the ground and crushing its undercarriage. It was clear they couldn’t continue.”

Earhart and Noonan didn’t give up hope though. “She had an opportunity to stop at this point, but she thought she couldn’t, as she’d always be remembered as the woman who crashed in Hawaii rather than the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.”

They set out for the second time in June 1937, this time planning to travel eastwards around the world to try and avoid monsoon season.

This time, the journey got off to a roaring start. They hopped across America, with Amelia dashing off newspaper articles each time they landed, before jetting down to South America and across Africa. From there, they travelled across Asia, with Amelia racing a commercial pilot to see who could be the first to reach Singapore. She won the wager. They then flew south to Australia, before arriving at Papua New Guinea.

All that remained now was to fly to Hawaii. However, because the Lockheed’s fuel tank was too small for them to fly the distance in one leg, they needed to hatch a plan to refuel.

“They looked at various options, like refuelling in the air, but ultimately decided to stop at a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean called Howland Island. It’s a tiny coral atoll in the ocean, and it would need real precision navigating to reach it.”

A US navy ship called the Itasca was primed to stay in radio contact with Earhart until they reached Howland Island. However, problems began to arise. It soon became apparent that Earhart wasn’t receiving the Itasca’s broadcasts, but the vessel could still hear them. The ship’s crew reported that Earhart’s voice crackled down the line at various points, announcing they were approaching, but there was no sign of the Lockheed overhead.

“The Itasca began to get quite concerned, so they started broadcasting constantly on different frequencies,” says Mulley. “They also burned oil in their engine room, to send up a big column of smoke. As it was a clear day, the column should have been visible for at least 10 miles, and quite probably further.”

But still the plane failed to materialise. Messages continued to trickle through from Earhart, with the final saying: “We are flying north and south, trying to find you.”

Was Amelia Earhart ever found?

Earhart, her navigator Noonan, and their plane was never spotted again. In the immediate aftermath of her disappearance, reports of radio messages from Earhart poured in, many from amateurs – although some may have been fabricated.

President Theodore Roosevelt launched a huge search and rescue mission, which his wife, Eleanor – a friend of Amelia – also took part in.

However, after two weeks and mounting costs, it had to be called off. Putnam, Earhart’s husband, searched until October 1937.

With no leads and after months of searching, in January 1939 Earhart was legally declared dead.

In the absence of concrete proof about Earhart’s fate, conspiracy theories started to bubble up. “There are a whole series of theories about what happened to her, and many are absolutely ridiculous,” says Mulley.

“There was a theory that because she was friends with the Roosevelts, she was an American spy and had agreed to fly her plane to a different atoll and lay low, giving the American government an opportunity to search the Pacific Islands.”

Another theory purports that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese and killed. “So-called evidence has surfaced, but none of it holds water. For instance, a photograph was found purporting to show two Caucasians in Japanese custody, but it seems that it was taken in 1936, the year before her aviation attempt.”

How did Amelia Earhart die?

“Earhart reported on the radio that they were running out of gas,” says Mulley. “They were still searching for the island. So it seems almost certain that their aircraft ditched into the sea.”

Once they landed in the sea, their chance of survival was slim. “Although they had a life raft and inflatable jackets, these were stored at the back of the plane,” says Mulley.

“If they even survived the crash, would they have been able to get the raft up and running? Possibly. But how long would they have survived? A storm came in later. There were reportedly 10-foot waves across parts of that region, and we know that this particular part of the Pacific was also infested with sharks.”

Earhart’s story, and her fate, continues to captivate us – and for some, the search continues. As recently as January 2024, an ex-US air force pilot suggested that he had found Earhart’s plane in sonar images.