Air mys­tery

What hap­pened to Amelia Earhart?

Paradise - - Contents -

Sit­ting in a lonely field next to the site of the old Lae air­port is a for­lorn slab of con­crete that once bore a plaque ded­i­cated to the brave avi­a­trix, Amelia Earhart, who was last seen fly­ing from the grass and gravel strip to her in­tended des­ti­na­tion in the Pa­cific in July 1937.

The pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive is that she was never seen again. But was she?

Lae has long since been served by the more favourably lo­cated air­port at Nadzab. With the busy gold min­ing in­dus­try, old Lae air­port was once among the busiest any­where and that’s how Earhart and her nav­i­ga­tor, Fred Noo­nan, found it when they ar­rived on June 29 after com­plet­ing 35,000 kilo­me­tres of their round-the­world flight.

The in­trepid pair checked into Lae’s ‘plush’ and only ho­tel, the Ce­cil, and were greeted by the owner, Flora ‘Ma’ Ste­wart. Once

the only art-deco build­ing in Pa­pua New Guinea, it some­how sur­vived Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion, but was de­mol­ished in the 1970s. It would be en­thralling to be a fly-on-the-wall at the din­ner ta­ble as Earhart and Guinea Air­ways gen­eral man­ager, Eric Chater, dis­cussed the flight thus far and the dan­ger­ous and com­pli­cated 11,000-kilo­me­tre trans-Pa­cific legs that lay ahead.

While Earhart dined pri­vately in the com­fort of the Chater house­hold, Noo­nan took the op­por­tu­nity, in the ab­sence of an in­vi­ta­tion to join Earhart, to go drink­ing with some of the lo­cal fly­ers, Ber­tie Heath and Jim Col­lopy. Noo­nan waxed on about his time with Pan Amer­i­can fly­ing their Clip­pers around the Pa­cific and how he had no spe­cific ap­pre­hen­sion about the next leg as he felt par­tic­u­larly qual­i­fied to find the speck that was How­land Is­land. The two nois­ily put the drunk Noo­nan to bed about

mid­night, wak­ing Earhart in the next room.

While the pair en­joyed a break at Lae, Chater’s me­chan­ics were busy ser­vic­ing Earhart’s Lock­heed Elec­tra, at­tend­ing to sev­eral is­sues Earhart had noted on the eight-hour flight from Dar­win. Chief me­chanic, Ted Finn, over­saw the op­er­a­tion and Earhart spent some time in the hangar watch­ing them work on the en­gines, ra­dio and gyro.

Earhart was keen to get go­ing as soon as pos­si­ble, but first had to at­tend to many mes­sages that were re­layed via the AWA wire­less sta­tion, as there were no phones in Lae. Harry Bal­four was the sole op­er­a­tor of the rudi­men­tary sta­tion.

She had to rely on ex­pen­sive, hand-tran­scribed dis­patches, which con­tained cru­cial weather ob­ser­va­tions and route ad­vice from both the US Navy base at Pearl Har­bor in Hawaii and the US Coast Guard ves­sel, Itasca, which was sta­tioned off How­land Is­land to pro­vide ra­dio guid­ance.

Heav­ily laden with 1100 US gal­lons of fuel, the Elec­tra took off from old Lae airstrip amid great fan­fare, with many lo­cals turn­ing out to see the pair off. A black-and­white film taken by young Guinea Air­ways em­ployee Alan Board, and the still pho­tos taken that day, are the last known im­ages of her, Noo­nan and the Elec­tra.

The film and im­ages were re­cently an­a­lysed by Jeff Glick­man, an ex­pert foren­sic ex­am­iner, and it has been de­ter­mined that an an­tenna at­tached to the un­der­side (belly) of the aircraft was likely

Heav­ily laden with 1100 US gal­lons of fuel, the Elec­tra took off from old Lae airstrip amid great fan­fare, with many lo­cals turn­ing out to see the pair off.

ripped from the Elec­tra as it tax­ied to take off. The spe­cific func­tion of this de­vice has been sub­ject to some de­bate, and how it could have af­fected the flight ahead has been de­bated by ex­perts in many books and in­ter­net fo­rums.

As the aircraft dis­ap­peared to the east, the weather re­ports Earhart had been wait­ing for ar­rived from Hawaii and at­tempts were made to trans­mit this information to her. The suc­cess, or oth­er­wise, has never been fully es­tab­lished and crackly, gar­bled trans­mis­sions con­tin­ued for the next few hours. The last ver­i­fied po­si­tion re­port was near the Nuku­manu Is­lands, 1300 kilo­me­tres from Lae.

From this point on, mat­ters get con­fused. There have been many the­o­ries about the ‘dis­ap­pear­ance’, but it helps to un­der­stand the po­lit­i­cal mood in the re­gion at the time, es­pe­cially re­la­tions be­tween the US and Ja­pan.

In 1937, the Ja­panese had con­trol of most of Mi­crone­sia through to the Mar­shall Is­lands, hav­ing been ceded them by the League of Na­tions as a pro­tec­torate after the de­feat of Ger­many in World War 1. Be­gin­ning in the 1920s, the Ja­panese were ex­pand­ing the set­tle­ments all through this huge ter­ri­tory by en­cour­ag­ing civil­ian mi­gra­tion from Ja­pan.

Things were go­ing fine for a while, but in the early 1930s Ja­pan be­gan to qui­etly build its mil­i­tary pres­ence in these ter­ri­to­ries in con­tra­ven­tion of its agree­ment with the League of Na­tions. Chuuk in Mi­crone­sia, for ex­am­ple, was ex­panded to a huge mil­i­tary base to ri­val Pearl Har­bor, as well as sus­pi­cious in­stal­la­tions in the Mar­shall Is­lands, un­com­fort­ably close to the main US base in Hawaii.

The US gov­ern­ment had taken par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in the am­bi­tious em­pire, es­pe­cially after Ja­pan’s mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in China and clear signs it was build­ing its armed forces else­where in Asia and the Pa­cific. What if an oth­er­wise in­no­cent civil­ian flight could be di­verted to re­con­noitre these se­cret is­lands and de­ter­mine if Ja­pan was demon­strat­ing hos­tile in­ten­tions to its neigh­bours, the US in­cluded?

It was well known that Earhart was short of funds after the first (east to west) at­tempt at the round-the-world flight ended in an ex­pen­sive ac­ci­dent in Hawaii. But she mirac­u­lously ac­quired enough money to re­launch her at­tempt just two months later, when the flight took off from Oak­lands, California, in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

For the fi­nal and most dif­fi­cult sec­tion across the Pa­cific, the aircraft was equipped with ad­vanced RDF equip­ment and, as men­tioned ear­lier, had the sup­port of the US Coast Guard and a spe­cially built airstrip on re­mote How­land Is­land. Pro­po­nents of this the­ory have sug­gested that was quite an un­usual and con­spic­u­ous in­vest­ment for a pair of ‘stunt fly­ers’.

Oral his­tory in the Mar­shall Is­lands strongly sup­ports the the­ory that the Elec­tra ei­ther crash-landed or was force­landed at Mili Atoll, near the re­gional cap­i­tal of Jaluit. A set of sto­ry­board postage stamps were even is­sued to re­call this event.

The the­ory goes that the pair, ac­cused of es­pi­onage, be­came

prison­ers of Ja­pan and were sent to jail on Saipan where they were in­car­cer­ated for sev­eral years un­til they ei­ther died or were ex­e­cuted.

“It was widely known through­out the is­lands by both Ja­panese and Mar­shallese that a Ja­panese fish­ing boat first found them and their air­plane near Mili,” re­calls one of the Mar­shall Is­land’s most prom­i­nent mod­ern pi­o­neers, Robert Reimers. “They then trans­ferred them to a big­ger boat (be­lieved to be the Koshu Maru). They were brought to Ja­bor, where (lo­cal medic) Bil­imon (Amaron) treated them. They were then taken to Kwa­jalein and from there to Truk and then Saipan. There was no mys­tery ... ev­ery­body knew it!”

An­other the­ory gain­ing much trac­tion at the mo­ment, de­spite scant ev­i­dence, is that when the plane be­come lost or dis­ori­en­tated near How­land Is­land, they crashed near Niku­maroro (then known as Gard­ner Is­land) in Kiri­bati. It is here that it is be­lieved they sur­vived for a time as cast­aways un­til dy­ing.

But in re­cent years a far more in­trigu­ing the­ory has emerged: that the wreck­age of the Elec­tra is hid­den in the jun­gle near Kimbe.

Ti­mothy Joe Aiap, from Urin vil­lage high in the White­man’s Range in the Kan­drian district of West New Bri­tain, claims to have found wreck­age that con­forms to the de­scrip­tion of the Earhart aircraft. Other com­men­ta­tors have cast doubt on that, claim­ing in­stead that he has found a lost US bomber or fighter aircraft, pos­si­bly a B-24 (Lib­er­a­tor) or P-38 Light­ning.

One of those ex­perts in­ter­ested in the West New Bri­tain the­ory is re­tired Aus­tralian avi­a­tion engi­neer David Billings, who is work­ing from a World War 2 map un­earthed from lost archives in 1993, which de­tail find­ings by Aus­tralian sol­diers on pa­trol in East New Bri­tain in April 1945.

The most per­plex­ing clue in this mys­tery is that the sol­diers re­cov­ered a man­u­fac­turer’s tag from the wreck­age that matches ‘pre­cisely’ the se­rial num­bers from Earhart’s Lock­heed 10E Elec­tra. While the tag it­self was handed in to au­thor­i­ties at the time, the notes still ex­ist hand­writ­ten on the orig­i­nal pa­trol map. This the­ory sug­gests that Earhart in­voked a con­tin­gency plan to turn back in the event of an emer­gency.

All of this re­minds us that the en­dur­ing mys­tery of Earhart and Noo­nan’s dis­ap­pear­ance con­tin­ues to grip the imag­i­na­tion and spawn a wealth of con­spir­acy the­o­ries that go be­yond a sim­ple record­break­ing stunt to es­pi­onage, of­fi­cial se­crecy and a metic­u­lously or­ches­trated cover-up.

Flight path ... Amelia Earhart and her nav­i­ga­tor, Fred Noo­nan, were on the fi­nal leg of their record­break­ing, round-the-world flight in 1937 when they took off from Lae and van­ished.

High flyer ... a public­ity photo of Amelia Earhart and her Lock­heed Elec­tra at Mi­ami, in the US. About a month later she dis­ap­peared after leav­ing PNG.

Plane talk ... Amelia Earhart and Fred Noo­nan dis­cussing the route across the Pa­cific (right); one of the last pho­tos of Earhart as she pre­pares to leave Lae (op­po­site page).

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