Amelia Earhart
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(Edward Steichen/Vanity Fair)

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was one of those rare people who achieved fame during her life and still more fame through her death. Or, to be precise, her disappearance.

Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas in 1897. She didn't set out to be an aviator, initially training in medicine. It was only following a flight with Frank Hawks in 1920 that she decided she wanted to be a pilot.

Earhart quickly set about learning to fly and by 1922 was setting records (an altitude record of 14,000 feet). In 1928 she achieved worldwide fame when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic ocean by plane, on a flight piloted by Wilmer Stultz. In 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic.

Disappearance

The last known flight of Amelia Earhart began on March 17th, 1937 - Saint Patrick's Day. With her navigator Fred Noonan Earhart set out from California on what was intended to be a round the world trip in their plane the Electra. Unfortunately an accident at Honolulu meant that the trip had to be delayed whilst the Electra was repaired.

The attempt to fly around the world began again some two months later. The Electra set off from Oakland and by July 1st reached Lae, New Guinea. On July 2nd Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae heading for the tiny Howland Island. They never arrived. The last sighting of the Electra, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan was over the Nukumanu Islands.

Theories

Theories as to the reasons behind Earhart's disappearance abound. The simplest explanation is that a combination of storms and equipment problems led the Electra to use more fuel than expected, meaning that it was unable to complete the journey. However many could not and still will not accept this idea.

One theory that became popular was to blame the problems on Fred Noonan. It was said that he was insufficiently familiar with the equipment on board the plane and even that he was an alchoholic. There doesn't seem to be any solid evidence behind this accusation. Some have taken this scapegoating of Noonan to be deliberate misinformation designed to cover up a darker truth.

Perhaps the most well-known story behind the end of Earhart's last flight involves capture by the Japanese. In some versions of this story Earhart was working for the US govenment and using her mission to spy on Japanese installations when she was shot down and captured. Another version has Earhart used as an innocent patsy by the US government, her disappearance being a deliberate conspiracy to provide them with an excuse to examine Japanese military installations in the area under cover of a rescue mission.

Many of these stories have Earhart taken by the Japanese to the island of Saipan. Some even say that she was eventually repatriated to the US where she lived under an assumed name.

Both US and Japanese governments have consistently denied knowledge of the fate of Earhart and Noonan. A 1991 Freedom of Information (FOI) request revealed no classified files on the case. But no good conspiracy theorist would trust an FOI request that came back negative.

The idea that Earhart was working for US intelligence was dramatised in the 1943 film Flight For Freedom. It's not clear how much this film created the conspiracy theory as opposed to reflecting it. Even if the theory was already in circulation, the film popularised it. The idea that Earhart had been captured by the Japanese was given new life in 1966 with the publication of The Search for Amelia Earhart by Fred Goener.

Finally there is, of course, the UFO connection. Some have suggested that Earhart might - either unwitingly or in collusion with the US government - have made contact with alien spacecraft. Depending on the nature of the proposed aliens, Earhart was either blown out of the sky or abducted. There's even an episode of Star Trek Voyager based around the latter idea - the writers of The '37s appear to buy into the idea of Noonan as an alcoholic.