The Search Is Still On for Amelia Earhart 80 Years After She Disappeared

Amelia Earhart was the first person to fly over the Atlantic and Pacific. Then she vanished.
Image: Amelia Earhart stands June 14, 1928 in front of her bi-plane called "Friendship" in Newfoundland.
Amelia Earhart stands June 14, 1928 in front of her bi-plane called "Friendship" in Newfoundland.Getty Images / Getty Images

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By Shira Tarlo

It’s been 80 years since she vanished, yet the disappearance of Amelia Earhart remains just as big a mystery today as it did generations ago.

The famed aviator was last heard from on July 2, 1937, as she attempted to make the first around-the-world flight along the equator with navigator Fred Noonan. Earhart was officially declared dead in 1939 after the U.S. government concluded that she crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, but her remains were never found.

Amelia Earhart stands June 14, 1928 in front of her bi-plane called "Friendship" in Newfoundland.Getty Images / Getty Images

Before she disappeared, Earhart had already broken gender barriers by completing solo flights male pilots hadn't. She was the first woman to fly over the Atlantic, the first person to fly over the Atlantic twice and the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California. But then she went missing.

Over the decades, her disappearance has mystified historians and fans, and fueled numerous conspiracy theories. Here are just some of the plane tales that have surfaced about the fate of the doomed pilot.

Earhart died as a prisoner after being captured by the Japanese

Some researchers have proposed that the pilot and her navigator were captured by the Japanese and held captive on the island of Saipan or the Marshall Islands, eventually dying in captivity.

Among the supporters of this theory is the aviator's fourth cousin, Wally Earhart, who told the Nevada Appeal in 2009 that he believed the plane “did crash into the Pacific, but instead of dying, the pair was rescued by a nearby Japanese fishing trawler."

“Noonan was beheaded by the Japanese and Amelia soon died from dysentery and other ailments,” Wally Earhart told the paper, without citing any evidence.

Earhart's plane sank into the Pacific Ocean after she got lost and ran out of gas

The aviator set out for her world flight with Noonan from Oakland, California, on July 1, 1937. The duo was last heard from when they departed Lae, New Guinea, for their next fueling stop at Howland Island, some 2,500 miles to the east.

Many organizations, including the U.S. Air and Space Museum, say that Earhart and Noonan "were unable to locate Howland Island, ran out of fuel, and ditched into the Pacific Ocean."

Earhart made radio contact with U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca the morning of July 2, and reported that the plane was only 200 miles away from her destination. But she contacted the ship again about an hour later to say the plane was running low on fuel and that she couldn’t spot land. Earhart’s last message came at 8:43 a.m. local time: “We are on the line of position 156-137… We are running north and south.”

Earhart was a U.S. spy who returned home with a new identity

Amelia Earhart waves from the cockpit of her plane circa 1929.Getty Images

The famed pilot, according to one theory, was actually a spy for the U.S. government and was on a secret mission to photograph Japanese military installations in the Pacific when she was captured, or so claims author W.C. Jameson in “Amelia Earhart: Beyond the Grave.”

Jameson theorizes that President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned Earhart’s trip and knew everything about her disappearance, but kept it hidden. According to the author, the Japanese released Earhart in 1945 and she returned to the U.S., where she lived under the name Irene Craigmile Bolam.

The real Bolam called the book "utter nonsense" and dismissed Jameson's theory as "a poorly documented hoax."

Earhart died as a castaway

The most recent theory surrounding Earhart's disappearance is that she died as a castaway. Researchers with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery say there are parallels between the celebrated pilot and the partial skeleton discovered on an uninhabited Pacific island in 1940.

Amelia Earhart's plane takes a test flight before departing Oakland Airport in Oakland, Calif., on March 14, 1937, on her fatal around the world flight. Linda Finch of San Antonio, Texas, will try to complete Amelia Earhart s failed flight when she takes off Monday in a plane that is nearly identical to the one that disappeared with the aviation legend 60 years ago. (AP Photo/Oakland Tribune)Oakland Tribune via AP

Forensic imaging specialists and anthropologists compared measurements of the skeleton's arm bones to a historical photo of Earhart, and found that their measurements were “virtually identical.”

While the discovery doesn’t fully prove that the castaway was Amelia Earhart, researchers say this data is “significant” and “tips the scale further in that direction.”

CORRECTION (July 2, 2017, 5:15 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the date when Earhart was last heard from. It was July 2, 1937, not June 2.