Thursday, March 3, 2011

Amelia Earhart - Cold Case For a Hot Lady

In Jane Mendelsohn's imaginative 1997 novel "I Was Amelia Earhart" she fictionalized what happened to the famous aviator, and it was a good read. There are countless non-fiction versions of "Lady Lindy's" last days, some more bizarre than any fiction I've seen. But like the ghost of Elvis Presley, Amelia Earhart is back. All the mystery, drama and romance surrounding the beautiful woman who vanished over the Pacific Ocean seventy years ago, has returned to haunt us again. Strictly speaking, the case was never officially declared closed.

After taking off from Lae, New Guinea on the last leg of her round the world trip, Amelia Earhart and her navigator friend Fred Noonan disappeared while trying to find tiny Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. Photos taken just before takeoff revealed an ailing and exhausted Earhart. It was July 1937. They'd already traveled 22,000 miles and had 7,000 miles remaining, all of it across the Pacific Ocean. If you've never crossed the Pacific-up close where you can see it-you cannot begin to imagine the sheer magnitude of this unforgiving sea.

(An Aside)
Once during a dark night aboard a large ship in the Pacific ocean, I watched the birth of an island in the form of an erupting volcano as it thrust itself out of the sea to begin the formation of an atoll. It was one of those moments that make you feel very small. I cannot conceive of the audacity of those two hearty souls making that lonely crossing over that colossal body of water in a tiny aircraft. Earhart wrote a book called "The Fun of It." Maybe that explains her.

More Clues
Last fall, on a tiny Pacific atoll now called Nikumaroro, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) reported finding parts of an aircraft they say could be from Earhart's Lockheed Electra; also a man's shoe heel, a woman's shoe with a 1930s Cat's Paw heel of the type Earhart had been wearing when she took off from New Guinea. Since the islanders did not wear shoes back then, these are substantial clues. After eight previous visits, funds permitting, the team headed by Rick Gillespie will return to the island this July to search for human remains, which hopefully will reveal DNA.

A Diary?
The most intriguing angle of this very cold case is the emergence of yet another clue, the diary of 23-year-old James Carey, an Associated Press reporter who took notes while the radio crew of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca was trying to contact Earhart and guide her to Howland Island. Included in the diary's notes is a shortwave distress call. "This is Amelia Earhart ..." Recently, a member of the TIGHAR team saw a copy of the diary for sale on eBay and bought it for $26. There are other quotes in the diary. James Carey has died, but his son Tim Carey verifies the diary, which he says is part of his family history. How's that for destiny? The Itasca could hear Amelia's distinctive Kansas voice, but she could not hear them or their code signals. Why? She and Fred Noonan were unaware they'd lost their outside radio-reception antenna during takeoff from the Lae Airport in New Guinea, and that would prove disastrous.

Rumors of a Legend
As a young child I heard the Earhart buzz around the dinner table. Over decades the press churned out rumors. Amelia Earhart was sent by President Roosevelt to spy on the Japanese. Amelia and Fred Noonan were romantically involved; they crash-landed on an island and showed up in New Jersey. Natives reported seeing them captive in the hands of the Japanese. Their twin-engine Lockheed Electra ran out of fuel and fell into the Pacific. Noonan was a drunk and should never have gone with her.

As the stories grew, so grew the legend. Bones were found that eventually proved not to be theirs. As for Fred Noonan, he did have a drinking problem, but he was a veteran of Pan American Airways with a reputation for being the best navigator in the business.

Woman of Firsts
Feminist icon before there were feminists, aviation editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine, book author, first woman to solo the Atlantic (more than once), first woman to fly non-stop across the U.S., a zillion other firsts and groundbreaking awards including the Distinguished Flying Cross-Earhart was going to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Instead, she inspired books, motion pictures and people who wanted to believe she was alive somewhere-anywhere. My first set of luggage simply had to be-you guessed it.

She Married a Man Just Like Her
Earhart's husband was explorer, author and publisher George P. Putnam. Rugged individualist and promoter par excellence, Putnam and Earhart had been lovers when she finally broke her engagement to another man to marry Putnam. He became her personal manager, organized all of her races and record-breaking flights including her last, for which he never forgave himself. A mid-1970s television movie about Earhart and Putnam featured Susan Clark and John Forsythe in a quite believable portrayal of their lives, and her role as an advocate for women in the work place. Not surprisingly, Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt whom she taught to fly, were pals.

Seventy years later, the Lockheed Electra's radio remains silent but the Itasca's signals linger on.

My website is under reconstruction until 2010. Meanwhile, you can find me at

You can also read two chapters of my novel, The Sword and the Chrysanthemum, Journey of the Heart at

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