As a child I held the romantic notion that Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan managed to land on a deserted island where they fell in love and lived out the rest of their days in an idyllic Gilligan Island style retreat.
I didn’t know much about Earhart, only that her plane never reached its destination of Howland Island; 450 uninhabited acres positioned about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
The other night I came across an Earhart documentary and haven’t had a decent night’s sleep since.
I keep running the footage of Amelia’s final flight through my head. Fred’s cocky grin as they walked towards the plane. Amelia’s beautiful gap toothed smile. The way Fred crouched on the wing and reached down for Amelia’s hand; how Amelia catapulted onto the wing in an effortless running bound. The take off looked flawless. No one would notice the puff of smoke exiting the belly of the plane until years later.
Amelia shunned the use of instruments, preferring to fly by sight and voice communication alone.
Noonan was an expert at Celestial navigation; relying on the sun, moon and stars.
July 2, 1937 had promised clear blue skies but unexpectedly turned cloudy. The island—already a speck in the vast ocean—was now hidden beneath a thick cover of clouds. So much for sight.And then there was sound.
The main receiving antenna was located on the belly of the plane. The puff of smoke suggests the antenna snapped during takeoff.
This explained why the ground crew could hear Amelia but she couldn’t hear them. Her second to last communication from somewhere over the Pacific was “We must be on you, but cannot see you—gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”
An hour later her final radio message crackled out the words, “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles. Wait…” And the world waited. And waited.
The numbers 157 and 337 were the compass headings of a navigation line passing directly through Howland Island. She was right where she was supposed to be. She was on target. She was so close. She just couldn’t see it.
Many believe—and this must be where I got my childhood notion—the plane managed to land on a smooth coral reef at low tide on the island of Nikumaroro located 300 miles directly southeast of Howland Island.
A woman’s shoe made by a company in the USA in the 1930’s along with bits of rouge, a shattered mirror from a woman’s compact, pieces of a folding pocket knife, evidence of campfires, American glass bottles with warped bottoms (leading to the conclusion they had been set in the fire to boil drinking water) and a sextant box consistent with what the plane would have been carrying were discovered on the island. Did any of it belong to Earhart’s expedition? No one knows.
What can be said with certainty is the island was not the paradise I dreamt of as a child.
Oppressive heat, jagged sharp coral, dense foliage and no easy source of fresh water would have made it a struggle just to survive.
Furthermore, the waters surrounding the island were infested with sharks and the fish—though abundant—were often poisonous in season depending on their diet.
Animals on the island consisted of migratory birds, rats and the aggressive giant coconut crab weighing in at nine pounds (4.1 kg) and measuring up to three feet three inches (1 metre) wide.
If they had landed here they survived less than a year. We know this because a year later, the British arrived with the intent to settle the island. Measuring a mere six km (3.7 miles) long and less than 2 km (1.2 miles) wide it would have been impossible to overlook a pair of castaways.
By 1939 wells were dug and a group of inhabitants brought in. If Amelia had landed here two years later she would have been greeted by a crowd of 50 inhabitants.
But life is full of ifs. What if Amelia Earhart had learned to fly by instrument? What if the day had been—as promised—sunny and clear? What if the antennae hadn’t broken?
Well, we probably wouldn’t be laying awake thinking about her today. It’s an unflattering truth that humans are obsessed with celebrities who die young; especially without closure.
Think Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Lady Di…would any of them have sustained our fascination had they survived into old age?
Consider Jacqueline Cochran. Born in 1906 she was considered Amelia Earhart’s greatest rival. The two, in fact, were close friends. By the time Jacqueline passed away in 1980 at the age of 74 she held more aerial distance and speed records than any other pilot living or dead, male or female.
But whose name do we remember?
Shannon McKinnon is a syndicated columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com