On a dark, monsoon-lashed morning in June 1937, Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviator, took off from Calcutta airport on the return leg of her famous round-the-world trip. It was one of the last times she was seen alive: two weeks later, her aircraft vanished over the Pacific.

The mystery of what happened to her has never been solved, and there have been various conspiracy theories. But now, almost exactly 80 years, fascinating new evidence has been discovered, suggesting that she might have been captured as a spy by the Japanese, and died in captivity.

Earhart, with her movie star looks and daring exploits, was a glamorous icon of her time. She had set various aviation records, and was on a quest that would make her the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the world – a dangerous venture, given the rudimentary aviation technology of the time. As she told journalists, she was doing it “just for fun”. She was accompanied by Fred Noonan, a veteran navigator who was said to know the Pacific – the most treacherous leg of their route – like the back of his hand. The problem was, he was known to be an alcoholic, and sometimes had to be “poured into the cockpit of his aircraft”.

A new History Channel programme claims this photo shows Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were in the Marshall Islands after their plane vanished. Credit: US National Archives/AFP

Touchdown in India

On the 26th day of her epic journey, Earhart landed in Karachi (then a part of India), becoming the first person to fly from the Horn of Africa, all the way around the southern coast of Saudi Arabia to India.

“On my first morning in India I had a small adventure riding a camel,” Earhart wrote in her column for an American newspaper. “I climbed into the saddle swung between his two humps. It was a startling take-off as we rose. A camel unhinges himself in most extraordinary fashion. As his hind legs unfold, you are threatened with a nose-dive forward. Camels should have shock absorbers.”

Having had her aircraft overhauled, and an ominously malfunctioning fuel gauge repaired, Earhart took off on her next 1,400-mile leg to Calcutta, flying over the Thar Desert. “A great barren stretch,” she wrote. “A southerly wind whipped the sand into the air until the ground disappeared from view. We flew along until the ridges grew into mountains and poked their dark backs like sharks through a yellow sea. But the air cleared somewhat, so we could again see what we were flying over – dry river beds, a few roads connecting villages, and then a railroad.”

Over central India the network of railway lines helped them navigate despite the hazy skies, although a near collision with some black eagles, flying at a height of 5,000 feet, gave Earhart some very worrying moments.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper

As she flew over Agra, she apparently looked down and told Noonan she wished they could have landed, so that she could see the Taj Mahal. They landed in Calcutta that evening in a rainstorm, but it soon cleared, allowing them to have their tea on the runway, as the mechanics began work on the aircraft. But that night, once again, Noonan got roaring drunk. Earhart was becoming worried about her navigator. Also, some of her equipment had started to give trouble – but there seemed to be no facilities to repair it.

Dawn flight from Calcutta

The next morning Earhart wanted to take off at dawn on their next leg of their flight to Rangoon in Burma, but they were delayed by heavy rains. The meteorologists advised them that more rain was expected and they had better take off in between the intermittent downpours, before the airfield got completely flooded. When they finally did take off from the waterlogged runway, the aircraft dragged in the heavy slush of the runway for what seemed like ages before its wheels finally lifted, and Earhart narrowly missed the trees at the end of the runway.

She flew south across the Sunderbans, and then turned east. As she wrote, “For a time we flew through gray skies crowded with clouds as we passed over the many mouths of the Ganges and Brahmaputra. Much of the way from Calcutta to Akyab we flew very low over endless paddies.” But then they ran into blinding rain that hit the aircraft so hard it actually peeled paint off its fuselage. This unusually stormy weather would follow Earhart right across South East Asia.

Still, disaster was 14 days away.


The lady vanishes

At 6 pm on July 2, 1937, Earhart took off from New Guinea for Howland Island in the South Pacific Ocean, on the longest leg of her journey – a 2,500 mile flight that would take her 18 hours. She was now almost at the end of her odyssey. From here she would fly on to Honolulu, and then back home to Oakland, California, to a heroine’s welcome. But she never reached her destination. Her last, poignant, radio message, to a waiting American coastguard ship was, “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait…”, followed by gibberish.

The US government launched the world’s biggest air-and-sea search operation till date, but there was no trace of Earhart or her aircraft.

So what really happened to Amelia Earhart? The three most commonly held theories are:

Theory #1

Her aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific, where it sank, beyond any retrieval, in the deep waters. This is the simplest and, many believe, most likely explanation.

Theory #2

The aircraft ran out of fuel, but Earhart and Noonan made it to an uninhabited Pacific island, where they survived for a few days, before dying of starvation and exposure. This theory is supported by an organisation named TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery), headed by scientist Ric Gillespie, who, following a clue provided by a British official in 1940, discovered the skeletal remains of a Caucasian woman on Nikumaroro Island, along with some artefacts, including what appears to be the remnant of a 1930s-style ladies’ make-up compact. TIGHAR has been working on this project for the past two decades.

Theory #3

Earhart had been asked by the US navy to spy on the Japanese by carrying out aerial photography of secret Japanese bases in the Pacific. But the Japanese found out and captured her and Noonan, and they were either executed, or died in captivity. This has been a controversial, but persistent theory.

However, recent news reports say that a researcher working at the US national archives has stumbled upon a remarkable photograph dated 1937 that appears to show Earhart and Noonan in the Marshall Islands (which, significantly, were under Japanese administration at the time) – although Japanese officials have said that they have no record of having the two aviators in their custody.

This discovery has triggered a great deal of excitement, and History Channel is releasing a TV programme on this on July 9. But on the other hand, there is also scepticism, especially from TIGHAR director Ric Gillespie, backed, as he points out, by his two decades’ experience of research on the subject.

So what is the truth? Unless we get some really hard evidence – like an official Japanese confirmation about Earhart, or a DNA confirmation of TIGHAR’s skeletal find on Nikumaroro, or, indeed, the confirmed wreckage of her aircraft – we will never really, truly know.