Skip to main content

Will mystery of Amelia Earhart be solved?

By Susan Butler, Special to CNN
updated 12:22 AM EDT, Sun March 25, 2012
A portrait of Amelia Earhart, circa 1935. A portrait of Amelia Earhart, circa 1935.
HIDE CAPTION
Amelia, pioneer of aviation
Amelia, pioneer of aviation
Amelia, pioneer of aviation
Amelia, pioneer of aviation
Amelia, pioneer of aviation
Amelia, pioneer of aviation
Amelia, pioneer of aviation
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Susan Butler thinks new expedition won't find Amelia Earhart's vanished plane
  • Butler wrote a biography of Earhart, a pioneer of aviation who inspired women pilots
  • Earhart was wildly famous in her day, broke countless speed and distance records
  • Butler went on expedition to find Earhart plane; thinks new project is looking at wrong island

Editor's note: Susan Butler is the author of "East to Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart," the basis of the movie "Amelia," starring Hilary Swank. She was inspired by her mother, who was one of the few women pilots in the 1930s and a member of the Ninety Nines, the women's flying organization founded by Earhart. Butler also wrote "My Dear Mr. Stalin: The Complete Correspondence of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph V. Stalin."

(CNN) -- Many people think Amelia Earhart's fame rests on her dramatic disappearance in 1937. I don't think so. I think her life has been overshadowed by her death. I think that when her Electra aircraft is finally found, the focus will return to her life and her remarkable accomplishments. She will become even more famous than she is today.

A new, privately funded investigation into one of the most famous missing persons cases in history will start this summer, carried out by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. It will be headed by Ric Gillespie. The group has mounted 10 previous expeditions to Gardner Island, also known as Nikumaroro, in the Pacific. I wish him well, but my experience leads me to believe Gillespie will come up empty again.

Earhart started flying in the 1920s. Her first plane was powered by one of the first -- and still unproven -- air-cooled engines ever made. But Earhart possessed more than guts and a passion for flying. She was blessed with good looks and intelligence. She thrived on publicity, charmed men and set as her mission in life the empowerment of women.

She went on the lecture circuit to finance her flights and became wildly popular, the Oprah Winfrey of her day. Earhart helped create and lead the Ninety Nines, the women's flying organization that promoted women fliers, and was idolized by her flying peers as much because she was fun as because she was efficient.

New search for Amelia Earhart's plane
Photo a clue for Earhart plane location?
Possible new clue in Earhart mystery

She married a successful publisher, George Putnam, who looked like a stand-in for Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent. He devoted his life to her. In a time when planes were being perfected and aviators were the superstars of the day, she matched the men.

Earhart's most daring achievement was that five years to the day after Charles Lindbergh's flight, she took off from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, and safely landed her red single-engine Lockheed Vega in a farmer's field in Derry, Ireland. After a harrowing flight replete with equipment malfunctions and bad weather, she became the first woman and the second pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic. The world went crazy.

After the flight, she was elevated to almost mythic status. "Forget Garbo, forget Jackie, she was in a realm beyond stardom," recalled Gore Vidal, who knew her well.

She set countless speed, long-distance and altitude records.

She was on what she planned as her last record-breaking flight in 1937 when she went missing, flying around the world at the equator, which had never before been done. She had always flown solo, but on this last flight, she took along a navigator, Fred Noonan.

She was on the last, most dangerous leg of the flight, taking off from Lae, Papua New Guinea, for Howland Island, a dot in the middle of the Pacific a bit north of the equator and 2,556 miles away. She was landing there to refuel the Electra before flying on to Hawaii. When she failed to appear, the Itasca, a U.S. Coast guard vessel waiting at Howland Island to guide her in, radioed the world.

The final resting place of her plane has never been ascertained, but most fliers and history buffs, including me, think that the plane rests on the ocean floor somewhere in the vicinity of her destination of Howland Island, rather than Gardner Island, 400 miles away. But the ocean is 17,500 feet deep around Howland, a mile deeper than the resting place of the Titanic. Only recently has technology allowed the construction of underwater vehicles that can endure such extreme pressure.

In 2009, I was on the second leg of the R/V Seward Johnson's search for Earhart. The Seward Johnson is a 204-foot research vessel that set out from American Samoa to search the ocean floor to the west of Howland Island. Ted Waitt, founder of Gateway Computer and creator Waitt Institute for Discovery, was behind the expedition. A great admirer of Earhart, he was also the impetus behind the recent movie, "Amelia."

There were 29 of us aboard the Seward Johnson: scientists, oceanographers, technicians, computer experts and ordinary seamen. Autonomous underwater vehicles, bright yellow sonar subs 12 feet long, did the searching. For 46 days, the AUVs looked for the plane round the clock. Going on the assumption that headwinds had slowed the plane down more than Noonan realized, the subs were deployed to survey to the west of Howland Island.

The AUVs work by pinging the ocean floor as they travel just above it, sending up signals that are displayed on computer screens as dots that change color as the subs ping over different surfaces. The softest surface, sand, transmits as blue dots; hard stone and metal transmit as red dots that blend off into green. The Electra, as a metal object, would show up red. Once an AUV pinged a large metal object: It turned out to be a 55-gallon steel drum. Other than that, the ocean floor was as barren as the moon.

In the past 16 or so years, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery has come back with all sorts of artifacts that Gillespie was sure would prove to have belonged to Earhart. Nothing has held up to scrutiny. While his hunches have led him to concentrate on this island, Gardner was one of the first islands searched, five days after Earhart went missing.

At that time, three planes catapulted from the battleship USS Colorado searched the area. If one of the three pilots had sighted anything even slightly promising, the pilot would have reported it. The pilot who sighted the plane would instantly have been the hero of the hour.

Such a sighting was never made. At President Franklin Roosevelt's bidding, the Colorado was within days joined by a fleet of nine ships of the U.S. Navy, including an aircraft carrier that held 62 planes, to look for Earhart. The ships and the planes then conducted a search they estimated as covering 150,000 square miles.

The Seward Johnson only searched the ocean floor to the west of Howland Island. It is my best guess that the plane rests on the ocean floor to the east, waiting to be found by the next expedition.

Whoever finds Earhart and her Electra will deservedly become famous. I agree with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said the search itself is inspirational. It will be wonderful news when one day our lost heroine is found.

In the meantime, Earhart remains an icon, revered by young women, remembered by many for her signal accomplishments, remembered by all because of her dramatic end. She is 39 forever.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Susan Butler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT