The Search for Amelia Earhart Continues as She is Honored at National Portrait Gallery

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The celebrated aviator's death remains unsolved, yet crews will search for her remains in June.

According to a recent article in theWashington Post, “A new clue in one of the 20th century’s most enduring mysteries could soon uncover the fate of American aviator Amelia Earhart, who went missing without a trace over the South Pacific 75 years ago, investigators said.

“Enhanced analysis of a photograph taken just months after Earhart’s Lockheed Electra plane vanished shows what experts think may be the landing gear of the aircraft protruding from the waters off the remote island of Nikumaroro, in what is now the Pacific nation of Kiribati, they said.

Historians, scientists and salvagers from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery are returning to the island in July in the hope of finding the wreckage of Earhart’s plane and perhaps even the remains of the pilot and her navigator Fred Noonan.

Ric Gillespie, executive director of the group, said,“The most important thing is not whether we find the ultimate answer or what we find, it is the way we look,” he said. “We see this opportunity to explore ... the last great American mystery of the 20th century as a vehicle for demonstrating how to go about figuring out what is true.”

Lockheed Vega 5bEarhart and Noonan disappeared July 2, 1937, while flying from New Guinea to Howland Island as part of her attempt to become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the globe.

The life of  legendary aviator Amelia Earhart (1897-1937) will be highlighted in a  new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. “One Life: Amelia Earhart” will recognize her life and remarkable career with a focus on her commitment to women’s rights. Earhart’s biography will be told through portraits—photographs, paintings and drawings—and other objects that tell more about her experiences—her pilot’s license, the first earned by a woman, leather flying helmet and smelling salts. The exhibition will be on view June 29 through May 27, 2013.

Earhart, known as “Lady Lindy,” was an aviation pioneer, and her fame extended far beyond her flying feats. In addition to setting aviation records, she founded a pilots’ organization for women called The Ninety-Nines, championed  the first commercial airline, was a member of the faculty at Purdue University and campaigned for women’s rights.

“Amelia Earhart’s impact on American culture extends beyond her record-setting aviation feats,” said Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery. “She was also an advocate for aviation and women and championed the first commercial airlines. Now we take for granted the convenience of air travel and equal rights for all, but in the 1920s and ’30s these positions reflected the ideals of a bold visionary.”

Earhart was a passenger in her first wildly successful flight across the Atlantic. After a ticker-tape parade welcomed her back to the U.S., she became a columnist for “Cosmopolitan” magazine and began lecturing around the country. With a breakneck pace she still continued to pursue her own record-breaking flights. In 1929 she set an altitude record, reaching 18,415 feet. In 1932 she piloted a solo flight across the Atlantic, the first woman to do so.

Amelia EarhartThrough her speaking engagements, writing and appearances, Earhart campaigned for women’s equality. She was ambivalent about her celebrity status. However she embraced it, understanding she was a standard-bearer for women in aviation and also for a practical reason—to fund her expensive pursuit of flying planes. Partnered with George Putnam, who helped with public engagements and books, she also participated in many product-placement advertising campaigns. The exhibition includes an example from a Lucky Strike cigarette  advertisement, as well as an insight into her private life: her marriage contract with Putnam.

Coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, this one-room exhibition brings together many objects from the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Rare vintage film and audio excerpts featuring Earhart will also be available in a special video kiosk in the gallery.

The exhibition curator is Frank H. Goodyear III, associate curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.

This exhibition has been funded by the Guenther and Siewchin Yong Sommer Endowment Fund. The National Portrait Gallery is part of the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture at Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington, D.C.

Many theories emerged after the disappearance of Earhart. Two possibilities concerning her fate have prevailed among researchers and historians:

Many researchers believe her plane ran out of fuel, and Earhart and co-pilot Fred Noonan ditched at sea. Navigator and aeronautical engineer Elgen Long and his wife Marie K. Long devoted 35 years of exhaustive research to the "crash and sink" theory, which is the most widely accepted explanation for the disappearance.

A second hypotheses was offered by the United States Navy, Paul Mantz and Earhart's mother;  all expressed belief the flight had ended in the Phoenix Islands (now part of Kiribati), some 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.

In 1988, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) initiated a project to investigate the Earhart/Noonan disappearance and have sent six expeditions to the island. They have suggested Earhart and Noonan may have flown without further radio transmissions  for two and a half hours along the line of position Earhart noted in her last transmission received at Howland, arrived at then-uninhabited Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) in the Phoenix group, landed on an extensive reef flat near the wreck of a large freighter (the SS Norwich City) and ultimately perished.

In 2007, a TIGHAR expedition visited Nikumaroro searching for unambiguously identifiable aircraft artifacts and DNA. The group included engineers, technical experts and others. They found artifacts of uncertain origin on the weather-ravaged atoll, including bronze bearings which may have belonged to Earhart's aircraft and a zipper pull which might have come from her flight suit. In 2010, the research group said it had found bones that appeared to be part of a human finger. Subsequent DNA testing at the University of Oklahoma proved inconclusive as to whether the bone fragments were from a human .

The unresolved circumstances of Amelia Earhart's disappearance, along with her fame, attracted a great body of other claims relating to her last flight, all of which have been generally dismissed for lack of verifiable evidence. Several unsupported theories have become well known in popular culture.

A World War II-era movie called “Flight for Freedom” (1943) starring Rosalind Russell and Fred MacMurray furthered a myth that Earhart was spying on the Japanese in the Pacific at the request of the Franklin Roosevelt administration.  By 1949, both the United Press and U.S. Army Intelligence had concluded this rumor was groundless. Jackie Cochran, another pioneering aviator and one of Earhart's friends, made a postwar search of numerous files in Japan and was convinced the Japanese were not involved in Earhart's disappearance.

In 1966, CBS Correspondent Fred Goerner published a book claiming Earhart and Noonan were captured and executed when their aircraft crashed on the island of Saipan, part of the Mariana Islands archipelago, while it was under Japanese occupation. In 2009, an Earhart relative stated that the pair died in Japanese custody, citing unnamed witnesses including Japanese troops and Saipan natives. He said that the Japanese cut the valuable Lockheed aircraft into scrap and threw the pieces into the ocean.

Thomas E. Devine wrote “Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident,” which includes a letter from the daughter of a Japanese police official who claimed her father was responsible for Earhart's execution.

Former U.S. Marine Robert Wallack claimed he and other Marines opened a safe on Saipan and found Earhart's briefcase. Former U.S. Marine Earskin J. Nabers claimed that while serving as a wireless operator on Saipan in 1944, he decoded a message from naval officials that said Earhart's aircraft had been found at the airfield in the village of As Lito, that he was later ordered to guard the aircraft, and then witnessed its destruction.

In 1990, the NBC-TV series "Unsolved Mysteries" broadcast an interview with a Saipanese woman who claimed to have witnessed Earhart and Noonan's execution by Japanese soldiers. No independent confirmation or support has ever emerged for any of these claims. Purported photographs of Earhart during her captivity have been identified as either fraudulent or having been taken before her final flight.

Since the end of World War II, a location on Tinian, which is five miles (eight km) southwest of Saipan, had been rumored to be the grave of the two aviators. In 2004 a scientifically supported archaeological dig at the site failed to turn up any bones.

Amelia Earhart was a widely known international celebrity during her lifetime. Her shyly charismatic appeal, independence, persistence, coolness under pressure, courage and goal-oriented career along with the circumstances of her disappearance at a young age have driven her lasting fame in popular culture. Hundreds of articles and scores of books have been written about her life, which is often cited as a motivational tale, especially for girls.

Earhart's accomplishments in aviation inspired a generation of female aviators, including the more than 1,000 women pilots of the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) who ferried military aircraft, towed gliders, flew target practice aircraft, and served as transport pilots during World War II.

The home where Earhart was born is now the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum and is maintained by the Ninety-Nines, an international group of female pilots of whom Amelia was the first elected president.

A small section of Earhart's Lockheed Electra starboard engine nacelle recovered in the aftermath of the Hawaii crash has been confirmed as authentic and is now regarded as a control piece that will help to authenticate possible future discoveries. The evaluation of the scrap of metal was featured on an episode of “History Detectives” on Season 7 in 2009.

:She was a prolific  writer and published:

  • 20 Hrs., 40 Min. (1928) was a journal of her experiences as the first woman passenger on a transatlantic flight.
  • The Fun of It (1932) was a memoir of her flying experiences and an essay on women in aviation.
  • Last Flight (1937) featured the periodic journal entries she sent back to the United States during her world flight attempt, published in newspapers in the weeks prior to her final departure from New Guinea. Compiled by her husband GP Putnam after she disappeared over the Pacific, many historians consider this book to be only partially Earhart's original work.

Two notable memorial flights by female aviators subsequently followed Earhart's original circumnavigational route.

In 2001, a commemorative flight retraced the route undertaken by Amelia Earhart in her August 1928 trans-continental record flight. Dr. Carlene Mendieta flew an original Avro Avian, the same type that was used in 1928.

 

Visit your local library to obtain resources on Amelia Earhart.

The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart.
Mary S.Lovell, 2009.
What makes this biography different from every other book about aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared in the Pacific in 1937 during her historic flight around the world? After conducting fresh research and interviews, Lovell, a prolific, no-nonsense biographer, critically assesses the enormous cache of Earhart materials, debunks theories about her fate, and presents a fully dimensional portrait without hagiography or speculation.(Recommended for young adult readers)  — Excerpt of review by REVIEW. First published August, 2009 (Booklist). Donna Seaman

Letters from Amelia 1901–1937
Jean L. Backus, (1982).
Contains letters sent by Amelia Earhart to her mother, with commentary by the editor.

Lost Star: The Search for Amelia Earhart.
Randall Brink, (1994).

East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart
Susan Butler, (1997). 

With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart.
 Mike Campbell with Thomas E. Devine, (2002). 

Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance.
Ric Gillespie, 2006. 

The Search for Amelia Earhart
Fred Goerner, 1966.
The chronological story of the six-year, 1960-66, investigation... into a mystery which began in the summer of 1937 with the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Frederick Noonan, over the Pacific.

Amelia: The Centennial Biography of an Aviation Pioneer.
Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, 1997.

Amelia Earhart's Shoes.
Thomas F. King, et al. , 2001.

Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon
Kristen Lubben and Erin Barnett, (2007). 
Through magazines, newspapers, original press photos and advertisements, Image and Icon, published on the occasion of the exhibition at New York's International Center of Photography, traces the construction of Earhart's iconic image and its continued resonance today

Amelia Earhart
Muriel Earhart Morrissey, (1992). 
Excerpted from Courage is the Price: The Biography of Amelia Earhart, 1963.

 

For Younger Readers

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart
Candace Fleming, (2011).
Grades 4-7.
Drawing on her training as a historian and her considerable writing talents, Fleming offers a fresh look at this famous aviatrix. Employing dual narratives—straightforward biographical chapters alternating with a chilling recounting of Earhart’s final flight and the search that followed—Fleming seeks to uncover the “history in the hype,” pointing out numerous examples in which Earhart took an active role in mythologizing her own life.
— Excerpt of review by Kay Weisman first published December 1, 2010 (Booklist).

Unsolved: What Really Happened to Amelia Earhart?
John Micklos Jr., (2006).
Grades 5-8.
Micklos depicts his subject as a precocious tomboy who found in flying a perfect outlet for an adventurous nature. Half of the book discusses Earhart’s attempt to fly around the earth along the equator; her plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean during the last, longest, and most dangerous leg of the trip. Micklos goes on to describe and assess the plausibility of the many theories of what became of Earhart and her navigator, including one that contends they died as captives of Japanese soldiers.
— Excerpt of review by Ed Sullivan first published July 17, 2007 (Booklist Online).

Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean.
Sarah Stewart Taylor, illustrated by Ben Towle, (2010).
Grades 4-7.
Although this first woman of flight has been the subject of many juvenile biographies, Taylor and Towle have combined their talents for research, narrative, and image to offer a fresh view of one particular chapter of her life.  The bulk of the story takes place in a small Newfoundland village, the takeoff point for the historic flight, and is told from the point of view of a young girl. The unromanticized depiction portrays the drunkard pilot and reveals the often-harsh preconceptions that both the locals and reporters had of this unconventional woman. As Earhart invested in her own dreams, in the end so too does the young girl she inspires.
—Excerpt of review by Francisca Goldsmith first published March 15, (Booklist).

Amelia Earhart: The Legend of the Lost Aviator
.
Shelley Tanaka, illustrated by David Craig , (2008).
Grades 2-4.
Amelia Earhart has been the subject of many youth biographies, but this one, a picture book for older children, is especially informative—and attractive. Tanaka writes with the sweep and excitement of an airplane climbing into the sky, while the format and visuals wonderfully enhance the text. Though Tanaka doesn’t turn this into a feminist tract, preferring to let Earhart’s accomplishments speak for themselves, she does point out that women’s options were limited, even as several women flyers appear in the book. Well sourced and well written, this is a fitting tribute to a high flyer. — Excerpt of review by Ilene Cooper first published June 1, 2008 (Booklist).

Night Flight: Amelia Earhart Crosses the Atlantic.
Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor, (2011).
Grades 1-4.
A worthy new addition to the recent spate of books about the famous aviatrix, Burleigh’s story concentrates on Earhart’s 1932 solo flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, placing compelling poetic emphasis on her single-hearted struggle. “Why? Because ‘women must try to do things as men have tried,’” writes Burleigh, quoting Earhart.
— Excerpt of review by Karen Cruze first published February 1, 2011 (Booklist).

Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon.
Kathleen C. Winters, (2010).
Resisting tabloid tales, Winters focuses on responsible accounts and Earhart’s own writings to show how public demands and family pressures induced the aviatrix to fly beyond her capabilities. Although she is lauded as one of the greatest pilots of all time, Earhart’s contemporaries were less charitable and more realistic, and while her death was mourned by all of them, it did not come as a great surprise. — Excerpt of review by Colleen Mondor first published December 1, 2010 (Booklist).
 
East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart
Susan Butler, (1997).
Susan Butler spent 10 years researching and writing this biography, which marks the centennial of Amelia Earhart’s birth. Although Earhart’s life has been documented on television and in other books, Butler was allowed access to family diaries and discovered an unpublished biography by a close friend.— Excerpt of review by Jennifer Henderson first published October 15, 1997 (Booklist).

Lost Star: The Story of Amelia Earhart.
Patricia Lauber,. New York: Scholastic, (1989).
 
Amelia Earhart: Courage in the Sky (Women of our Time series).
Mona Kerby, (1990).

Whatever Happened to Amelia Earhart?
Melinda Blau, (1977). Juvenile audience.

Daughter of the Sky
Briand, Paul, (1960).

Amelia Earhart : flying solo
 John Burke, (2007). 

 

 

Photos:

1. (Artivle illustration) Paul Mantz, Amelia Earhart, Harry Manning and Fred Noonan, Oakland, California, 17 March 1937

2. Lockheed Vega 5b flown by Amelia Earhart as seen on display at the National Air and Space Museum

3. Earhart and "old Bessie" Vega 5b c. 1935

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