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Opinion: Amelia Mary Earhart vanished 77 years ago today, but her legacy lives on

Amelia Earhart’s disappearance on an around-the-world flight attempt secured her place in history, but so did her championing of women’s rights.

Robert Buchanan

ON 2 JULY 1937 Amelia Mary Earhart, aged just 39, famously vanished into oblivion. Her disappearance on a round the world attempt flight secured her place in history – and one of the most important parts of the Amelia Earhart legend has an Irish chapter. On May 20, 1932 Earhart flew from Harbour Grace in Newfoundland with the target of Paris; however weather conditions and mechanic faults led her to land in a field in Culmore Co Derry, which is now the site of the Amelia Earhart Centre. The 34 year old had secured her place in history as the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic.

Many adventures in aviation where to follow but her last fateful journey began on 20 May, 1937 in Oakland, California. Earhart and her only other crew member, navigator Fred Noonan were leaving on their second attempt to fly around the world. They and they plane vanished without a trace between Lae, Papua New Guinea and Howland Island on July 2, 1937. A massive international search followed, unprecedented at the time in its scope and expense. But it was fruitless. No trace was ever found of Earhart and Noonan or their aircraft. Her husband requested that she be declared dead in absentia on January 5, 1939.

There are countless unlikely and often bizarre theories on what befell Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E plane. There were speculations that Earhart was secretly a spy for President Roosevelt, snooping on the Japanese. Others even believed that she had been caught by the Japanese and was being used as one of the voices of the notorious Tokyo Rose English language propaganda radio. There was even claims they had been taken as POWs in Japanese occupied Saipan where witness claim to have seen a white female with Earhart’s short hair being executed.

Opinion: Amelia Mary Earhart vanished 77 years ago today, but her legacy lives on
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  • Arriving at Southampton, June 1928.

    Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images
  • Amelia Earhart, undated

    Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Graduating from Ogontz School in Philadelphia in 1918.

    Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Amy Otis Earhart, 79, looks at a portrait of her daughter in 1947.

    Source: AP/Press Association Images
  • Earhart waves from the Electra in 1937.

    Source: AP/Press Association Images

The Gardner Island hypothesis

The most plausible is that the plane ran out of fuel, due to poor planning and communication and Earhart ditched the craft in to the sea. Another theory gaining momentum and which may soon be verified by DNA evidence is the so called Gardner Island hypothesis. Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro would have been a safer landing spot if Earhart was running out of fuel, being a large island closeby the target of Howland. In 1944 there was a limited US army presence on the island, but they found no obvious signs of either debris or Earhart and Noonan.

However evidence emerged that in 1940 a British colonial officer visiting the island discovered what he thought was an incomplete female skeleton and old fashioned navigation equipment. He sent the remains to the British Authorities on nearby Fiji who examined them and declared they were male, with a height of 5 ft 5 inches. The bones were then frustratingly misplaced. Modern re-examination in 1998 of the data by forensic anthropologists re-evaluated the measurements as being “tall white female of northern European ancestry”.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) investigated the island numerous times and have to the conclusion that Earhart may have landed her plane on a reef near the then-uninhabited island and escaped. Some of the artefacts found by these expeditions include improvised tools, possible small aircraft parts and pieces of glass of similar thickness and curvature that would match Earhart’s aircraft. Most convincingly, a size 9 Cat’s Paw heel similar to distinctive shoes Earhart was known to wear was discovered.

 

In 2007 and 2012 TIGHAR conducted further inconclusive investigations both on the island itself and in the surrounding reef. Whatever her mysterious ultimate fate, her legacy is clear, and the scramble to write about her mysterious disappearance we must not allow her incredible achievement be overshadowed.

A vanguard for women’s rights

Earhart was more than an exceptional pilot. She was also on the vanguard for women’s rights and was a successful writer. Her bravery and determination inspired generations of future aviators and feminists alike. Her impact on the culture of the day presented a unique role model for women. When all most mid-twentieth century women could hope for was to be a good housewife, Earhart’s pioneering spirit had her flying across the world, challenging stereotypes and speaking up for equality. Some 77 years on, this tenacious woman who was so ahead of her time, who once made history in a field in Co Derry, still inspires millions worldwide.

Rob Buchanan is an aspiring novelist, journalist, poet and drinker with a writing problem. Follow him on Twitter @RobLooseCannon or on his blog Loose Cannon Buchanan.

Read: Amelia Earhart search expedition finds ‘debris field’ off Pacific island

Read: 7 wondrous mysteries of the world

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Robert Buchanan

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