A black and white photo of a woman wearing an aviation jacket
Pictures Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Vanished

She was the most famous female pilot in the world. She and her plane disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. What really happened to Amelia Earhart?

By Mackenzie Carro
From the March / April 2022 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will learn who Amelia Earhart was and how she mysteriously vanished. They will then explore possible causes for her disappearance.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 700L-800L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50
Other Key Skills: cause and effect, vocabulary, text features, text evidence, inference, supporting an opinion, key idea, argument writing
Download and Print
UP CLOSE: Cause and Effect

As you read, look for explanations for what might have caused a famous pilot to disappear.

The year 1937 had been an exciting one for Amelia Earhart. She was a world-famous pilot. Her life was full of glamour and adventure. And she was fulfilling a lifelong dream: flying around the entire globe.

Earhart’s journey started on May 20 in Oakland, California. She soon flew over the clear waters of the Caribbean and the grasslands of Africa. She crossed over deserts in the Middle East, mountains in India, and jungles in Southeast Asia.

On June 29, she reached an island now known as Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific Ocean. By then, she had traveled 22,000 miles over five continents.

In a few days, she’d be back home in the United States.

But then, in early July, something went terribly wrong.

Earhart was traveling with a navigator named Fred Noonan, who helped her find her way as she flew. The two were supposed to land on Howland Island, about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. But when they looked out the window of the plane, they saw no island. All they could see were the sparkling turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean.

They were lost.

Now the plane was running out of fuel. If Earhart didn’t find somewhere to land—soon—they were going to crash.

Earhart used the radio to call for help.

No response.

She used the radio again.

Silence.

Amelia Earhart would never be seen or heard from again.

Eighty-five years later, her disappearance remains one of the greatest mysteries in American history. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent looking for her. Dozens of people have combed the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean. They’ve studied maps and charts and weather patterns. They’ve searched islands where she might have landed.

But no one has been able to answer the question: What really happened that July day in 1937?

The year 1937 had been exciting for Amelia Earhart. She was a world-famous pilot. Her life was full of glamour and adventure. And she was about to fly around the entire globe.

Earhart’s trip started on May 20 in Oakland, California. She soon flew over the clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. She glided over the grasslands of Africa. She crossed over deserts in the Middle East and mountains in India.

On June 29, she reached an island now known as Papua New Guinea. It’s in the Pacific Ocean. By then, she had traveled 22,000 miles. She’d crossed five continents.

In a few days, she’d be back home in the United States.

But then, in early July, something went very wrong.

Earhart was traveling with a navigator named Fred Noonan. He helped her find her way as she flew. The two were supposed to land on Howland Island. That’s about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. (See map.) But when they looked out the window of the plane, they saw no island. All they could see were the sparkling turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean.

They were lost.

The plane was running out of fuel. If Earhart didn’t find somewhere to land—soon—they were going to crash.

Earhart used the radio to call for help.

No answer.

She used the radio again.

Silence.

Amelia Earhart would never be seen or heard from again.

Eighty-five years later, her disappearance is still one of the greatest mysteries in American history. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent looking for her. Dozens of people have searched the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean. They’ve studied maps and charts. They’ve looked on islands where she might have landed.

But no one has been able to answer the question: What really happened that July day in 1937?

Background Illustration by Gary Hanna; Jim McMahon/Mapman®

The Last Flight

Amelia Earhart wanted to be the first woman to fly around the world. She had almost completed her trip when she disappeared.

The Risks

The Risks

When Earhart set off to fly around the world, only a few pilots had done it before—and they had all been men. In the early 1900s, women were not taken seriously as pilots.

Female pilots were often banned from competing in flying races. They were turned away from jobs as professional pilots. It was said that a woman could never fly as well as a man.

Earhart knew better.

In 1920, when she was 23, her father arranged for her to take a ride in a plane. It was a trip that would change her life forever. “As soon as we left the ground,” she later wrote, “I knew I myself had to fly.”

A year later, Earhart had her pilot’s license. In the coming years, she set many records. In 1932, she became the first woman—and the second person ever—to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1935, she became the first person to fly alone across the Pacific.

Today, flying over an ocean may not seem like a big deal. At this very moment, thousands of planes are crisscrossing the skies high above the seas. But in Earhart’s time, flying over open water was extremely dangerous.

Flying was still new, and planes had many flaws. Engines fell out, wings tore off, and fuel tanks caught fire. Over an ocean, any one of these problems meant almost certain death for
a pilot. There was no place to make an emergency landing.

Earhart knew the risks. But she was not the kind of person to turn away from a challenge. Even the challenge of flying around the world did not frighten her.

“I want to do it because I want to do it,” she wrote in a letter to her husband. “Women must try to do things as men have tried.”

When Earhart set off to fly around the world, only a few pilots had done it before. And they had all been men. In the early 1900s, many people thought women couldn’t be pilots.

Often, female pilots weren’t allowed to compete in flying races. They were turned away from jobs as professional pilots. It was said that a woman could never fly as well as a man.

Earhart knew better.

When she was 23, her father had her take a ride in a plane. The trip would change her life forever. “As soon as we left the ground,” she later wrote, “I knew I myself had to fly.” 

A year later, Earhart had her pilot’s license. In the coming years, she set many records. In 1932, she became the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1935, she became the first person to fly alone across the Pacific.

Today, flying over an ocean may not seem like a big deal. But in Earhart’s time, flying over open water was extremely dangerous.

Flying was still new, and planes had many flaws. Engines fell out. Wings tore off. Fuel tanks caught fire. Over an ocean, these problems would mean almost certain death for a pilot.

Earhart knew the risks. But she wasn’t afraid of a challenge. Even the challenge of flying around the world did not scare her.

“I want to do it because I want to do it,” she wrote in a letter to her husband. “Women must try to do things as men have tried.”

Peteri/Shutterstock.com

The Fame

Earhart was one of the most famous people in the world in the 1920s and ’30s, and she worked hard to keep her fans happy. She spent most of her time traveling the U.S. and giving talks about her life as a pilot. She also had her own fashion line and wrote several books.

Like a Movie Star

Like a Movie Star

As Earhart made her way around the globe, it seemed as though the whole world were cheering her on. By 1937, Earhart had become as famous as any movie star. Photographers followed her everywhere. Children begged their parents to go to parades held in her honor. Women tied silk scarves around their necks just like she did.

America needed stars like Earhart. In the 1930s, the country was going through a difficult time known as the Great Depression. Millions of people didn’t have jobs. Families lost their homes. Many were going hungry.

For them, Earhart’s thrilling adventures were a distraction from their struggles. Little did they know that those adventures would soon come to an end.

Earhart’s trip around the globe excited people everywhere. By 1937, Earhart had become as famous as any movie star. Photographers followed her everywhere. Children begged their parents to go to parades held in her honor.

America needed stars like Earhart. In the 1930s, the country was going through a difficult time. Millions of people didn’t have jobs. Families lost their homes. Many were going hungry.

For them, Earhart’s thrilling adventures were a distraction from their struggles.

Background Illustration by Gary Hanna; APA/Getty Images

The Time

In the 1930s, women were treated unfairly. There were many things they were not allowed to do. For example, women couldn’t open a bank account without a male relative’s signature and they couldn’t fight in wars.

 

Earhart wanted to prove that women could fly just as well as men. Then the world would have to accept that a woman was able to do any job that a man could do.

Starting to Worry

Starting to Worry

Around 10 a.m. on July 2, Earhart and Noonan took off for Howland Island. They probably felt relieved. After weeks of flying, they were exhausted. But now, finally, they were on the last leg of their journey—almost home.

They planned to fly through the night. They would arrive at Howland early the next morning to refuel the plane.

Finding Howland would not be easy. The island was just a tiny dot in the endless blue of the ocean. And back in 1937, pilots did not have technology like GPS to help them find their way. Earhart and Noonan had to rely on a map, a few basic navigation tools, and their own eyes.

The plane did have a radio, which was new technology at the time. But Earhart had never been fully trained on how to use it. She was always too busy. (A radio expert who was supposed to be on the trip had quit early on.)

Luckily, Earhart had help from a U.S. Coast Guard ship, the Itasca. The ship was near Howland Island. At midnight, as planned, the Itasca’s searchlights were switched on. At dawn, the boilers began puffing out smoke. This way, if Earhart couldn’t see the island from the sky, she could use the lights and smoke to guide her.

By 7 a.m., there was still no sign of Earhart. The crew of the Itasca was starting to worry. To make matters worse, her radio did not seem to be working properly. The crew could hear her, but she could not hear them.

At 7:42 a.m., Earhart’s voice crackled over the radio.

“We must be on you but cannot see you,” she said. “Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio.”

The crew searched the skies for her silver plane but saw only clouds. They hunched over their radios, trying to make contact with her again and again.

Nothing worked.

Around 8:45 a.m., her voice broke through the static for the last time.

“We are on the line 157-337 . . .”

Earhart was giving her location. Line 157-337 refers to an area on a map. But the Itasca would never find her.

No one would.

Amelia Earhart was gone.

Around 10 a.m. on July 2, Earhart and Noonan took off for Howland Island. They probably felt relieved. After weeks of flying, they were tired. But now they were on the last part of their journey. They were almost home.

They planned to fly through the night and arrive at Howland early the next morning. Then they would refill the plane with gas.

Finding Howland wouldn’t be easy. The island was just a tiny dot in the endless blue of the ocean. And back in 1937, pilots did not have much technology to help them find their way. Earhart and Noonan had to rely on a map, a few basic navigation tools, and their own eyes.

The plane did have a radio to talk to others. This was new technology at the time. But Earhart had never been fully trained on how to use it.

Luckily, Earhart had help from a U.S. Coast Guard ship called the Itasca. The ship was near Howland Island. At midnight, the Itasca’s searchlights were switched on. At dawn, the boilers began puffing out smoke. This way, if Earhart couldn’t see the island from the sky, she could use the lights and smoke to guide her.

By 7 a.m., there was still no sign of Earhart. The crew of the Itasca was starting to worry. Plus, her radio did not seem to be working properly. The crew could hear her, but she could not hear them.

At 7:42 a.m., Earhart’s voice crackled over the radio.

“We must be on you but cannot see you,” she said. “Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio.”

The crew searched the skies for her silver plane. But they saw only clouds. They tried to make contact with her again and again.

Nothing worked.

Around 8:45 a.m., her voice broke through the static for the last time.

“We are on the line 157-337 . . .”

Earhart was giving her location. Line 157-337 refers to an area on a map. But the Itasca would never find her.

No one would.

Amelia Earhart was gone.

What Happened?

What Happened?

When news of Earhart’s disappearance broke, Americans were devastated. How could the world’s most beloved aviator simply vanish?

Today, we are still trying to answer this question. There have been many theories. One theory is that she survived, moved to New Jersey, and lived under a fake name to escape the pressures of fame. (Most experts think this is unlikely.)

Another theory is that Earhart was a spy sent to gather information on the country of Japan. She crashed, was captured by the Japanese military, and died as a prisoner. Both the U.S. and Japanese governments deny this claim. But in the 1940s, several people said they had seen Earhart on a Japanese island.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has a different explanation. TIGHAR has been investigating what happened to Earhart for decades.

The group believes that she and Noonan crashed on an uninhabited island called Nikumaroro. The two survived for a time on rainwater, fish, and clams. No one found her plane, TIGHAR says, because the tides dragged it to the bottom of the ocean. No one found her body because after she died, it was devoured by the giant coconut crabs that live on the island.

Why Nikumaroro?

The island is not far from Howland. In fact, a few days after Earhart disappeared, the U.S. Navy sent a plane to search it. The pilot reported signs of human activity, but a crew was never sent to follow up. (Later, the Navy released a report that said there had actually been no signs of human activity.)

Over the years, TIGHAR has led 13 expeditions to the island. The group found makeup, an American-made zipper, and shards of American-made bottles. Did these items belong to Earhart? Maybe. But dozens of people have been to the island and could have left the items behind.

In 1940, bones were also found on Nikumaroro. At the time, two experts said that the bones belonged to a man. More recently, TIGHAR concluded they could be Earhart’s.

Yet most experts believe Earhart ran out of gas and crashed into the ocean. Earhart and Noonan died, and the plane sank.

Americans were crushed when they heard the news of Earhart’s disappearance. How could the world’s most beloved aviator simply vanish?

Today, we are still trying to answer this question. There have been many theories. One theory is that she survived and moved to New Jersey. She lived under a fake name. (Most experts think this is unlikely.)

Another theory is that Earhart was sent to spy on the country of Japan. She crashed, was captured by the Japanese military, and died as a prisoner. Both the U.S. and Japanese governments say this isn’t true. But in the 1940s, several people said they had seen Earhart on a Japanese island.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has a different explanation. TIGHAR has been looking into what happened to Earhart for decades.

The group believes that she and Noonan crashed on an uninhabited island called Nikumaroro. The two survived for a time on rainwater, fish, and clams. No one found her plane, TIGHAR says, because it sank to the bottom of the ocean. No one found her body because after she died, it was devoured by the giant coconut crabs that live on the island.

Nikumaroro is not far from Howland. Over the years, TIGHAR has led 13 trips to search the island. The group found makeup and some American-made items. Did they belong to Earhart? Maybe. But dozens of people have been to the island. Any of them could have left the items behind.

In 1940, bones were also found on Nikumaroro. At the time, two experts said that the bones belonged to a man. More recently, TIGHAR concluded they could be Earhart’s.

Yet most experts believe Earhart ran out of gas and crashed into the ocean. Earhart and Noonan died, and the plane sank.

National Geographic/Gabriel Scarlett 

Divers from Robert Ballard’s crew look for pieces of Earhart’s plane.

New Clues

New Clues

Emily Shur/Expedition Amelia/ National Geographic

Robert Ballard

In 2019, the search for Earhart made headlines again. An ocean explorer named Robert Ballard announced he was going to try to find Earhart’s plane. Ballard is known for finding the Titanic, the famous ship that sank in 1912.

Ballard had always wanted to find Earhart’s plane. But he thought the search area was too large. Then a friend showed him a photo of Nikumaroro taken in 1937. It shows a blurry object in the water. Experts used high-tech tools to match the shape of the object to a piece of Earhart’s plane.

In August, Ballard and his crew set out for Nikumaroro. They searched for weeks. They used tools like robots, drones, and sonar—a technology that uses sound waves to create pictures of objects underwater.

In the end, they found no trace of the plane.

But Ballard doesn’t see the trip as a failure. After all, it took four missions to find the Titanic. He plans to conduct another search for Earhart’s plane this year.

“This plane exists,” he told The New York Times. “It’s going to be found.”

But until then, the mystery remains. What really happened to Amelia Earhart?

In 2019, an ocean explorer named Robert Ballard announced he was going to try to find Earhart’s plane. Ballard is known for finding the Titanic. That’s a famous ship that sank in 1912.

Ballard had always wanted to find Earhart’s plane. But where would he start to search? Then a friend showed him a photo of Nikumaroro taken in 1937. It shows an object in the water. The shape of the object might match a piece of Earhart’s plane, experts concluded.

In August, Ballard and his crew set out for Nikumaroro. They searched for weeks. They used tools like robots and drones.

In the end, they found no trace of the plane.

But Ballard doesn’t see the trip as a failure. After all, it took four tries to find the Titanic. He plans to try another search for Earhart’s plane this year.

“This plane exists,” he told The New York Times. “It’s going to be found.”

But until then, the mystery remains. What really happened to Amelia Earhart?

Rob Barrel/NAI’A

The Search

In 2019, ocean explorer Robert Ballard and his crew searched the waters around Nikumaroro Island for what was left of Earhart’s plane. They didn’t find it.

Write to Win

What do you think happened to Amelia Earhart? Describe the different possibilities the article presents, then tell which one you think is most likely and why. Send your work to “Earhart Contest” by May 1, 2022. Five winners will each receive a $20 gift card to the Scholastic Store Online. Visit the Storyworks Contests page for more information.