Amelia Earhart Redux: Competing Networks, Competing Craziness
As someone who frequently criticizes the manufactroversies surrounding the 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart, I'm often asked why people are so obsessed with her. In the 1930s, she was the most famous woman in the world. At home she was not only America's sweetheart, she was revered for smashing the gender barrier in aviation — although not the first female pilot (she was the 16th to obtain a license), she was by far the most celebrated. When a person of such rare transcendence dies — and especially when they die mysteriously, leaving unanswered questions — it is virtually a certainty that folklore will form, and even conspiracy mongering. At some point, the personal tragedy devolves into distasteful public exploitation, exactly as we're currently seeing at the History Channel and National Geographic television networks. For the sake of sensationalism, these networks have elected to bury known history, and instead drag Amelia Earhart's body through the streets, each promoting one of two false histories of her final flight.
In 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan were completing their third-to-last leg of a flight around the world, about to stop to refuel at remote Howland Island, an American atoll frequently used for that purpose, and serviced by the US Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. They went down when they ran out of fuel flying a search pattern after having overshot the island in the early morning hours. Using all their various data, Itasca's radio technicians determined the boundaries of a region where the plane most likely went down. Inevitably, the search was unsuccessful. No serious doubt exists about what happened, and the only mystery is where within that quadrant the plane might have ditched. We'll probably never know, as the water is very, very deep — half again as deep as where the Titanic was found. We'll talk about this more in a moment, but if you want the US Navy's complete 96-page report, it's available from the National Archives; as are the relevant entries from the Itasca's radio logbook (though not online).
The alternate history that has received the most attention is that promoted by Ric Gillespie and his group called TIGHAR. For decades, their business has been to churn out press releases and persuade TV networks to fund expeditions. In their version, Earhart did not go down as proven by Itasca's radio logs and the physics of fuel consumption, but instead navigated precisely to another island, Nikumaroro, an incredible 350 nautical miles in almost exactly the opposite direction. They landed safely and lived as castaways. As "evidence" TIGHAR has repeatedly offered bits of debris and bone found on the island — silly, because Nikumaroro has been frequently populated since the mid-1800s by litter-happy pearl divers, British colonists, a Coast Guard station, yacht visitors, and many others. This is the version promoted by the Discovery Channel, and most recently by National Geographic. I discussed the TIGHAR story in depth in episode 295, "Finding Amelia Earhart", which you should check out to learn its numerous fatal flaws.
The competing alternate history comes from the History Channel, creators of fake history shows such as Ancient Aliens and Hunting Hitler, and who apparently didn't want to be outdone by National Geographic. They chose one version of the longest-running Earhart conspiracy theory, most tirelessly advocated by alternate-history author Mike Campbell, which holds that Earhart and Noonan were picked up at sea by a Japanese boat which managed to evade the American and Japanese ships who searched for them, then brought them back to Japan, Saipan, or some other island and held them as prisoners of war, even though no hostilities existed between Japan and the United States.
As a centerpiece to publicize their program, the History Channel chose a photo recently found in the US National Archives by a devotee of this theory, showing some people on a wharf on Jaluit Atoll in what are now the Marshall Islands. The claim was that it depicted Earhart and Noonan as prisoners, stopping at this tiny atoll and being briefly allowed ashore for some reason. It was a photo of a printed photo, and was too blurry to make out any details, so the devotees supplied their own. They said two of the people in the photo were positively identified as Earhart and Noonan, and they pointed to an indistinct shape behind a large Japanese cargo ship — probably one of the many sailboats in the harbor — as unequivocally an airplane on a barge, exactly the size of Earhart's Lockheed Electra. Why a large cargo ship — its decks festooned with cranes for loading cargo — would transport a small airplane by towing it on a barge instead of on its cargo decks, was not convincingly argued. Small cargo is never transported by towing it on a barge in the open ocean. The photo was undated, but the devotees gave reasons they believe it was from 1937 — the real reason, of course, being that they worked backwards from their preferred date. Nevertheless, History Channel promoted the photo aggressively, and allowed the theory's crank proponents to give all kinds of biometric claims proving the identity of the two people on the dock.
But just as their TV program aired, a Japanese blogger of military history, Kouta Yamano, found himself skeptical of the photo. Like most of his colleagues, Yamano is pretty tired of the conspiracy theories that say Earhart was captured by the Japanese. He searched the photo database of the National Diet Library, Japan's equivalent of the Library of Congress, for pictures of Jaluit taken in the 1930s. In personal correspondence, he said he found the photo in about 30 minutes. It was from 1935, not 1937. It was from a photo book sold by a boutique shop on Japanese-owned Palau. It was printed on October 5, 1935 and published on October 10, 1935. Its title doesn't really directly translate, but it's roughly:
The picture appears on page 44 and its caption translates approximately as:
Obviously, this discovery completely obliterated the central claim of History Channel's program and laid bare a monumental fact checking failure. (Side note: It's worth mentioning that their Hunting Hitler program did the same thing with a picture they claimed was Hitler as an old man living in Argentina. The picture was later found to be Moe Howard of The Three Stooges.) The publication date, there in black and white on the page of the book in Japan's national library, proves the photo had nothing to do with Earhart. As Twitter erupted with gloating and jeers, a few suggested that it still might be her in the photo, perhaps from a 1935 visit. However this is even easier to disprove. As one of the world's most famous people, she was extensively biographied, and all her travels throughout the 1930s are a matter of record. She had never visited that part of the South Pacific.
However, there is no point in trying to debunk either alternate theory, or any of the others that exist. They are Elvis sightings. We know Elvis died, we have his body and coroner report, there is no need to give any due to any claim that he is still alive. Similarly, we do know what happened to Earhart, and there is no need to give any attention to any alternate history already known to be impossible. Let's now look at why.
On this page, I've placed a map showing the area determined by the crew of the USCGC Itasca to be the area where Earhart and Noonan went down. It is a pie slice north of Howland, with its long sides at 337° and 45°, its minimum distance 40 nautical miles from the island, and its maximum 200 nautical miles. Imagine a slice of pizza 200mm long with a 40mm bite out of the tip. When you see it on a map of the Pacific, it is despairingly large (almost 23,000 square nautical miles / 78,000 square kilometers). Clearly it was hopeless for the Itasca, even with all the other ships that joined the search, to have found any sign of the crash.
It is often pointed out by the historical revisionists that mystery surrounds the end of Earhart's flight, and that we don't know exactly what happened. While this is true, it is also misleading; because that uncertainty exists within solid boundaries. We do know beyond any reasonable doubt that their last fumes of fuel would not have allowed them to fly outside of this pizza slice; certainly not to Nikumaroro, and just as certainly not to any other islands or atolls, because there are none within that search area.
When we say that Earhart's loss remains a mystery, what we're saying is that it's unknown where within that pizza slice their plane went down. There is also a possibility that they went down just outside that pizza slice — a possibility that diminishes very rapidly with any meaningful distance.
This is what every piece of real evidence shows. Therefore, it is what all credible historians agree upon. By every tenet of rationality, and every process of a science-based investigation, there is no reason to consider alternate theories that require us to violate the facts that we do know.
Since these alternate histories did not happen, they are supported by no verifiable evidence, nor will any surface in the future. Like all crank theories, they are supported instead by communities of passionate believers who point to every anecdote and misinterpretation that they believe can be shoehorned into supporting their theory. They simply ignore the fact that what's known about the end of Earhart's flight makes their theory impossible, and they focus instead on the distortions, anomalies, and unknowns, which they then weave into complex narratives bolstered by fantastic minutiae. It is precisely these volumes of cherrypicked trivia that make their tales appear to be built upon impregnable and thoroughly researched foundations. It is this appearance of strength that so easily allows them to recruit new believers, and to impress inexperienced content producers at the networks.
So it is with no great surprise that we see History Channel and National Geographic pouring their limitless resources into promotion of whichever theory's press release reached them first. Consequently, we see their own press releases, gilded with their own illustrious names, being uncritically parroted by virtually every major news network in the English speaking world.
At best, this type of reporting is lazy; at worst, it is a conscious discard of reality in favor of sensationalism. It may be done under the banner of good entertainment, but the harm it does extends well beyond the television set. Amelia Earhart was one of our great representatives of women achieving excellence in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). She was a pioneer and a role model in every way. But the image we have of her today is profoundly clouded by these false histories and conspiracy theories cloaked upon her by these television networks. They do a great disservice not only to her memory and to her legacy, but to today's young women whom she might otherwise be inspiring.
Amelia Earhart was 39 years old. She served as a nurse during World War I, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and held numerous speed, solo, and nonstop flight records.
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