The Amelia Earhart mystery

March 18, 1992

More than half a century after she vanished during the last leg of an attempted around-the-world flight, Amelia Earhart is back in the news. At a press conference in Washington this week, a Delaware-based aviation group unveiled tantalizing evidence suggesting Earhart crash-landed on tiny Nikumaroro Island in the Western Pacific, where she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, ultimately perished from exposure and thirst.

Richard Gillespie, of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, said his team turned up a two-foot-long strip from the belly of Earhart's Lockheed Electra during a search of the island last October. Federal metallurgists who examined the fragment concluded it was consistent with planes of that vintage but could not confirm it came from Earhart's Electra. Sonar searches in nearby waters failed to spot the missing aircraft.

Still, Mr. Gillespie claims that his discovery has dispelled the mystery surrounding Earhart's disappearance on July 2, 1937. Others are not so sure. Speculation over Earhart's fate has ranged from the mundane (her airplane ran out of fuel and crashed in the ocean) to the exotic (she and Noonan were captured and executed as spies by the Japanese). National Air and Space Museum curator Thomas Crouch, for one, is skeptical. The most that can be said, Mr. Crouch avers, is that Earhart's two-engine plane was "lost at sea, heaven knows where."

Why all the fuss about a 55-year-old air disaster? Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, occupied a place only slightly behind Charles Lindbergh in the public imagination of her day -- notwithstanding the extraordinary obstacles she had to overcome to win recognition in a profession dominated by men.

She wasn't the first woman to fly professionally, but she was the best-known and for millions of people her career came to symbolize the greatly expanded role of women in modern society. The U.S. never would have trained women ferry pilots in World War II without Earhart's example.

None of this could have been foreseen by her contemporaries. The passage of time has clarified her contributions. Meanwhile, conflicting opinion over her fate ensures a lingering mystery that still fuels the public fascination with Amelia Earhart.

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