Finding Earhart

Amelia Earhart stands in front of her plane

As the biographer of Amelia Earhart, I had concluded that her plane would never be found in my lifetime.

She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, went missing on July 2, 1937, as they looked for Howland Island, a tiny dot in the Pacific where they were planning to set down and refuel. The Pacific is so huge planes could not, in 1937, cross it without refueling. Even Earheart's state-of-the-art plane, the Lockheed Electra could not overcome this obstacle.

There have been many searches. I went on one organized by Ted Waitt, the producer of the movie Amelia, which was based on my book, East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart. Waitt financed and commissioned the building of two underwater sonar subs to search the 17,000-feet-deep ocean floor that surrounds Howland Island. He chartered the 204-foot Seward Johnson to carry the subs out to the west side of the island—searching there on the assumption that due to headwinds, Earhart and Noonan had probably not flown as far as they had thought. In 2009, I boarded the Seward Johnson in American Samoa and went on the second search. It took 46 days.

We found nothing.

Robert Ballard, the man who found the Titanic, backed by National Geographic, joined the ranks of Amelia Earhart searchers last summer. Ballard was motivated by a theory Ric Gillespie suggested. He has led 13 expeditions to the Nikumaroro Island (350 miles from Howland Island) because he was sure the Lockheed Electra had crashed landed there and was washed into the sea. Ballard searched the waters surrounding Nikumaroro Island believing Gillespie was on to something. He found nothing.

I am suddenly being asked to speak by various groups, which I take as evidence of mounting interest in Earhart. I believe the plane will be found because of that new interest, coupled with the development of new and technologically superior search submarines that make scanning the ocean floor ever quicker and easier. Eventually Ballard or another group will search the ocean floor to the east of Howland Island, where I think they will find Earhart’s plane. When I wrote Earhart’s biography in 1997, I did not believe it possible that in my lifetime her plane would be found, but now I do.

Susan Butler ’53 is the author of East to the Dawn, The Life of Amelia Earhart. The book was written after Butler spent more than a decade researching Earhart's archives that included her letters, journals, and diaries and drew on interviews with the aviator's friends and relatives. Butler's own mother was a pilot in the 1930s, which was why she was inspired to write about Earhart, and document her great contributions to society.