Jan. 5, 2022

Amelia Earhart: A Pioneering Pilot is Declared Dead

Amelia Earhart: A Pioneering Pilot is Declared Dead

January 5, 1939. The aviator Amelia Earhart is declared dead after disappearing in a presumed plane crash.

This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Cold Open

It’s 1904 in a backyard in Kansas City.

Muriel Earhart, five years old, kneels next to her older sister Amelia on the roof of a shed. Amelia always has the best ideas, and today the sisters are building a roller coaster.

The track is ready, and the girls haul the cart into place.

Amelia slides on, belly down, head first. Muriel holds her ankles to stop the cart from rolling forwards too early. She waits for her sister’s signal to let go.

Yesterday, the Earhart sisters went with their father to the World’s Fair amusement park in St Louis. As soon as they got home, Amelia was determined to try and build her own roller coaster. The girls are always up to something: climbing trees, catching frogs, or shooting rats. They wear bloomers instead of dresses – much to the disgust of many of the parents in the neighborhood. But Muriel and Amelia find freedom being able to dress more like boys. Because in their minds, boys have many more adventures.

Their track stretches from the shed roof down to the lawn. It’s an 8-foot drop, but Amelia’s not afraid. She flashes her gap-toothed grin at Muriel and gives her the sign. She’s ready. 

Muriel lets go, and the cart trundles forward and hurtles off the end of the shed; splintering apart as it hits the ground, Amelia is thrown through the air.

Muriel scrambles from the roof. Amelia lays motionless, face down.

Her sister crouches and shakes her. Amelia groans and rolls onto her back. Her auburn hair is a tangle of mud and grass. A bruise blossoms on her lip. But her blue eyes sparkle with excitement.

Amelia exclaims breathlessly, ‘... it’s just like flying!’

And 33 years later, in 1937, Amelia will launch herself into the sky once more, in another daredevil stunt. But this time, Amelia won’t come back to her sister. She will disappear, and on January 5th, 1939, she would be officially declared dead in a presumed airplane crash.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world. 

Today is January 5th: Amelia Earhart: A Pioneering Pilot is Declared Dead.

Act One: Getting Her Wings

It’s October 22nd, 1922, high in the air above Rogers Field, Los Angeles – 18 years after young Amelia crash-landed off the shed. 

Amelia glances across the wings of her biplane. The sky stretches for miles in every direction. She’s alone, in an open cockpit, thousands of feet above the ground, but she is not scared. She’s determined, determined to prove a point that women are just as capable as men.

Amelia’s early life has been turbulent. She and her sister Muriel moved from house to house as their mother tried to provide a stable home and their father struggled with alcoholism. She attended various schools and colleges. She nursed wounded soldiers returning from World War One in 1918. And though she kept a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about other women in traditionally male jobs like engineering, law, and advertising, she couldn’t settle on what she wanted to do.

Then, less than two years ago, in December 1920, she got inside an airplane for the first time. There at that air show in Long Beach, California, Amelia was hooked.

A few weeks later, she was working multiple jobs to pay for flying lessons. She’d walk four miles after a long bus ride just to get to the airfield. She cut her hair to look like other female aviators. She even slept in her new leather flying jacket to make it look worn.

In 1921, she bought a secondhand bi-plane, a bright yellow Kinner Airster that she fondly nicknamed the Canary. She’s in the Canary now, about to set her first record.

The noise of the engine thrums in Amelia’s ears, and the wind bites at her cheeks. Amelia grips the control stick and urges the Canary to rise. She squints at the altimeter, as they climb higher.

The wings shudder. But the Canary holds steady. And when the altimeter's needle reaches 14,000 feet, Amelia relaxes. She allows herself to smile. And she dips the wings and returns to the world.

Amelia is now the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet. A year later, in 1923, she will be only the 16th woman in the world to be issued an international pilot’s license.

But Amelia won’t be able to make a living out of flying yet. Instead, she will work as a teacher, and then as a social worker. She will continue to fly in her spare time, and write articles about it, raising her profile in the world of aviation. But it will be another six years before her love for flying will make her a star.


It’s 12:40 PM, on June 18th, 1928, on the coast of South Wales, 6 years after Amelia set her first record.

Amelia looks out of the window of the back compartment of a seaplane, called the Friendship. As pilot Wilmer Stultz and co-pilot Louis Gordon land on the ocean beneath a slate-grey sky. 

Two months ago, out of the blue, Amelia got a call while she was at work. The man on the other end of the phone was Captain Railey, and he had a question: ‘Would you like to fly the Atlantic?’. Amelia didn’t blink before she answered, ‘Yes!’.

Captain Railey was part of a project to fly the first woman across the Atlantic. But the woman who was supposed to make the flight – the billionairess Amy Guest – had been forbidden to make the journey by her family. So a search was underway for ‘an American girl of the right type’, and Amelia fit the bill. But despite having a pilot’s license for 5 years, and more than 500 flying hours logged, Amelia was not being asked to fly the plane. She was being asked to sit in the back while two men flew her across the Atlantic like cargo. Amelia would be in charge of keeping the logbook.

The aviators left Newfoundland yesterday, June 17th. 2,000 miles and more than 20 hours later, they ran out of fuel and were forced to land here in the ocean, far away from their destination of Southampton. Amelia knows that she should feel proud to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air, but she’s as gloomy as the dark choppy ocean they’ve just landed in.

Amelia stands at the open cargo door as a lone man in a boat rows toward the orange and gold plane. He directs them along the coast to the nearby harbor at Berry Port.

By the time they reach the harbor, word has spread. Miners with coal-stained faces and children with shy smiles wave and cheer as Amelia is transferred to shore. Amelia forces a smile and waves back.

On her return to America, Amelia is treated to a hero’s welcome and paraded through the streets of New York City, where ticker tape streams from the sky.

But in an interview, she will describe her role on the transatlantic journey as ‘just baggage, a sack of potatoes’.

Still, the experience isn’t a total disappointment: while preparing for the transatlantic journey, Amelia met a publicist named George Putnam who will later become her husband. George understands that Amelia doesn’t want to play second fiddle to any man. Amelia wants to set her own records. And George is determined to help her do it.

Act Two: Record Breaker

It’s early morning on May 21st, 1932, in the turbulent skies above the Atlantic Ocean, four years after Amelia first crossed it in the Friendship.

Alone in the cockpit of her red Lockheed Vega, Amelia notices flames coming from the exhaust manifold outside.

She clenches her jaw. She is determined to achieve her goal of being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. And at this point, it would be just as dangerous to turn back than to continue forward.

Six hours ago, Amelia took off from the runway at Harbor Grace in Newfoundland, Canada. For the last three years, she has secretly planned this flight with her husband. Her route is meant to end in Paris, following a similar path to Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo transatlantic flight five years ago.

Amelia has been busy setting other records: from two speed records to being the first woman to fly an autogiro – a predecessor to the helicopter. She’s become a celebrity, sometimes nicknamed ‘Lady Lindy’, for the daring that resembles Lindbergh's. She’s been giving speeches, featured in advertising campaigns. She wrote a book and helped found the Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots. She’s even created her own fashion line.

But now she hopes to become the first woman to fly an airplane across the Atlantic. The journey started well. But then her altitude gauge broke. And now her exhaust is spitting flames. Making matters worse, she’s about to fly into the worst storm she’s ever seen.

Amelia struggles to hold the plane on course as the sky throws all it can at her. She fights through the storm for hours. The wings freeze. And at one point, the little plane shudders and shakes, and plunges seawards. Amelia pulls it back just in time. She makes it through the storm, but now she’s low on fuel and the tank is leaking. Amelia fears there’s no way she’s going to make it to Paris.

But at last, she spots the coast of Ireland. She’s flying low enough to see the fields of green below. And as her plane roars overhead, she watches as the cows begin to scatter. In the distance, she sees a cottage.

Amelia safely lands her plane and taxis almost to the cottage's front door. Stunned, a local farmhand asks her, ‘Have you flown far?’

She answers with one word: America.

Within a few hours, crowds of wellwishers descend on the scene, and the next day Amelia is taken to London, where she is greeted by even greater throngs.

When she returns to America, J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, will hand her a gold medal from the National Geographic Society; and she will become the first woman awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress.

But these awards are still not enough to satisfy her. Amelia believes that ‘Women, like men, should do the impossible.’ There is one more record she is determined to set.


It’s 5:40 AM on March 20th, 1937 at Luke Field, Hawaii – five years after Amelia flew solo across the Atlantic.

Amelia sits at the controls of her Lockheed plane as it heads down the runway for take-off. She opens the throttle, glancing at the three men in the plane with her. She grins. Because she knows they’re about to set a new world record.

Over the last five years, Amelia has set even more speed and distance records. She is now the first woman to fly solo across the United States, the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California, and from Los Angeles to Mexico City.

But she has a new goal: a ‘circumnavigation of the globe.’ To that end, she’s put together a team with her husband George. The team includes Harry Manning – a first-class navigator – Paul Mantz, a technical adviser, and Fred Noonan, an expert in celestial navigation.

The company Lockheed even designed a new plane with extra fuel tanks, which Amelia calls her ‘flying laboratory’. Amelia and her team left California three days ago, on March 17th. But the plane had problems and had to be serviced in Hawaii. Now patched up, it's ready to go.

But as the plane starts to take flight, Amelia can tell something is wrong. It sways and swerves. Amelia slows down, but one wing dips too far. Sparks fly as the wing grinds against the ground. Amelia grapples to regain control as the plane spins to a standstill. Shaken, the four of them clamber out to inspect the damage. No one is hurt, but the landing gear is shot and the wing badly scraped. They will not be able to make the journey today. Amelia kicks the ground in frustration.

Afterward, two of the crew will drop out of the mission. But Amelia will not give up. She and her navigator, Fred Noonan, will press on. The twin-engine Lockheed plane is dismantled, returned to the factory in California to be repaired. Two months later, on June 1st, Amelia and Fred are ready to try again, this time flying in the opposite direction, from west to east, because of changing weather and wind conditions.

The trip starts well. They set off from Miami, refueling at points in South America, Africa, India, until they touchdown on June 29th in Lae, New Guinea, having flown 22,000 miles, with only 7,000 left to go.

But the next leg will be the most dangerous. They will have to refuel on the island of Howland, a tiny dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. If they miss this chance to refuel, they may be lost forever.

Act Three: Radio Silence

It’s 7:42 AM, July 2nd, 1937, in the cramped radio room of the US coast guard ship, Itasca, about 18 hours after Amelia’s plane left Lae for Howland Island.

Lieutenant Leo Bellarts, chief radioman on the ship, frowns as he twiddles the knobs, trying to get a signal. The other men in the radio shack watch with their arms folded, and heads bowed.

The static is bad, but he hears Amelia’s voice again, frantic now: ‘We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.’ Lieutenant Bellarts records the message in the log book, desperately hoping she will make it.

The Itasca has been sent to help guide Amelia to Howland Island. But contact has been patchy. The ship has sent a constant stream of signals to Amelia to help guide her, but it appears she can’t hear them.

Lieutenant Bellarts tries again, this time using Morse code. Suddenly Amelia’s voice breaks through the crackling airwaves. ‘We are on the line, 157-337… running north and south.’ Her voice is so clear that he is certain she must be close.

Lieutenant Bellarts drops everything and runs to the bridge. But only a few clouds wisp through the empty morning sky.

The Itasca releases its oil burners, sending up a plume of smoke in hope that Amelia might spot it.

But there is no sign of the missing plane, and no further transmissions are heard. An hour later, the coast guard launches the most costly search and rescue mission in US history.

And they find nothing.

17 days later, the search mission is called off.

Amelia’s husband George keeps up his own search using private funds, but in the end, he too is forced to admit that the search is hopeless.

Rumors will abound; among them, that Amelia was captured and killed by the Japanese. More recent evidence will suggest Amelia might have survived for a while on an island a few miles from Howland. Whatever the truth, 18 months after her disappearance, a court order will officially declare Amelia dead on January 5th, 1939.

Amelia Earhart's legacy is best summed up in her own words, in a letter to her husband that she wrote on the eve of her last flight: ‘Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but as a challenge to others.’


Next on History Daily. January 6th, 2001. The U.S. Congress certifies George W. Bush as the winner of the contested 2000 presidential election. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Vanessa de Haan.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.