Category: Travel mysteries

The Mystery of Amelia Earhart

It is unlikely that any other travel mystery has attracted more interest or speculation worldwide than the unexplained disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Recognized for her many daring accomplishments in aviation, her ultimate fate is still a puzzling one. After successfully crossing the Atlantic, the U.S. from coast to coast in 1932, and soloing from Hawaii to California in 1935, her next venture to fly around the world, unfortunately, would be her last. The first part of the 4-stage journey went well, but problems arose after leaving Lae, New Guinea in July 1937 enroute to Howland Island in the Pacific. Climbing to 10,000 feet to avoid the strong headwinds, the Lockheed Electra was gradually veering off course. With a rapidly depleting fuel supply, the plane was now heading into the sun and too far southwest in the opposite direction. About 20 hours into the flight, the last radio communication from Earhart was received by the Itasca, a Coast Guard boat stationed at Howland. An intensive search by 10 ships and 66 planes was launched, but no trace of the plane, Earhart, or her navigator, Fred Noonan, was found.

Officially, it was determined that the aircraft simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea, with no survivors. But, as happens with most tragic events, curiosity arose, as aviation experts, researchers, scientists, and journalists offered explanations and possibilities. From newspaper headlines to radio commentaries, everyone had an opinion as to what had happened. Rumors circulated that “America’s sweetheart” was one of the voices of the infamous Tokyo Rose; this, of course, proved to be nothing more than material for the tabloids.

One of the more credible theories was that the two made it to the Phoenix Islands and survived on Nikumaroro, the once uninhabited Gardner Island, as castaways until their death. Certainly, Robinson Crusoe readers were intrigued, but there does seem to be some real evidence to support this theory. Even the U.S. Navy and Earhart’s mother felt the flight had ended somewhere in the Phoenix Islands. Richard Gillespie of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) based his investigation of the crash on the aircraft’s last known position, as well as on reports of a plane wreck and a man and woman living on Nikumaroro in 1939. Various items were recovered, which included aircraft parts unique to a Lockheed Electra and a bit of footwear similar to that worn by Earhart in flight attire. TIGHAR’s recent expedition in July-August 2007 discovered bronze aircraft bearings and a zipper pull, possibly from a flight suit. These artifacts are only circumstantial evidence, but TIGHAR continues to investigate Lockheed aircraft crashes, as well as other types of aircraft lost near the Phoenix Islands. George Putnam, Jr., Earhart’s stepson, has enthusiastically supported the Group’s research.

Just as convincing to some people, however, is the possibility that they were not heading to Howland Island as reported, but were on a secret mission directed by FDR to the Marshall Islands (then controlled by the Japanese). In this scenario, it is thought that the Japanese intercepted their last radio transmission and captured them upon landing. Here, they were held as hostages and eventually killed in Saipan. In 1949, Army Intelligence along with the United Press and Jackie Cochran, another world famous aviatrix and close friend of Earhart, completely dismissed the theory that the Japanese were involved in the disappearance. They based their conclusion on an extensive search of Japanese post-war files.

Others have presented evidence pointing toward a safe rescue and return to the US. Retired AF Colonel Reineck, considered an expert on the subject, explored this conspiracy theory in his book Amelia Earhart Survived, published in 2003. He writes that the plane was purposely ditched in the Marshall Islands, as planned by the U.S. government. While on a rescue mission for Earhart, they would then gain access to Japanese pre-war intelligence. Brought back to the U.S., different identities for security reasons would be assumed. Thus, Amelia Earhart became Irene Cragmile, married Guy Bolam, and lived in New Jersey until her death in 1982. Photographs of Irene Bolam and handwriting evidence would seem to prove that Earhart and Bolam were one and the same.

Although this does sounds plausible, it was contradicted with a televised series Undiscovered History by the National Geographic Channel in 2006. The broadcast was based upon an earlier book with the same theory, Amelia Earhart Lives, written by Joe Klaas in 1970. However, the real Irene Bolam, a banker in the 1940’s, denied that she was Earhart and filed a $1.5 million claim against the publishers, McGraw-Hill, who withdrew the book from the market and settled out of court. Other researchers and forensic specialists analyzed both women’s lives and photographs and came to the same conclusion — this was not Earhart.

The story of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is a fascinating one, a legend and a mystery to this day.

Sharon Slayton

The Crash of Egypt Air Flight 990

Sharon Slayton follows up her interesting article on flights that vanished in the Bermuda Triangle with another airline disaster mystery.

The Boeing 767 left LAX, October 31, 1999, with 203 passengers and 14 crew members on a regularly scheduled route to Cairo, Egypt, with a stopover at JFK. Two separate crews were required for the long, international flight — one for takeoff, landing, and the first few hours in the air, and a second relief crew for the remaining flying time. Among the passengers from 7 different countries were over 30 high-ranking military officers from Egypt, whose identity and purpose of travel were not clearly revealed at the time. Radio contact was lost shortly after takeoff from JFK, and about 1:50 am, just 60 miles south of Nantucket, the plane went down in the Atlantic Ocean. In this short time, the aircraft deviated from its assigned path at 33,000 feet in a series of erratic ups and downs, diving to 16,000 feet, back up to 24,000, and then the final dive into the Atlantic.

Aeronautical engineers thoroughly analyzed this strange flight pattern, but could find no satisfactory explanation as to how or why this occurred. Furthermore, there was no evidence of an explosion, and there were no other commercial or military aircraft scheduled for this flight plan. This led to speculation that another unidentified type of aircraft was flying the same flight path, but if so, where did it come from, and why was there no information on it from the control tower at JFK?

The media, of course, reacted worldwide with a great deal of controversy and speculation over what caused the crash of Egypt Air Flight 990. Rumors of suicide and terrorism circulated, based upon the cockpit voice recording and various misinterpretations of the words in Arabic of Al-Batouti, the co-pilot. During the final few minutes of Flight 990, according to the flight data recorder, we hear the captain saying, “what’s happening,” and then “pull with me.” As the plane continued its downward plunge, the co-pilot kept repeating “I rely on God.” Much emphasis was placed by the media upon the tape recording as to what was said and the quality of the tape itself. Some sources claimed the words were “I made my decision now. I put my faith in God’s hands,” but this was never verified.

Another possibility mentioned too was that the co-pilot was reacting to a “surprise” development, and reciting a shaddah, Muslim prayer, when facing death. Questions arose about the apparent disconnection of the autopilot, as well. Was this a necessary reaction to the failure of the aircraft, or a deliberate act of suicide? Egypt officials promptly disagreed with the theory of suicide, as it is considered a mortal sin in their religion, and Al-Batouti did not fit the profile in any other way. Several members of the Egyptian press even suggested other theories, which included a CIA conspiracy with Israel’s secret service, the Mossad, an accidental firing of a missile by the U.S., which brought the aircraft down, or a secret recovery and reprogramming of the airplane’s black box before word could reach the public.

Since the flight had taken place over international waters, the Egyptian government participated in the investigation of the crash, along with numerous U.S. government agencies including the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard, the FAA, and Boeing. Just two weeks into the investigation, the NTSB declared it a criminal event to be turned over to the FBI. This was met, however, with vehement objections by Egyptian officials, who responded by sending their chief of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, to the U.S. Egypt Air’s report clearly refuted the idea of a deliberate action on the part of the co-pilot. Their engineers attributed the crash to a mechanical failure of the elevator control system, but the U.S. did not agree. Although there seemed to be little reliable data on this possibility at the time of the investigation, similar malfunctions on other Boeing aircraft did occur in the years following.

After almost two years of investigation, the NTSB published their final, official report on the disaster. It attributed the crash to the co-pilot’s handling of the flight controls, and made no mention of a suicide mission or imply that these were deliberate, criminal actions on his part. The reasons for the disaster remain unclear, and the questions about sabotage, conspiracy, or unknown aircraft are not answered, at least in the official report. The latter theory could not be proved or disproved, as some radar and test data were not released. No one survived this deadly crash, and the bits of wreckage that were recovered are now secured in an aircraft hangar in the U.S.

Unexplained Airplane Disappearances – The Bermuda Triangle

On January 31, 1948, a British passenger plane, the Star Tiger, disappeared somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. The Tudor IV aircraft were a relatively new design of the British South American Airways Corporation, having spent about 500 hours in the air, but with no history of mechanical or structural failure. They had been flown successfully during the Berlin airlift, and were part of a transatlantic fleet with routes to Bermuda, the West Indies, and the coast of South America.

The plane left England on January 30, 1948 with 25 passengers on a long flight scheduled to arrive around 5 am the next day in Bermuda. One of the passengers of note, Air Marshall Sir Arthur Coningham, was a British World War II hero, having served as Commander in Chief during the Battle of Normandy. After refueling at Santa Maria Island in the Azores, the flight continued with no apparent problems. Although the Tudor aircraft was airtight and capable of much higher altitudes, the Star Tiger was flying low at 2,000 feet to avoid the headwinds from the Gulf Stream. The pilot and crew were highly experienced, and the runway at their destination was clearly lit and visible from 30 miles away. Everything seemed in order, according to the last contact with the plane’s radio operator at 3:15 am; yet, the plane and its passengers disappeared and were never seen or heard from again.

A ship at sea, the S.S. Troubadour, reported an airplane flying at a low altitude between Bermuda and Delaware Bay. It is doubtful, however, that this was the Star Tiger, since it would have been way off course. Extensive investigations by the British Civil Air Ministry were conducted, but no plausible explanation could be found for the disappearance. The possibility of low fuel or engine failure at this stage of the flight would not have been a factor, as the aircraft could have flown on three or even two engines for the short remaining distance. With no problems in weather, atmospheric conditions, visibility, or the aircraft itself, what happened so quickly to the Star Tiger remains a mystery to this day.

One year later, a similar British Tudor IV aircraft, the Star Ariel, disappeared on January 17, 1949 in the Bermuda Triangle. The Star Ariel was awaiting flight instructions in Bermuda, when it was called upon to replace another plane and take 13 passengers to Kingston, Jamaica. At 8:41 am, the flight left Kindley Field in Bermuda in perfect weather. About an hour into the flight, the pilot radioed in his position at 18,000 feet and estimated arrival time in Kingston at 2:10 pm. The Star Ariel had virtually unlimited visibility both above and far below to the Sargasso Sea.

One interesting, unexplainable factor was later considered, however. Throughout the day, communication had been poor, with unidentifiable static and loss of reception for short intervals on certain channels in the area. Some experts think it possible that a distress message sent by the pilot might have been lost, or intercepted, but others disagree. In any event, the communication problems mysteriously disappeared about an hour before the Star Ariel would have arrived in Bermuda. Extensive searches by British aircraft and U.S. Navy planes and ships came up empty. No trace of the 7-member crew, the passengers, or the wreckage was ever found.

The disappearances of the Star Tiger and Star Ariel in less than a year’s time and in the same approximate location may well have been just a coincidence. Even so, they were not the first and would not be the last mystery of the “Devil’s Triangle.”

(Note: As a result of these two losses, the Tudor aircraft were withdrawn from service.)

Sharon Slayton