A plane vanished without a trace. The media grasped at every possible lead. A riveted public submitted tips and government officials argued about where to search. Anguished relatives wondered what really happened and hope dimmed with each passing day.
Though the scope of the tragedy is different, the fallout and reaction to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370's disappearance on March 8 is eerily reminiscent of the events surrounding the loss of Amelia Earhart's plane on July 2, 1937, during her famous "world-girdling" final flight.
"The two events are very similar — both planes assumed down at sea, but with no wreckage found and confusing electronic communications that seem to indicate the planes actually landed somewhere," Ric Gillespie, president of The Institute for Historic Aircraft Recovery and an expert on the Earhart disappearance, said in a recent interview.
Arguably the most famous woman in the nation at the time, Amelia Earhart "flew to glory," according to a profile published in the Tribune on July 4, 1937. That story reads like an obituary even though the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard were just beginning a search and rescue operation to find her and her navigator, Chicagoan Fred Noonan. Earhart's attempt to circumnavigate the globe was the latest in her nearly decadelong string of air stunts that captivated the world. Dubbed "Lady Lindy" by the press not just for her piloting talents but her striking physical resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, the notion that "slim Amelia" — with her movie-star looks, powerful media-magnate husband George Palmer Putnam and a big pile of aviation records — actually wasn't invincible became a terrible pill for the Depression-era public to swallow.
Earhart's world flight was a subject of fascination in the Tribune for months even before she vanished. Headlines, such as "Amelia Earhart Hops 1,000 Miles Across Sahara" and "Amelia Earhart Lands in Java from Singapore" offered a glimpse of the exotic locales she visited in her Lockheed Electra. Paid for in part by Purdue University, where Earhart worked part time, and converted to a "flying laboratory" for the famous female pilot to fly around the world at the equator, the Electra was outfitted with extra fuel tanks and the era's newest avionics equipment. Maps and graphics detailed Earhart's flight path for Tribune readers, including where she stopped to have her plane repaired on her long jaunt, which she insisted to everyone was "just for fun."
But the fun soon came to an end. "Fuel gone, no land near, says radio of plane," read a stark Tribune headline on July 3, the day after the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca lost contact with Earhart. The small ship and its crew were assigned to help Earhart and Noonan navigate on one of the last — and most dangerous — legs of the round-the-world flight, a 2,750-mile hop from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island, a tiny speck of mid-Pacific coral.
The Itasca last heard from Earhart's "silver monoplane" just after 2 p.m. Central Standard Time July 2, and immediately requested additional assistance from the U.S. Navy. But most of the available sea and air support was more than 1,500 miles away in San Diego, and the journey of the assigned ships — including the battleship U.S.S. Colorado, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington and four smaller destroyers — would take precious days.
Until more help could arrive, most of the search efforts involved radio transmissions, including a broadcast by Honolulu commercial station KGMB that asked Earhart to respond on her assigned frequency if she could hear it. "Definite radio signals on a frequency assigned to Amelia Earhart's missing airplane were reported tonight by the Coast Guard after the aviatrix had been asked to answer broadcast instructions," the Tribune reported on July 5 — along with statements from Earhart's San Francisco-based technical adviser Paul Mantz, who said if she was indeed making those transmissions, her plane had to be on land.
On July 6, the Tribune noted radio technicians at Pan-American Airways, the U.S. Coast Guard and many amateur radio operators on the mainland also reported hearing both these broadcasts as well as others, though none was confirmed. That report offered a possible location for Amelia and her downed plane: "Pan American radio men estimated the Earhart ship might be in the vicinity of Gardner (now Nikumaroro) Island in the Phoenix group, which is from 150 to 200 miles south of Howland Island."
But the flotilla of approaching ships could not effectively search those islands for at least another day or two, according to Tribune reports on July 7 under the headline "Hunt for Amelia on Islands."
During the next 10 days or so, first the Itasca and then a number of Navy battleships and seaplanes tried in vain to find Amelia over the vast Pacific. Tribune reports featured details of the frantic search campaign, ranging from the Itasca's ineptness (it mistook a common meteor shower for "flares" supposedly originating from Amelia's downed plane, the Tribune reported on July 6) to Earhart's husband George Putnam's futile pleas with government officials to concentrate more of the search near the Phoenix Islands, a coral archipelago where the suspected radio transmissions originated.
But searches of the Phoenix Islands were abandoned by July 12, with the Navy shifting its search north of Howland Island and toward the Gilbert Islands. That day, the Tribune reported naval officers giving odds of finding Earhart and Noonan as "one chance in a million."
By July 16, Tribune reports indicated both Putnam and the search had grown desperate, with Putnam consulting a psychic who gave readings based on "a pair of (Earhart's) stockings and a handkerchief," and Navy rescue pilots who covered their faces in grease to protect against the punishing equatorial sun still turning up nothing. The Navy officially abandoned the hunt for Earhart and Noonan by sea and air on July 18, and on July 23 the Tribune published a scathing editorial on the botched rescue, saying, "There is every reason to think that the search, when it was finally instituted, was conducted with energy and perseverance, but the handicap imposed by several days' lost time was too great. … The government participated, but in such a niggardly way that (Earhart) was lost."
But if there was anyone most at fault it was likely Earhart herself, who, Gillespie says — and some of her contemporaries agreed — lacked the technical know-how to successfully land her plane on tiny Howland Island. Unlike most transoceanic fliers of the time, Earhart did not know Morse code, which was by far the most common 1930s method for communications between planes and ships. And in the days before air-traffic control and GPS, the relatively new technology of radio direction finding (an early precursor to radar) relied almost exclusively on tracking the origin of Morse code transmissions. Earhart did employ an expert navigator in Noonan, but even he had to rely on Earhart's successful radio communications in the cockpit in order to find Howland Island.
"Characteristically, Miss Earhart gave no genuine position report — the thing that navigators need — although she apparently was trying to do so when her world-girdling plane came to grief," the Tribune reported on July 5, 1937. "Without cold-figures … searchers were entirely without location clews. She gave no reciprocal figure to show what lateral point she had reached."
Even if she was rather cavalier when it came to some of her technical flying skills, Earhart likely would have taken full responsibility for the flight's failure. According to a Tribune report on July 3, she told her husband before she departed, "I know that if I fail or that if I am lost you will be blamed for allowing me to leave on this trip, the backers of the flight will be blamed, and every one connected with it.
"But it's my responsibility and mine alone."