Eighty years ago, on July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea bound for Howland Island in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, but never arrived. Their disappearance has become an enduring aviation mystery.

Earhart was the most famous female pilot in the world, and a widely admired role model in many fields. In addition to her record setting flights, she was an airline executive and a faculty member of Purdue University, as well as a social worker and poet. Eleanor Roosevelt was a friend and admirer, and Earhart had taken the First Lady flying. When Earhart vanished on an attempted around the world flight it became a subject of intense interest.

Today Earhart’s fate remains the subject of speculation and fanciful theories. Expeditions continue to be mounted attempting to find evidence that she survived, including one currently under way to search the island of Nikumaroro for human remains. Claims have also been made for over 50 years, and widely publicized again by the History Channel, that she and Noonan reached the Marshall Islands, and were captured, imprisoned, and perhaps executed by Japan.

But what really happened?

While questions remain, the essential facts are well known. Earhart was flying a modified Lockheed Model 10 Electra 10-passenger transport in widespread airline service at the time. It had more powerful engines than the standard Electra, extra fuel tanks totaling 1,100 gallons, and state of the art radio and navigation equipment. Before the flight Earhart said she expected the flight to take about 18 hours. The distance from Lae to Howland is 2,560 miles, indicating an anticipated average ground speed of about 140 mph.

Seven hours and 20 minutes after takeoff Earhart sent a position report showing the plane on course, 800 miles out, making an average ground speed of only 110 mph. At that speed, the flight would take 23 hours. Based on a conservative estimate of the Electra’s fuel consumption (about 50 gallons per hour), with 1,000 gallons available its endurance was 20 – 21 hours. At that point, Earhart and Noonan could have safely turned back, but did not.

The U.S. stationed the Coast Guard cutter Itasca at Howland to provide a communications link and radio direction finding assistance. After flying over 18 hours Earhart radioed that she was “about 100 miles out” and requested direction finding assistance. Itasca replied that it could not take a bearing, requested that she transmit on a different frequency, and asked if she wished it to transmit so that she could take a bearing to the ship. Earhart did not answer.

Nineteen hours into the flight Earhart radioed to Itasca, “We must be on you but cannot see you but gas is running low,” and “we are flying at altitude 1,000 feet.” Fifteen minutes later she said, “We are circling but cannot hear you,” and asked Itasca to transmit on a different frequency, which it did. Earhart acknowledged receiving Itasca’s transmission, and asked for a bearing. Itasca replied that it could not take a bearing on her voice transmissions, and continued attempting to reach her, but received no response.

After twenty hours airborne Earhart ambiguously radioed, “We are on the line of position 152 – 337 . . . we are running north and south.” Nothing further was heard. An intensive two-week, 150,000 square mile search effort by the U.S. Navy followed, but found no trace of the airplane or its crew.

What conclusions follow from these facts?

The Electra’s fuel load was marginal for the 2,500 mile flight. It made no allowance for adverse winds, weather or other contingencies. The position Earhart reported after seven hours made it questionable that the flight could be completed successfully. Unless the fliers found Howland within 13 hours, a water landing was likely.

Thirteen hours later Earhart could not see the tiny island or get a radio bearing to it, and reached fuel exhaustion. Without power, from 1,000 feet altitude the plane hit the water in about one minute. Either it sank before she and Noonan could launch their life raft, or it foundered and they perished at sea. That, unfortunately, is what happened to Amelia Earhart.[1]

Air safety has come a long way in 80 years. Today effective risk management, on the ground and in the air, is not only good practice; it is a legal imperative. The Safety Management Systems principles have become the standard throughout the aviation industry worldwide. They have been adopted by International Civil Aviation Organization, and endorsed by the Federal Aviation Agency as the next step in the safety in aviation. Implementing them successfully requires a partnership between owner/operators and knowledgeable counsel to provide advice on operational, compliance and liability issues.