B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Off… S01E15 Amelia Earhart

We start with a nice, matter-of-fact opening. The who-what-where of Amelia Earhart’s final flight. Good, basic journalism, over newsreel images of Earhart, 1930s planes, and the ocean. Solid intro. It’s going to get silly after this, isn’t it?

It is, mostly thanks to this guy.
It is, mostly thanks to this guy.

Next up is newsreel footage of Earhart’s triumphant return to New York after her solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1932. A ticker-tape parade, how nice! Nimoy shushes while Earhart gives a speech from behind a battery of old-timey radio microphones.

“It is much easier to fly the Atlantic Ocean now, than it was a few years ago,” she says. “I expect to be able to do it in my lifetime again. Possibly not as a solo expedition, but in regular trans-Atlantic service, which is inevitable in my lifetime.”

Alright. I can be a bit harsh on techno-optimism, but I guess sometimes it pays off.

We go on to have a look at some of Earhart’s other achievements – cross continent speed records, autogyro altitude records for a start, before going on to fly the first solo flight from Hawaii to California. This is great stuff. Earhart was a truly impressive person, and the tragedy of her final flight so often seems to overshadow all of her other achievements. Kudos to In Search Of… for reminding us of some of them. Nimoy tells us a delightful anecdote – Earhart told her husband George Putnam  “I fly better than I wash dishes.”

Then Earhart’s around the world flight. There’s some lovely old newsreel footage of Earhart explaining her route, the type of plane she’s using, and her plans. It’s followed by a charmingly awkward (and clearly staged) conversation between Earhart and Putnam about why she’d rather bring extra fuel on the trip than bring him! She also says that she hopes that her achievements will increase the interest of women in flight.

Still working on that one, Amelia. Sorry it’s taking so long.

1937, and newsreel footage of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, boarding the plane and taking off into the wild monochrome yonder. And we’re told that they were lost without trace on the very final leg of their journey.

Nimoy tells us of the popular shock and disbelief that followed the disappearance which mutated (as shock and disbelief so often does) into wild speculation. Rumour had it that Earhart and Noonan were alive and well on an uncharted island or else they’d been shot down by Japanese planes while on a secret mission.

The next bit is very strange indeed. It goes into details about a Rosalind Russell vehicle from 1942, Flight For Freedom, in which Russel plays a popular aviator who is enlisted by the US government to spy on Japanese bases in the Pacific. She’s ordered to deliberately crash her plane in the ocean near a small island where food and shelter has been left for her. The Americans will be ‘forced’ by world opinion to search for her, giving them an excuse to search nearby Japanese controlled islands. However, the pilot learns that the Japanese know about the plan, and so ditches where no one can find her.

On the surface, this seems irrelevant, but it does help get the idea across that conspiracy theories of Earhart’s disappearance started early. That’s not to say that the makers of this film were conspiracy theorists themselves, of course, just that these ideas were circulating.

Next up, Joseph Jervis, a retired USAF officer. He claims that Earhart’s last flight was intended to overfly  Japanese fortifications in the Pacific. He goes on to say that Japanese Zeros shot her down, and she crash landed on Hull Island. His theory is based on his interpretation of civilian radio directions to and from Earhart. I’m guessing these radio conversations didn’t include anything like: “Oh, no, here come the Zeros! Tell FDR I…” before cutting out.

Be cool if they did, though.

As further ‘proof’, Jervis has an aerial photo of Hull Island showing what he thinks looks like a Japanese flag. Actually it does kind of look like that – except that it would be a post-war Japanese flag, quite different from the 1937 variety. He also claims he has information that in 1937, a woman pilot was interrogated by a Japanese officer, and taken to Japan.

Okay, unlikely, but not super-wacky — yet. But then Jervis claims that Earhart was imprisoned in the Japanese Imperial Palace itself, extracted before Macarthur occupied Japan, snuck out disguised as a nun and given a new identity in America. She was involved in radio broadcasting ‘particularly in the area of Luxembourg’.

Jervis is clearly obsessed with Earhart, bragging about his huge collection of photos and documents. But now he goes from ‘amusingly wacky’ to ‘frankly kind of awful’. Jervis basically picked an elderly woman who he thought was Earhart and told everyone that she was Earhart.

Up until here, I could see where the guy is coming from — a well-meaning obsessive, desperate to believe that his heroine was alive. But then we cut to a press conference from the woman he identified as ‘Earhart’, and you can just hear the anger in her voice at the way his idiocy has messed with her life.

“Utter nonsense,” she thunders. “I am not a mystery woman, and I am not Amelia Earhart.”

But in spite of the obvious damage he’s caused, Jervis seems incapable of realising that a) he’s wrong and b) that he’s doing harm. My sympathy evaporates, and there’s a bitter taste in my mouth.

Back to the stock footage, and we’re looking at the specifics of Earhart’s disappearance. Aviator Capt. Elgin Long has looked at Earhart’s last flight, calculating direction, speed, fuel consumption and weather conditions (and bear in mind we knew a hell of a lot more about meteorology in 1977 than in 1937). He is of the opinion that everything went smoothly, until Earhart tried to refuel at Howlan Island. She was further from the island than expected and couldn’t see it, even when she was supposed to be right on top of it.

Long claims that there was no single error that caused the accident, just a series of small mistakes that happened to add up to the single big issue of being too far from the refuelling base while low on gas. His theory sounds… Well, I’m no expert, but it sounds kind of sensible, really. But then we cut back to the ending of Flight For Freedom, showing Rosalind Russel’s plane ditching, which doesn’t add much.

Captain Long claims to have pinpointed the exact place Earhart crashed, and claims (probably correctly) that if the plane was in deep water, it might be intact. He believes it could be found with a deep sea expedition.

Stock footage of US Navy ships. We’re told the search for Earhart was the largest sea-search of history. We see biplanes taking off from aircraft carriers to look for her. “In three weeks, two hundred and fifty square miles of ocean are carefully scanned.”

Next up is Fred Gerner, a ‘Newsman’. Way to mess with Fred’s secret identity, Spock. Gerner claims radio calls from Earhart were heard after the plane crash, and that in spite of this, the navy search missed her by perhaps only a short distance. He believes that she survived the crash, based on civilian and military reports.

Gerner had been researching Earhart since he was sent by CBS news to the island of Saipan in 1960 to follow up a story that Earhart had gone there. A local claimed that while he’d been a prisoner of the Japanese, there had been a woman pilot held prisoner in a neighbouring cell. There are other reports of Saipanese people claiming that a white woman pilot was held there in the late 1930s.

Gerner believes that Earhart was captured by the Japanese after the search and held on Saipan. He believes that the proof is in classified records. But he also takes the time to specifically rubbish Jervis’ theory, and good for him.

Nimoy sums up, pointing out that there’s a huge mass of often contradictory information and as yet a final explanation of Earhart’s disappearance has not been found.

Amelia Earhart was a fascinating figure – aviator, writer, feminist. She was also an extremely popular and charismatic figure — one of those rare people who was widely loved in spite of being determined to upset the apple-cart. Her stated intention was to work to inspire women, so it’s kind of interesting that many of the people obsessed with her are men.

The other element of some of these retelling Earhart’s story is the insistence on gilding the lily. Earhart was a towering figure of her time, but she quite rightly predicted that many of her achievements would one day be considered commonplace. Everything that she did first has been done again, many times over. I think this is part of what fuels the ‘she was a spy’ stories – a desire to add to her accomplishments, now that she is no longer able to add to them herself. On the one hand, it’s clearly a well-intentioned gesture, coming from a place of genuine admiration. On the other, I think it tends to belittle Earhart’s actual accomplishments–even without the added wrinkle of pissing off old ladies in New Jersey.


Amelia Earhart: (from a letter to her husband, read by Nimoy) “Please know that I’m 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 a challenge to others.”

Nimoy: “In at least some sense, Amelia Earhart is alive. For in the memory of her courage, her passion, her dedication to an ideal, she still touches many of us.”

Summing up

Newsreel awesomeness: 8/10, Rosalind Russell: 7/10, Weight given to non-ridiculous theories 8/10, Nimoyness: 8/10, Angry old women: 9/10. Overall: 40/50. Distinction

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B.G. Hilton - Author