Amelia Earhart: The Castaway Theory

Is the Mystery Almost Solved?

Photo © FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are many theories about what happened to Amelia Earhart after her failed attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937. Many think she got lost and crashed into the ocean, perishing right away. Others think she was taken prisoner by the Japanese. But at least one major search group thinks that she may have lived as a castaway for some time after she disappeared. Some of these theories can be easily disproven.

Others theories are still possible -- which is why Amelia's fate is still a mystery even after 75 years. There are two main theories that hold some weight even after all these years: Amelia either ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, or she landed safely on an island and lived as a castaway.

Amelia's Last Flight

In 1937, famed aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan set out to fly around the world in a Lockheed Model 10 Electra. Amelia ad Fred took off from New Zealand on the second to last leg of the potential record-setting flight, but never landed at her destination. Even after the most extensive Navy search and rescue mission ever, the aircraft was never recovered. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were never heard from again.


There are multiple theories as to what happened to Amelia Earhart, none of which there is any evidence for. Extensive searches were done immediately after the aircraft disappeared.

Researchers and private search parties have conducted investigations and exploratory research into the case, to no avail. So what happened to Amelia and her Electra Model 10?

While many think Amelia's aircraft simply ran out of fuel and disappeared into the Pacific Ocean, one group has a different theory: Amelia made it to the tiny island of Nikumaroro and lived as a castaway for a short period of time.


The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has dedicated millions of dollars and years of research to finding out what happened to Amelia Earhart. TIGHAR, founded in 1985, is a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of aviation archaeology and history. In 1988, the Earhart Project began, and TIGHAR has since been on at least 10 expeditions to the Pacific in hopes of uncovering evidence of Amelia Earhart's last flight.

TIGHAR's Castaway Theory

TIGHAR believes that Amelia and Fred flew along the 157/337 course as she stated in a radio call. Gardner Island (also known as Nikumaroro) lies on this course and is said to be easier to see than the original destination of Howland Island.

According to TIGHAR, it's thought that Amelia successfully landed the Electra on the reef, where she made distress calls until the next day when the tide got too high to stay with the aircraft. According to this theory, she and Fred then lived as castaways for anywhere from a few days to a few months before they perished.

Findings and Supporting Evidence

  • Radio Distress Calls: In the immediate days after Amelia's disappearance, over 180 radio messages were received. While many were said to sound like Amelia's voice, none were very strong, and the Navy concluded that none were legitimate. TIGHAR claims there are only two possible explanations: either someone very adept at radio operations was located on one of the islands and imitating Amelia's voice, or it was actually her.
  • Signs of Habitation: Aircraft pilots flying over Gardner Island in the initial search efforts claimed that there were signs of recent habitation. These pilots were apparently unaware that the island was totally uninhabited and did not investigate further.
  • Skeletal remains said to be that of a European woman about as tall as Amelia were found around a campfire area, along with animal bones, that was not consistent with any of the island's habitants since.
  • The soles of two shoes were found -- a man's and a woman's -- and one was about the same size and type as Amelia's.
  • Some aircraft wreckage was taken from the island and seems to be consistent with the Lockheed Electra.
  • Artifacts were found such as the mirror from a woman's compact, glass bottles made in the U.S., and cosmetic remnants. In addition, a glass jar that once held "freckle cream" was discovered.
  • A photo, taken three months after Amelia disappeared, shows what looks like a landing gear sticking out from the reef on the island. Other photos show what could be aircraft wreckage on the island.


Recent Searches

TIGHAR continues to search for Amelia. In July 2012, TIGHAR's NIKU VII expedition retrieved extensive underwater photos and video images in an effort to uncover evidence or fragments of the Lockheed Model 10E Electra. Their trip was cut short due to equipment malfunctions, but the group claims they have retrieved enough photos and video images to sustain their curiosity and they will probe further.