Why can't we solve the Amelia Earhart mystery?

The Disappearance of Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in a photo taken just prior to the infamous final flight.
Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in a photo taken just prior to the infamous final flight.

Earhart had set many aviation records, and her dream was to be the first woman to fly around the world, using the longer route along the equator. On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan departed Lae, Papua New Guinea, for the longest stretch. Their destination was Howland Island, a tiny 1.5 mile by 1/2 mile-wide (2.4 by 0.8 kilometers) atoll rising a mere 20 feet (6 meters) from the South Pacific. They had around 7,000 miles (11,265 kilometers) left in their journey; this 24-hour flight to Howland covered about 2,500 miles (4,023 kilometers). After they abandoned every unnecessary item aboard the plane, they still had only just enough fuel to make it to Howland. There could be no margin for error, and to ensure their safety, a Coast Guard cutter named Itasca tracked them using radio and two additional ships burned all their lights to serve as markers along the route.

Noonan tried to use celestial navigation to find his way, but the skies were overcast during the stretch. The pair also fell out of radio contact with the Coast Guard. After dawn, the Itasca picked up a transmission from Earhart. She said that by Noonan's reckoning the plane should be just over the Itasca. It was moored just off Howland Island, but Earhart said their fuel stores were running low. An hour later, another radio transmission came from Earhart: "We are running north and south," she said [source: Family of Amelia Earhart].

That was the last transmission. Earhart and Noonan were never heard from again.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a massive search for Earhart by the U.S. Navy, covering some 250,000 square miles (647,497 square kilometers) of ocean -- and spending $4 million in the midst of the Great Depression -- to find evidence of her fate. Although searchers scoured Howland Island and the surrounding sea, no wreckage was discovered. It was as if Earhart and Noonan simply vanished into the mist.

Once attention turned from Howland Island in the years to follow, however, potential clues to the disappearance of Earhart and Noonan would begin to turn up.