Amelia Earhart in Puerto Rico

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan talking to young autograph seekers

 

Puerto Rico has played a role in American history as pronounced and also as unique as those of the 50 states.  The capital of San Juan is the oldest city within the borders of the U.S. because Christopher Columbus made landfall in Puerto Rico, and Ponce de Leon governed a large region of what is now the southwestern U.S. from his headquarters in Puerto Rico.  The first shots fired on behalf of the U.S. in World War I were fired in Puerto Rico, and 20 years after its people became U.S. citizens, the great American aviation pioneer and explorer Amelia Earhart made Puerto Rico the U.S. point of departure to launch her historic final flight.  On May 21, 1937, Amelia Earhart left California, determined to fly around the world.  Her first stop was in Miami, where she spent eight days and had some work done on her plane before setting off for Puerto Rico.  In the photo above, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, sign autographs and talk with fans in San Juan.

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This photo was reportedly taken by Earhart herself during her visit to San Juan.

But the photo below may be an important piece of evidence in the solution to the mystery of the disappearance of the aviatrix and her navigator in July on 1937. The picture shows Earhart’s plane, The Electra, taking off for Puerto Rico. The arrow on the photo shows a patch of metal which might have been used to repair the plane in Miami. Previous photos showed a special navigation window in the same place. This photo, which was recently found in the files of the Miami Herald, is the only picture which shows the repair.

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The bill below shows the plane’s stay overnight in a hangar at La Isla Grande Airport.

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Earhart’s route is shown in the map below, from the departure in Burbank to the disappearance, shown by a question mark.

Earhart was a skilled aviator. She was the first woman to fly the Atlantic alone, the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. She held the woman’s non-stop transcontinental speed record and broke her own record.

Noonan was a skilled navigator, and while he did not have modern technology, he had a number of time-honored methods. And yet the plane disappeared shortly before reaching Howland Island. While there have been a variety of theories about Earhart’s disappearance, the most common claim is that she ran out of fuel short of the island and the plane crashed into the ocean.

The plane was never recovered.

A researcher named Ric Gillespie found a piece of aluminum which is a visual match for the one in the photo, at a place which is now called Nikumaroro Island. The find took place 23 years ago, and Gillespie thought at the time that it could be evidence that Earhart’s plane had gone down on the island. The lost and now found photo may help prove that Gillespie was right.

An expedition by a group called TIGHAR found further evidence that Earhart and Noonan lived on Nikumaroro Island for a while after they disappeared. The technology of the time was not able to fix on an accurate location, and they were never rescued. However, there is evidence that a man and a woman lived as castaways on the island, foraging and hunting for food.

Nikumaroro Island is only about 350 miles from Howland Island.

Earhart was a modern era explorer who went east sailing into the skies from Puerto Rico, one of the first places discovered in America by explorers who sailed west from the Old World to the New World four centuries earlier.  Like many of those early European explorers and other American pioneers who sailed in “prairie schooner” covered wagons into the unknown from U.S. frontier territories, Earhart did not live to reach her destination.  But before her flight from an American airfield in Puerto Rico ended she had flown across the Southern Atlantic, the African continent, the Indian subcontinent, Asia and more than half the vast Pacific Ocean.

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