While there was some expected measurement error involved in Fred Noonan’s celestial navigation, it is possible that a human error in calculation put them farther away from Howland Island than they expected. It would seem that Noonan did navigate them some 2000 miles across the ocean from Lae successfully into the vicinity of Howland and they certainly made it to within good radio distance of the island. It appears from Earhart’s last recorded radio calls that she and Noonan were fairly confident they had arrived where they thought Howland should be. Could a human error account for why they weren’t where they thought they were?
As with the majority of airplane accidents, the problem lies not in one single error, but in a series of circumstances that add up to a sum greater than their parts. Noonan and Earhart were in a hurry to get back to Oakland in as few days as possible. The winds were greater than expected and the flight took longer than planned. Earhart had trouble using the direction finder. The second direction finder on Howland Island ran out of batteries. They became fatigued during the overnight, 18+hour flight. Therefore, a human error due to the Date Line probably did not cause their disappearance all by itself. Had the direction finder been working, had the winds been lighter, and so on... there may have been time for Noonan to recognize such an error, but the additive effect of little circumstances (known in flying as the “accident chain”) passed its tipping point and, indeed, kept the duo from reaching their destination.
The Date Line Theory is one interesting solution to the mystery of what happened to Fred Noonan and Amelia Earhart on their final flight. It is certainly not the only solution to the mystery and there are numerous other potential solutions that also hold weight. Until the Electra is found, we won’t know what happened – and, even then, the discovery of where she is may never lead us to an answer for why she was lost.
It is interesting to note that because of Earhart and Noonan’s particular course, they did cross local midnight on their flight path causing the local date to move forward one day and, for several hours, the pair was alive on July 3rd – one day after they officially disappeared.
If Noonan did indeed make a navigation error due to crossing the International Date Line, it is more than likely that the rest of his navigation was still incredibly accurate. He would have instructed Earhart to navigate the Electra towards where he believed Howland Island to be, and they would have searched that area without straying too far. And if the Electra is found close to this point, then it may, in ironic effect, finally prove the incredible skills of its pilot and navigator on their final flight. They would have navigated perfectly to Howland Island - just one day too early.
These are some of the last images of Amelia Earhart leading up to her World Flight. "In June 1937, she began a flight around the world, accompanied by Frederick J. Noonan, a navigator. Their plane disappeared on July 2, while en route from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island. An extensive search by planes and ships of the United States Navy failed to discover any trace of the lost flyers, and their fate remains a mystery"(1).
Excerpt from The Lost Galleon
A hundred leagues from Manilla town,
The San Gregorio's helm came down;
Round she went on her heel, and not
A cable's length from a galliot
That rocked on the waters just abreast
Of the galleon's course, which was west-sou'-west.
Then said the galleon's commandante,
General Pedro Sobriente
(That was his rank on land and main,
A regular custom of Old Spain),
"My pilot is dead of scurvy: may
I ask the longitude, time, and day?"
The first two given and compared;
The third—the commandante stared!
"The FIRST of June? I make it second."
Said the stranger, "Then you've wrongly reckoned;
I make it FIRST: as you came this way,
You should have lost, d'ye see, a day;
Lost a day, as plainly see,
On the hundred and eightieth degree."
"Lost a day?" "Yes; if not rude,
When did you make east longitude?"
"On the ninth of May,—our patron's day."
"On the ninth?—YOU HAD NO NINTH OF MAY!
Eighth and tenth was there; but stay"—
Too late; for the galleon bore away.
Lost was the day they should have kept,
Lost unheeded and lost unwept;
Lost in a way that made search vain,
Lost in a trackless and boundless main;
Lost like the day of Job's awful curse,
In his third chapter, third and fourth verse;
Wrecked was their patron's only day,—
What would the holy Fathers say?
Said the Fray Antonio Estavan,
The galleon's chaplain,—a learned man,—
"Nothing is lost that you can regain;
And the way to look for a thing is plain,
To go where you lost it, back again.
Back with your galleon till you see
The hundred and eightieth degree.
Wait till the rolling year goes round,
And there will the missing day be found;
For you'll find, if computation's true,
That sailing EAST will give to you
Not only one ninth of May, but two,—
One for the good saint's present cheer,
And one for the day we lost last year."
-Francis Bret Harte, The Lost Galleon (1867) (2)
NEXT: About the Author and Contact Info
1. "Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)," Universal News, 1937.
2. Harte, Francis Bret. The Lost Galleon. 1867.