Amelia Earhart’s life and career have been celebrated for the past several decades on “Amelia Earhart Day,” which is held annually on July 24 — her birthday.
Nearly everyone knows the story of her flight that came to a tragic conclusion somewhere short of one of her last stops on her round-the-world record attempt. She and Fred Noonan, the navigator, were searching for Howland Island which was a fuel stop south of Hawaii, nearly completing their voyage which launched in Oakland.
Howland is a one square mile atoll which time forgot. Howland Island and Baker Island (immediately to the south) are the only places on Earth observing no time zone. This non-zone is called AoE—Anywhere on Earth—a calendar designation which indicates that a period expires when the date passes everywhere on Earth. Confusing, sure. But hey, unless Amelia Earhart magically drops from the heavens and lands, it won’t make much difference.
Cloud cover, insufficient fuel, a single compass degree deviation are all possible failure points. There was a refueling team and a crude runway awaiting their arrival at Howland. Despite the use of 66 aircraft and nine ships (an estimated $4 million rescue effort), the fate of the two flyers remains a mystery. There is about 80 years’ worth of speculation as to their fate, but in the end, no one knows what happened.
It was this event that put Howland on the map and became a stop for Linda Finch, who in 1997 flew Amelia’s route in the exact same kind of aircraft but with more success.
The chase plane which accompanied her was owned and flown by my friend, Woodside’s Reid Dennis, one of original venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. He flew his 1955 amphibious Grumman Albatross the entire way. Reid remodeled the interior like a luxury yacht—I have flown in this fantastic craft, which is now on display at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, CA.
There is evidence that the Polynesians visited Howland as far back as 3,000 years ago, but it was so exanimate that they didn’t stay long. No fresh water, no trees, just a few vines and no opportunity. This all changed in the mid 1800s when it was realized that these remote islands were rich in bird droppings called guano. It was extremely valuable due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium: key components of fertilizer and gunpowder.
Around 200 Pacific islands were claimed by the Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, and this is one reason we still have dominion over so many Pacific Islands today.
The word ‘guano’ is derived from the old Peruvian language of Quechua. This is a pre-Columbian tongue from which we also have Condor, Jerky, Puma, Quinoa, Quinine and Cocaine.
Four American’s were still in residence at the start of WWII with a small airstrip and a couple of buildings. Howland was bombed by the Japanese the day after they attacked Pearl Harbor (two were killed) and then Howland was shelled from a submarine, and again with the planes, even if there was no actual military installation.
So in sum, we have lost aviators, bombs, bird poop and cocaine. All we’re missing is Tom Hanks.