Island of the Earhart mystery
Where Is It?
A sandy speck in the middle of the North Pacific, Howland is about 1,650 miles southwest of Hawaii.
What to Expect
This coral atoll, a U.S. territory, is 1.5 miles long and surrounded by a reef. The exterior is covered with grasses, vines, and shrubs, and the interior has a small grove of trees. A number of bird species live on the island as well as feral cats.
Given the fact that the airstrip is in ruins—and the fate of one very famous aviator who attempted an unsuccessful flight to the island—we recommend access by sea. Contact the U.S. Coast Guard to ensure that your trip does not coincide with their annual visit to the island.
Discovered by American whalers in 1842, Howland was named for the sailor who first spotted it. A little more than a decade later, it attracted the attention of the guano barons (see Navassa Island profile). Everywhere you step on the island are fresh reminders of its rich history as a guano haven. When the guano rush subsided around the turn of the century, Howland was abandoned. In 1935, it again served a human purpose, becoming a refueling stop for planes en route to Australia. During World War II the U.S. military used it for its campaigns in the Pacific. Howland, however, is most famous for an aviator who never actually set foot on the island.
In 1937 Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, attempted their celebrated flight to circumnavigate the globe at its widest point, the equator. Howland was the island that Earhart was heading to on a 2,556-mile flight from Lae, New Guinea, when she disappeared without a trace. The island has a day beacon named in her honor, Earhart Light. You can also see the remains of the airstrip that the U.S. military had constructed especially for her landing.
In 1997, on the 60th anniversary of Earhart's disappearance, San Antonio pilot Linda Finch reenacted Amelia Earhart's flight. As she flew over Howland Island, Finch dropped three silk wreaths in memory of the famous aviation pioneer. Should you visit Howland, we recommend you bring along three silk wreaths to carry on this tradition. Since it's unlikely that any other traveler will have stopped by the island since then, your follow-up efforts could turn Finch's gesture into a full-blown ritual. Of course, as soon as others begin to flock to Howland with their wreaths, you'll never again want to set foot on that overrun atoll.