In 1937, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan set out in a twin-engined Lockheed Electra to fly around the world at the equator. On the morning of 2 July 1937, Earhart and Noonan set off from Lae in Papua New Guinea. This leg of their journey called for refuelling at Howland Island, a U.S. owned outcrop. A U.S. Coast guard cutter, the ITASCA, would be on hand to offer radio guidance to help land the plane.Earhart failed to establish a two way radio link with ITASCA and was unable to use her direction finder. On the morning of July 2, ITASCA received only tantalizing snippets of radio messages in which she spoke of running low on fuel and being unable to locate the island. For some days after the disappearance, distorted radio signals were picked up all over the Pacific. A multi-million dollar air and sea search rescue mission which covered 40,000 square kilometers, found nothing and was called off on July 18. On the night of July 4, 1937, two days after Earhart and Noonan disappeared, the U.S. Navy in Hawaii picked up a message sent in incompetent Morse code on one of Earhart's calling frequencies and using her call sign, KHAQQ. (Neither Earhart nor Noonan had fully mastered Morse code).
The reception was fragmentary but they received the message "281 north Howland calls KHAQQ beyond north won't hold with us much longer ... above water ... shut off", which they read as "281 miles north of Howland" to which they dutifully sent ships. Nothing was found. The message was discounted as a hoax. But if "281 north" meant 281 miles north of the Equator, this would have been exactly the latitude on which lies Nikumaroro, a tiny uninhabited atoll in the central Pacific. The few available facts are inconclusive but tantalizing clues (such as unidentified human bones and narrow size 9 US shoes) had been found there and another research trip to Nikumaroro is planned in the spring of 2000.