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Fred Noonan
Fred Noonan.jpg
Fred Noonan on June 1937 in Bandoeng, Dutch East Indies
Frederick Joseph Noonan

(1893-04-04)April 4, 1893
Disappeared July 2, 1937 (aged 44)
En route to Howland Island
Status Declared dead in absentia
June 20, 1938(1938-06-20) (aged 45)
Occupation Navigator
Spouse(s) Josephine Sullivan (divorced)
Mary Beatrice Passadori
Parent(s) Joseph T. Noonan
Catherine Egan

Frederick Joseph "Fred" Noonan (born April 4, 1893; disappeared July 2, 1937) was an American flight navigator, sea captain and aviation pioneer, who first charted many commercial airline routes across the Pacific Ocean during the 1930s. Navigator for Amelia Earhart (1897–1937), he was last seen in Lae, New Guinea, on July 2, 1937, on the last land stop before they disappeared somewhere over the Central Pacific Ocean, during one of the last legs of their attempted pioneering round-the-world flight.

Early life and maritime career

Noonan was born in Cook County (Chicago), Illinois. His parents were Joseph T. Noonan (born in Lincolnville Maine in 1861) and Catherine Egan (born in London, England). Noonan's father died when he was four, and three years later a census report lists him as living alone in a Chicago boarding house, although relatives or family friends were likely caring for him. In his own words, Noonan "left school in summer of 1905 and went to Seattle, Washington," where he found work as a seaman.

At the age of 17, Noonan shipped out of Seattle as an ordinary seaman on a British sailing bark, the Crompton. Between 1910 and 1915, Noonan worked on over a dozen ships, rising to the ratings of quartermaster and bosun's mate. He continued working on merchant ships throughout the First World War. Serving as an officer on munitions ships, his harrowing wartime service included being on three vessels that were sunk by U-boats. After the war, Noonan continued in the merchant marine and achieved a measure of prominence as a ship's officer. Throughout the 1920s, his maritime career was characterized by steadily increasing ratings and "good" (typically the highest) work performance reviews. Noonan married Josephine Sullivan in 1927 at Jackson, Mississippi. After a honeymoon in Cuba they settled in New Orleans.

Navigator for Pan Am

Following a distinguished 22-year career at sea which included sailing around Cape Horn seven times (three times under sail), Noonan contemplated a new career direction. After learning to fly in the late 1920s he received a "limited commercial pilot's license" in 1930, on which he listed his occupation as "aviator." The following year he was awarded "license #121190, Class Master, any ocean," the qualifications of a ship's captain. During the early 1930s, he worked for Pan American World Airways as a navigation instructor in Miami and an airport manager in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, eventually assuming the duties of inspector for all of the company's airports.

In March 1935 Noonan was the navigator on the first Pan Am Sikorsky S-42 clipper at San Francisco Bay. In April he navigated the historic round-trip China Clipper flight between San Francisco and Honolulu piloted by Ed Musick (who was featured on the cover of Time magazine that year). Noonan was subsequently responsible for mapping Pan Am's clipper routes across the Pacific, participating in many flights to Midway and Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and Hong Kong. In addition to more modern navigational tools, the licensed sea captain was known for carrying a ship's sextant on these flights.

1937 was a year of transition for Fred Noonan, whose reputation as an expert navigator, along with his role in the development of commercial airline navigation, had already earned him a place in aviation history. The tall, very thin, brown-haired and blue-eyed 43-year-old navigator was living in Los Angeles. He resigned from Pan Am because he felt he had risen through the ranks as far as he could as a navigator and had interest in starting a navigation school. In March he obtained a divorce from his wife Josie in Juarez, Mexico. Two weeks later, he married Mary Bea Martinelli (born Passadori) of Oakland, California. Noonan was rumored to be a heavy drinker. This was fairly common during the era and there is no contemporary evidence Noonan was an alcoholic but 35 years later, in a 1972 interview with Pan American executive John Leslie, Victor Wright (a crewmember who flew with Noonan on Clipper flights) said "he drank himself out of a job... It got to Noonan by way of drink. We had no-one to do the navigating except Noonan. Harry Canaday then took over and navigated on the way back."

Earhart world flight

Amelia Earhart met Noonan through mutual connections in the Los Angeles aviation community and chose him to serve as her navigator on her World Flight in the Lockheed Electra 10E she had purchased with funds donated by Purdue University, a circumnavigation of the globe at equatorial latitudes. Although the aircraft was of an advanced type and dubbed a "flying laboratory" for the press, little real science was planned, the world was already criss-crossed with commercial airline routes (many of which Noonan himself had first navigated and mapped) and the flight is now widely regarded as an adventurous publicity stunt. Noonan was probably attracted to the project because Earhart's mass market fame would almost certainly generate huge publicity, which in turn could reasonably be expected to attract attention to him and the navigation school he hoped to establish when they returned.

The first attempt began with a record-breaking flight from Burbank, California to Honolulu. However, as the Electra was taking off to begin the second leg to Howland Island, its wing clipped the ground, Earhart cut an engine to maintain balance, the aircraft ground looped and the landing gear collapsed. Although there were no injuries, the Electra had to be shipped back to Los Angeles for expensive repairs. Over a month later they tried again, this time leaving California in the opposite direction.

Earhart characterized the pace of their 40-day, eastward trip from Burbank to New Guinea as "leisurely." They took off from Lae on 2 July 1937, and headed for Howland Island, a tiny sliver of land in the Pacific Ocean, barely 2,000 metres long. The plan for the 18-hour flight was to reach the vicinity of Howland using Noonan's celestial navigation skills, then find the island using radio navigation signals sent by the United States Coast Guard cutter Itasca. Through a series of misunderstandings or mishaps (which are still controversial), over scattered clouds, the final approach was never accomplished, although Earhart indicated by radio they believed they were in the immediate vicinity of Howland. Two-way radio contact was never established and the fliers disappeared over the western Pacific. Despite an unprecedented, extended search by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, no physical evidence was found

Later research showed that Howland's position was misplaced on their chart by approximately five nautical miles. There is also motion picture evidence that a belly antenna on the Electra may have snapped on takeoff (the purpose of this antenna has not been identified and radio communications seemed normal as they climbed away from Lae).


It is possible, even likely, that having run out of fuel, Earhart ditched the Electra in the ocean where she perished with her navigator. However, in her last message received at Howland, Earhart reported that they were flying a standard line of position (or sun line), a routine procedure for an experienced navigator like Noonan. This line passed within sight of Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) in the Phoenix Group to the southeast and there is a range of documented, archaeological and anecdotal evidence supporting an hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan found Gardner, which at the time was uninhabited, landed the Electra on a flat reef near the wreck of a large freighter and sent sporadic radio messages from there. In 1940, Gerald Gallagher, a British colonial officer and licensed pilot, radioed his superiors to inform them he believed he had found Earhart's skeleton, along with a sextant box, under a tree on the island's southeast corner. In a 1998 report to the American Anthroplogical Association, researchers including a forensic anthropologist and an archaeologist concluded, "What we can be certain of is that bones were found on the island in 1939-40, associated with what were observed to be women’s shoes and a navigator’s sextant box, and that the morphology of the recovered bones, insofar as we can tell by applying contemporary forensic methods to measurements taken at the time, appears consistent with a female of Earhart’s height and ethnic origin."

Popular culture

Although Fred Noonan has left a much smaller wake in popular culture than Amelia Earhart, his legacy is remembered now and then. Noonan is often mentioned in W.P. Kinsella novels. He was portrayed by David Graf in the "The 37s" episode of the Star Trek: Voyager television series. Both a baseball stadium and an aircraft rental agency are named after Fred Noonan.

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