Fred Noonan Was More Than Just Amelia Earhart's Sidekick

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Just days after the 80-year anniversary of their disappearance, a photo has emerged which experts say show Amelia Earhart and her navigator on a Central Pacific island, leading to speculation that the famed aviator may not have died in a plane crash, as has been assumed for decades. You've probably learned who Amelia Earhart is from a young age, but who was Fred Noonan, Earhart's navigator?

Noonan did not live in the limelight like as his pilot did, but he was a renowned and accomplished navigator, and had made quite a career for himself in the aviation community before his disappearance alongside Earhart.

Finding information on Noonan is no easy feat. His birthplace is even disputed depending on what source you read, along with other details of his life. Though little was written about him during his life or since his disappearance, his aviation skills should have made him as famous as Earhart, some say.

Enamored of the sea, Noonan reportedly joined the Merchant Marines when he was only a teenager. And after 20 years building a successful maritime career, he shifted his focus from the sea to the sky. Noonan translated the navigation skills he honed on the ocean to his pursuit of an aviation career. He was hired by Pan Am to chart routes for their planes across the Pacific. Noonan navigated Pan Am's first flight from California to Hawaii, and continued to head the company's navigation, specifically for new trans-Pacific routes, notably those to the Philippines.

A navigator's job was to chart the course for the plane. They were essential to air travel at a time when the electronic tools that are relied on these days had yet to be invented. Navigators of the 1930s used the sun and stars as their directional cues.

Noonan became a "leader in long-distance aerial navigation," and was widely regarded as one of the best navigators of his time. Earhart had actually chosen a different navigator for her global circumnavigation, but changed her mind and instead chose Noonan to accompany her on her record-setting journey, reportedly for his navigational prowess. He had reportedly hoped that the exposure and attachment to such a popular figure as Earhart would help him to open a navigation school when he returned from the trip.

While much of what happened to Earhart and Noonan remains a mystery, this new information could illuminate the investigation of their disappearances, and shed a light on what happened to the spunky aviator and her trusted navigator.