Pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart may have died a castaway on remote Pacific desert island

Amelia Earhart Credit: PA

The fate of pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart has puzzled aviation enthusiasts for almost 80 years, but now compelling evidence has emerged to suggest that after landing on a remote desert island she lived and died there as a castaway.

Along with her navigator Fred Noonan, Earhart - the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic - disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, four months into an attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

Since the pair's disappearance, speculation about what happened to them has abounded, with some of the most popular theories being that they crashed into the ocean, they crashed on a Japanese island and were taken captive and executed, or that they landed on an island in the middle of the sea.

Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Credit: PA

It is this latter theory which, after 22 years of research, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes to be most likely.

As part of the pair's plan to fly around the world they would navigate from Hawaii to Howland Island, halfway to Australia.

TIGHAR believes that the pair failed to find Howland Island, and instead continued on their navigational line, and landed their Electra plane on uninhabited Gardner Island, 350 miles away.

Gardner Island, or Nikumaroro, is part of the Phoenix Islands, Kiribati, in the western Pacific Ocean. Credit: Reuters

For the next several nights it is thought they used the aircraft's radio to send distress calls.

The radio bearings taken on the signals crossed to Gardner Island.

One of the last distress calls mentioning rising water.

A week after the flight's disappearance, three US Navy search planes flew over Gardner Island, but by this time distress calls had stopped, and it is thought that rising tides and surf had swept the Electra over the reef edge (Gardner Island was fringed by a reef).

Earhart and Noonan were attempting to fly 28,000 miles around the world. Credit: PA

The Navy fliers saw no plane, but they did see "signs of recent habitation". However, they believed all the islands in the area were inhabited and so they moved on. In fact no one had lived on Gardner Island since 1892.

TIGHAR believes that Earhart and possibly Noonan lived for a time as castaways on the waterless atoll, relying of rain for drinking water, and eating fish, birds, turtles, and clams.

While Noonan's fate is unknown, it is thought that Earhart died at a makeshift campsite at the island's southeast end, while the Electra lies deep under the ocean off the island's west end.

Earhart also wrote bestselling books about her flying experiences. Credit: PA

In 1940, three years after the disappearance, a British Colonial Service officer found a partial skeleton on the island, along with a campfire, animal bones, a box that had contained a sextant (an instrument used for navigation) the serial numbers reported on it are consistent with the make and model used by Noonan, and remnants of both a man and a woman's shoes.

More recent archaeological excavations have found evidence to suggest that an American woman was in residence on the island in the 1930s.