Mark Allen basically can't remember a time when he wasn't fascinated by Amelia Ear-hart's disappearance in the South Pacific in 1937.
"I've been interested in this since I was a boy. And I think I've read almost every word ever written about her," says Allen, 60, who's scheduled to tell some of what he knows about one of history's most famous mysteries Tuesday at the Nature Center of Cape May.
Allen's analysis of the Amelia enigma will kick off the latest set of "Harborside Chats" at the Nature Center, a local branch of New Jersey Audubon. The speakers in the series, which runs every Tuesday through April, do their talking in the center's Charlotte Todd Education Hall, which is almost through a reconstruction project but still has picture windows that look out on Cape May Harbor - and that earn the Harborside Chats that catchy name.
So Allen, a Cape May resident and Nature Center volunteer who has led these talks before, says the audiences sometimes get a little added attraction as they listen.
Those windows also have a view across the harbor to the Lobster House and the Canyon Club, the heart of Cape May's commercial and recreational fishing fleets.
So the people in the seats often get to see fishing boats glide by at around sunset as their speaker talks and the buildings on the far side of the water light up for the night.
Allen is a veteran of both talking publicly about Earhart and of the U.S. military. He was a Marine fighter pilot who joined the New Jersey Air National Guard when he got out, and eventually switched from the pilot's seat to being the required human navigator on air-refueling tanker planes. To do that job, he had to learn to navigate by the stars - which sent him even deeper into the Earhart case.
Fred Noonan is a much less famous name today than Amelia Earhart, but Noonan was with the pioneering pilot when she disappeared July 2, 1937. He was the celestial navigator guiding Earhart - the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean - as she tried to become the first pilot of any gender to circle the Earth around the Equator.
And Noonan became a hero to Allen, who credits the forgotten-by-many man in the Earhart mystery with a historic breakthrough in aviation navigation. By Allen's reckoning, Noonan - a former maritime navigator - made long-distance flying a much more precise practice, speeding up the process of navigating by the stars to apply it to an airplane traveling 130 mph or more, instead of a ship traveling at less than 10 mph.
"Everything Fred Noonan was doing that night, I was doing in the tankers," Allen says, standing in front of the world map he uses to illustrate his Earhart talks. He says he was already deeply into the Earhart mystery when he got "hooked on celestial navigation, and then I got hooked on Fred Noonan."
Starting in the early 1990s, Allen figures he was doing his Earhart talks at least every other month, often to women's groups - who have a natural affinity because the female pilot was legendary for breaking gender barriers in a male-dominated world. He also spoke to a fair number of Rotary clubs around South Jersey, because he's a longtime Rotary member.
And Allen knows the local angles to the disappeared pilot's life. Earhart was a visitor to Atlantic City's Bader Field - at least once with another famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh, for a ceremony at the airport where the term "airport" was invented.
She also was there with then-Mayor Harry Bacharach, the son of Betty Bacharach, as shown by a picture in the collection of the Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation. (The former Betty Bacharach Home for Afflicted Children used to be in Longport and is now on the mainland in Galloway Township.)
Plus after one of his Rotary speeches in the '90s, Allen met a man who met Earhart one morning in Bridgeton decades before. The man was a boy at the time, a paper boy who went to the home of a customer named George Agnew Chamberlain to collect for his newspaper deliveries. But instead of Chamberlain, an author and adventurer, opening the door, Earhart greeted the paper boy - which shocked a kid already smitten by a woman who was one of the major celebrities of her day, "the hottest thing around," Allen says.
And soon, the local paper was carrying a headline, "Earhart in (Bridgeton) to visit her special friend."
But for most of his presentation, Allen relies on far more technical, less personal material. He's a member of a group called The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, and he believes in TIGHAR's theory - based on years of research and expensive expeditions - that Earhart and Noonan landed on the edge of a tiny, uninhabited island now called Nikumaroro, in the South Pacific's Phoenix Islands.
The island is a few hundred miles southeast of Howland Island, which was Earhart's next scheduled stop on her way across the Pacific and back to the U.S. And the group's research finds that her plane's radio was making distress calls for five days after she disappeared July 2, 1937. So TIGHAR - pronounced "Tiger" - believes the plane landed fine but was swept off the island and into the water by a severe storm that hit the area July 7.
The group has led several expeditions to Nikumaroro in the past, and has another scheduled to start this September. Part of the mission is to use submarines to search the bottom of the deep ocean - 3,000 feet plus - off the edge of the island to find Earhart's plane.
Allen has a long list of "circumstantial" evidence that he credits to TIGHAR and bolsters its hypothesis. That includes a piece of a shoe found on the island in 1940 - that's similar to a shoe Earhart is seen wearing in a picture taken before she left on her final flight.
There's more, so much that "I think the mystery has been solved," Allen says, although he acknowledges without DNA evidence and the serial numbers of her Lockheed Electra being found, some people won't accept that.
He knows the other theories on what happened, including the one in which Earhart and Noonan were captured and killed by Japan as spies on its attempts to take over the South Pacific. Then there's one that Earhart snuck back into the U.S. under an assumed name and quietly lived out her life as a housewife - in New Jersey, of course.
"I don't even talk about that one," Allen says.
He understands that the case he makes won't erase all Earhart doubts. But after years of talking about her, he also understands this:
"Everyone wants to know about Amelia," he says.
The rest of the March-April Harborside Chats aren't likely to take on subjects with such long histories or high profiles. Gretchen Whitman, the Nature Center's director, said this week she doesn't have all her Tuesday-night talks scheduled yet, but she knows March 11's topic is "Whaling in Early Cape May County." The speaker is Clare Juechter, from Historic Cold Spring Village. And the first April talk is about accupuncture, Whitman said.
She's looking for people with good stories to tell or subjects to discuss - and she'd be happy to hear any suggestions on topics local listeners would want to hear about.
"It's really an eclectic mix of speakers," she says, adding that she's "trying to find the kinds of things that haven't been done before. ... It's a chance to have a conversation. It's not supposed to be a college lecture."
Although she's looking for new and novel, Whitman appreciates that there are old and popular items - for one, almost anything having to do with food or wine can draw a crowd. And when the Nature Center opened last year's fall series of Harborside Chats with one on the maritime history of Cape May, 80 or so people showed up and had a lively night.
Plus all the talks include time for questions and answers, and Allen, the opening speaker, is ready. He welcomes all curiosity and comments, because he really doesn't mind talking about Amelia Earhart, or hearing about her. And he never has.
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
If You Go
The Harborside Chat runs 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Nature Center of Cape May, 1600 Delaware Ave., on Cape May Harbor. The talk is free, but donations are welcome. The series continues every Tuesday through April 29 at the same time. For more details, call 609-898-8848609-898-8848 or see njaudubon.org/nccm. For more details on TIGHAR, see tighar.org