A team of aircraft historians have set their sights on one of aviation’s longest-standing mysteries: they hope to find and recover the remains of Amelia Earhart’s plane on a remote South Pacific island.
Amelia Earhart gained headlines in the early days of aviation as a pioneering woman pilot. In 1937, she set out with her navigator, Fred Noonan, aboard a Lockheed Electra aircraft in an attempt to become the first pilot ever to circumnavigate the globe around the equator. After setting out from Papua New Guinea, Earhart reported low fuel by radio. Contact was lost, and she was never heard or seen from again. The pair never completed there flight, and their disappearance has remained unexplained for nearly three-quarters of a century.
Now, according to a report from Reuters, a team with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery hopes to find definitive evidence that Earhart and Noonan were marooned on Nikumaroro, a tiny and uninhabited South Pacific island. A handful of clues have recently pointed to the island as Earhart’s final resting place, but as the group’s director Richard Gillespie notes, “The public wants evidence, a smoking gun, that this is the place where Amelia Earhart’s journey ended. That smoking gun is Earhart’s plane.”
Given Earhart’s flight plan, Nikumaroro is a plausible emergency landing site. A recently re-examined photograph of the island, taken three month after Earhart’s disappearance, appears to show aircraft landing gear on the island.
The most common theory is that the pair ran out of fuel somewhere over the Pacific Ocean because of a navigation error. Discovery News reports that Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), has another theory. Gillespie says that “the navigation line Amelia described in her final in-flight radio transmission passed through not only Howland Island, her intended destination, but also Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro.” He theorizes that they may have made an emergency landing on the island’s flay coral reef.
“This was the oldest Earhart theory,” Gillespie said. “This was the theory the Navy came up with in the first days following the flight’s disappearance. And they did search the atoll, but only from the air.”
There is plenty of evidence to support the theory that Earhart and her navigator were forced to ditch on the island. Gillespie and his team found archival records mentioning the discovery of a campsite and the partial remains of a castaway who was likely female on Nikumaroro in 1940. Over the course of nine archaeological expeditions to the island, Gillespie and his team found a location matching the description of the campsite and a number of artifacts that, according to Gillespie, “speak of an American woman of the 1930s.”
More compellingly, investigation of the island itself has uncovered several 1930’s-era artifacts, including a cosmetics jar, a woman’s compact, a zipper, a man and a woman’s shoe, a pocketknife of the sort that Earhart carried—and human bone fragments. Gillespie says, “We’ve found artifacts of an American woman castaway from the 1930s, but we haven’t found anything with her name on it.” He also notes that attempts by the team to recover identifiable DNA from any of the artifacts have remained unsuccessful.
The new search could be defeated by many complications. If the plane floated away from the island before sinking or was covered in debris underwater, it may be nearly impossible to find, say scientists. The plane may have also crashed in a location far enough offshore that recovery would be nearly impossible.
“Our hope is that finding identifiable pieces of the plane will help make it possible to do further archaeology on shore to learn more about Amelia’s last days,” said Gillespie.
The search comes just weeks after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the mission. Ms. Clinton and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave their support and encouragement to historians, scientists, and salvagers searching for the lost aviator.
“Amelia Earhart may have been a unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck, but she embodies the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world,” Ms. Clinton said at the time. “She gave people hope and she inspired them to dream bigger and bolder.”
So, Gillespie and his team hope to find Earhart’s airplane. The plane is not in any obvious surface location on the island, and they suspect that, as landing must have occurred at water’s edge, the plane has been pulled into the sea by tides and waves. They are beginning the search for any sign of the aircraft in the water around the island by using SONAR-bearing underwater submersibles. If any clues prove tantalizing, they will move in for a close look. While the clues look promising, Gillespie remains cautious, saying “What if you look there and you don’t find it? It might mean you’re wrong. Or after 75 years of dynamic, destructive ocean activity, we could be absolutely right and not find anything.”