Exactly 75 years after Amelia Earhart departed on her final flight before disappearing somewhere over the Pacific, an expedition team is searching for the wreckage of her plane using new methods and pursuing new hypotheses.
Amelia Earhart, born in Kansas in 1897, is famous for being the first woman to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. She also held a number of aviation speed records and played a major part in the formation of a professional women’s aviation group called the ninety-nines.On July 2 1937, near the end of a journey around the globe roughly following the equator, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, departed from Papua, New Guinea. They were bound for Howland Island in their Lockheed Model 10 Electra aircraft. They were never seen again and no trace of the airplane has since been found.
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.”
The group’s research team had planned to set off by boat on Monday from Hawaii on a 1,800-mile voyage to Nikumaroro accompanied by the technicians from a U.S. Navy contractor called Phoenix International who recovered “black-box” flight-data recorders from an Air France crash from the floor of the Atlantic last year.
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.”
Further evidence comes in the form of a photograph shot in 1937 by British Colonial Service officer Eric R. Bevington during an expedition to the island. The grainy photograph shows part of the island and a strange, possibly man-made object protruding from the water.
According to TIGHAR’s forensic imaging specialist, Jeff Glickman, “There is an object on the reef, but from the picture we can’t definitely prove what it is. However, one interpretation is consistent with four components that existed on Earhart’s Lockheed Electra Model 10E Special.” Glickman speculates that the object may be the plane’s upside-down landing gear.
This new expedition will search under the water near the island using multi-beam sonar technology. Sonar scanners will be mounted on underwater robots, or Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). In addition, a remote operated vehicle (ROV) mounted with high-intensity lights and high-definition video cameras will investigate high-potential targets.
This 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.”