Search homing in on Earhart's airplane

Details of upcoming mission announced

March 20, 2012

Photo credits: Kathleen O’Neil

Seventy-five years after Amelia Earhart’s disappearance in the Pacific, a nonprofit group has announced it will launch the most intensive effort yet to find pieces of her wrecked airplane and solve the mystery of where her flight ended. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) says new evidence has given them reason to believe Earhart’s Lockheed Electra may be in deep water off an uninhabited atoll called Nikumaroro. Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan went missing on July 2, 1937, while trying to find Howland Island, an atoll 356 nautical miles to the north that had been equipped as a refueling station.

Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, describes plans for a July expedition that will attempt to confirm the location of Amelia Earhart’s airplane on the seventy-fifth anniversary of her disappearance.

TIGHAR has spent 24 years and carried out 10 archeological missions to investigate Earhart’s disappearance so far. Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR executive director, said that the privately funded $2 million, 10-day expedition it will launch in July will help finally answer the question of where Earhart’s flight ended. It was prompted by the recent review of a photograph a British soldier took during a survey of the island in October 1937, three months after Earhart’s disappearance. Experts believe the photograph captured the image of what could be landing gear from a Lockheed Electra sticking out of the water off the island.

TIGHAR theorizes Earhart landed safely at low tide on the reef, but rising tides a week later could have carried the aircraft out to sea, where it would have broken up and dispersed in deeper water.

“We have found some evidence on the island that has been promising, but was inconclusive,” Gillespie. “Finding the aircraft would make it conclusive.”

The expedition is TIGHAR’s highest-profile one to date, earning the endorsement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and oceanographer Robert Ballard at an event March 20 at the Department of State. Clinton said as a child she had harbored hopes of becoming an astronaut until NASA told her it wouldn’t be using women astronauts. “NASA may have said I couldn’t go into space, but nobody was there to tell Amelia Earhart she couldn’t do what she chose to do,” Clinton said.

Art Carty, TIGHAR Art Carty, a TIGHAR board member, points to the area off Nikumaroro where the coming expedition will search for Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.

Researchers on previous archeological missions to Nikumaroro (formerly called Gardner Island) found artifacts that include women’s cosmetic bottles and glass possibly from a make-up compact of that era, a zipper pull made in Pennsylvania, and the remains of a jack knife of the same model Earhart was known to have brought with her. During its last mission in 2010, the researchers mapped parts of the island’s reef to a depth of 1,100 feet (300 meters) using sonar and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). No wreckage was found, but they discovered the reef slope is very steep until it levels out at 1,100 feet, which was the limit of the ROV’s range.

Lonnie Schorer, TIGHAR volunteer Lonnie Schorer, a volunteer who participated on a TIGHAR dig on Nikumaroro, found some reddish material buried on the island that may be make-up that Amelia Earhart could have carried.

On their return, researchers plan to map the area with multi-beam sonar, and will use two robotic vehicles with greater ranges to investigate areas of interest. If any wreckage is found, Gillespie said they will take only a small sample to confirm its identity and leave the rest for a later recovery, if possible.

And if the search doesn’t turn up any new evidence, “we’re hoping the expedition will inspire and encourage young people to search and do critical thinking,” Gillespie said. “It’s not what we find, but how we look. It’s important to use the scientific method of inquiry.”

Earhart's Pacific route The poster depicts the route of Earhart’s intended leg from New Guinea to Howland Island. Photo credit: TIGHAR.