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Sonar signal may lead to Earhart discovery (or not)

Experts: Further exploration required

A deep-water sonar search led by marine robotics company Deep Sea Vision (DSV) has turned up what the company believes to be Amelia Earhart’s famed Lockheed Electra. Some experts need to be convinced.

Sonar image side by side with Earhart’s Electra at scale. Image courtesy of PRNewsfoto/Deep Sea Vision.

Most pilots, and nonpilots, know the story of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and her navigator, Fred Noonan. They took off on a 29,000-mile around-the-world flight on June 29, 1937, in Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E. The duo went missing on July 2 during their flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island. Over the years, conspiracy theories as to their fate and the location of the missing aircraft have come and gone, each one sparking a flurry of excitement and controversy.

Now, nearly 87 years later, private pilot, former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer, and DSV CEO Tony Romeo and his brother Lloyd Romeo believe they may have unlocked some of the mystery behind Earhart’s storied disappearance. Located within a 100-mile radius of Howland Island, west of Earhart’s projected landing point in the Pacific Ocean, the brothers claim to have captured sonar imagery that they believe shows an intact airplane resting three miles below the surface, with characteristics including size that appear to be consistent with Earhart’s famous aircraft.

To begin their search, the DSV team used and expanded on the celestial math laid out in pilot and former NASA employee Liz Smith’s “Date Line Theory” that speculates that when Earhart and Noonan flew across the international date line, Noonan forgot to turn the calendar back one day, leading to a 60-mile navigational error. The location the theory points to had never been searched before.

Deep water sonar—nicknamed ‘Miss Millie’—on the surface preparing for launch. Each dive lasts approximately 36 hours during which time the system searches completely independently and only returns to the surface when a battery swap is needed. Photo courtesy of PRNewsfoto/Deep Sea Vision.

The search, which spanned 5,200 square miles of the Pacific Ocean floor and took 90 days, used DSV’s autonomous underwater sonar submersible, the HUGIN 6000. The submersible was modified by DSV to reach full ocean depth and be able to scan almost mile-wide bands. Each dive lasted around two days, capturing a trove of images for later analysis.

Romeo said, “We always felt that she [Earhart] would have made every attempt to land the aircraft gently on the water, and the aircraft signature that we see in the sonar image suggests that may be the case. We're thrilled to have made this discovery at the tail end of our expedition, and we plan to bring closure to a great American story.”

While the excitement builds around this possible discovery, archeologists who have used similar technology to search for underwater remains are skeptical. The New York Times reported that Megan Lickliter-Mundon, an underwater archaeologist who has searched for underwater aircraft, believes that confirming that DSV’s find is even an aircraft will take additional sonar imaging from multiple angles. Once it is confirmed that it is indeed an aircraft the team would need to use a remotely operated submersible with a video camera to locate any serial numbers or markings that could positively identify it as Earhart’s airplane.

Lickliter-Mundon told the Times that she would be surprised that any aircraft would remain as intact as the sonar image suggests after 80 years submerged, “But who knows? Nothing is definitive until you have more information and a visual.”

Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who has experience searching for World War II-era aircraft, told the Times that the image could be “noise” in the sonar system or a landform on the ocean floor.

“There’s no way you could definitively say that’s even an aircraft,” Pietruszka said. “To me, at best, you could say you have a promising target that might be an aircraft, and might be Amelia Earhart’s aircraft, at best.”

The newspaper (among several media outlets that pounced on the story after the photos were first published by the Wall Street Journal) also reported that Piotr Bojakowski, assistant professor of nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University, is also skeptical. He speculates it could be an aircraft from World War II.

Bojakowski said, “There are a lot of air crashes around all those islands. Could it be American? Could it be Japanese? Could it be something else? Right now, all we know is it looks like a plane.”

DSV plans to make another expedition to take underwater video that the company hopes will confirm the aircraft’s identity.

Niki Britton

eMedia Content Producer
eMedia Content Producer Niki Britton joined AOPA in 2021. She is a private pilot who enjoys flying her 1969 Cessna 182 and taking aerial photographs.
Topics: People

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