A new clue discovered by the The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery may offer answers to one of the 20th century’s greatest mysteries: the disappearance of American aviator Amelia Earhart in the South Pacific nearly 75 years ago on an attempted flight to circumnavigate the globe.
Analysis of a photograph taken by a British survey team only months later reveals an object near the island of Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island) in the Pacific nation of Kiribati consistent in size and shape with the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra airplane.
“Lo and behold, on the left hand side of the frame there’s something sticking out of the water that shouldn’t be there, right on the reef edge,” said Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR.
The group plans to launch a 26-day expedition on July 2 – the 75th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance – onboard the University of Hawai‘i’s research vessel Ka‘imikai-o-Kanaloa.
“KOK is well suited for [this] type of work,” said Alexander Shor, associate dean for research at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, in an email. “We routinely launch and recover two manned submersibles ... and the ship is well outfitted for navigating and communicating with underwater vehicles, which is one of its principal mission requirements.”
TIGHAR intends to lease autonomous underwater vehicles from Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy’s primary contractor for deep ocean search and recovery. Gillespie has budgeted $2 million for the expedition and raised 75 percent of the amount so far from private sources, including Lockheed Martin and FedEx Corporation. The Discovery Channel will track the expedition and produce a television special later this year.
Gillespie’s three previous expeditions to Nikumaroro (in 2001, 2007 and 2010) have recovered artifacts that support the hypothesis that Earhart landed on the reef and survived on the island.
Among these items is a bone-handled jack knife of the same type carried by Earhart on an earlier attempt to circumnavigate the world and an ointment pot matching Dr. Berry’s freckle cream sold in the United States (Earhart is known to have been concerned about her freckles).
Early indications about the airplane’s whereabouts came from a Fiji woman who recalled seeing airplane debris on Nikumaroro as a child and marked the location on a map for TIGHAR. Subsequent analysis of the British survey team’s photograph confirmed her account.
“We’ve got all these jigsaw puzzle pieces that seem to fit together and tell a story,” said Gillespie. “The story might be of Amelia Earhart’s presence on this island as a castaway.”
Nonetheless, the evidence is circumstantial and the search and recovery of Earhart’s wreckage will be challenging. “It’s always a long shot to find a single plane or single shipwreck in almost any survey area, especially in the Pacific, where things tend to be in a high-energy environment,” said Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, Coordinator of the Maritime Heritage Program for the Pacific region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
While Gillespie remains sanguine, his optimism is tempered by a healthy dose of realism. “We could get out there and get skunked,” he said. “There could be things that happen that we have no way of knowing about that would make the wreckage of the airplane unfindable even though we are right that it was once there.”