The disappearance of famous aviator Amelia Earhart, along with her plane, has become one of the greatest mysteries of the modern age. And while theories abound, ranging from the plausible to the outright wacky, a recent revelation about an old photograph has sparked an expedition led by none other than the man who discovered the Titanic. Could they finally find her plane?
The Fateful Smudge
It happened purely by chance. In 2012, an expert in forensic analysis of photographs took a better look at a photograph of a remote South Pacific island, nearly 80 years old. What others had previously seen as a smudge on the photograph and ignored, he suddenly concluded was something far different.
He ran with his theory to his boss — and news of the stir he had caused raced all the way to the Pentagon. It was a piece of landing gear, sticking out of the waves. What it could indicate reignited international fascination with solving one of the greatest mysteries of the modern world: the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
Vanishing Into Legend
The disappearance of famous aviator and flight pioneer Amelia Earhart shocked and horrified the world in her time. Now, more than three-quarters of a century later, it remains notoriously, glaringly unsolved. For the achievements that Amelia made in her short lifetime, she had already made a name for herself in the chronicles of history.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding her alleged demise catapulted her into legend status, and set a fire in the imaginations of generations of researchers, scientists, explorers, and conspiracy theorists. Just what exactly happened to Amelia and her plane on that hot summer night more than eight decades ago?
Going Against The Grain
From her childhood in the small city of Atchison, Kansas, Amelia was destined to be different from other girls. Despite the way society greatly restricted how a woman could act, dress, and work, Amelia’s mother encouraged her daughter to march to the beat of her own drum.
She did things girls just didn’t do back then, like shooting rats, sledding, and collecting bugs and reptiles. As a young woman visiting her sister in Toronto, she saw a World War I flying ace at an exhibition. He dove his plane towards her, probably to try and scare her — and it backfired, big time.
Entering The Pages Of History
Curious about planes, in 1920, she and her father went to an airfield in California, where another World War I pilot gave her a ride — and changed the course of history. Through her own determination, Amelia learned how to become a pilot. Inspired by Charles Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean, she decided she could do exactly the same thing — and succeeded.
On May 21, 1932, Amelia Earhart crossed from Newfoundland, Canada to Northern Ireland in 14 hours and 56 minutes, and became the first woman in history to fly alone across the Atlantic. But almost a decade later, she would enter the history books again, for all the wrong reasons.
Amelia’s Final Feat
After nearly a decade of incredible celebrity status, competing in contests and breaking records for women across the globe, Amelia Earhart decided she would undertake her greatest feat yet: flying around the entire planet in her plane, a Lockheed Electra 10E that had been designed especially for her.
In March 1937, she set off from Hawaii, but the plane crash-landed during takeoff. Unfortunately, Amelia was blamed for the error by some, and her radio operator quit the mission. That left Amelia with her navigator, Fred Noonan. After two months of repairs, they took off from Oakland, California — never to return.
Circumnavigating The Globe
After taking off from Oakland on May 20, 1937, Amelia and Fred crossed the breadth of the continental United States. They headed south for the Caribbean and Brazil, then crossed the Atlantic for Africa. In the course of their journey, they nailed yet another record, completing the first nonstop flight in history from Africa to British India.
Next, the pair traveled through Southeast Asia, and across the Dutch East Indies, present-day Indonesia. At last, they were set to begin the most difficult part of their journey: crossing the Pacific. They were supposed to return to California and complete their goal. Neither could have imagined what was about to happen.
It was midnight, July 2, 1937. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan took the Electra plane and flew off from Lae Airfield, Australian New Guinea. The pair were headed far away to Howland Island. They had been having radio problems, and neither Amelia nor Fred were skilled radio technicians.
The US Coast Guard Ship had dispatched USCGC Itasca to Howland Island, waiting for Amelia to arrive, and helping them navigate. The problem was, Amelia and Fred couldn’t find an accurate radio signal: her plane, the Electra and the Itasca were working at the wrong frequencies. Throughout the night, Amelia managed to get through several static-filled messages about overcast weather. It was what happened next that caused a radioman on the Itasca, in his words, to “sweat blood”.
Nearing Howland Island
At first, Amelia Earhart could hear the transmissions the USCGC Itasca was sending her, but by early morning, that stopped. The success of the last leg of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s journey was now jeopardized because of constant technical issues. The Itasca couldn’t properly tune in to the frequency of the Electra.
The plane drew closer and closer. At 6:14 AM, Amelia and Fred reported that they were less than 200 miles away from their destination at Howland Island. Clearly, they were quickly approaching, as at 6:45 AM, Amelia said they were likely 100 miles away. But they had a huge problem: voice notes weren’t getting through.
Running On Line
The Itasca sent Morse code transmissions, which Amelia received, but couldn’t use them to figure out where she was. Between 7:30 and 8:00 AM, Amelia got several messages through, saying she couldn’t hear anything, and was running low on gas. Then, at 8:43, Amelia said, “We are running on line north and south.”
That meant they thought they had reached Howland Island. They were wrong. The Itasca sent up boiler smoke to try and indicate their position. Nothing happened, and it’s possible that because of the cloud cover Amelia had reported, the smoke couldn’t be distinguished. The crew didn’t know it at the moment, but they had just received the last trace of Amelia Earhart’s existence.
The Search Begins
The radio silence was terrifying. An hour after losing touch with Amelia Earhart, the Itasca went into full emergency mode. The crew began searching for Amelia’s plane, to no avail. Hours became days, and the United States Navy joined the mission. No trace was found, no sign of a crash in the Phoenix Islands chain, near Howland Island.
An American battleship, the USS Colorado, was sent from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a last attempt to find Amelia and Fred. A plane launched from the Colorado found something intriguing on Gardner Island: signs of human habitation. There was just one glaring problem.
A Fruitless Search
By July 1937, Gardner Island, the suspected site of Amelia Earhart’s plane crash, had not been inhabited by humans for more than 40 years. As the American reconnaissance plane circled and zoomed low overhead, encouraged by the signs of human dwelling, they could not see anybody.
Nobody waved for help, and the plane returned to the USS Colorado, empty-handed — but they estimated that the island could have been the perfect size for a landing. Millions of dollars were poured into the search effort, which lasted for months. On January 5, 1939, for all intents and purposes, Amelia Earhart was declared dead. Or was she?
When it comes to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, and their Electra plane, absolutely nothing is for certain. That being said, most experts and historians agree on one scenario. It is most widely believed that the cloud cover, low gas, and transmission problems all contributed to the plane’s demise.
The widely-held consensus is that the plane crashed not far from their destination in Howland Island, and the two were either killed on impact or died shortly thereafter. Though this seems the most plausible explanation, as the mystery grew, new theories emerged — and some of them are absolutely mindboggling.
Theories Run Amok
Beyond the conventionally accepted theories, some of the ideas surrounding Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan’s disappearance into thin air run the gamut from possible to bizarre. World War II was just a few years away, and some believe Amelia was actually a spy secretly dispatched to gather information on Japanese positions in the Pacific.
In that same vein, others believe they crashed on a different island, were captured by the Japanese, and taken to a prisoner camp, where they perished. Most ludicrous of all, among the wildest theories out there, some posit that cannibals found them, or that Amelia survived and returned to the US, living in secret as a housewife in New Jersey! But the scant few facts indicate something sharply different.
Most experts believe that Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, was indeed the site of Amelia Earhart’s crash. This island, located in the present-day nation of Kiribati, is the place that the plane launched from the USS Colorado had circled back in July 1937.
The island is frequented by coconut crabs, the largest crab species able to go on land, with claws that are strong enough to break open coconuts. Because of them, scientists have a diabolical theory: they think that if Amelia and Fred landed and died on Nikumaroro, the crabs ate them, leaving no trace. But something strange surfaced on the island.
In 1940, a monumental discovery was made on present-day Nikumaroro: human bones. They were sent to a scientist based in Fiji, Dr. David Hoodless. As principal of Fiji’s Central Medical School. he analyzed the remains, concluding that they were 13 human bones, belonging to a male.
The problem was, his forensics techniques were primitive and extremely outdated even for his own time. To make matters worse, the bones were then lost. From the few photographs that remain of them, modern experts are nearly certain that they belong to a female, of Caucasian descent, taller than average: Amelia Earhart. But believe it or not, it was not these bones that would be the most important clue yet.
To understand the context of what could possibly be the biggest clue in locating Amelia Earhart’s wreckage requires going back to when her disappearance was still fresh. In October 1937, just a few months after the Electra plane vanished, the search for her was still in full swing.
A British colonial officer called Eric Bevington arrived back on Gardner Island (today’s Nikumaroro), where the USS Colorado’s plane had found traces of human settlement. There, he saw the ruins not of a plane, but of an old British freighter that had floundered there years before. He snapped a picture — and unknowingly captured what could be the final clue needed to solve the 20th century’s greatest mystery.
A New Lead
Nearly 80 years after Dr. Hoodless in Fiji analyzed — and lost — the human bones from Nikumaroro, and Mr. Bevington took his picture on the same island, a forensic expert for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) spotted and digitally enhanced a smudge in the water in Bevington’s picture.
It was only a mere millimeter in the picture’s corner, but under further inspection, it was concluded that this smudge could in fact be a plane’s landing gear, belonging to a Lockheed Electra 10-E: the plane belonging to none other than Amelia Earhart. The team at TIGHAR had just one man in mind to get on the case.
Introducing Robert Ballard
Former US Navy officer Robert Ballard is one of the world’s foremost modern explorers. He has led missions that successfully found the wreck of the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1985, the remains of the Nazi WWII battleship Bismarck, and dozens of other wrecks.
As the president of the Ocean Exploration Trust, few can question his authority on the subject of finding wrecks undersea. Now, he would be picking up where TIGHAR had left off. Their team had even returned to Nikumaroro to look for Amelia Earhart’s plane once again, just before reaching out to Robert Ballard — but they ran into a huge issue.
A Clue In Aluminum
TIGHAR had led multiple searches on Nikumaroro Island over the years, convinced that they had pinpointed the location of Amelia Earhart’s crash site. In 1991, they had found an aluminum shred, 19 inches by 23 inches, which they think was wrenched from Amelia Earhart’s craft.
As proof, they point to a Miami Herald photograph of Amelia’s plane leaving for Puerto Rico on June 1, 1937, showing a shiny aluminum patch on the plane that had replaced a window. But despite all hopes, a 2012 voyage back to Nikumaroro proved fruitless. But this time, they had something truly exciting that they could count on.
As one of the foremost names in shipwreck recovery, Robert Ballard has something the TIGHAR team had not used in their searches in the past: a far more vast array of technology at his disposal. In TIGHAR’s past missions around Nikumaroro Island, they admittedly did not have nearly the same budget that Ballard is working with.
Ballard can use remotely-operated underwater vehicles and a series of cameras to gain a 3D map of the ocean floor near Nikumaroro. Having him on board is the best chance they’ve had yet to finally solving the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. So what does Ballard himself think?
Assessing The Terrain
Nikumaroro is a coral atoll, and at the edge of the island, the dropoff into the ocean is very steep, with incredibly deep trenches typical of the Pacific. It is roughly 10,000 feet down to the ocean floor. As there are no remnants of the plane on land on the island, Robert Ballard believes that if Amelia Earhart’s plane crashed here, it not only fell into the ocean.
It probably also slid down into an abyss. If the plane had landed on Nikumaroro itself, potentially on the coral reef during low tide, then it would have been submerged by the incoming tide and carried away. So they launched a search.
Ballard In Nikumaroro
Ballard’s team searched Nikumaroro Island in August 2019. To carry out their mission, they split up into two squads: land and sea. The land crew looked around the sands and forest of the island, hoping to find any trace of habitation that could point to survival attempts from Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.
Whatever they would find, they would have to discern between actual original artifacts — especially bones — and the remnants of the failed British settlement on the western end of the island. The aquatic team scoured the waters. There is, however, one enormous problem that may have doomed their mission from the get-go.
Though Robert Ballard is renowned for finding the Titanic, the circumstances of its sinking were markedly different from whatever theoretically happened to Amelia Earhart’s plane. The force of the Titanic striking the iceberg, while it sank the ship and tore it into pieces, would not have been the same as the impact of the Electra plane slamming into the coral reef, which would have utterly shattered it.
Because of the amount of time that has passed since Earhart’s disappearance, it is believed that the plane may not be all together at all. The ocean may have completely dispersed and scattered the debris. And the surrounding geography poses one giant challenge.
Beating The Odds
While Richard E. Gillespie, the head of TIGHAT, feels encouraged that his team finally have the impressive technology of Robert Ballard at their disposal, his position on the odds is decidedly less than optimistic. According to him, he believes that their likelihood of finding any trace of the Electra plane stands below 20 percent.
The geography of Nikamuroro Island is their foe: the coral reef stands at the top of a steep underwater mountain filled with caves and cliffs where it could have subsided. The area is known for landslides. The plane may have been not only scattered, but permanently covered. So what gives them hope?
National Geographic filmed Robert Ballard’s expedition to Nikamuroro, scheduled to air as a two-hour special on October 20, 2019. Robert Ballard sent his ship to circle the island five times, mapping it with sonar. In a National Geographic interview, Ballard says that in the primary search site (where that smudge on the 1937 photograph had been), he could not find evidence of Amelia Earhart’s plane.
According to him, if the plane had been there, its fragments would be slowly sliding down the slope of the coral reef. But the search is not over: next, he’s taking his team to map the waters off Howland Island — where Amelia was supposed to land, before vanishing. What’s more, yet another clue has re-emerged.
At Long Last
Long-considered one of the key clues to the whereabouts of Amelia Earhart’s planes were a series of human bones discovered in 1940 on Nikumaroro. When the bones were lost for over seven decades, scientists could only speculate using their photographs.
All that changed in 2018. On the island of Tarawa within the nation of Kiribati, not far from Nikumaroro, the bones were amazingly rediscovered in a museum. That means that at long last, the wonders of modern science may yet be able to end one of the world’s greatest modern mysteries. What’s more, they can tell precisely what happened that fateful July.
Dr. Erin Kimmerle, who works in forensic anthropology at the University of South Florida, now holds at her fingertips the potential key to unlocking the story behind Amelia Earhart’s efate. National Geographic invited her to access the bones from the museum on Tarawa.
Kimmerle sent the bones for DNA testing analysis. As she awaits the results of the testing, as of October 2019, much is at stake. If they are a match, then not only can the world know precisely where Amelia Earhart died, but how: as a castaway on a tropical atoll, rather than dying on impact in the plane crash.
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