This is a photo of Amelia's plane in the movie "Love on the Run." The registration number R1602 of Earhart's plane is visible on the upper wing surface.
July 13, 2012
-- As the search for Amelia Earhart's plane probes the waters off Nikumaroro, a tiny uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, a new paper has reconstructed what may have happened to the legendary aviator 75 years ago. Written by Thomas King, the senior archaeologist on Amelia Earhart search project, the paper summarizes 23 years of interdisciplinary research by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (or TIGHAR). It will be published by the academic journal Pacific Studies in October. "In the Earhart case, strong circumstantial evidence supports the hypothesis that the pilot and navigator Fred Noonan landed their Lockheed Electra 10E safely on Nikumaroro, made repeated efforts to radio for help, and eventually died as castaways," King told Discovery News.
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The Facts Earhart sent her final radio transmission on July 2, 1937 during a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator. Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in the final minutes of a flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island in the Pacific. At 07:42 local time, as she flew toward the target destination, Earhart called the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed at Howland Island for support. "We must be on you, but cannot see you -- but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet," she said. Earhart's final inflight radio message went out an hour later, at 08:43. "We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait," she said. What happened after that last radio message has remained a mystery for 75 years.
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The Hypothetical Reconstruction TIGHAR researchers believe that Earhart and Noonan reached the vicinity of Howland Island, but were unable to see it, perhaps due to difficult morning light conditions or because they were somewhat off-course to the south. Unable to communicate with the Itasca, and to see Howland Island, they flew southeast and in the late morning sighted Nikumaroro, at that time known as Gardner Island. According to the researchers' hypothetical reconstruction, the pair made an emergency landing on the island's northwest reef flat, north of the wreck of the British steamer SS Norwich City, which went aground on the island's reef in 1929.
Nikumaroro A desert atoll, less than five miles long and 1.5 miles wide, with a lagoon at its center, Nikumaroro is far from a dreamy island getaway. The island has no fresh water and has roasting temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- even in the shade. The island is wooded in indigenous forest dominated by the Buka, a large tropical softwood tree, feral coconut and shrubs known as Scaevola frutescens. The island was uninhabited when Earhart disappeared in 1937, but was colonized in late 1938, with the colony lasting until 1963.
Distress Calls As soon as they landed, Earhart and Noonan are believed to have begun sending dozens of radio distress calls using the Electra's equipment. TIGHAR re-examined all the 120 known reports of radio signals suspected or alleged to have been sent from the Earhart aircraft after 12 noon on July 2, 1937 through July 18, 1937, when the official search ended. They concluded that 57 out of the 120 reported signals are credible.
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The Photograph After a few days, however, TIGHAR postulates that flood tides lifted the Electra and carried it over the reef edge, leaving behind the landing gear, which was inadvertently photographed by British Colonial Service officer Eric R. Bevington three months later in October 1937 The airplane either broke up in the surf on the reef edge, or was obscured by waves when the U.S.S. Colorado flyers flew over on July 9 during high tide. The Colorado flyers also did not see Earhart and Noonan. "TIGHAR's experience is that in the highly contrasting visual environment of the Nikumaroro shore it is very difficult to see people on the ground from the altitude flown by the Colorado planes," King said.
Fred Noonan's Fate Noonan may have not survived long. The content of some of the recovered radio messages suggests that he may have been injured in the landing.
Exploring the Island With the plane lost, TIGHAR believes that Earhart -- and Noonan, if still alive -- went to explore the island. They carried with them a few supplies, such as cosmetics for protection from the equatorial sun and Earhart's compact with its handy mirror. When he visited the island three months later, the British officer, Bevington, reported signs of someone's "overnight bivouac" near the lagoon on the southwestern side of the island.
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Map of the Island From the western reef slope, where she landed, Earhart is thought to have reached an area that TIGHAR calls the Seven Site, in the island's remote southeast end. There she may have survived for some days or weeks, but finally succumbed, probably to thirst.
Crabs Consumed Remains TIGHAR researchers believe that her body was largely consumed by the site's numerous hermit and coconut crabs, leaving only 13 bones, a few artifacts, and the remains of her cooking fires.
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Skeletal Remains Indeed, a partial skeleton was found in 1940 at the Seven Site. The remains were recovered by British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher and described in a forensic report. According to that report, the bones probably belonged to an individual "more likely female than male," "more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander," and "most likely between 5 feet, 5 inches and 5 feet, 9 inches in height." Unfortunately the bones have been lost. A woman's shoe, an empty bottle and a sextant box whose serial numbers are consistent with a type known to have been carried by Noonan were also found near the bones.
Clam Shells Amelia may have survived on Nikumaroro for weeks and possibly months, according to Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR. Archaeological investigations at the Seven Site unearthed significant clues that suggest a castaway presence. "We found several small and large fires. The fire features contained bird, fish, and turtle bones. We also found two clusters of giant clam shells," King said. He added that many of the clams appeared to have been opened by someone who tried to pry them apart on the hinge side, others have been opened by smashing them with rocks. Whoever camped there was catching small reef and lagoon fish, cooking them on the coals, not consuming the heads, and disposing of their bones in the fires. "None of this behavior is consistent with fishing and fish preparation by indigenous Pacific islanders," said King.
Artifacts Apart from the fire features, the researchers also found a knife that was beaten apart to detach the blades, and several broken, partially-melted bottles in the remains of a cooking fire. They were probably used to boil or distill drinking water. "These objects tell a fascinating story of ingenuity, survival and, ultimately, tragedy," Gillespie said.
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Deep Water As Amelia struggled to survive on the island, King proposes that the wreckage of the Electra aircraft broke up and was distributed down the face of the reef, where some of it was collected by villagers. TIGHAR has found aircraft parts in the colonial village, but has been unable to tie them specifically to Earhart's plane. Larger and heavier pieces may still lie obscured on the reef slope, or at the point below 1000 feet where the slope becomes less acute than it is higher up. As the expedition continues to find the plane, we may learn the answers soon.
FULL COVERAGE: AMELIA EARHART
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Some eight months before its last, fateful flight over the Pacific, Amelia Earhart's aircraft appeared on theater screens chasing a panicked crowd all around an airport apron and then making a wild takeoff, new research into the world's most famous missing plane has revealed.
Researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart on July 2, 1937, have discovered the twin-engined Lockheed Electra had a cameo role in the MGM romantic comedy "Love On The Run," starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford.
"With Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz at the controls, the plane cavorted for the camera," Ric Gillespie executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.
According to TIGHAR, the Electra was filmed within weeks of its delivery to Amelia on her 39th birthday on July 24, 1936. Whether she knew or approved of her new airplane's debut is not clear.
After the crazy takeoff performed by Mantz, who was also Earhart's technical adviser, the newly-licensed airplane wasn't used again in the film. All of the later shots were done using a scale model.
In the story, the plane ultimately crashed, though Clark Gable and Joan Crawford escaped without injury.
"It is little wonder that this bizarre use of Earhart's aircraft was kept quiet," Gillespie said.
He noted that scenes in the movie clearly show the registration number R1602 of Earhart's plane on the upper wing surface.
The strange episode has been unknown to Earhart biographers and researchers until now. The fate of Earhart and resting place of the Electra remain unknown as well.
In the attempt to finally solve the mystery, a new expedition will be launched in summer 2017, on the 80th anniversary of the disappearance of the legendary pilot.
Gillespie told Discovery News that the comprehensive search will rely on two three-person manned submersibles operated by the University of Hawaiii's Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL).
HURL's subs, Pisces IV and Pisces V, will inspect a one-mile-long section of the steep, underwater reef slope off the west end of Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, looking for fragments of Earhart's plane.
"An abundance of archival, photographic and artifact evidence suggests that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan made a successful landing on the island's fringing reef," Gillespie said.
Amelia Earhart stands in front of her airplane in 1927. Bettmann/CORBIS
He explained that the couple appear to have sent radio distress calls for nearly a week before the aircraft was washed into the ocean by rising tides and surf.
"Earhart and Noonan died as castaways on the waterless, uninhabited atoll. The aircraft lies somewhere below," he said.
Called Niku IX, this will be TIGHAR's 12th expedition to Nikumaroro.
Efforts to search the reef in 2010, 2012, and 2015 using Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) were frustrated by equipment malfunctions and limitations of the technology.
A side-scan sonar survey in 2012 using the same Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) later used to search for the missing Maylasian Flight MH370 also proved unreliable and misleading.
"Detailed re-analysis of the sonar data has shown that an anomaly in the imagery that seemed to resemble an aircraft is almost certainly a coral ridge," Gillespie said.
This time the craggy underwater mountainside will be searched by direct human observation.
"No more ROVs. We'll do it right or we won't do it," Gillespie said.
Equipped with high-definition video, still cameras, mechanical arms, powerful lights and recovery baskets, each of the subs will carry a pilot and two observers. They will inspect the underwater area down to a depth of up to 6,500 feet.
Gillespie estimates the search area will be covered in seven days of operation.
Next year, if all goes as planned, submarines will be used in a comprehensive survey of all of the atolls and seamounts in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the world's largest marine sanctuary.
TIGHAR plans to charter the mother ship, the University of Hawaii oceanographic research vessel Ka'Imikai-O-Kanaloa (KOK), and the HURL subs during that time.
"Staging out of Samoa, three days from Nikumaroro, rather than Oahu, nine days each way, would mean a tremendous saving in positioning costs," Gillespie said.
In that scenario, Gillespie estimates the expedition will cost a little under $1 million.