A screengrab from underwater video shows a semicircle at top (the fender?) and a round object off to right. Could they be remnants of Earhart's plane?
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.
NEWS: Earhart's Anti-Freckle Cream Jar Found
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
PHOTOS: Jars Hint at Amelia Earhart as Castaway
- High-def video retrieved by underwater vehicles reveal a debris field that could be from Earhart's plane.
- Multiple underwater objects appear consistent with an object seen in a 1937 photograph that could have revealed the aviator's plane.
- Analysis of a jar recovered on an island show it contained traces of mercury, which was a common ingredient in anti-freckle cream.
Pieces of Amelia Earhart's plane might have been located in the depths of the waters off Nikumaroro island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, according to a preliminary review of high-definition video taken last month at the uninhabited coral atoll believed to be Earhart's final resting place.
Carried out by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 75 years ago, the underwater search started on July 12 and relied on a torpedo-shaped Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) and a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV).
The AUV collected a volume of multi-beam and side-scan data, while the ROV, capable of reaching depths of 3,300 feet, produced hours upon hours of high-definition video.
Plagued by a number of technical issues and a difficult environment, the hunt did not result in the immediate identification of pieces from Earhart's Lockheed Electra aircraft.
"Early media reports rushed to judgement in saying that the expedition didn't find anything," Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.
"We had, of course, hoped to see large pieces of aircraft wreckage but as soon as we saw the severe underwater environment at Nikumaroro we knew that we would be looking for debris from an airplane that had been torn to pieces 75 years ago, Gillespie said.
As they returned from the data collection trip at the end of July, TIGHAR researchers begun reviewing and analyzing all of new material recovered from the site.
"I have thus far made a cursory review of less than 30 percent of the expedition's video and have identified what appears to be an interesting debris field," TIGHAR forensic imaging specialist Jeff Glickman told Discovery News.
Located distinctly apart from the debris field of the SS Norwich City, a British steamer which went aground on the island's reef in 1929, the site contains multiple objects. Several appear consistent with the interpretation made by Glickmann of a grainy photograph of Nikumaroro's western shoreline.
Shot by British Colonial Service officer Eric R. Bevington in October 1937, just three months after Amelia's disappearance on July 2, 1937, the photo revealed an apparent man-made protruding object on the left side of the frame.
A screengrab from underwater video shows a semicircle at top (the fender?) and a round object off to right. Could they be remnants of Earhart's plane?TIGHAR
Forensic imaging analyses of the picture found the mysterious object consistent with the shape and dimension of the upside-down landing gear of Earhart's plane.
"The Bevington photo shows what appears to be four components of the plane: a strut, a wheel, a wom gear and a fender. In the debris field there appears to be the fender, possibly the wheel and possibly some portions of the strut," Glickman said.
Recovering the objects is TIGHAR's next goal.
"If further analysis continues to support the hypothesis that we have found the object that appears in the 1937 Bevington Photo, we'll certainly want to recover it," Gillespie said.
Meanwhile, a parallel investigation into a little jar recovered on Nikumaroro in a previous expedition might provide further circumstantial evidence that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan made an emergency landing on the island's flat coral reef and eventually died there as castaways.
"Scientists have found traces of mercury on the interior surface of the little jar that we suspect once contained Dr. Berry's Freckle Cream," Gillespie said.
The new round of testing was prompted by Greg George, a chemist who read Discovery News story on the cosmetic jar.
The purpose of mercury in ointments was for bleaching the skin. Indeed, Dr. C. H Berry's Freckle Ointment was marketed in the early 20th century as a concoction guaranteed to make freckles fade.
"It is well documented that Amelia had freckles and disliked having them," Joe Cerniglia, the TIGHAR researcher who first spotted the freckle ointment as a possible match, told Discovery News.
"The only product sold in the ointment jar that we know contained mercury was Dr. C. H. Berry's Freckle Ointment. Documentation I collected shows this product historically contained anywhere from 9.8 to 12 percent ammoniated mercury, depending on the year it was produced," Cerniglia said.
TIGHAR admitted it is not possible to link the ointment pot directly to Amelia Earhart.
"We can not exclude the possibility that someone brought a jar of American women's freckle cream to a British-administered island where nobody had freckles -- but it doesn't seem very likely," Gillespie said.
The jar was found broken in five pieces and one of the fragments was collected far from the others amongst some turtle bones.
"It shows signs of having been used as a cutting tool -- so the jar does seem to have been associated with the castaway who died there," Gillespie said.
"The question, therefore, would seem to be whether the castaway who had a jar of American women's freckle cream was someone other than Amelia Earhart. We don't know who that would be," he added.