Amelia Earhart waves from her bi-plane called "Friendship" on June 14, 1928. She disappeared in another plane in 1937.
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
PHOTOS: Jars Hint at Amelia Earhart as Castaway
- As we near the 75th anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, a high-tech search for the lost pilot will begin.
- There is evidence suggesting that Earhart may have survived as a castaway on an island.
- The new search will use deep underwater vehicles to scout for possible remains of Earhart and her plane.
The search for Amelia Earhart will resume this summer in the waters off Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati where the legendary pilot might have died as a castaway.
With support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US State Department and Discovery Channel which will be documenting the expedition for a television special later this year, the expedition will be carried out by the The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 75 years ago.
The new expedition will use high tech underwater equipment to search for pieces of Earhart's plane.
The tall, slender, blond pilot mysteriously vanished while flying over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937 during a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.
Secretary Clinton met today with historians and scientists from TIGHAR and spoke about why the search for Earhart is still pertinent to Americans. She pointed out that when Earhart went missing, the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression."
"Now Amelia Earhart may have been an unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck, but she embodied the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world," Clinton said.
The general consensus has been that Earhart's twin-engined Lockheed "Electra" had run out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Howland Island.
But according to Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR's executive director, there is an alternative scenario.
"The navigation line Amelia described in her final in-flight radio transmission passed through not only Howland Island, her intended destination, but also Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro," Gillespie said.
The possibility that Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan might have made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro's flat coral reef, some 300 miles southeast of their target destination, is not a new theory.
"This was the oldest Earhart theory," Gillespie said. "This was the theory the Navy came up with in the first days following the flight's disappearance. And they did search the atoll, but only from the air," Gillespie said.
In nine archaeological expeditions to Nikumaroro, Gillespie and his team uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence.
Amelia Earhart waves from her bi-plane called "Friendship" on June 14, 1928. She disappeared in another plane in 1937.Getty Images
"We found archival records describing the discovering in Nikumaroro in 1940 of the partial skeleton and campsite of what appears to have been a female castaway," he said.
"We identified the place on a remote corner of the atoll that fits the description of where the bones and campsite were found. Archaeological digs there have produced artifacts that speak of an American woman of the 1930s," Gillespie said.
He added that evidence on the island would also suggest that Earhart survived as a castaway "for a matter of weeks, possibly more."
In the forthcoming expedition, Gillespie and his team will be concentrating on Earhart's plane. The underwater search will be carried by Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy's primary deep ocean search and recovery contractor.
On July 2, the 75th anniversary of Earhart's disappearance, the TIGHAR team will sail from Honolulu aboard the University of Hawaii oceanographic research ship R/V Ka Imikai-O-Kanaloa.
"When we get there, in about eight days, we'll survey the general area with multi-beam sonar to create an accurate map of the undersea topography and prioritize the search area," Gillespie told Discovery News.
"Targets will be identified using high resolution, side scan sonar mounted on an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Finally, we will investigate suspicious looking targets using a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) with dual manipulators and color video camera system and lights," Gillespie said.
The search relies on what Gillespie called "the most exciting breakthrough" -- a photograph of the island's western shoreline taken three months after Amelia's disappearance.
"It shows an unexplained object protruding from the water on the fringing reef," Gillespie said.
Forensic imaging analyses of the photo suggest that the shape and dimension of the object are consistent with the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra. Gillespie said they have reason to believe that Earhart's airplane went over the reef edge near the spot where the object appears in the photo.
"Amelia Earhart's legacy still lives today, reminding young people to keep their eyes on the stars," Clinton told reporters.
Gillespie said they hope to solve the long-standing mystery about just what happened to one of the nation's most inspiring heroes.
"We'll do our best to find Amelia. During the painful recovery from the Great Depression, Amelia Earhart inspired America with her courage and determination. America needs Amelia again," Gillespie said