Association La Recherche de l'Oiseau Blanc
French aviators Charles Nungesser and François Coli were World War I aces.
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
Search teams using underwater sonar, scuba divers and new accounts will try to solve one of the great aviation mysteries of all time: What happened to the L’Oiseau Blanc, or White Bird, a 31-foot long cloth-and-wood biplane that vanished while trying to cross the Atlantic from Paris to New York in 1927.
The disappearance of the plane and crew has been the subject of decades of speculation since two French World War I aces -- Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli -- took off from Le Bourget airfield north of Paris on the morning of May 8, 1927. The flight had a two-week jump on Charles Lindbergh, who departed New York in the Spirit of St. Louis on May 20.
The aviators took off without a radio or life raft. They even dropped their landing gear shortly after becoming airborne to save weight.
The two Frenchmen were attempting the first-ever transatlantic crossing and the right to a $25,000 prize. Witnesses at the time say they saw the plane cross England and Ireland, and crowds of people gathered in New York Harbor expecting the white plane to make a triumphant water landing at the Statue of Liberty. After several days passed without word, the flight was presumed lost and U.S. Coast Guard ships started a search and rescue mission.
In the decades since, reports have surfaced about bits of debris from L’Oiseau Blanc being found in northern Maine, Newfoundland or other parts of the Canadian coastline. None have survived. In the past five years, however, French businessman and aviation enthusiast Bernard Decre has pursued the case with new zeal.
After researching archival search records in France, Canada and the United States, Decre believes the aircraft went down just off the coast of St. Pierre-et-Miquelon, a French territory comprising several islands south of Newfoundland.
“It is a strange and fabulous story,” Decre said at the French Embassy in Washington. “Each year we receive more information.”
The L’Oiseau Blanc (White Bird) may have crashed off the coast of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon. Association La Recherche de l'Oiseau Blanc
Later this month, Decre will lead an expedition to find L’Oiseau Blanc. He’s received financial backing from Safran, a French aerospace firm whose corporate grandparents built the 450-horsepower Lorraine-Dietrich engine that powered the plane. He has also enlisted the aid of the U.S. Coast Guard, which led the initial search for Nungesser and Coli back in 1927.
“If he has enough accurate information in his records, we can work backwards and construct a search area,” said Adm. Mark E. Butt, assistant commandant of capability for the U.S. Coast Guard.
Butt said better data exists today about currents and tides that can help model the search. In June 2012, Decre searched for several weeks without luck.
The new search, from May 15 to June 7, will deploy additional ships and crew, a high-powered magnetometer to detect metal on the seafloor, a longer cable and remote-operated vehicles.
Decre also has some new information: an interview last year with a 95 year-old fisherman on St. Pierre. The man said that, as a boy, he spoke to another fisherman who saw the plane go down in thick fog on May 10, 1927. The fisherman also heard the two pilots cry for help.
While the story is second-hand, it is providing Decre with a starting point for the search grid. Even if the plane engine isn’t found, Decre and others involved in the search plan a ceremony at sea to commemorate the two French fliers with Eric Lindbergh, the grandson of Charles Lindbergh.