Chasing Amelia Earhart

Famed aviator Amelia Earhart (39 years old), flight navigator Fred Noonan, and their Lockheed Electra airplane disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean on the morning of July 2, 1937 on her planned round-the-world flight.  Her intended destination was Howland Island (which was about halfway between Hawaii and Australia).  The U.S. Coast Guard had sent the cutter USCGC Itasca to Howland to help Earhart land logistically, but she never made it.  Her last known radio transmission was at 8:43 or 8:44 am.  After numerous searches (including a weeks-long one by the Navy), Earhart was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939 in Los Angeles (where she and her husband George Putnam had moved). 

I have long been fascinated with the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.  I could lie and say her disappearance fascinates me because she was the first female aviator to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean, a true pioneer and inspiration to all.  But if that were true, I would know more of her life and accomplishments and I don’t.  I’m frankly not much into aviation.  I couldn’t even stay in the air for more than seconds in Microsoft Flight Simulator 3 (1988).  I could lie and say I want her disappearance solved because I want her remaining family to find closure.  But can Bermuda Triangle enthusiasts honestly claim they just want help bring closure to the remaining families of the crews of the USS Cyclops (which disappeared in the Triangle in March 1918) or the Flight 19 (which disappeared in Dec 1945)?  Sure, such closure would be fine and dandy.  But that’s just not what motivates my interest in Earhart (or other famous mysteries).  Nope, it’s all about the mysterious disappearance. 

I was a bookish sort of kid and student.  We had a library period in Catholic elementary school and instead of whispering to other classmates and goofing around, I actually read books in that library.  I preferred books to my classmates.  I read books about the Presidents (Lincoln especially) and history.  I read fiction by famous American authors (like Washington Irving).  I also read accounts of ghost hauntings, witches and witchcraft trials, stories of exorcisms, and other such stories.  And I read about certain famous disasters and/or mysteries like RMS Titanic and Amelia Earhart. 

Certain unsolved mysteries deeply penetrate and captivate the American or Western consciousness.  And Earhart’s disappearance is just one of those.  Jimmy Hoffa’s body, DB Cooper’s identity, and Amelia Earhart’s disappearance are among some of the most famous American mysteries of the 20th century (along with broader ones like Area 51 and the Bermuda Triangle).  Dr. Tom Crouch, Senior Curator Smithsonian, perhaps understated all this when he said that “the mystery is part of what keeps us interested.  In part, we remember [Earhart] because she’s our favorite missing person.”

There are two predominant theories on the fate of Earhart and I will only discuss those two (and not the old ultra fringe theory that Amelia died under Japanese captivity).  The first theory is the pretty obvious: She crashed and sank in the ocean around Howland Island.  This is the view of most historians, that she simply ran out of gas off course and the plane crashed or landed in the water and subsequently, she and Fred drowned.  Occam’s razor (that the simplest solution is most likely the right one) favors this theory.  Amelia’s sister Muriel believed she sank.  Rear Adm. Richard Black, who took Earhart’s last transmissions aboard USCGC Itasca, also believed that:

“My firm opinion is that the Electra went into the sea about 10 a.m. July 2, 1937, at a point not far from Howland.  If it made a wheels up landing it would float as the gas tanks were empty and the sea was not rough.  I heard all the Earhart transmissions.  She stated the fuel was low.”

Gary LaPook, a California-based attorney specializing in aviation accident investigations told Forbes in 2014 that he thought “Earhart ran out of fuel some 50 to 60 miles northwest of Howland Island; mainly due to cloud cover that hampered celestial navigation.”  But the crash and sink theory is boring and unprovable without finding the plane.  And a number of historians and aviation experts/enthusiasts believe that is a big reason some seem so resistant to it. 

The other predominant theory (one even deemed to be of some merit by Robert Ballard, the ocean explorer famous for locating the wreck of the Titanic) is the Gardner Island or Nikumaroro castaway theory.  The theory goes that Amelia and Fred were way off navigational course and at some point abandoned searching for Howland Island and instead the ever skilled pilot Amelia Earhart landed on a reef (during low tide) approx. 400 miles south on the remote then-uninhabited coral atoll then-named Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro), one of the Phoenix Islands, and there died a castaway (with the plane having mostly sunk in the waters near the shore).  Months after the disappearance, plane, boat and walking searches on Gardner found no clear sign of Earhart, Noonan or the plane.  There was no bearded grizzled crazed Earhart talking to a volleyball.    

Then in 1988, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a non-profit headed by former successful aviation insurance salesman Ric Gillespie (he and his wife work full-time for TIGHAR on their Pennsylvania farm), began an investigation of the Earhart/Noonan disappearance.  And since then they have been the biggest pushers or proponents of the Gardner/Nikumaroro castaway theory.  This theory has not lacked in media coverage, frequently generating headlines trumpeting new evidence and new discoveries.  Over numerous donor-funded expeditions, TIGHAR has gathered debris or artifacts on Nikumaroro and claims many of them clearly connect to Earhart and/or the Electra.  The copious media coverage and numerous expeditions failing to turn up definitive proof have fueled TIGHAR critics who claim Gillespie is purely in it for the money (or just pathologically and irrationally wedded to his pet theory).  Susan Butler, Earhart expert and author of an Earhart biography, told the BBC that Gillespie “is an expert at achieving publicity, and National Geographic falls for him every time.  So do the newspapers.”

There are a number of general and specific problems with the Nikumaroro castaway theory and TIGHAR’s claimed evidence.   Firstly, Earhart would have been 10 degrees massively off course and her equipment and experience (and Fred’s) and other considerations like Earhart’s last transmissions (which indicated she was not so far off course) and also the Itasca’s radio equipment and readings make that very unlikely and unreasonable says historic aviation enthusiast Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com.  Dorothy Cochrane, curator at the aeronautics dept of the Smithsonian, pointed out that “as [Earhart] approached Howland Island, her radio calls became stronger.”  Cochrane also pointed out the immediate searches: “[The Navy] over-flew [Nikumaroro] island within a week, and they saw nothing.  It’s just inconceivable that they would not have seen her if she was on [Nikumaroro] in some fashion.”

The artifacts TIGHAR claims support its promoted theory have many alternative explanations and some have been outright discredited.  Firstly, TIGHAR found an aluminum fuselage fragment purported to be from Amelia Earhart’s 1936 twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10E Special.  But aviation specialist Gary LaPook pointed out the piece had part of a marking on it that was not used until WWII.  And in 2017 the New England Air Museum notified TIGHAR that the unique rivet pattern of the found panel precisely matched the top of the wing of a C-47B in the museum inventory (ergo, not Earhart’s Electra). 

Around April 1940, skeletal remains were found on Gardner/Nikumaroro and subsequently lost in Fiji, leaving only measurements of the bones and a visual assessment by the examining doctor that the bones belonged to a male.  In 2018, a TIGHAR-connected American anthropologist Richard Jantz attacked the doctor’s assessment but accepted as the accurate the doctor’s measurements and used them to attack the doctor’s conclusion, which critics found odd and contradictory.  Furthermore, Jantz used photos of Earhart to estimate her measurements and this has been criticized.  The bones have been missing for decades and are very unlikely to ever be found (thanks to WWII).  As Tyrion Lannister of Game of Thrones would undoubtedly remark (if he were Earhart mystery enthusiast and also lived on our planet) after knocking a glass cup to the floor, shattering it, “You’ll have an easier time drinking out of that cup than you will finding those lost Fiji bones.” 

TIGHAR also found a sextant box and claimed it belonged to Fred Noonan; it had two apparent serial numbers on it: 3500 and 1542.  As Brian Dunning reminded: “Hundreds of people had lived on Nikumaroro, on and off, for a century; including women, children, British colonists, and many others.  It would more surprising if Gillespie had not found the items he has.”  In October 2018, documents at the National Archives showed USS Bushnell (which visited Nikumaroro and surveyed the island) had such a sextant with USNO serial number 1542 in 1938–1939, well after Earhart’s disappearance.  And serial number 3500 would have been made around the time of World War I. 

To make matters worse, the Gardner/Nikumaroro castaway theory has hit a new more conclusive problem and very recently: Really sophisticated search equipment (that TIGHAR never had) used by real deal Titanic-finder Robert Ballard did not find Earhart’s plane around Nikumaroro.  Ballard ended his land and ocean search just last month (October 2019).  According to the New York Times, Ballard “felt he was adding ‘nail after nail after nail’ to the coffin of the Nikumaroro hypothesis.”  TIGHAR (and even a senior official in the Obama administration) often pushed an old photograph (the Bevington image) which showed a blurry speck that, when enhanced, was perhaps “consistent with” the landing gear of Earhart’s Electra.  But according the New York Times, Ballard’s “crew members found so many beach rocks consistent in size and shape with the supposed landing gear in the Bevington image that it became a joke on the ship.” 

Now it’s time for me to get more up close and personal on my why I am writing this article right now and my opinion on TIGHAR.  To reiterate, one of the two major Earhart theories (the Gardner/Nikumaroro theory) just faced a titanic reckoning at the hands of Robert Ballard.  That theory failed big time.  And the Howland theory is on deck for its reckoning.  Forget any beach artifacts or missing bones, TIGHAR’s theory had Earhart’s Electra dead to rights in the immediate waters of Nikumaroro (eventually washed away by the high tide so the story goes), which explained the claimed post-loss radio transmissions from Earhart before the waters supposedly consumed the plane and also explained how Earhart and Noonan made it to land (where it’s claimed they died, leaving all those artifacts).  Robert Ballard joined many others in not finding the plane there and he had top shelf equipment and proven success, skills, and experience.  Allison Fundis, the Nautilus’s chief operating officer: “We felt like if her plane was there, we would have found it pretty early in the expedition.”

As far as TIGHAR, I must confess that, for a time, I was suckered into believing Gillespie’s rubbish.   I think there were two reasons why.  Firstly, I think, subconsciously, that I just did not want to believe the boring theory that Earhart crashed and sank.  I foolishly had this notion that Earhart was so skilled and experienced that she just could not have crashed and sank (TIGHAR also cleverly pushes this notion).  But I just did not fully understand the treacherous nature of her remote location and flight plan.  No amount of skill or experience can change that her path basically had two options:  land on Howland Island (the intended destination) or crash and sink.  Well, what about the third option:  land on Nikumaroro?  Even if she considered that option, she just might not have had the fuel to try for it or make it.  I think what goes unsaid in the history of the Earhart mystery is that TIGHAR’s Nikumaroro theory cannot be fully ruled out on Earhart’s fuel level alone, because there are recorded discrepancies on how much fuel she left with on that fateful July 2 from Lae Airfield in Papua New Guinea.  Her fuel tank had a capacity of 1,150 gallons, but there is recorded evidence that she only left with 1,000 or even 950 gallons perhaps because the plane was already at its full-weight capacity.  We’ll never know.

The other reason I fell for TIGHAR’s rubbish is that the news media constantly gives them attention and TIGHAR does constant active work on the mystery (and they have a nice enough webpage).  The “crash and sink” Howland Island theory doesn’t have corporate and media cheerleaders and promoters who profit off it.  In fact, most people could only notice the strength of crash and sink theory by its reflexive criticism and debunks of TIGHAR’s purported evidence and expeditions.  In other words, TIGHAR is basically the only game in the “solving the Earhart mystery” world (well, except for the Japanese captivity theory nuts).  Not enough independent effort is being made to try to prove Earhart crashed and sank short of Howland Island (or if it is, hardly anyone is covering these developments).  There have been searches of the waters around Howland.  But if we don’t know how short she fell of Howland or whether she was north, south, east or west of Howland, it’s harder know the searches around Howland have been exhaustive enough.  But in 2021, Robert Ballard is coming for the Howland crash and sink theory, he’s coming to test it by searching for the Electra. 

So, uh, well what if big bad Robert Ballard finds nothing in the waters around Howland Island?  I don’t know how I will react exactly.  Again, the Nikumaroro theory has a clear and narrow view of where the plane should be found (and Ballard did not find it!).  The Howland theory doesn’t.  So how will we know Ballard did a full, comprehensive, and conclusive search?  I’m guessing we won’t really know.  Ballard always boosts his troops morale on a hunt by reminding them that one of the Titanic expeditions missed locating the ship by just under 500 feet.  So I presume the same kind of tragic near miss can befall finding Earhart’s Electra around Howland.  From articles, it’s also hard to tell if the Electra might be too degraded to find easily at this point.  Ballard doesn’t seem to believe so, but I know some have raised that point (I believe our friends at TIGHAR like to raise the point in their attempt to explain away why the plane hasn’t been found around Nikumaroro).      

But I wanted do an article about where the Amelia Earhart disappearance/mystery stands today in November 2019, because there have been notable developments.  I wanted to make more people aware that the renowned Dr. Robert Ballard is on the case, has been since August.  In 2021, Ballard’s Nautilus will be in the South Pacific fulfilling a contract to map underwater American territories.  That will bring the ship to the area around Howland Island and Ballard plans to make time to explore those waters. 

“In many ways, I’m doing this for my mother,” Ballard said of his motivation to the New York Times.  “This plane exists,” he said. “It’s not the Loch Ness monster, and it’s going to be found.”  Famous last words, Robert?

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