11. E/V Nautilus offered the opportunity for the most exacting search yet undertaken
When Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of Titanic in 1985 he had just completed a survey of the wrecks of two American nuclear submarines. Having completed those missions, he had little time remaining to explore Titanic. He also had cutting-edge technology for the time available, but by the 21st century somewhat dated. For the search for Amelia’s Electra, Ballard and his team had at their disposal Exploration Vehicle (E/V) Nautilus, a 211 foot-long vessel equipped for deep-water exploration and surveying. The ship’s remote operating vehicles, Hercules and Argus, carried high-definition cameras, with the former carrying remotely operated manipulating and recovery tools. High precision maneuverability and sonars featured in both ROVs.
Nautilus offered the capability of not only finding and photographing artifacts but retrieving them. It also offered high-resolution sonar systems for mapping undersea objects. Hercules could operate at depths beneath 13,000 feet, while its partner, Argus, could descend to below 19,000 feet. In addition to the capabilities of the ship, its equipment, and its crew, Ballard offered extensive experience in undersea searches. The announcement of the finder of Titanic had joined the search for Amelia Earhart at Nikumaroro generated a wave of excitement in the scientific community and among aviation enthusiasts. The search, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, was scheduled for the summer of 2019. News media and websites mirrored the general belief that Earhart’s long-lost Electra would soon be found.
12. An expedition on Nikumaroro coincided with the underwater search
Oral histories passed down by the former colonists on Nikumaroro included several claims of finding the skeletons of a man and a woman, so identified by their clothes. Others referred to a wrecked aircraft, though at different locations on the island. The first colonists arrived on the island months after Earhart’s disappearance. Only days after she vanished, airplanes from the battleship USS Colorado overflew the island, and did not report any evidence of an airplane. The crewmen of the aircraft were trained aerial observers; battleships carried aircraft as scout planes and to observe the fall of shot from the ship’s big guns. They would have been unlikely to miss a wrecked airplane, or a parked aircraft on the reef.
Nonetheless, numerous archaeological expeditions to the island have combed it for human remains and other evidence over the years. Another coincided with the undersea search conducted by Ballard and his team. They searched the areas described through the lore of the former colonists as the site where the skeletons were found. They also took soil samples, in the hope they would reveal the presence of human DNA. Portions of a skull, first found on Nikumaroro decades earlier and believed lost, were identified and sent for DNA analysis at a Florida laboratory. All of the most recent activity regarding the search for Amelia Earhart received extensive press coverage and generated considerable public attention. It reached a peak as Ballard’s expedition prepared to depart in the summer of 2019.
13. Nautilus and its ROVs conducted an extensive survey of the island before the search began
The first step upon arrival at Nikumaroro included an extensive survey of the regions to be searched for remnants of Earhart’s Electra. Nautilus circumnavigated the atoll several times, using its sonar to map the descending walls of the seamount, as well as the wreckage trail which streamed from the remains of SS Norwich City. A study of the shipwreck’s debris trail provided a better understanding of how debris of all types cascaded down the seamount. Besides the ledges and underwater cliffs, they discovered descending chutes which carried debris downward, and captured some of it during its descent. A better understanding of the mount’s rock structure and coral also offered a possibility of greater efficiency as they searched for debris.
As part of the preparation for a focused search Nautilus did not rely on its submerged ROVs alone. Aerial drones launched and overflew the reef and atoll, recording patterns of material going over the reef and descending. Divers explored the upper regions of the areas to be searched. Anomalies in sonar returns, caused by the irregularities of the rock ledges and cliffs, were identified, and steps to correct for them developed. Once all was ready Ballard’s team settled in for the search for aircraft parts, or materials which may have come from the Electra, along the face of the submerged mountain. The operations room was the scene for long watches by operators and observers, held 24 hours a day for the duration of the search. Much of the time passed by in monotonous images of rocks and ledges, illuminated by the lights of the ROVs.
In 1940 skeletal remnants found on Nikumaroro, then still known as Gardner Island, were sent to Fiji for analysis. The bones were measured, and based on several analysis techniques, including the ratio of arm bones to leg bones, a determination made. According to the forensic experts of the time, they most likely were the remains of a native male, short, stocky, and of indeterminate age. The bones were stored in Fiji, subsequently lost. In 2018 TIGHAR announced a new finding based on data from a new analysis of the bones, which found they, “strongly support[s] the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart”. The researchers did not examine the bones to arrive at the conclusion. Instead, they relied on the measurements and analysis conducted on the specimens in 1941.
The researchers used more recently developed forensic analysis techniques to counter the findings of their colleague from nearly seven decades earlier. They determined the skeletal remains must have been Earhart’s, since nobody else of the description they created from the data resided on the island at the time. They also used photographic evidence to match the measurements from 1941 to estimates of what would have been Earhart’s measurements. As Ballard searched the sea for evidence of Earhart’s airplane, archaeologists scoured several sites on Nikumaroro in search of corroborating DNA evidence which could be linked to relatives of the lost aviatrix.
In November, 1929, SS Norwich City departed Melbourne, Australia, bound for Honolulu, thence to Vancouver. The 18-year old vessel had a somewhat checkered history, having collided with the Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver a year and a half earlier. It carried a crew of 35 men, though no women are documented as being aboard. The ship sailed in ballast, carrying no cargo. On November 29, having encountered heavy weather, the ship struck the reef around Gardner Island and grounded hard. The crew tried to free the vessel before a fire in the engine room forced them to abandon ship. They worked their way across the reef to dry land.
Eleven men died during the wreck and their subsequent marooning on Gardner Island. The survivors found shelter in some abandoned structures, erected on the island years before by a coconut planting expedition. Three crewmen who died in the wreck and its aftermath were buried on Gardner Island by their surviving shipmates. Another eight men were missing and presumed dead, though whether any of them managed to reach the island on their own is open to speculation. The survivors were rescued after several days, though the ship appeared unsalvageable, and over time gradually lost more and more of its hull to the sea. Several parts were scavenged off the ship for use by colonists in various projects during experiments to settle the island.
16. Ballard meticulously searched the area near the wreck of the Norwich City
The Bevington photograph revealed the assumed piece of landing gear several hundred yards distant from the port side of what remained of SS Norwich City. Ballard’s 2019 search focused on that area, along the sides of the seamount as it descended to the bottom. They pored over the ledges and cliff, the chutes and ridges, to a depth below 8,000 feet. The chutes were of particular interest since they evidently funneled debris downward. They discovered numerous rock formations which resembled the item in the enhanced Bevington photograph, so many of them they took to calling them landing gear rocks. The searchers found other items as well, recovered them using Hercules‘ robotic arm, and brought them aboard Nautilus for examination.
They found a hat, lost during the expedition by the ship’s navigator. Researchers found a small aluminum disc, which they determined to be the bottom of a soda can. They found a small, shiny, metallic panel, far too flexible to have been part of the skin of an aircraft. Heavier items they expected to locate, such as the aircraft’s engines, or its radios, or parts of the landing gear, eluded them. Eventually, they searched up to four miles out to sea, away from the island, in case the Electra glided in the water as it sank. They found no evidence of the airplane. In short, they found nothing which could be connected to Earhart’s aircraft, or for that matter, any aircraft. Though they searched for two weeks, answers to the Amelia Earhart mystery eluded them.
17. The 2019 expedition added to the mystery of Amelia Earhart
A team of cinematographers accompanied the 2019 expedition, documenting it for National Geographic as Expedition Amelia. The 95-minute film depicts the search, and presents Amelia’s story, in detail. The film also depicts the work of the forensic specialists on the island, and in a laboratory examination of the skull believed by some to be that of Amelia Earhart. All of the efforts shown in the film produced inconclusive results. Not finding the remains of the Electra, for example, did not prove the aircraft wasn’t there. It only proved they didn’t locate it. Dr. Ballard noted it took four attempts to locate the wreck of Titanic before the ship revealed itself. Yet no plans have been announced for further searches for the wreckage of Earhart’s lost airplane at Nikumaroro.
DNA testing of the skull and bone and soil samples recovered from Nikumaroro became the main focus of the search following the expedition of 2019. News coverage following the expedition reported that if DNA evidence suggests that Earhart had been present on the island, additional searches for the airplane would be undertaken. Ballard also stated his intention to use the time following a contracted mapping expedition to Howland Island in 2021 to search for Earhart’s aircraft in the waters there. The 1937 official finding of the US Navy considered she crashed at sea near the island. One reason for that belief is the radio signals received by Itasca were strong enough that crewmen aboard the cutter believed she was nearly within visual range, though no one reported spotting the aircraft.
18. Earhart likely lacked the fuel needed to reach Nikumaroro
As Earhart’s Electra approached Howland, she radioed Itasca several messages. On one she exclaimed “We must be on you, but cannot see you”, and in another she reported she was flying on a line running southeast to northeast, though she did not report in which of those directions she was heading. Her signal strength convinced Itasca’s radio operator to go out on deck, in the belief her airplane could be seen. Evidence suggests that were she that close to Howland Island, her remaining fuel did not allow the flying time necessary to reach Gardner Island. She had by then been in the air for 20 hours. Supporters of the Gardner Island hypothesis argue the modified Electra carried enough fuel for 24 hours flying time. If so, they claim, she had more than enough fuel to reach Nikumaroro, about 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.
According to skeptics of the Gardner Island hypothesis, the theory ignores the weather conditions encountered during the Electra’s last flight. It also ignores Earhart’s own transmission reporting her being low on fuel. The headwinds during her flight from Lae to Howland Island exceeded 26 mph, more than double the forecast. She also encountered a heavy storm shortly after takeoff. The storm forced a rapid climb to avoid adverse conditions, which also burned fuel at an unexpected rate. In 1999 the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech developed a model showing Earhart’s fuel all but gone by the time she contacted Itasca. Certainly, she did not have enough remaining to fly from the proximity of Howland Island to a landing 350 miles away.
19. Numerous conflicting theories speculate over the fate of Amelia Earhart
There are some researchers who believe Earhart never approached Howland Island, or for that matter Nikumaroro. Over the years there have been claims of her airplane being spotted offshore of Buka Island, in Papua New Guinea. The theory is subscribed to by many supporters of the Earhart as spy theory. Others claim she either landed or crashed in the Marshall Islands. One story has her aircraft in a hangar, guarded by US Marines, following the taking of Saipan during World War II. Still, another claims skeletal remains of the aviatrix were located on Fiji. One theory includes the proposition that the radio broadcasts from Earhart to Itasca were pre-recorded, using an actress to mimic Earhart’s voice. The theory suggests it was part of an elaborate cover-up for Earhart’s actual spy mission.
Despite all the theories, hypotheses, local lore, and mythology, the only thing known for certain regarding her last flight is that she didn’t reach Howland Island as planned. Unless DNA evidence proves she died on Nikumaroro, or navigator Fred Noonan did, the mystery will remain unsolved. Even should the remains of the Electra be found, with indisputable proof it is her aircraft, speculation will undoubtedly continue. In the decades since she vanished the search for Amelia Earhart became a cottage industry. Until proof is unearthed, the press and other media will continue to speculate on new clues, using words such as tantalizing, promising, and fascinating to describe them as the potential key to unlock an undying mystery.
20. Earhart has eluded history for more than eight decades
On January 5, 1939, at the behest of Earhart’s husband George Putnam, the courts declared Amelia Earhart legally dead. Putnam needed the decision (which waived a seven-year missing rule) in order to manage her estate. Later that year World War II began in Europe, and the Earhart mystery faded from public consciousness. Following the war, largely fed by the reports of returning servicemen in the Pacific of knowledge of Earhart’s fate, it resumed. Much of the new speculation derived from the perceived involvement of the Japanese in her fate. In the 1960s the idea of conspiracies involving shadowy government agencies fed further speculation. Driving them all is a simple refusal to accept the famed aviatrix could have perished because she simply made a mistake.
Several researchers, including Robert Ballard, believe the aircraft or the remnants of its wreckage will one day be found. Whether it is 18,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean or sunk in the silt off a Southern Pacific island is a question still unanswered. Even more than eighty years after she vanished, Earhart’s name and image are compelling. Numerous companies have licensed her name to support their products, including Apple, Jeep, and Google. No doubt she will remain compelling following the day when it is finally announced the site of her disappearance has been found, and the mystery of her fate solved.
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