Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance
Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance

Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance

Larry Holzwarth - February 20, 2021

Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance
Crewmen killed in the wreck of Norwich City were buried on Nikumaroro by the survivors. Vancouver Archives

15. There were documented castaways on Nikumaroro

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.

Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance
Evidence pointing to Earhart or her Electra eluded Ballard and his team. Wikimedia

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.

Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance
The 2019 expedition was filmed by the National Geographic Society. Amazon

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.

Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance
Government House on Howland Island, Amelia Earhart’s planned destination when she disappeared, in 1937. Wikimedia

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.

Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance
Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt at the National Geographic Society in 1935. Wikimedia

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.

Recent Discoveries End in Disappointment and More Mysteries in Earhart Disappearance
Amelia and her husband, publisher George Putnam, in 1931. Wikimedia

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.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Expedition Amelia”. Documentary, National Geographic Society. 2019. Online

“Thanks to an Old Photograph, an Explorer Believes He Can Solve the Mystery of Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance Once and For All”. Susan Cascone, Artnet News. August 13, 2019

“Amelia Earhart’s Final Flight”. Peter Garrison, Flying Magazine. December 22, 2020

“Naval Aviation and the Search for Amelia Earhart”. Article, National Naval Aviation Museum. Online

“The Earhart Project in a Nutshell”. Article, The Earhart Project, TIGHAR. Online

“Has aviator Amelia Earhart’s beauty case been found?” Rosella Lorenzi, NBC News. July 13, 2012

“Has Amelia Earhart’s plane finally been found? Not so fast”. Alan Yuhas, The Guardian. October 30, 2014

“Inside the search for Amelia Earhart’s airplane”. Rachel Hartigan, National Geographic. August 12, 2019

“Finding the Plane”. The Earhart Project, Niku VII, TIGHAR. Online

“Finding Amelia Earhart’s plane seemed impossible. Then came a startling clue”. Julie Cohn, The New York Times. August 12, 2019

“Will the Search for Amelia Earhart Ever End?” Jerry Adler, Smithsonian Magazine. January, 2015

“Why the Much-Publicized Mission to Find Amelia Earhart’s Airplane Is Likely to Come Up Empty”. Brigit Katz, Smithsonian Magazine. July 31, 2019

“Amelia Earhart Mystery: Lost Pilot Spent Days In Prison Before Being Killed In Saipan, Says New Evidence”. Summer Meza, Newsweek. November 25, 2017

“Welcome Aboard E/V Nautilus”. Article, Ocean Exploration Trust. Online

“The Amelia Earhart Mystery Stays Down in the Deep”. Julie Cohn, The New York Times. October 14, 2019

“Researchers hope DNA testing may finally prove bones found on a remote island were Amelia Earhart’s”. Elizabeth Wolfe, Brian Ries, CNN. October 15, 2019

“Making Room for a New Guess”. Joe Cerniglia, Amelia Earhart Archaeology. November 2, 2019. Online

“Looking for Amelia”. Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, Johns Hopkins Magazine. Online

“An American Obsession”. Paul Hoverstein, Smithsonian Air & Space. June/July, 2007

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