4. TIGHAR sent numerous investigations to Nikumaroro in search of Amelia Earhart
TIGHAR’s first expedition to the former Gardner Island, today known as Nikumaroro, took place in 1989. It claimed to have discovered “several pieces of aircraft debris in abandoned Gilbertese village” and determined the island “worthy of further investigation”. A subsequent expedition reported the tattered remains of shoes, “consistent with shoes worn by Earhart”. On later expeditions, TIGHAR reported on interviews with descendants of the former colonists on Nikumaroro (the colony was abandoned in 1963 and the settlers relocated to the Solomon Islands). The interviews revealed folklore among the settlers of the skeletons of a White man and woman being found on the island in 1938, so identified by virtue of the style of their clothes.
An aluminum panel, which appeared to have been manufactured to the specifications in use in the 1930s, also turned up on the island. Its rivet and bolt hole patterns did not match any of the existing Electra’s examined. However, photographs of Amelia’s Electra (which was heavily modified to her specifications) indicated that on her last flight a window had been covered over with a piece of metal, presumably aluminum. TIGHAR speculated “with a high degree of certainty” the found piece to be the window covering seen in the photographs. They speculated the panel was removed to improve ventilation as the aircraft sat on Nikumaroro’s reef in the hot sun, after arriving safely at the island. Still, no indisputable evidence of Earhart and Noonan at the atoll had yet been found.
5. Cosmetics found on Nikumaroro strengthened the hypothesis Earhart landed on the atoll
Amelia Earhart knew that whenever and wherever she landed her airplane on one of her long-distance flights, the press and photographers awaited. Early in her career she learned to be ready for them. She cultivated her public image, appearing feminine, but not too alluring, confident, but not threatening. She paid attention to her makeup, her hair, and her clothing. As is evident of her in photographs today, she also had freckles, which according to some sources she thoroughly detested. In 2012, TIGHAR announced findings on Nikumaroro which, at least circumstantially, were linked to Earhart based on those personal characteristics.
They found a jar that could have contained anti-freckle cream, dated back to the 1930s. They also found part of a bottle which may have contained hand lotion, the broken remains of what may have been a compact mirror, and remnants of dried chips, identified chemically as being rouge. However, the same style jar believed to have contained the freckle cream also contained other products in the 1930s. TIGHAR speculated it had been freckle cream because of the presence of mercury still detectable on the glass. The jar had been broken, and examination indicated the shards of glass were used as tools for scraping hard and soft materials. At any rate, what type of freckle cream Earhart used, or even if she used any at all has never been established.
6. The aluminum panel found by TIGHAR likely came from another airplane
During World War II, an Army Air Corps C-47B crashed near Gardner Island. Villagers on the island scavenged aluminum from the aircraft, as well as other materials, including aviation wire (cables) and other components they believed to be of use. In 2017, the New England Air Museum examined the rivet pattern on the piece of aluminum TIGHAR believed to have been the window cover on Amelia’s Electra. They found it to be an exact match for a wing panel on a C-47B. They also compared it to the Lockheed Electra in their inventory and found no logical use for it on the aircraft, given the rivet pattern. Nonetheless, speculation continued to build around the theory that Earhart survived for some time on Nikumaroro.
If she did, it could not have been for very long. There is little fresh water on the island, other than pools of rainwater. Without a desalination plant of some kind, someone on the island would have to collect rainwater to survive. The extreme scarcity of water hampered the attempt at colonizing the island. Nor did Noonan and Earhart have much of a supply of drinking water, their aircraft carried as much fuel as possible, at the expense of everything else. Nonetheless, efforts by TIGHAR and others gained credibility for the Nikumaroro theory. In the early 20th century, re-examination of the Bevington photo led to the belief that a blurred image was actually part of an airplane’s landing gear. Nikumaroro became the subject of another scientific expedition to find evidence of Amelia Earhart.
7. The theory of what happened to Earhart’s Electra at Gardner Island
According to the hypothesis of what happened to Earhart on Gardner Island, Earhart landed the airplane on the reef just offshore, or possibly the beach itself, near the wreck of SS Norwich City. Gardner Island is the tip of a seamount, which drops nearly vertically to the seafloor in a series of ledges and cliffs, nearly sixteen thousand feet below the surface. Earhart and Noonan were unable to move the aircraft further inland. Over an unspecified period of time, wave action pulled the aircraft over the edge of the reef. It sank, either being beaten to pieces along the ledges and cliff faces as it descended, or gliding away from the mount, carried by its wings to an unspecified location.
In 2010, forensic analysis of the Bevington photograph revealed something in the water not far from the wreck of Norwich City. The image appeared to be similar to the landing gear from an Electra. Part of the image appeared darker than the rest, which could be the tire, which may have provided enough buoyancy to keep the rest of the landing gear afloat after it broke away from the aircraft. US government photographic forensic analysts corroborated the finding in 2012. The US State Department endorsed another expedition to Nikumaroro, TIGHAR’s Niku VII expedition, to search for wreckage of Earhart’s Electra in the deep waters off the atoll. The expedition claimed to have discovered a debris field, though it did not specify its location for purposes of security.
8. Dr. Robert Ballard long avoided the search for Amelia Earhart
Dr. Robert Ballard achieved world-wide fame when he discovered the remains of RMS Titanic in the summer of 1985. He later enhanced his credentials by locating the wreck of the German battleship Bismarck, and published findings confirming that its crew had scuttled the ship, as had long been claimed by survivors. He located the wreck of USS Yorktown, sunk in the Battle of Midway, the remains of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 in the Solomon Islands, and several of the ships sunk during the naval battles around Guadalcanal. Less well-known were his discoveries of ancient ships dating to the late period of the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire.
Yet Ballard long expressed little interest in the search for Amelia Earhart’s lost Electra, for several reasons. The sheer size of the search area alone made the cost of such an expedition prohibitive. There simply was no place to start. The size of the object to be found also presented a daunting challenge, and because of World War II, numerous wrecked aircraft litter the sea bottom of the Pacific Ocean. There were many opportunities to be diverted by other submerged objects. But the revised analysis of the Bevington photograph changed that perspective. If one accepted that the image in the photograph was in fact part of an airplane, a starting point for a search for other remnants was clear.
9. The object in the Bevington photograph remained hidden for years
The Bevington photograph was well-known among researchers and theorists regarding the fate of Amelia Earhart for decades. Yet the object floating in the water was not. The reason for that seeming anomaly is simple. Most copies of the photograph available were cropped. The commonly used version featured a part of the shoreline and the decaying wreck of SS Norwich City, but did not include the section of the shoreline in which the mystery object evidently floated in the water. Its discovery, and the forensic analysis as to what it was, created a furor among those seeking the answer to the Earhart mystery. Headlines announced its discovery as part of Earhart’s lost Electra. Despite the failure of Niku VII do document specific evidence of Earhart’s airplane at Nikumaroro, the State Department continued to support additional searches of the area.
One of the vocal opponents of the Gardner Island hypothesis was the Smithsonian Institution. Over the course of many years, the Smithsonian expressed skepticism regarding TIGHAR’s research methods and analysis, including their disregarding facts which contradicted their findings. In an email published in part on their Smithsonian Magazine website a curator at the National Air and Space Museum wrote, “Our stance – that she went down in the Pacific Ocean in the proximity of Howland Island – is based on facts”. Calling TIGHAR’s founder and director Richard Gillespie to account, the curator, Dorothy Cochrane, wrote, “Both myself and Senior Curator Dr. Tom Crouch have been debunking Gillespie’s theory for more than 25 years”. Nonetheless, the fervor to locate the remains of Earhart’s Electra off Nikumaroro grew steadily as TIGHAR released more and more discoveries.
10. Other theories disagreed with the Gardner Island hypothesis and TIGHAR
The Smithsonian disagreed with the Gardner Island hypothesis and concurred with the US Navy’s 1937 finding; Earhart’s Electra crashed into the sea near Howland Island. Several other researchers and organizations disagreed with TIGHAR as well but did not agree with the Navy’s explanation of the famed aviatrix’s fate. Several claimed that anecdotal evidence proved that Earhart had been shot down by the Japanese, and held prisoner for a time before being executed for spying. A variant of the theory claims Earhart successfully landed in the Marshall Islands, where the Japanese took her into custody. A photograph found in the National Archives shows a man and woman on a dock, supposedly Earhart and Noonan, according to subscribers to this theory.
A more conspiracy-minded group posit Noonan and Earhart were in fact on an information-gathering trip for the US Navy, which explains the support of the Navy and Coast Guard during several legs of their journey. The conspiracists argue that after Earhart and Noonan were executed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the entire operation covered up, and it has remained a closely guarded secret ever since. Another variant claims Earhart returned to the United States after rescue by US armed forces, where she opted to live under an assumed identity for the rest of her life. Variations of these and other hypothetical answers to the mystery of Earhart’s fate all leave one part of the mystery unanswered. Where are the remains of Earhart’s airplane?
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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