Answer Man

Earhart crash still a tantalizing mystery almost 80 years later

Amelia Earhart with navigator Fred Noonan.
Amelia Earhart with navigator Fred Noonan.

Q: Some researchers believe famed aviator Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, may have spent their final days on Nikumaroro Island after crashing in the western Pacific Ocean during her quest to become the first woman to fly around the world. In fact, in 1991, those researchers discovered a piece of metal that, in 2014, they claimed came from Earhart’s plane. They then announced another expedition for 2014 that they hoped might discover her submerged plane or evidence that the two survived for a time on the island. I’ve never heard anything more. Was the expedition ever undertaken and, if so, was anything more found?

Joe Fontana, of Roxana

A: After nearly a year of delays, the group at the forefront of uncovering the final fate of Earhart and Noonan did indeed mount a scaled-back trip in June 2015 to tiny Nikumaroro Island. But after two weeks of scouring the 8-square-mile speck of land with metal detectors, drones and even a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), the group’s 11th expedition failed to find any clue into a mystery that still fascinates the world.

Next July 2 will mark the 80th anniversary of that day in 1937 when Earhart’s ill-fated Lockheed Model 10 Electra made its final contact with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was providing radio and navigational support for the flight. With just 7,000 miles to go — all over the Pacific — on her monthlong 29,000-mile journey, Earhart took off from Lae, New Guinea, bound for Howland Island, some 2,556 miles away.

Perhaps Earhart’s daring feat had been hexed from the start. On her first attempt four months earlier, Earhart had flown the first leg from Oakland, Calif., to Honolulu only to find that her plane, funded by Purdue University and built new to her specifications, had lubrication and propeller problems. Then, after three days of repairs at Pearl Harbor, the plane suffered major damage during takeoff on the next leg. The flight was scrapped, and the plane was shipped back to Lockheed for repairs.

Undaunted, Earhart secured more funding and quickly prepared for a second attempt, this time flying west to east. After an unannounced shakedown flight from Oakland to Miami that started May 20, Earhart unveiled her plans to try again. This time, Noonan would be her only passenger (two other people were on her first try, including a technical adviser). They left Miami on June 1 and, after two dozen stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, the pair arrived June 29 in Lae, where they rested for three days.

Finally, at 10 a.m. July 2, Earhart and Noonan started their long, challenging flight across the Pacific, which, if successful, would put them down at Honolulu on July 3 and home in Oakland for a star-spangled Fourth of July celebration. But the fireworks never came out of storage.

As the plane neared Howland Island, the Itasca reportedly received strong and clear voice transmissions from Earhart. “We must be on you, but cannot see you, but gas is running low,” she radioed at one point. “We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

On the Itasca, radioman Leo Bellarts later would say he was “sweating blood” because he and the rest of the crew quickly realized the danger Earhart was facing. Not only was she apparently unable to hear voice transmissions from the ship, but her plane’s direction finder also may have malfunctioned and she was unable to receive even direction signals from the ship. Despite a number of messages indicating Earhart believed she was near Howland, her plane was never seen and eventually all communication was lost.

Almost immediately, the Itasca began searching the sea around Howland based on Earhart’s last transmissions, but found nothing. For nearly three weeks, a fleet of U.S. Navy ships would scour 150,000 square miles of ocean without success. A private search funded by her husband, George Putnam, was equally futile. On Jan. 5, 1939, Earhart was declared dead when Putnam asked that the usual seven-year waiting period be waived so he could settle her estate.

Still, the world wondered: What exactly had happened to her? There were no lack of theories, including one which suggested the two may have been captured by the Japanese and executed as spies. But the first real clue may have popped up in October 1937, when a British survey team took a photo that seemed to show pieces of a plane in the water near Nikumaroro Island, which is 400 miles southeast of Howland. Studied by Earhart historians for decades, a review by the U.S. State Department recently determined one piece was likely the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra.

That has only bolstered the determination of Richard Gillespie to solve this riddle. From 1973 to 1984, Gillespie worked as an aviation accident investigator and a risk manager for the aviation insurance agency. Then, in January 1985, Gillespie, now 69, founded TIGHAR — The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery — and zeroed in on Earhart as one of the group’s major projects. Since then, he has put together 11 expeditions to prove his hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan actually landed and eventually died on Gardner Island, now known as Nukimaroro.

Their major discovery came in 1991, when, during their second visit to the island, then-TIGHAR President Pat Thrasher stumbled upon a 19-by-23-inch sheet of aluminum. For 23 years, the piece, now known as TIGHAR Artifact 2-2-V-1, was the subject of historic research, forensic analysis and consultation with countless experts. In October 2014, TIGHAR announced it was likely that it was the shiny metal patch that covered one of the plane’s back windows as seen in a picture taken by the Miami Herald when Earhart left for Puerto Rico on June 1.

According to Gillespie, TIGHAR researchers had gone to Wichita (Kan.) Air Services and compared the dimensions of the patch to those of an Electra being restored. They found the rivet patterns and other features matched those of a patch that could have been used on Earhart’s plane.

“The patch was as unique to (Earhart’s) particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an individuals,” a TIGHAR press release stated at the time.

But that hasn’t been the group’s only discovery. In an area on the atoll’s southeast side, TIGHAR teams also have stumbled upon U.S. beauty and skin care products that may have dated to the 1930s, including a shattered mirror from a woman’s compact case; parts of a folding pocket knife; traces of campfires with bird and fish bones; some human bones; and bottles dating from before World War II. None has been linked specifically to Earhart, and Dorothy Cochrane, a Smithsonian Institution curator, told the New Republic in 2012, “Not to impugn Ric, but I don’t think he’s found anything on any expedition.”

Nevertheless, the 2014 announcement must have again bolstered Gillespie’s resolve as he immediately began planning a September 2014 expedition complete with two manned submersibles. The $1.5 million price tag, however, proved prohibitive, so TIGHAR settled for an ROV along with more combing of the island itself.

It was all for naught, the group’s final report stated. What some thought might be a sign of Earhart’s plane and other debris under water is probably nothing more than a ridge of coral. They also could find no surviving evidence of a campsite on the island’s northwestern shore.

Still, Gillespie continues his quest. He hopes someday to gain enough funding to acquire the use of a manned submersible in addition to another expedition to the island sometime next year. For a detailed report with pictures of TIGHAR’s work and their latest expedition, you’ll certainly want to punch up the November 2015 issue of TIGHAR Tracks at https://tighar.org/Publications/TTracks/2015Vol_31/October2015WEB.pdf.

Today’s trivia

Who was the first woman to fly solo around the world?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Why is Pb the chemical symbol for lead when neither letter is found in the word itself? It turns out that Pb is an abbreviation for “plumbum” — the Latin word for lead. “Lead” apparently comes from the Proto-Germanic “lauda.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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