Search for Amelia Earhart's Plane Begins

Amelia Earhart airplane
Amelia Earhart was flying a Lockheed Electra airplane when she disappeared in 1937. (Image credit: Purdue University)

Components of Amelia Earhart's plane might have floated for weeks in the waters of an uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, according to new analysis of a photograph taken three months after the disappearance of the glamorous aviator on July 2, 1937, during a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.

Shot by British Colonial Service officer Eric R. Bevington in October 1937, during an expedition to assess the suitability for future settlement and colonization of Nikumaroro, a deserted island between Hawaii and Australia, the grainy photo has prompted a new expedition to find pieces of Earhart's long-lost Lockheed Electra aircraft.

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"We will depart Honolulu on July 3rd aboard the University of Hawaii oceanographic research ship R/V Ka Imikai-O-Kanaloa. In about eight days we should get to Nikumaroro, where we will carry out a deep-water search for the wreckage," Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), told Discovery News.

The 26-day expedition and its findings will be captured by a film crew from Discovery Channel and aired as a documentary in August.

Archival research and a number of artifacts unearthed on Nikumaroro during nine previous archaeological expeditions have provided strong, circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence on the coral atoll.

Gillespie believes that Earhart's twin-engined plane did not crash in the Pacific Ocean, running out of fuel somewhere near her target destination Howland Island. Instead, he thinks Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro's flat coral reef. There, they would have survived as castaways "for a matter of weeks, possibly more," said Gillespie.

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The hunt for the plane wreckage will rely on robots and multi-beam sonar capable of mapping the seafloor at depths of almost 7 miles. The action will be on the reef slope off the west end of Nikumaroro, where waters can reach 5,000 feet. This is the area shown in Bevington's picture.

"The photo shows the western end of the island and the wreck of the British steamer SS Norwich City, which went aground on the island's reef in 1929," Gillespie said.

"But on the left side of the frame there is something else: an apparent man-made protruding object which is hard to explain in that spot," Gillespie said.

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"The photo is wallet-size and, in the original print, the object of interest is smaller than a grain of rice and easily missed," he added.

Indeed, the mysterious object went unnoticed until 2010, when TIGHAR forensic imaging specialist Jeff Glickman spotted it while reviewing the original copy-negative.

"When we plotted the location, we realized it was in the same place where, in 1999, a former resident of Nikumaroro (a colony was established on the island in December of 1938 and lasted until 1963), told us of seeing debris in 1940. Her father, the island carpenter, told her it was the wreckage of an airplane," Gillespie said.

A high-resolution scan of the original print, now kept at the Rhodes House Library at Oxford, U.K., allowed Glickman to carry out a more detailed analysis of the photo.

"There is an object on the reef, but from the picture we can’t definitely prove what it is. However, one interpretation is consistent with four components that existed on Earhart’s Lockheed Electra Model 10E Special," Glickman said presenting his findings last month at an Amelia Earhart conference.

According to Glickman, the object in the image could be a composition made from the upside-down landing gear of Earhart's plane: a floating wheel, the fender, the strut and a worm gear.

"Imagery analysts at the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who examined the photo, agreed with Glickman’s analysis. All the four elements appeared to match the shape and dimensions of the components in the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra," Gillespie said.

Previous expeditions have confirmed that there is nothing remaining in the location on the reef edge where the object appears in the 1937 Bevington photos.

"However, there are grooves in the reef surface where debris could easily have once been caught," Gillespie said.

He admits that there are several possible scenarios that could defeat TIGHAR's efforts to find the wreckage. For example, the plane could have floated away for miles before sinking, or it could have broken up, sunk close to the island and been buried by underwater landslides.

The underwater search will begin with a mapping of the general area with multi-beam sonar. Targets will be identified using high-resolution, side-scan sonar mounted on an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Finally, a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) with powerful lights and high-definition video cameras will be used to investigate the targets.

"If we are fortunate enough to find whatever remains of the airplane, we will get imagery and photographs and then prepare a recovery expedition," Gillespie said.

"Our hope is that finding identifiable pieces of the plane will help make it possible to do further archaeology on shore to learn more about Amelia's last days," he said.

This story was provided by Discovery News.

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