Where Is Amelia Earhart?Three Theories
for National Geographic News
|December 15, 2003|
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In the early morning hours of July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart was scheduled
to land her airplane on the tiny Pacific Ocean island of Howland just
north of the Equator. She never arrived.
Her fate remains one of aviation's greatest unsolved mysteries. Organizations and researchers have spent millions of dollars investigating the case and several books have been published that examine the differing theories.
While no theory holds what many of the Earhart researchers call a smoking gun, each theory has staunch defenders who claim mountains of evidence that support theirs as correct.
What is known is that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were flying Earhart's Lockheed Electra on a 2,556-mile (4,113-kilometer) route from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland on the third-to-last leg of an around-the-world equatorial flight. From there they were scheduled to go on to Hawaii and then California.
A U.S. Coast Guard crew aboard the cutter Itasca was at Howland to assist Earhart in this pre-radar era by providing radio bearings and a smoke plume, but owing to radio problemseither technical or operator-specificcommunication was sporadic and broken.
According to Itasca's radio logs, Earhart indicated she must be near the island but couldn't see it and was running low on gas. The Electra never made it to the island.
An ensuing search effort that at its height involved more than 3,000 people, ten ships, and at least 65 planes turned up empty-handed. The official U.S. position is that Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean.
Another theory says the pair died as castaways on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited South Pacific Island. Yet another theory claims they were captured while on a secret mission to the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands in the North Pacific.
Pacific Ocean Crash?
Nauticos, a Hanover, Maryland, company that performs deep-ocean searches and other ocean research services, is leading an effort to locate Earhart's plane where they believe it crashed: in the Pacific Ocean in the vicinity of Howland.
In March and April of 2002, the company used a high-tech, deep-sea sonar system to search 630 square miles (1,630 square kilometers) of the ocean floor near Howland. They didn't find the plane, but plan to return in 2004 to continue searching.
David Jourdan, Nauticos' president, said that by studying factors such as Earhart's broken-up radio transmissions and what is known about the Electra's fuel supply, he and his colleagues have narrowed down an area of the ocean that they believe will eventually yield the plane's grave.
"We are confident it is in the area we are searching," said Jourdan. "Of course, we cannot guarantee it because it could be on the outside edge, but we are sure it is in the vicinity."
According to Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) in Wilmington, Delaware, after Earhart reported being low on fuel she began searching for Howland by flying northeast and southwest along a centerline, erring towards the southwest since she knew the Phoenix Islands, an alternative landing site, lay 350 miles (560 kilometers) in that direction.
TIGHAR's investigation into this theory has uncovered accounts of a plane wreck there before 1939 and reports of two castaways, a man and a woman who fit descriptions of Earhart and Noonan, on the island of Nikumaroro, which was formerly known as Gardner Island.
TIGHAR has been to the island on several occasions to collect evidence that supports this theory.
The most recent trip was in late July and early August of this year. The team went to investigate an artifact seen by a marine biologist that might have been wreckage from Earhart's plane in a coral reef, however, the artifact washed away in a storm before TIGHAR arrived.
"But in looking in the village, we recovered three more artifacts that prove to be of the same type of airplane part we had recovered on our first trip there in 1989, a dado," said Gillespie.
A dado is a kick plate placed inside the cabin of a plane to prevent passengers from damaging the wiring. They are common to civilian aircraft, but not military planes, suggesting that the part could have come from Earhart's Electra.
Unfortunately, said Gillespie, dados are considered furnishings of the airplane cabin and are not included in Lockheed's blueprint drawings of the Electra. And since the interiors of planes are the first thing to get replaced, all extant Electras in museum collections don't have their original dados, he added.
So, next year TIGHAR is planning to investigate known crash sites of Electras in New Zealand, Idaho, and Alaska, hoping to find a match to the dados found on Nikumaroro, leading to the suggestion that Earhart's Electra crashed on Nikumaroro.
The group is also studying records of the other types of aircraft that have flown and crashed in the vicinity of the Phoenix Islands. So far none are Lockheed aircraft and all have dados of a different kind, said Gillespie.
"If we can establish that Lockheed Electras had these unique features, like the ones we found on Nikumaroro, I don't know if that's a smoking gun or not, but it is good," he said.
Marshall Island Secrecy?
A third theory that has spawned many branches is that Earhart and Noonan, unable to find Howlandor perhaps never looking for Howlandheaded north to the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands, where they were taken hostage by the Japanese, possibly as U.S. spies.
Some people believe Earhart and Noonan were eventually killed in Saipan, while others believe Earhart and maybe Noonan returned to the U.S. under assumed names. According to one theory, Earhart took the name Irene Craigmile, then married Guy Bolam and became Irene Bolam, who died in New Jersey in 1982.
"If she couldn't find Howland, plan B was to cut off communications and head for the Marshall Islands and ditch her airplane there," said Rollin C. Reineck, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who lives in Kailua, Hawaii.
Reineck has just written a book, Amelia Earhart Survived, published this month, that he says convincingly documents Earhart's ditching of the plane in the Marshall Islands and then returning to the U.S. under an assumed name for national security reasons.
According to Reineck, the U.S. government-backed plan B would have allowed the U.S. government to rescue Earhart in the Marshall Islands and at the same time perform reconnaissance on Japanese pre-war intelligence efforts.
"However, the plan went bad, as a lot of plans do," said Reineck. Earhart, on a different frequency, radioed that she was headed north. This transmission was intercepted by the Japanese, so when she landed and asked where she was, the Japanese said, "You know where you are," and took her as a hostage.
Reineck said this was kept a secret because if the American public knew that Earhart was on this special mission they would have impeached President Roosevelt for putting America's sweetheart in harm's way.
Several photographs of Irene Bolam, her handwriting, and other forensic evidence has been analyzed by several experts in the last few years and they believe it proves she was indeed Amelia Earhart.
"The evidence seems quite convincing," said Belvedere, California, resident Ronald Reuther, who moderates an Amelia Earhart discussion group on the Internet. Many of the group's participants believe in the Marshall Island theory.
Will the mystery ever be solved?
"There are still U.S. governmental documents concerning Earhart and her disappearance that are still held secret by our government. Why?" said Reuther.
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