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Expedition Scours Pacific for Amelia Earhart Wreck

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic On Assignment
December 15, 2003
 
Modern sonar technology is scanning the Pacific in a high-tech search
for a legendary grave—the crash site of famed pilot Amelia Earhart.


The most recent two-month expedition is headquartered on the research vessel Davidson, operated by Nauticos, an ocean exploration company in Cape Porpoise, Maine. The president, David Jourdan, has crammed the ship with cutting-edge equipment that can "look" three miles (five kilometers) beneath the surface of the ocean. If successful, Nauticos will solve a mystery thats held the world's curiosity for over six decades.

Elgen Long, a professional pilot, from Reno, Nevada, is helping to lead the charge. After studying logs of Earhart's radio transmissions, he's narrowed the search area down to a few hundred square miles near Howland Island. That tiny speck in the Pacific, about
halfway between Hawaii and Australia, is where Earhart was headed when her plane vanished on July 2, 1937. No trace of it was ever found.

"This is one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century, now into the 21st century," said Long. "We're dealing with somebody who was a great lady of her time. The memories that we have of her should be based on the truth."

Catching the World's Attention

Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in May, 1932; the first to fly alone from coast to coast in the U.S. in August, 1932; and the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to California in January, 1935. Her successes drew worldwide attention—she was breaking down gender boundaries with every flight.

"As she was growing up at the turn of the century, there were still so many things girls were not allowed to do," said Susan Ware, a lecturer on 20th Century United States history at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"She's up there all alone in this huge machine, she knows she's any man's equal, and she doesn't have to deal with any of the barriers and discrimination on the ground. She's totally free. And I think that for Earhart, I think that was a huge part of flying, that sense of freedom that she had."

Beginning in May, 1937, Earhart launched an epic flight around the world—flying in stages across the U.S., Atlantic, Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Earhart's Lockheed Electra E10 took off for Howland from a small grass airstrip in Lae, New Guinea, in July—launching her crossing of the Pacific. It was the longest and most dangerous leg of her journey.

Earhart ran into trouble shortly after take off, veering south to avoid thunderstorms. She hit 30-mile (48-kilometer)-an-hour headwinds. Ascending to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), probably to avoid clouds, she burnt fuel fast.

About 65 miles (105 kilometers) away from Howland, she began descending to look for the island. She was flying into the sun, searching for Howland through a fierce glare.

Earhart's Last Moments

She was looking in the wrong place. The island was six miles (10 kilometers) further east than it appeared on Earhart's charts. The Electra was headed in the wrong direction.

Earhart was communicating via radio with a coast guard cutter, the Itasca, stationed off Howland. The ship's captain was sending signals for Earhart's radio direction finder, but she couldn't find them. As the Electra started running low on fuel, Earhart could see nothing but ocean in every direction.

Twenty hours and 13 minutes after leaving Lae, Earhart sent her final radio message. "We are on a line of position 157/337, will repeat this message, we will repeat this message on 6210 kcs. Wait."

At that point it's believed Earhart's engines started sputtering. In a vast and remote sea, she was forced to attempt a sea landing.

The captain of the Itasca quickly launched a search that would ultimately involve nine naval ships and 66 planes combing this vast sea for more than two weeks.

They found nothing.

Journey to a Watery Grave

The Davidson's journey begins in Hawaii, plowing 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers) southwest toward Howland. As the ship approaches the island a week later, a powerful sonar unit, called Nomad, is deployed off Davidson's deck.

Nomad is towed just above the sea floor, about four miles (six kilometers) behind the mother ship. The unit beams images back along nearly six miles (ten kilometers) of cable to the Davidson.

The crew believes the discovery of Earhart's ship is now just days or hours away.

"We've always been successful. In every project we've attempted we have found what we were looking for in the deep ocean," said Jourdan.

The search area around Howland is divided into a series of transects on a map, each 50 miles (80 kilometers) long. The Nomad scans each area slowly, moving about two miles (three kilometers) an hour.

"Thats just like walking somewhere," said Rob Vinson, one of the ship's radio engineers. "We're actually just walking along the bottom looking for the airplane."

Early in the search the Davidson hits on its first lead. The Nomad has detected a large debris field about the same size as the Electra.

"This is the best looking target we've had yet," said Jourdan.

The crew huddles in for closer analysis—but their excitement quickly dwindles as they zero in for a second look. The debris rises up about 90 feet (27 meters); the plane was less than 60 feet (18 meters) long. What they are looking at is probably just a big rock.

The crew settles back into the routine of scanning sonar images. They know the plane is out there.

"The deep ocean is a very preserving environment. There are no currents or tides at that depth, and no human interactions that could have degraded what's there," said Jourdan. "Biological remains would have disintegrated quickly, but metals survive. We expect the plane to look pretty much like it did when it went down."

All Hands on Deck

Their continuing search is abruptly interrupted by a minor disaster on ship. A hose bursts in the hydraulic-powered winch that raises and lowers the cable connected to the Nomad; simultaneously the brake mechanism fails.

"A million dollars of equipment suddenly started spiraling into the deep," said Jourdan.

A crewmember jams on the manual break just before all of the cable disappears into the sea. But that introduces a new problem. The miles of cable and the Nomad together weigh about 22,400 pounds (10 tons). The weight is slowly pulling the Davidson backwards.

Pieces of splintered metal in the hydraulic fluid soon cause the back-up motor to fail. The captain has to grapple with the real possibility of cutting the cable and abandoning both the equipment and the search.

Radio engineer Rod Blocksome rebuilds the winch's main engine in a hurry. Once it's cranked up, it handles the strain—to the cheers of the crew. But how long it will hold is anyone's guess. The ship needs to head for home.

"The engine was fixed, but not operational for the long run," said Jourdan.

The goal of discovering Earhart's crash site is delayed, but not abandoned. Nauticos plans to launch another search in Spring, 2004.

"The mystery continues until the plane is found. We will find it. We are closer to it now," said Long. "We'll be back."

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