Monday, June 4, 2012

Has Amelia Earhart been found?

An older but always interesting story resurfaced over the weekend: the final fate of the legendary pilot Amelia Earhart:
For decades, pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart was said to have “disappeared” over the Pacific on her quest to circle the globe along a 29,000-mile equatorial route.

Now, new information gives a clearer picture of what happened 75 years ago to Ms. Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, where they came down and how they likely survived – for a while, at least – as castaways on a remote island, catching rainwater and eating fish, shellfish, and turtles to survive.
The tale hints at lost opportunities to locate and rescue the pair in the first crucial days after they went down, vital information dismissed as inconsequential or a hoax, the failure to connect important dots regarding physical evidence.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a non-profit foundation promoting aviation archaeology and historic aircraft preservation, reported new details Friday leading researchers to this conclusion: Earhart and Noonan, low on fuel and unable to find their next scheduled stopping point – Howland Island – radioed their position, then landed on a reef at uninhabited Gardner Island, a small coral atoll now known as Nikumaroro Island.
Using what fuel remained to turn up the engines to recharge the batteries, they continued to radio distress signals for several days until Earhart’s twin-engine Lockheed Electra aircraft was swept off the reef by rising tides and surf. Using equipment not available in 1937 – digitized information management systems, antenna modeling software, and radio wave propagation analysis programs, TIGHAR concluded that 57 of the 120 signals reported at the time are credible, triangulating Earhart’s position to have been Nikumaroro Island.

"Amelia Earhart did not simply vanish on July 2, 1937,” Richard Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News. “Radio distress calls believed to have been sent from the missing plane dominated the headlines and drove much of the US Coast Guard and Navy search.”
"When the search failed, all of the reported post-loss radio signals were categorically dismissed as bogus and have been largely ignored ever since," Mr. Gillespie said. But the results of the study, he said, “suggest that the aircraft was on land and on its wheels for several days following the disappearance.”
In addition, several artifacts found years ago – some of it discovered by Pacific islanders who later inhabited the island – seem to confirm TIGHAR’s conclusion.
These include broken glass artifacts showing evidence of secondary use as tools for cutting or scraping; large numbers of fish and bird bones collected in, or associated with, ash and charcoal deposits; several hundred mollusk shells, as well as bones from at least one turtle; bone fragments and dried fecal matter that might be of human origin.
A photo taken three months after Earhart’s flight shows what could be the landing gear of her aircraft in the waters off the atoll.
Here is a map showing the atoll and the locations where the evidence was found:

Like I said, though, this is not a new story. Headline from from Discovery News, October 23, 2009:

Earhart's Final Resting Place Believed Found

Amelia Earhart mostly likely crash landed near a tropical island in the southwestern Pacific.

Wow, what a brilliant, counterintuitive conclusion. While traveling in the south Pacific, an area filled with tropical islands, she ended up crashing on a tropical island. Whodathunkit? This is why aircraft investigators make the big bucks, folks. Or, more precisely, the headline writers.

Because the trick is to identify which tropical island, and the aircraft investigators managed to do just that:
For years, Richard Gillespie, TIGHAR's executive director and author of the book "Finding Amelia," and his crew have been searching the Nikumaroro island for evidence of Earhart. A tiny coral atoll, Nikumaroro was some 300 miles southeast of Earhart's target destination, Howland Island.
A number of artifacts recovered by TIGHAR would suggest that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, made a forced landing on the island's smooth, flat coral reef.
According to Gillespie, who is set to embark on a new $500,000 Nikumaroro expedition next summer, the two became castaways and eventually died there.
"We know that in 1940 British Colonial Service officer Gerald Gallagher recovered a partial skeleton of a castaway on Nikumaroro. Unfortunately, those bones have now been lost," Gillespie said.
The archival record by Gallagher suggests that the bones were found in a remote area of the island, in a place that was unlikely to have been seen during an aerial search.
A woman's shoe, an empty bottle and a sextant box whose serial numbers are consistent with a type known to have been carried by Noonan were all found near the site where the bones were discovered.
They found possessions, but not remains. Well, not much in the way of remains. Why? Two words: coconut crabs. Make that GIANT coconut crabs:

My grandmother taught me to never approach a giant coconut crab unless armed with drawn butter.

"The reason why they found a partial skeleton is that many of the bones had been carried off by giant coconut crabs. There is a remote chance that some of the bones might still survive deep in crab burrows," Gillespie said.

Imagine walking out of your house and finding this on your front porch.

The general consensus has been that the plane had run out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Howland Island.
But according to Gillespie, the "volume of evidence" TIGHAR has gathered suggests an alternative scenario.
"Propagation analysis of nearly 200 radio signals heard for several days after the disappearance make it virtually indisputable that the airplane was on land," Gillespie said.
Eventually, Earhart's twin-engine plane, the Electra, was ripped apart by Nikumaroro's strong waves and swept out into deep water, leaving no visible trace.
"The evidence is plentiful -- but not conclusive yet -- to support the hypothesis that Amelia landed and died on the island of Nikumaroro," forensic anthropologist Karen Ramey Burns told Discovery News.
The author of a book on Earhart, Burns believes that the strongest of the amassed evidence comes from the report related to the partial skeleton found by Gallagher.
"The skeleton was found to be consistent in appearance with females of European descent in the United States today, and the stature was consistent with that of Amelia Earhart," said Burns.
According to Burns, another piece of documentary evidence comes from the accounts of Lt. John O. Lambrecht, a U.S. Naval aviator participating in the search for Earhart's plane. Lambrecht reported "signs of recent habitation" on what was an officially uninhabited atoll.
Lambrechet's report begs the question: Why did no one follow up?
"I have stood in plain sight on Nikumaroro in a white shirt waving wildly as a helicopter flew over me and was not noticed until the video tape of the flight was examined," Burns said.
"I find it very easy to believe that Amelia and Fred would not have been seen by the pilot. If the Electra was not visible at the time, their last chance of rescue was lost in Lambrecht's notes," she added.
Abandoned on a desert island where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, even in the shade, Earhart and Noonan likely eventually succumbed to any number of causes, including injury and infection, food poisoning from toxic fish, or simply dehydration.
My guess would be dehydration. Nikumaroro is known for having no fresh water.
The coconut crabs' great pincers would have done the rest, likely removing some of the last physical traces of this pioneering aviatrix.

Did you know the coconut crab can climb trees? Cue the nightmares about one of these things falling on your head.
For a counterargument against this theory, check out David Billings' comment to this story. For me, though, the triangulation of the distress signals is pretty convincing. Why would so many of them come from Nikumaroro if Earhart and Noonan weren't there?

Here is a coconut crab attacking a coconut, though the crab's lawyer insists it was self-defense.
The issue of the coconut crabs is interesting, but I'm not sure how convincing. Nikimaroro is supposedly just packed with coconut crabs, which seems kinda strange because they are cannibalistic.They generally are scavengers, eating nuts, fruits and things they find on the ground, including their namesake coconuts, though they actually don't usually eat it. But they have been known to attack people -- I know because I saw it on an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. But, seriously, would they attack human corpses? Or human beings weakened by thirst and starvation?

Why did the garbage truck skip my house again?
However, the major problem I have is that the theory sounds a little too familiar. Flight over the ocean disappears. No one knows where. Flight actually crashed in uninhabited area. Flight crews are eaten by hungry animals. Where have I heard this before?

Oh, yeah. Flight 19, another famous disappearance. On December 5, 1945, five TBM Avenger torpedo bombers left Fort Lauderdale on an afternoon training flight over the Bahamas. The compasses of the lead pilot, Lt. Charles Taylor, went out and they became lost. Taylor somehow believed they were over the Florida Keys, and so to get back home he kept trying to take the flight to the northwest, which was actually further out to sea, as night fell and the weather worsened. They were in intermittent radio contact with their base and other military personnel, but in these days befoe GPS and total radar coverage, no one could determine precisely where they were or talk them down.

According to Gian Quasar's They Flew Into Oblivion, the student pilots, who actually had working compasses, basically revolted and took over the flight from Taylor. They turned the flight back to the west, but by then it was too late - it was too dark, the weather was too rainy and murky, they were desperately low on fuel and they were too far north. They did end up returning to land, but they may not have known it; they had crossed into a desolate area of the Florida-Georgia border, with few artifical lights. The biggest feature of this area was -- and still is -- the giant Okefenokee Swamp: dark, acidic, labrynthine, almost impenetrable and filled with alligators. Quasar's theory is that, thinking they were still over the sea, as their fuel depleted they tried to ditch. Only when the treee branches started slapping across their windows and ripping at their wings did they begin to have any idea what was going on. The Avengers all crashed, destroying their radios and killing or injuring the crews in the process. Injured, possibly disabled, lost in the dark, tangled undergrowth and hidden, sucking peat bogs, surrounded by predatory animals, no food, the water of the swamp acidic and undrinkable, the crews were in deep trouble. No trace of them or their flight ever emerged. The wreckage from the TBM Avengers was likely dissolved in the acidic peat, while the crews were eaten by the aligators, dead or otherwise.

Does this sound anything like TIGHAR's Earhart theory?

Still, it's a very interesting theory. And a very workable one until other evidence surfaces.


  1. Google honoring Amelia Earhart an American aviation pioneer on her 115th Birthday with special doodle.

  2. All Nonsense. TIGHAR has yet to find one definitive item proving Amelia was on Gardner/Nijumaroro. All conjecture. All anecdotal. Expeditions weighing anchor to follow up on "Uncle Ned" stories. A superb Pitchman at the helm. Turns Amelia "evidence" on and off like a faucet. Sad that people fall for organizations such as this.

    Try the East New Britain Electra site: A true gentleman searching on a shoestring budget.