As I went into great detail in my Skeptoid episode about the fate of Amelia Earhart, she and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in 1937 off Howland Island in the south Pacific when they ran out of fuel in the immediate vicinity of their destination. However, in today’s news, it is being widely reported that an expedition is underway to pursue new evidence via expensive underwater searches, that Earhart ended up instead as a castaway on distant Nikumaroro Island (then called Gardner Island). Money is indeed being spent on this expedition, apparently by the Discovery Channel, but that is where the fact ends. This alternate explanation for Earhart’s fate is almost certainly completely false, and exists only for the purpose of sensationalism at the expense of public intellect.
This Amelia Earhart fancy is the product of Ric Gillespie, principal of TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery), a man with whom I am pained to disagree, as I am a fellow aviation enthusiast and a nut for historic aircraft. Gillespie is most notable for being promoted on a series of television documentaries that present his alternate theory of Amelia Earhart’s fate as if it is new evidence, which it is not.
Here are my two basic points supporting this assertion, and this is what all responsible historians agree upon, and what is supported by all existing evidence (in other words, it’s not my personal notion):
1. Amelia Earhart certainly went to Howland, not Nikumaroro.
This was 1937, hardly the stone age of aviation. American aircraft carriers had been sailing the Pacific for more than a decade. American fighter pilots were already consulting in China. Military transport planes commonly flew throughout the South Pacific. Pan-Am Clipper flying boats were only two years away from regular trans-Pacific service. Air navigation in the South Pacific was not new, and Fred Noonan was considered one of the foremost experts.
Gillespie suggests that Earhart and Noonan made their entire flight at an outrageous 10 degrees off course, which is the direct line that their fuel supply would have required to make it to Nikumaroro. Not only did they have a radio direction finding beam to follow from the Coast Guard ship Itasca stationed at Howland, they had the latest navigational equipment, knew very well how to deal with windage, and were both quite able to read a compass. Nikumaroro is a full five degrees of latitude further south than Howland, a massive error, trivial to catch with even the most basic of the equipment they had. Furthermore, just before they crashed, they reported they were in the correct location.
Moreover, the radio transmissions sent and received by the Itasca, including their own direction finders, make it virtually impossible (for all practical purposes) that Earhart and Noonan were 650 kilometers away from the Itasca’s immediate vicinity. Beyond any reasonable doubt, this alone disproves Gillespie’s theory.
2. There are perfectly rational explanations for all of Gillespie’s “evidence” at Nikumaroru.
Gillespie’s case hangs on two basic things: a number of pieces of debris found on Nikumaroru, and an old photograph that he believes shows wreckage of the Lockheed Electra. The artifacts are only to be expected: Hundreds of people had lived on Nikumaroro, on and off, for a century; including women, children, British colonists, and many others. It would more surprising if Gillespie had not found the items he has; Amelia Earhart is perhaps the least likely source for any of them.
His photograph that he believes shows the Electra’s wreckage is terrible. Judge for yourself, it’s right here. The suggestion that Amelia Earhart’s airplane is the most likely explanation for this unidentifiable blob right next to a shipwreck is an insult to the intelligence. (There are other such photographs that Gillespie points to, but they are even worse than this one.)
In my opinion, Ric Gillespie is practicing pathological science. He has become so invested (emotionally, psychologically, and financially) in his desired conclusion that he sees only things that agree with it, and is unable to rationally assess anything that doesn’t.
It has been argued that Discovery Channel, and other news agencies, should report Gillespie’s theory the way they are; in the interest of balance, considering all angles to a story, competing theories, and so on. I don’t agree; not by a long shot. That’s fine to do when a new theory has validity or there are indeed questions worth exploring, or when a theory is presented properly in its context as a fringe suggestion. It is not appropriate to trumpet headlines about new evidence, new discoveries, etc., that are both false and fringe, while making only a mute footnoted reference to the fact that an evidence-based consensus exists which remains unshaken. This pandering to sensationalism erodes the public knowledge, and encourages the curious to lend more credence to fancy than to fact.
It is being reported that Bob Ballard, the famous deep sea explorer, is on board with Gillespie’s theory. I am puzzled why Ballard, successful in his own right, would join this project in any capacity. Ballard is an expert at deep sea exploration, not in any of the sciences which Gillespie claims support his theory. Ballard is a big name with a big reputation, but his agreement with Gillespie puts him at odds with all relevant experts (except for a few cranks) in this particular question.
If Earhart and Noonan’s plane is ever found, I’m betting all my chips that it will be a lot closer to Howland than to Nikumaroro. And you can quote me on that.
For further reading, see this special CNN article by author Susan Butler, whose research into Earhart is based on science and history.