Finding Amelia Earhart

Popular modern reports claim Amelia Earhart made it to an island and survived for a time. Might that be true?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Conspiracies, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #295
January 31, 2012
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Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, and the Lockheed Electra, 1937
(Public domain photo)

Today we're going to point the skeptical eye at some of the rumors surrounding one of the twentieth century's great mysteries: The disappearance of pioneering woman aviator Amelia Earhart, when her airplane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on her famous 1937 flight around the world. Conventional wisdom says that she simply ran out of fuel and ditched into the ocean, but stories have persisted for decades that she might have made it safely to an island, perhaps even survived for some time. Here and there, various artifacts have been found: A shoe, a zipper, a scrap of aluminum. There are even some crazy stories: that she made it back to the United States and lived out her life under an assumed name, or that she was captured by the Japanese and executed as a spy. Let's take a look to see if any of these alternate explanations can withstand scrutiny.

Amelia Earhart and her navigator, the highly experienced and esteemed Fred Noonan, were on the third-to-last leg of their circumnavigating flight in her Lockheed Electra 10E, a 1200 horsepower, state-of-the-art twin engine aircraft. They took off from Lae in Papua New Guinea on July 2, 1937, headed for a remote refueling stop in the South Pacific, a tiny island called Howland. From there they would continue to Honolulu for a final refueling before completing the journey in Oakland, California.

And as everyone knows, they never made it to Howland. A US Coast Guard cutter, the Itasca, was on station at Howland transmitting a radio direction-finding signal, and made sporadic voice contact. Most historians agree that a half-hour time zone difference disrupted both parties' attempts to establish two-way voice communication, and a photograph of the Electra taking off from Lae appears to show that a belly antenna (of unconfirmed purpose) may not have been in place. And to top it off, it turns out that Howland's position was misplaced on Earhart's chart by about five nautical miles, but which would still have kept it within visual range. Whatever role these problems may have played, if any, is unknown; but Earhart's final radio transmission to the Itasca said they were in the immediate vicinity of Howland. And ever since then, the best analysis is that they ran out of fuel, ditched in the Pacific Ocean, and perished.

But one group of historic aviation enthusiasts called TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) has been tirelessly promoting their hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan flew not to Howland, but by mistake to an island 650 km to the southeast, now called Nikumaroro but then called Gardner, where they crashed and survived for a time as castaways. TIGHAR's hypothesis and claimed discoveries saturate virtually all television and print reports of Earhart for the past decade, but these media outlets almost never mention that TIGHAR's is a fringe theory supported by poor evidence and that has almost no serious support from mainstream historians or archaeologists.

Here's the problem with TIGHAR's findings. Even though they meticulously document and preserve every artifact, they exhaustively research each one to find matches with real objects from the 1930s, and they look exactly like what such an expedition should look like, their overall methodology is fundamentally, fatally unscientific. It's unscientific in that it's done completely backwards. TIGHAR begins with the assumption that Amelia Earhart crashed, camped out, and died on Nikumaroro. They take everything they find — every anomaly in a photograph or in a story, every piece of bone or manmade artifact found on the island — and try to match it to their assumption, rather than trying to objectively assess its origin.

Nikumaroro, this tiny island where TIGHAR has recovered its artifacts, is in Kiribati, a nation of 100,000 people spread over millions of square kilometers of the South Pacific. People leaving artifacts come and go all the time. For example, pearl divers. Fleets of pearl boats have plied these waters since the 1800s. Every island and reef in the South Pacific has been visited countless times by pearl boats, who anchored, made camp on shore, and spent a few weeks free diving for oysters. Their exploits and histories have been published in dozens of books, such as Roy Miner's 1941 volume Pearl Divers, and the many colorful tales in Frank Coffee's 1920 book Forty Years on the Pacific. TIGHAR found evidence of campfires and fish bones on Nikumaroro and concluded "Amelia Earhart" who is not known to have visited the island; but I found no attempt made by them to exclude the pearl divers who are known to have camped there, and to have done so countless times over more than a century. TIGHAR appears to be dedicated to proving the least likely explanation for the artifacts.

They found an object identified as the heel of a woman's shoe. Many pearl divers were women, and they came from Fiji, the Philippines, and New Zealand, where shoes were not unknown in the 1930s. Could the shoe have come from the 1929 wreck of the steamship SS Norwich City that killed 11 of its 35 crew on Nikumaroro? Could it have belonged to one of the sixteen women who settled on the island in 1939 as part of a British colony? Could the shoe have even floated to the island from anywhere else? I find no reason to exclude the women who lived on or visited the island as possible owners of the shoe, or any reason to suggest Amelia Earhart was the most likely owner.

The found the remains of a buckknife. Is Amelia Earhart really more likely to have brought a buckknife to Nikumaroro than pearl divers, the British settlers, the operators of an 1892 coconut plantation, or the 25 crew of a 1944 Coast Guard station?

At its height, Nikumaroro had a population of about 100 people. Half a dozen smaller populations had come and gone over the prior century, and throughout it all, pearl divers camped ashore. Would you expect such an island to be pristine, or would you expect random debris from not just the 1930s but other periods as well? Without exception, every one of the artifacts recovered by TIGHAR should be expected to have been found there whether or not Amelia Earhart had ever even lived.

This even extends to a partial human skeleton that was found on the island in 1940 during its British colonial occupation. At the time, the young officer who found it, Gerald Gallagher, shipped the bones to Dr. David Hoodless, principal of the Central Medical School of the South Pacific on Fiji. Hoodless studied the bones and reported them to be "definitely" male, judging by the pelvis; and from an individual about 5 foot 5 1/2 inches tall, of European heritage and not a Pacific Islander. No clothes or hair were found, and the bones were severely weatherbeaten and in poor condition.

Near the skeleton, Gallagher also found a small wooden box with dovetailed joints, that he determined to be a sextant box. It was delivered to Harold Gatty, founder of Air Pacific, and a good friend of Fred Noonan and familiar with his navigation habits; for example, that he often carried an old-school sextant with him on flights in addition to modern equipment, just to double-check things the way a good navigator should. Regarding Gatty's own expertise, Charles Lindbergh had described him as the "prince of navigators". Another British officer in the area cabled Gatty's findings back to Gallagher:

Mr. Gatty thinks that the box is an English one of some age and judges that it was used latterly merely as a receptacle. He does not consider that it could in any circumstance have been a sextant box used in modern trans-Pacific aviation.

After studying all these results in light of his original speculation that they may have been related to Earhart, Gallagher wrote:

It does look as if the skeleton was that of some unfortunate native castaway and the sextant box and other curious articles found nearby the remains are quite possibly a few of his precious possessions which he managed to save.

Neither the bones nor the sextant box still exist today, but TIGHAR has made their own analysis of them, based on reading these original reports. As expected, TIGHAR has concluded that the skeleton was consistent with that of Amelia Earhart, and that the sextant box was consistent with one Fred Noonan may have used. Essentially, TIGHAR took the original first-hand expert analyses, and rejected and re-interpreted them to support their desired conclusion.

From a navigational perspective, the fundamental assumption of TIGHAR's theory is almost inconceivable. Fred Noonan was one of aviation's top experts in using the latest navigational techniques and equipment, including the then-new E-6B flight computer, which (among other things) corrects for the effects of wind on speed and course. Nikumaroro is a full five and one half degrees of latitude south of Howland. That's a massive, massive error; it's simply not plausible that Noonan could have been that far wrong. Earhart was no slouch of a navigator either. Could they have made such an error without either of them catching it?

Moreover, the bearing from Papua New Guinea to Howland is about 79° true. To Nikumaroro, it's 89° true. Nikumaroro was about 4272 km away, only slightly farther than Howland, which was 4160 km. The Electra's maximum's range did allow them to make it to either island, but only if they flew an absolutely direct course. The TIGHAR hypothesis suggests that they made their entire flight at a full 10° off course, without catching it, while following their compass and homing in on the Itasca's direction-finding signal, and were as much as five degrees of latitude too far south. Even for 1937, this size of an error strains credibility. Either the E-6B or the sextant would have caught either of these errors easily.

Clarification: The above paragraph has given many readers the impression that I've wrongly interpreted Gillespie's hypothesis. Gillespie does not claim the Electra flew 10° off-course, and does not claim they headed straight for Nikumaroro. Gillespie's basic claim is that they arrived at Nikumaroro, one way or another. The fuel analysis makes his hypothesized dogleg path impossible; this straight line off course is mathematically the only way to make his basic claim workable. I didn't mean for it to sound like I was misrepresenting his hypothesis.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Howland Island, the intended destination, is basically just a flat coral sand cay in the middle of nowhere, about two and a half kilometers long and less than a kilometer wide. It's uninhabited and has no trees, and no structures other than an automated lighthouse beacon. It's about as featureless and bleak as a desert island can be. But in 1937, there was a tiny temporary population there. Hawaii's Kamehameha School for Boys had set up a camp where students would spend a few months learning about the plants and animals there. It was called Itascatown, named after the Itasca that supplied it and handled all the transportation of students.

Three unpaved runways were bulldozed in anticipation of Earhart's landing, but since she never arrived, they ended up having never been used at all. The Japanese bombed them during World War II and they were never repaired.

But back on that day in 1937, the airstrips were ready, the Itasca sat on station off the coast of Howland, and drums of fuel had been sent ashore to refuel Earhart's plane. Coast Guardsmen and teenagers from the Kamehameha School stood watching the skies. They watched and waited, the time for Earhart's arrival came and went, and still they watched. The skies remained quiet. Eventually it became clear that there would be no landing that day, and word gradually spread that the Itasca had lost contact and the plane was now well past the point at which its fuel would have run out.

Following the bearings of Earhart's final radio transmission, just northwest of Howland, the search ships combed the ocean for a week. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington, the battleship Colorado, the Itasca, and even a few Japanese ships scoured the ocean's surface, tiny gray dots on an unimaginably vast shimmering blue curtain. But well hidden, deep in the peaceful darkness thousands of fathoms below them, rested what remains aviation's most enduring legend.

Further information is in this followup blog post.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Coffee, F. Forty Years on the Pacific. New York: Oceanic Publishing Company, 1920.

Editors. "Sextant Box Found on Nikumaroro." Earhart Project Wiki. TIGHAR, 25 Jan. 2010. Web. 27 Jan. 2012. <http://tighar.org/wiki/Sextant_box_found_on_Nikumaroro>

Goldstein, D., Dillon, K. Amelia: The Centennial Biography of an Aviation Pioneer. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1997. 245-254.

Leff, D. Uncle Sam's Pacific Islets. Stanford University: Stanford University Press, 1940. 47-50.

Lorenzi, R. "Amelia Earhart Clue Found in Clumps." Discovery News. Discovery Communications LLC, 2 Mar. 2011. Web. 27 Jan. 2012. <http://news.discovery.com/history/amelia-earhart-clumps-island-castaway-clues-110302.html>

Miner, R. Pearl Divers. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1941.

Strippel, R. "Researching Amelia: A Detailed Summary for the Serious Researcher into the Disappearance of Amelia Earhart." Air Classics. 1 Oct. 1995, Volume 31, Number 11: 20.

USCG. "What was the Coast Guard’s role in the search for Amelia Earhart?" Coast Guard History. United States Coast Guard, 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2012. <http://www.uscg.mil/history/faqs/earhart.asp>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Finding Amelia Earhart." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 31 Jan 2012. Web. 28 Jul 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4295>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 146 comments

The flyover (aircraft from the USS Colorado) of Gardner Island took place a week after Amelia & Fred were expected to land at Howland and a couple of days following the last radio message from the fliers. By that time, the Electra had been washed over the edge of the reef and virtually out of sight; however, Lt. John Lambrecht, leader of the naval search, reported "signs of recent habitation" where in fact there had been no human occupation for decades. The Phoenix Group had been one of the US Navy's first & most likely area for the termination of the Round-the-World flight, and there's substantial hard evidence that Gardner was the precise location.

Robert Lichtenberger, Ellicott City, MD
November 16, 2014 6:33pm

It's painfully obvious that David Baker has never been a participant in an aerial search, either as the searcher or the search-ee. The claim that someone flew over the island and didn't see them, therefor they cannot possibly have been there is laughable. It can be extraordinarily difficult to find things like persons from the air. In a previous career, I worked in remote areas in Alaska where travel was by helicopter. At the end of the day, we would typically be in a different place than we ere dropped off in the morning. You would be amazed how difficult it could be for the pilot to find a crew of 3-4 people on the ground. And we were in radio communication with the pilot, telling him exactly where we were (we're at your 10 o clock and half mile) Even with the helicopter flying at low level, and us giving him directions on the radio, it was common for the pilot to fly right by us in plain view without seeing us. Compare that situation; where the pilot *knows* that there are people on the ground within his view, is *talking with* those people, and being given directions specifically where to look and still misses seeing them to the Earhart searchers, who were not in communication with the people on the ground, and were not sure if there is anyone on this island, one of many they're overflown that day. The notion that if there were there, they positively would have been seen by the aircrew is just plain silly.

Andrew, Ras al Khaimah
November 17, 2014 2:54am

Robert and Andrew, you really think that the TIGHAR hypothesis holds water?

Let me see now, the plane is supposed to have landed intact enough and far enough up the shore for the battery to not get wet and for the right prop to be clear of water, right?

According to TIGHAR and its 'experts' AE may have been transmitting anything from one to five days after 'disappearing, right?

Where on Gardner/Nikumaroro can a plane be safe from the surf for maybe five days, then magically washed over the reef two days before the flyovers? There can be no doubt the plane was washed over [if it got there of course] else it would have been seen by the aircrews.

[Although the Bevington Object -Blobsquatch/Nessie -would indicate the plane was not intact on landing, and so wouldn't have 'fallen' of the ledge intact; it would have been smashed and lots of lovely shiny aluminium would be there glinting away at the pilots]

The report of 'recent signs of habitation' is pretty meaningless, but it is another straw for TIGHAR to grasp and sell, as they advertise for funding for the 2015 holiday on Nikumaroro, fact is, when Lambrecht was debriefed, doesn't anyone at TIGHAR think that his C/O would have had alarm bells ringing if he meant recent habitation within a few days? All we have is a record of those words, and they are ambiguous.

It's like the scrap metal that was the shooting gun a few decades ago, and is again now, you folks see what you want to see.

erique, Cymru-am-Byth
November 21, 2014 5:40pm

erique,

You're attempting to put words in my mouth. If you go back and read my posts, I am not claiming that Tighar's scenario is necessarily true, but I am arguing against some of the more inane arguments which are claimed to "prove" that it didn't happen.

The TIGHAR theory is improbable. Much less probable than the more probable case where the airplane came down in the water and sank. But improbable doesn't equal "could not possibly have happened" Improbable things happen all the time.

My comments about the fly over were directed at the illogic of the claim. The claim was made that an (one) airplane flew over some days later and didn't find them, therefore they could not have possibly been there. That claim is absurd. It is entirely possible to fail to locate persons or objects on the ground when you are looking for them from the air. the is sometime in which I have direct personal experience. So, I pointed out that the failure of the aerial search does not prove anything, as was claimed. If you're reading anything more into my words, then, well your reading things into them which simply isn't there.

Andrew, Ras al Khaimah
November 22, 2014 12:00am

Andrew, it is 'painfully obvious' you have not read my history. I have participated in Civil Air Patrol Search operations. My father was a longtime member of that organization, and he commanded the CAP unit in Sacramento. I have studied thousands of aircraft accident reports. I am a pilot (Commercial/Instrument/Multi-Engine) and I don't believe TIGHAR's Theory. Not only did I participate in CAP Missions, my friends and I searched for wreckage at known crash sites. What we found were HUMAN REMAINS of the Crews, AIRCRAFT COMPONENTS, EVIDENCE of FIRES or IMPACT SEQUENCES, and PERSONAL ITEMS. The main point I must address is that Gillespie is stringing his acolytes along with innocuous 'artifacts' of human habitation on the island of 'Niku'. His organization has found no evidence of either Earhart, Noonan nor their Lockheed at that location. I was originally quite enthusiastic about their efforts, but over time I realized TIGHAR is simply spinning their 'archeological' wheels on a deserted atoll.

Dave Baker, Sacramento, CA
December 16, 2014 6:01pm

Andrew, it was not 1 plane, 3 overflew Gardner and none of the crew saw anything of AE, when Lambrecht was debriefed following his comments about 'recent habitation' do you think the interviewing officer wouldn't have sought clarification of this habitation?

They didn't just fly over the island, they circled it with three aircraft and crew looking for the most famous American woman at the time, sure they were all humans, humans fail, they could have missed a shiny Electra 10E glinting in the Sun, possibly even Fred and Amelia and any distress signs and symbols AE and FN left, but be honest, do you really think that the coincidental falling off of the reef by the plane -as TIGHAR says happened- is truly a viable scenario?

TIGHAR have it that either or both AE and FN were transmitting for days before the overflight, yet AE and FN didn't set up a single sign on the beach that they were there?

Perhaps Gillespie may really believe he knows what happened, most cult leaders believe they are right, that's psychosis for you, but look at the 'evidence', they're even dragging out that bit of scrap that was used 20 years ago as smoking-gun-proof-positive that TIGHAR had done it, they had found the Electra. That got discounted, and now it is "Scrap Metal 2: Return of the Artifact, this time it's personal".

When I heard of Gardner theory, I was impressed, then I went to TIGHAR and realized how poor the evidence was. You can believe what you like, my standard of evidence is higher.

erique, Terra , cum acedia
February 17, 2015 6:51am

Dave Baker, I'm with you there, buddy, I was so intrigued about Gardner, I wanted it to be true, since my school days I often wondered about the mystery. I can't remember the article but I read somewhere about human bones and a zipper or something, then I went to TIGHAR and realized that none of it can be exclusively linked to AE.

Then you start looking in to the hypothesis, and realize how improbable it is, Gary LaPook was great on the site, I learned so much from the guy, about how the LOP wouldn't take them near Gardner, how the fuel wouldn't be enough to get there, and the pure nonsense that FN, a prized navigator of his time, would just head south and hope he hit land...complete bull. FN must have believed he was close to Howland, so surely he'd be searching the area, not heading south and praying.

Crash and sank is the most obvious and simple explanation, I'd take David Billings extremely unlikely East New Britain scenario over Gardner any day, the only problem with his hypothesis is the fuel in my opinion, which makes it honours even with TIGHAR lol

That TIGHARade must be strong lol

erique, Terra , cum acedia
February 17, 2015 7:01am

Erique, thanks. I wish the effort to locate the missing Lockheed would not be confined to "Niku", and a more sensible search grid could be established near Howland. I am guessing the aircraft is within 80 Nautical Miles of that atoll, and most likely to the northwest. My reasoning is that they were too far away from Howland to see the black smoke pouring out of the Itasca stack. Their signal was fairly weak by the time the last transmission was received. Put these two elements together and you can figure she was not in visual range of the Itasca or any land mass.

Dave Baker, Sacramento, CA
April 4, 2015 5:59pm

I think a change in TIGHAR's fortunes could be in the air, though, looks like ol' Ric is cutting the Niku VIII holiday down to seven days if funding doesn't racket up by departure...the days of million Dollar donations have long gone, and I think I do detect people walking away from it, not many big names seem so keen to be involved, as they used to.

WRT the radio messages, it is a shame the strength levels are only subjective, although by experts, but I feel sure that they could have given some idea of a chord that intercepted the perimeter of the circle the Itasca's radio was listening on, that with probable flight paths -the famous 157/337 LOP being one, and a direct line of 67 being another...but bigger mine than mine have already no doubt thought of this and know a reason why it can't be done.

I'm all excited to see what new bit of scrap they come back with this time that is a smoking gun smdh

erique, Land of Hope and Gory
April 5, 2015 1:32pm

The Radio Signal Strength levels were by indicator. There was attenuation, distortion and non-reception of signals by the Lockheed crew. This would indicate increasing distance away from the Itasca. Her initial contact with Itasca specified a low fuel state, so what time they did have to locate Howland was limited. Since Baker Island would have been visible if they proceeded along the LOP to the southwest, the only sensible solution to her eventual ditching locale would be northwest.

As I stated, I was thrilled by TIGHAR's research initially, but then I felt that they were making a living by NOT locating the plane.

Dave Baker, Sacramento, CA
April 5, 2015 5:47pm

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