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