Investigators say they've found key clue to fate of Amelia Earhart
March 20th, 2012
10:50 AM ET

Investigators say they've found key clue to fate of Amelia Earhart

Investigators think they've uncovered a key clue that will lead them to solve the mystery of what happened to legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared on a trans-Pacific flight 75 years ago.

Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), said a new enhanced analysis of a photo taken on the Pacific atoll of Nikumaroro, formerly Gardner Island, three months after Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared, may show the landing gear of her Lockheed Electra protruding from a reef.

“We found some really fascinating and compelling evidence," Gillespie said at a news conference in Washington on Tuesday.

“Finding the airplane would be the thing that would make it conclusive,” he said.

Gillespie said the photo was taken by a British survey team in October 1937 and had been seen by Earhart researchers many times. But investigators took a new look at it in 2010 and, when their suspicions were triggered, had the photo checked by U.S. State Department experts. In a blind review, they determined the component in the picture is the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra.

"This is where the airplane went into the drink," Gillespie said.

On July 2, 75 years to the day after Earhart was last heard from, Gillespie will depart Honolulu on a University of Hawaii research vessel to try to find that plane in the deep waters off a flat reef on Nikumaroro.

The privately funded effort will use robotic submarines from Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy's primary contractor for deep ocean search and recovery, to comb the area. The Discovery Channel will film the exploration for a TV presentation, Gillespie said.

Gillespie acknowledged there would be skeptics after his 23 years of searching for Earhart had yet to yield an answer.

“There are some very smart people who think we’re wrong about this, but there are some very smart people who think we’re right about this,” he said.

One Gillespie supporter is Robert Ballard, the explorer who found the Titanic and other deep sea wrecks, who called himself  "a ringer" brought in to vet Gillespie's case.

Ballard said he had rejected offers to look for Earhart's plane, thinking the task too difficult.

“If you ever wanted a case of finding a needle in a haystack, this is at the top of the list in deep sea exploration,” he said at the Washington press conference.

Ballard said he did a strict analysis of  Gillespie's research and signed off on the science.

"Every time he passed the test," Ballard said. "Clearly the smoking gun was the analysis of that enhanced image."

Earhart and Noonan disappeared while on a flight from New Guinea to Howland Island that summer of 1937. The flat reef off Gardner Island, 300 miles off their course, had been a suspected landing spot. But those suspicions were largely based on speculation.

At Tuesday's press conference, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell called the disappearance of Earhart "the last great unsolved mystery of the 20th century."

If the mystery is solved this summer, Earhart's aviation trailblazing will have played a part, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said.

"In no small part because of Amelia Earhart our world is smaller," LaHood said. "This very voyage to recover her remains in some ways is doable because of Earhart herself."

“We take a special measure of pride in an expedition that is as enterprising and inspiring as the woman with which it will unite us,” he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saluted Earhart's memory, too.

“Her legacy resonates today for anyone girls and boys who dreams about the stars,” Clinton said. “She gave people hope and she inspired them to dream bigger and bolder.”

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Filed under: Aviation • History
soundoff (731 Responses)
  1. Otasawian

    If you look to the right of the photograph there is clearly some man-made structures, either from a ship or industrial structure. This was not an uncharted island but somewhere that people had been, or were living. If it turns out that she made it to shore after crashing and was unable to make contact with the locals then it is truly a stroke of bad luck that Amelia and her companion did not survive.

    March 21, 2012 at 7:19 am | Report abuse |
  2. JEV1A

    "How long will it take the so-called experts to figure out that her Partner was a "hammered" dilusional drunk that completely mis-managed her flight plan and they ran out of fuel and had to ditch! Its likely that they both died on impact.

    March 21, 2012 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
  3. Locode

    If you take the time to read about the prior trips, and all the evidence they've found already, it's really quite obvious that this is where the plane went down. A search plane even reported "recent signs of habitation" when it flew over 3 days after they lost contact with her. There was no one living there at the time. Later, when the island was inhabited, bones were found that would seem to have been the bones of a female of European descent (as Amelia was). Unfortunately those bones were lost over time.

    March 21, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  4. JPX

    I've never understood why people care about this story. Seventy-five years ago a misguided woman attempted to break some sort of aviation record and instead crashed her plane. It's sad that she dies, but really, who cares about this? Why put so much time and money into it?

    March 21, 2012 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
    • bbd

      I can see you must have done really well in history class...

      March 21, 2012 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
  5. wastewater1

    What a wonderful finding for all of us if this story is finally told as Amelia was indeed a pioneer with much courage, an explorer, and experienced a wonderful adventure and it would be nice to find out that she ditched the plance and lived on a nearby island for many more years! patiently waiting to hear more and the rest of the story!

    March 21, 2012 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
  6. Douglas

    Ok people, we've explained the expression ad nauseum at this point. Sheesh, it's raining in Fenway....

    March 21, 2012 at 8:23 am | Report abuse |
    • DNA

      I like what you did there Douggie Fresh... complain about the amount of explanations of one 1930's expression then throw another one into the fire! Good show, old chap. Cheerio.

      March 21, 2012 at 8:42 am | Report abuse |
  7. monah

    Back in the 60's when I was in elementary school I read a biography about Amelia Earhart and was fascinated about her.

    March 21, 2012 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
    • DNA

      And you sat with Grammy who offered you a Werthers hard candy, oatmeal cookie and prune juice while she spoke of stories of old...

      March 21, 2012 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
  8. JD

    So this ship is in the vicinity and even snaps a picture but no one else saw the landing gear which, 3 months after the crash, is still floating?

    March 21, 2012 at 8:32 am | Report abuse |
    • JillAmerican

      Not floating – it is on a reef.

      March 21, 2012 at 9:07 am | Report abuse |
  9. JD

    and seriously people, the article clearly says "privately funded". There were no tax dollars used for this. Calm down. You're as angry and irrational as the birthers.

    March 21, 2012 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
  10. DNA

    Oh man, oh man – you guys are getting MODERATED! Look at those posts get deleted, left and right – that sure is great national conversation... your posts are deleted before your very eyes so that the "News Source" can keep only those that they feel support their article. FAIL.

    This post will be deleted in 5.....4......3.....2.....

    March 21, 2012 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
    • TPTB

      That's OK, we keep the replys from the bug-eyed, conspiracy theory nuts.
      Just to make people disbelieve them.

      March 21, 2012 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
  11. Bones

    It would be cool if they found them still strapped in.

    March 21, 2012 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
  12. imright

    Congradulations to the finders of amelia's finger bones! Got them all the way to san fransisco when they realized they were turtle bones....genius modern scientists....

    March 21, 2012 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  13. Voiceinthewind

    Headline News Bulletin, " Its the year three billion and five and they have jut found Amelia Earhardt." Give me a break already. Get a life and find something to do with it.

    March 21, 2012 at 9:00 am | Report abuse |
  14. Voiceinthewind

    Headline Bulletin, "Its the year two billion five, Amelia Earhardt has been found" Give me a break already, get a life and do something constructive with it.

    March 21, 2012 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  15. stephen douglas

    So, in 1937, just months after her disappearance and a huge search effort that included the U.S. Navy, they see this landing gear and the British survey team does not investigate it further? No closer inspection? No, "gee, I wonder why there is landing gear sticking up from a reef? Get a picture of that so we can show it around when we get home..."

    This area has been searched before, and if there ever was any wreckage there it would have been found. Steel components do not completely disappear from the ocean for a very long, long time.

    We will never know what happened to Earhart.

    March 21, 2012 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
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