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. Mark

    Interestingly enough, I tried to Google Earth it, and the island is greyed out. Cover up

    April 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • G.O. Earth

      Interestingly, it works for me both in google earth and google maps. Could be your tin foil hat got in the way while you typed? Or, oh my, maybe the cover-up conspiracy is targeted at YOU PERSONALLY! Ha ha ha!!!!!

      April 12, 2012 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Cody Phillips

      Its grayed out because the entire Phoenix Islands are a protected marine area since 2008

      May 9, 2012 at 1:08 am | Report abuse |
    • Lord Hades / Vikram Kabra

      it is indeed a coverup as she was a prominent Cahill from the Lucian Branch.

      May 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sam

    Reading the responses in this article make me sad. Basic reading comprehension is obviously missing in so many replies. A basic understanding between Private and Public funding is also missing. I.E. Public funding does not equate with government funding. Public funding is done via fundraisers where donations for the project are given after a round of discussions about what the project hopes to accomplish. The private part is donations by individuals or companies who wish to remain anonymous but are likely funding the larger portion of the project.

    When you have a Public Auction.. is that the government auctioning off your stuff you want to sell? No. When you have a Private auction (invitation only) is that only good citizens auctioning off your stuff?

    Get the difference? No? then go back to school because you obviously missed something say.. around grade 5.

    April 11, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Lizzy10

    Her plane crashed and she died. Mystery solved.

    April 13, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Phil

    I have just concluded an independant study of my own. I regret to tell you all, that Ms. Earhardts plane crashed into the sea, and she and her navigator were killled.

    April 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Davie

    This just in: waste more money on what?

    April 15, 2012 at 11:05 am | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jimminy

    Amelia air heart it hot.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jimminy

    Amelia air heart is hot.

    April 15, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. John Townsend

    1- Just looked at a picture of Amelia Earhart's Electra's landing gear... absolutely NOTHING is distinct about it. 2- Who puts their landing gear down for a water landing? This is a serious reach.

    April 16, 2012 at 11:41 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • kenny of salt

      I think the landing gear on her plan was fixed, that is, not retractable.

      April 16, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • BigRed

      The landing gear was retractable on Earhart's plane. Google the plane and Earhart for images and you can see that the wheels do not have fairings to reduce drag. There are several pictures taken of the aircraft overflying checkpoints and you can clearly see the wheels tucked into the wing in a retracted position. Additionally there is an Electra of the same type at the Smithsonian and you can see that under the wing there is a recess for the wheels.

      April 16, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • BigRed

      Depending on her state of mind she may have considered landing on the island but veered off course to avoid trees. Perhaps she stalled and hit the water.

      April 16, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • R7K

      The theory is that the tide was out when they landed on a dry section of the reef. Further speculation is that one of the main landing gear wheels got stuck in a hole, preventing them from taxiing out of the surf zone.

      April 18, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. theobvious

    If the wreck was that close to the surface, save the money for submersible rental and stick your head in the water...

    April 17, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • theobvious

      I'd even volunteer to dive the site and take the photos – if it gets me into the South Pacific for a month or two

      April 17, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • R7K

      75 years of tidal action, and huge storms at times, would have swept wreckage from that location to deeper water. Beyond that fringing reef, the sea floor slopes very steeply to deep water.

      All these facts are easily available - go read some! It's really interesting stuff.

      April 18, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Akash

    Wow Pauly, great post! I love your writing style and love how you deeivlr WORD! I'd love to see more, make sure you tag me A weak man broadcasts his weakness by asking for the opinion of others. And if he obsesses over it he is screaming it even louder.Here is a trick ask your creator what he thinks and you'll know it's right when you start obsessing over the idea .

    April 22, 2012 at 8:05 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Cristine

    Although we are all intrigued by the mystery, we most certainly agree her plane crashed and she is deceased. Why are we spending money on this? Does it do anything for our health, well being or economy? Is it possibly going to teach us anything? No...I didn't think so.

    April 23, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Timberly Price

    Rumor has it she went through the Bermuda Triangle and that is why we can't find anything about her or her plane.

    May 7, 2012 at 8:07 am | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Timberly Price

    Watch her come back a zombie maybe thats how we'll die

    May 7, 2012 at 8:11 am | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Ernst Gebauer

    If the aircraft, or it's scattered wreckage is found, it will be on the sea bed, several thousand feet down. TIGHAR appears to be an organization of the wealthy in search of a cure for boredom. In all their years of existence, they have never recovered a single historic aircraft, or even pieces of one. They conduct seminars, classroom visits, and schedule vacations to the South Pacific for the affluent. They do not attempt to find the lost Italian airship from the 1920's in the Arctic. No money to be made on that one.Too cold..... There is at least one first rate company/organization mapping the ocean floor in the vicinity of Howland Island, in an effort to locate aircraft debris. They are not affiliated with TIGHAR. There is a website with photos of what they mapped so far. TIGHAR deals with the flotsam and jetsam that washes ashore on Gardner Island. Every item they return with is speculative. Live long enough and you'll find their items on EBAY....With respect to Amelia:After her initial radio contact with the ship USCGC Itaska,there was a 40 minute void in radio communication, followed by her last transmission giving her bearing and fuel status. No confirmation on Earhart's part of a radio direction bearing on the ship from her Lockheed Electra. No request for a RDF Position Report ( pre-Radar) RDF equipment was also monitoring her from Pan Am stations on Wake, Midway, and Hawaii, in order to triangulate her position. All she had to do was keep transmitting, and they would have had a "Fix" on her position. And, to save weight and add a bit more fuel, she decided to leave the life raft behind at Lae, New Guinea. She never made Gardner Island. That wreckage in the photo, is probably debris from the grounded ship, which has slowly disintegrated over the past 75 years. Sad but true. My best to all.

    May 8, 2012 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Anna Furey

    Yes-i'd rather see them put the money towards a scholarship for young people (girls?) interested in aviation-Amelia was after all a believer in equality and had a passion for new frontiers.Let her rest in peace and put something in place to honour her.

    May 18, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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