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. woo

    "the photo was taken by a British survey team in October 1937" So, the survey teem didn't have the intelligence to motor over to it, and see what it was back in 37.? Brits?

    March 21, 2012 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
  2. Robyn

    Nessie . . . . ?

    March 21, 2012 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
  3. Waterstar

    We probably can find parts of the plane, but the body is long lost. Also with the plane being crashed for so long, would we be able to find out what happened? That would be amazing if we could

    March 21, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  4. opnion

    Who cares! People are dying from war and hunger everywhere! Who cares what happened to this woman and her navigator 75 years ago! Use the money to feed and help people!

    March 21, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Archibald

      Well, apparently, a lot of people DO care since they are bothering to mount this expedition and you cared enough to read and comment on an article about said expedition.

      March 21, 2012 at 10:02 am | Report abuse |
    • LabAggie

      I care that's who....and I'm doing my part to feed those less fortunate. Are you?

      March 21, 2012 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jason Glugla

    That could be Amelia Earheart's plane and it could also be the Lochness Monster on vacation.

    March 21, 2012 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
  6. drod3

    I'm sorry, but "new enhanced analysis" and "may be" don't quite do it for me. The smudge on the picture could be anything. I was hoping for a better picture but was sadly disappointed. Looks like a picture and a story you find on a tabloid in the supermarket. I take that back. The tabloid would have had a better picture.

    March 21, 2012 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Ummmmmm

      Hey! Isn't that the Loch Ness monster?

      March 21, 2012 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      All "news" agencies are tabloids nowadays. There are no true news organizations anymore.

      March 21, 2012 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • chris

      I've been a photo analyst for 25 years. That is no smudge. You can see a fleck overlaying what appears to be a straight line connected to something round. Another thing, you can't use just your eye to see this. This wasn't the focal point of the photo, so you would have to filter and transform it. Just using some cheap at-home tools with this low res photo, I've made out what clearly looks like a landing gear with a deflated/damaged tire on the end of it.

      March 21, 2012 at 11:28 am | Report abuse |
    • Jason

      I totally agree with you. That mostly looks like a smudge to me or a spash. I find it hard to believe anyone said it looked like landing gear much the same type as Amelia's plane. I just don't see it.

      March 21, 2012 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  7. serdich

    needle in a haystack its easy..the needle will stand out..try finding needle in a needle stack..

    March 21, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
    • MotoJB

      HUH? Brilliant comment...not.

      March 21, 2012 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
  8. RogerWilco

    Looks like the trolls are out in masses this morning – i for one am excited for them to find any remnants. Resolution to a cold case of 75 years is impressive. Plus it would be good to have an ending to the story for this legendary woman that doesn't involve an alien abduction slathered in a heavy dose of Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theories. Good on ya mate and i wish i could join you on the expedition.

    March 21, 2012 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son

      Not everyone that disagrees with you is a troll.

      March 21, 2012 at 11:10 am | Report abuse |
    • Geoz

      me too. 🙂

      March 21, 2012 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  9. Paul

    I think it's big foot swiming.

    March 21, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. Marti

    I find it really amusing that so many of you shrieking about the waste of money are posting this from your $500 cell phones. Look up from it once in a while and enjoy your surroundings, learn to interact with the rest of the world face to face. Maybe then you can appreciate why so many of us would love to see one of the greatest mysteries of the last century finally solved. She was an aviation pioneer, an American patriot and a hero to women all over the world. Her fate deserves to be known just as much as any soldier. For all we know, she was assisting in intelligence gathering while flying. I'm not the only one who wishes I had the money to be a part of this expedition. Good luck to them.

    March 21, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
    • churchchoir

      Well stated – I feel the same.

      March 21, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
    • Gillian

      I agree with Marti. It's very exciting to think that this mystery might be solved.

      March 21, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  11. Bob

    To be honest, I think it's Godzilla.

    March 21, 2012 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
  12. bla bla bla

    Looks more like womeone wiped a booger on the picture than landing gear.

    March 21, 2012 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  13. sick dog

    why hasn't that great investigator Sheriff Arpaio been called in. He had time to send investigators to Hawaii to check Obamas birth certificate. Maybe a long tropical cruise with his BFF Babeau would be in order.

    March 21, 2012 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Bill Duke

      He can't. Obama has everything tied up with yet another golf vacation

      March 21, 2012 at 11:06 am | Report abuse |
  14. Tina

    That would be soooo major if they found that plane. She was probably stranded on that little island or reef or whatever it is until she died. Who knows what kind of injuries she sustained. I just can't believe that a small plane would still be in the same area after 75 years. Where exactly IS Nikumaroro, anyway?

    March 21, 2012 at 11:11 am | Report abuse |
  15. Jeff

    Money is for the living. Stop spending on the dead.

    March 21, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
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