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. Kenny

    Finding her remains and bringing them home is collective humanity's way to complete her trip and telling all of us that, no matter how crazy our ideas and ambitions, we all are here for a common good. Where can I donate? 🙂

    March 21, 2012 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  2. JC

    To quote Jack Sparrow "The world isn't smaller; there's just less in it."

    March 21, 2012 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  3. TPF

    I think see her sitting on the Wheel talking on her i-phone. She stills looks really nice after all these years. Send her a text and see what she's been up too.

    March 21, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  4. harry zoyster

    Looks exactly like a small boat heading toward the beach.

    March 21, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
  5. mr_thing

    this article is going for the record for overused phrases "needle in haystack", "ringer", "smoking gun" etc.

    March 21, 2012 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
  6. palintwit

    A crack team of oceanographers and photo analysts from the prestigous Sarah Palin University is on their way right now to the site. There first job, however, will be to build a trailer park on the island. That's because Sarah Palin herself may join the team and they will want her to feel at home.

    March 21, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • basketcase

      They'll also be flying in some moose to release on the island for her hunting pleasure.

      March 21, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lo

      If you're going to be insulting, at least learn how to spell. It makes you look like the idiot you obviously are.

      March 21, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • K

      If you're going to try to insult someone, perhaps you should first make sure you know the difference between "their" and "there". Nothing like PROVING what a twit you really are. Bravo.

      March 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • melvinslizard

      Get a new shtick. With all the dbags running this year you have to result to a joke that's 4 years old??

      March 21, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • 31337

      wow, you are so funny. You make fun of Palin, but you ignore Obama's drunk uncle and his impoverished brother who lives in a hut with a dirt floor. Trailer > hut with dirt floor. The silly thing is she isn't even running for any political office.

      March 21, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |

    well this sure is a waste of money, resources, and time.

    March 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • basketcase

      It's not your money, so why is it your problem? If Gillespie and his group want to go searching, and have the money to back it, let them.

      March 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Luigi

      This is privately funded. People get to choose how they spend or waste their money (as long as it is for legal purposes).

      March 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • reason

      Nobody said they can't spend the money...just that it's a waste.

      March 21, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Paul Eric Kilmon

    Comments of ignorance are such a waste. Some of you have a very sad outlook. What a world! Dare to broaden your horizons. Live to love history. A curious mind is a beautiful mind. It will make your life better, and you more interesting and appealing to the world. Here’s to staying curious. Thank you, NPR for the article. “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.” – Albert Einstein

    March 21, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brittney

      Thank you. I agree whole heartedly.

      March 21, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Josh

    private funding is not tax dollars

    March 21, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
  10. giveitup

    tax dollars, schmack dollars, if the govt wants to spend them they're going to spend them wheter you or I approve or not.
    Just like the Dept of Defense spending our tax dollars via AFN to support people like Rush Limbaugh. Wheter you agree with his slanted views or not. His show if to be aired on AFN should be donated by him not bought by us taxpayers. Don't waste your efforts trying to fight our govt.'s self serving system, you'll never win and only hurt yourselves..

    March 21, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jack

    If the object in the photograph is a landing gear, why wouldn't the folks on the British vessel that took the photo investigate it further? Even if the photographer had not noticed the object, there would have been someone on watch with binoculars whose job it was to alert those in charge about sighting anything unusual, Presumably they would have been aware of the plane's disappearance just months before. Also, the man being interviewed in the video suggests this would be a deep water exploration. If that object is a landing gear, the plane is resting on the bottom upside down in relatively shallow water. The outline of the plane would very likely be visible from the air/satellite photos.

    March 21, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • chaz said what I was thinking

      March 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • intheknow

      Based on the photo and how far away it is from the cameraman, it's quite possible the landing gear wasn't seen when the photo was snapped.
      As far as it being in shallow water, the article does state that there are deep waters off the reef in question, and it's plausible the current pushed the wreckage off the reef and into the depths.

      March 21, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • BOB

      The wreckage would have been washed deeper by storms.

      March 21, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  12. chaz there. it looks like right off shore. no need for underwater exploration

    BTW...the chances of her landing on that island or near that large stretch of ocean...are not very good

    March 21, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  13. CJ

    It is amazing the number of people who do not understand the difference between private and taxpayer funded research. This is a Privately funded project!! Read the article!!

    March 21, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lancaster

    Earhardt is a great role model for girls, so why not finish the investigation and educate kids at the same time? This is a no-brainer. Great use of money, private or public.

    March 21, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  15. richard

    Looks like the Loch Ness Monster to me.

    March 21, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
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