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. B4Cons

    Well that picture convinces me ..... must be Amelia's Plane..

    March 22, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Stephen K.

    Sec. Of Trans. Ray LaHood called Earhart an "aviation trailblazer". Okay! I'll bite. What did she trailblaze exactly, other than how not to cross the Pacific? Let's have some facts: She was a mediocre pilot with zero experience in multi-engine craft. She could not navigate at all and got her pal, Fred Noonan, who could barely celestial navigate, to go along with her. On the very first leg of her journey from CA to HI she flipped her plane on landing. This caused a two week delay in HI and it was obvious to everyone, including herself, that she was in over her head. Due to all the self serving publicity she reluctantly, against her husband's wishes, left HI to finish and disappeared on the very next leg. She was a publicity seeker and not much of a pilot, who basically comitted suicide. Certainly not an aviation trailblazer.

    March 22, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Diablo135

    Look. We all know she crashed somewhere near there and died soon after. Case solved. Why keep looking. And she was a trailblazer. She set several records.

    PS – stop ragging on the dude that complained about the tax dollars. 1,800 people have posted that it says Privately Funded in the story. Stop repeating it just so you can cut someone down.

    March 24, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. mobetta

    No, no, no.... she and Jimmy Hoffa are in Argentina with Hitler... all three heads now preserved in glass jars. ARRRrrrggghhH!

    March 24, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. mobetta

    Hey – take me! take me! I'll go to the South Pacific to look for Bigfoot, if you'd like

    March 24, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Lee

    Amazing how much polarized political nonsense is in these comments – which are completely disconnected to the article's subject. I do disagree with the remark that Amelia Earhart is "the last mystery of the 20th Century." I am certain that there are many more.....but it would be interesting to resolve this one, if only as a forensic exercise, and it doesn't matter to me if its done privately, or with government support.

    March 25, 2012 at 7:58 am | Report abuse |
  7. major

    This quest is in the long tradition of great human quests that have inspired man to the stars and reach back to prehistoric times. BRAVO!

    March 25, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Report abuse |
  8. miles7Armyvet

    Why dont they just Privately fund the rescue of the living...those millions of dollars would have helped those who got hit by the tornadoes in Feb...people more worried about the dead instead of helping out the living...

    March 25, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. southern_gent_from_mississippi

    So, Which is it? Is the research funded by the University of Hawaii (tax dollars) as the story says OR is it privately funded privately as story also says? If the searchers are using the Universities research ship and equipment, then its not a private endeavor.

    March 26, 2012 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
    • amused123

      perhaps the University is unsing funds provided to it by PRIVATE sources; just like many research projects.

      March 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike in NYC

      It is if the private funding goes to pay for the operation – regardless of WHERE the people and equipment come from.

      March 27, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • leeintulsa

      unless the private funders paid the university. think...

      March 27, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Report abuse |
  10. A

    The human zeal for adventure, exploration, and satiating curiosity has led to the knowledge and need to create the technological advances all of you enjoy today. So deal with it. No matter what public or private funds are being used, it's a drop in the bucket compared to most of the senseless money-sucks in the world. And if nothing else, these funds are being driven back into the economy via the purchase of supplies and funding of salaries.

    March 26, 2012 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
    • bud

      Emphasis on "funding of salaries"

      March 26, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mystery

    Isn't who killed Kennedy still a mystery?

    March 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • JS

      It was the CIA

      March 27, 2012 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
    • db

      It was LBJ

      March 27, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • mrkeno

      i know who it wasnt
      lee harvey oswald a more perfect patsy never existed

      March 27, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  12. renegadeiceberg

    wow. people are trying to solve one of americas biggest mysteries and panties are being tied in knots over who's paying for it and now is obama to blame. some people need to get a grip.

    March 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Connie

    Too difficult? Where would the fun or adventure be if it wasn't a bit impossible?

    March 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Connie

    Where would the fun or adventure be if it wasn't a bit impossible?

    March 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  15. joed49

    This clown couldn't find an m&m in it's bag. Want to bet this turns into a waste of money and time?

    March 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Report abuse |
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