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. Stevens

    TIGHAR drumming up business as usual...

    March 28, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  2. angel611

    Please someone, make this story stop.
    A plane crash 75 years ago?

    March 28, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Battleback

    I really like this story and have wondered about her disappearance ever since I was a boy. Many people who take a great interest in history and aviation as well will follow this mystery more closely now. I think even the trolls (political and otherwise) will be just sick of the wasted time, money, and energy that they themselves don't have. The one idiot even thinks the picture is recent with the landing gear sticking in the air for 75 years. I had to laugh at that one.

    March 28, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Anchorite

    I don't have any problem with them using taxpayer money to find the final resting place of Earhart and her navigator, but it's ridiculous to say the world is smaller because of her. She wasn't the first to fly anywhere she flew, and was kind of a shoddy pilot. Apparently she didn't even bother to learn Morse code, being more interested in hotshot fame than in being safe. It didn't surprise any of her contemporaries at the time that she would crash or be lost. There a ton of better pilots in history and today for young girls if they want a strong female role model in aviation.

    March 29, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Jibedog

    The article says:"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." Based on the photo of the landing gear extending into the air and the shore nearby, all they need is a scuba tank and certified diver. I am certified and available for this trip. Will dive for work.

    March 29, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. pj

    Tax dollars were spent then and are spent today for such things. The idiots who climb a mountain or do any risky behavior when lost are searched for with public monies and manpower. People who could and sometimes do lose their lives looking for these idiots. The idiots never stop to think, oh, if I am lost, public monies will have to be used to find me. I too have always been interested if not obsessed about Ms. Earhart; was she working for the government? No matter how long ago it was, I am sure if it were your family member, even one you never knew, you would want to know what happened to them, correct? I'll be watching. It is bound to be as good as Al Capone's vault with Gervaro?

    March 30, 2012 at 6:43 am | Report abuse |
  7. Dave

    This is news? So the bones and items matching things Earhart and Noonan are known to have that were found on that very island in 1940 are inconclusive, but an old picture is the smoking gun? Really??? Source: (via

    March 30, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
  8. Marvs257

    Why are we spending two cabinet secretaries to work on this? Ray LaHood go back on fixing our roads and transportation. Hillary go deal with Syria, Iran, N korea....

    March 30, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  9. BOB

    Who gives a sh!t about Amelia… Why isn’t anyone looking for the USS Indianapolis?

    March 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • The dude

      A lot of people in fact BOB! There is likely someone who is searching for the USS Indianapolis, you just don't hear about it until something is discovered. Amelia represents a lot for many people, it will be good to know the conclusion to this fairly old mystery; though I must admit the mystery has always been part of the intrigue.

      March 30, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • HeatherRenee

      I care, she is one of my ancestors.

      April 7, 2012 at 2:33 am | Report abuse |
  10. Calcommuter

    Gillespie has said he has found "a ton" of evidence. All of which so far has been debunked. As for the photo, there is another famous photo that some people think shows a mini sub firing a torpedo during the Pearl Harbor attack. That still has not been absolutely proven. This grainy photo is another lame attempt by Gillespie to get funds to go back. Ballard, help this guy out. Get your ship with your best sonar and search around Howland island where the plane has more chance of being.

    March 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  11. JuJuBee

    I read in a Cracked article ("6 Famous Unsolved Mysteries That Have Totally Been Solved" Sept 1st 2010 if you wanna take a look at it) that said Amelia's remains and some of her belongings had already been found around 1940 washed up on that island near where the plane went down.
    So...I hope this guy enjoys wasting his private funds....

    March 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • JuJuBee

      Haha, I posted that comment before I played the video and saw they mentioned the remains being found. My bad. 😉

      March 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cheryl

      I read various articles on that too not long ago. They did find items that were unique to what Amelia had as well as the remains were of a female caucasian – very unusual. Unfortunately those remains were destroyed and some of the "campsite" items were not saved, but described in journals – why they did not immediately think it could be Amelia is beyond me. Not too many "western" female personal items, shoes, etc. as well as "plane" type items would just appear in an unpopulated island at a beach campsite. It seems though that she was pretty much where her last known point/distress call indicated. Seemed to be the "experts" consensus that this is where she died.

      April 1, 2012 at 9:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Shay

      Cracked isn't very reliable...if at all...

      April 7, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Terry

    We spent more money looking for JFK Jr., only to have him dumped back in the Ocean!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Terry

    We spent more time and money to find JFK, JR. in the Ocean, only to have him buried back in the Ocean!

    March 31, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Karon

    Save some money. Go on Google Earth and there is a rock that still sticking up out of the water in same spot today looks just like that picture too. Its a rock off the atoll.

    March 31, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • t.graham


      my word, you are a GENIUS. why oh why has nobody up till now gone on google sea maps like only you to FINALLY disprove this craziness? good job, you are one in a MILLION. thank you, thank you, thank you for your seemingly ridiculous simplemindedness but arguable BRILLIANCE. you are one in a minion, i mean million.

      good job!

      April 2, 2012 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
  15. Georgie

    Fingers In My Ears – la la la – she faked her death and had a happily ever after – la la la

    – little girls everywhere

    April 2, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
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