For decades, pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart was said to have “disappeared” over the Pacific on her quest to circle the globe along a 29,000-mile equatorial route.
Now, new information gives a clearer picture of what happened 75 years ago to Ms. Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, where they came down and how they likely survived – for a while, at least – as castaways on a remote island, catching rainwater and eating fish, shellfish, and turtles to survive.
The tale hints at lost opportunities to locate and rescue the pair in the first crucial days after they went down, vital information dismissed as inconsequential or a hoax, the failure to connect important dots regarding physical evidence.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a non-profit foundation promoting aviation archaeology and historic aircraft preservation, reported new details Friday leading researchers to this conclusion: Earhart and Noonan, low on fuel and unable to find their next scheduled stopping point – Howland Island – radioed their position, then landed on a reef at uninhabited Gardner Island, a small coral atoll now known as Nikumaroro Island.
Using what fuel remained to turn up the engines to recharge the batteries, they continued to radio distress signals for several days until Earhart’s twin-engine Lockheed Electra aircraft was swept off the reef by rising tides and surf. Using equipment not available in 1937 – digitized information management systems, antenna modeling software, and radio wave propagation analysis programs, TIGHAR concluded that 57 of the 120 signals reported at the time are credible, triangulating Earhart’s position to have been Nikumaroro Island.
"Amelia Earhart did not simply vanish on July 2, 1937,” Richard Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News. “Radio distress calls believed to have been sent from the missing plane dominated the headlines and drove much of the US Coast Guard and Navy search.”
"When the search failed, all of the reported post-loss radio signals were categorically dismissed as bogus and have been largely ignored ever since," Mr. Gillespie said. But the results of the study, he said, “suggest that the aircraft was on land and on its wheels for several days following the disappearance.”
In addition, several artifacts found years ago – some of it discovered by Pacific islanders who later inhabited the island – seem to confirm TIGHAR’s conclusion.
These include broken glass artifacts showing evidence of secondary use as tools for cutting or scraping; large numbers of fish and bird bones collected in, or associated with, ash and charcoal deposits; several hundred mollusk shells, as well as bones from at least one turtle; bone fragments and dried fecal matter that might be of human origin.
A photo taken three months after Earhart’s flight shows what could be the landing gear of her aircraft in the waters off the atoll.
“Analyses of the artifacts, faunals and data collected during the expedition are on-going but, at this point, everything supports the hypothesis that the remains found at the site in 1940 were those of Amelia Earhart,” according to TIGHAR.
Other artifacts (some of them reported in 1940 but then lost) include a bone-handled pocket knife of the type known to have been carried by Earhart, part of a man’s shoe, part of a woman’s shoe, a zipper of the kind manufactured in the 1930s, a woman’s compact, and broken pieces of a jar appearing to be the same size and unusual shape as one holding “Dr. Berry's Freckle Ointment.” (Earhart was known to dislike her freckles.)
In July, TIGHAR researchers will return to the area where Earhart and Noonan are thought to have spent their last days, using submersibles to try and detect the famous aircraft they believe to have been swept off a Pacific reef in 1937.