Amelia Earhart search missions begins: five others that failed

An expedition to search for the lost aircraft of Amelia Earhart leaves Hawaii Tuesday with high hopes. But many have tried, and failed, to find conclusive evidence before. 

Oskar Garcia/AP
The University of Hawaii ship Kaimikai-O-Kanaloa, seen here anchored at harbor in Honolulu, is set to leave for of a month-long voyage Tuesday to attempt to find plane wreckage from Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra, which disappeared over the South Pacific 75 years ago.

What happened to Amelia Earhart? That’s one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century.

On July 2, 1937, the famed aviatrix and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared after missing their intended destination of Howland Island, a speck of coral in the vast blue of the central Pacific. A massive sea and air search conducted by the US government found no trace of the pair or their Lockheed Electra 10E.

Ever since researchers, scientists, history buffs, and plain dreamers have longed to succeed where Uncle Sam failed and find evidence – a wing, traceable equipment, perhaps an entire aircraft – which uncovers the story of her fate.

The latest search for Amelia planned to leave Hawaii on Tuesday, bound for the remote Pacific archipelago nation of Kiribati. The $2.2 million expedition has been organized by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Previous TIGHAR trips have located debris which hints at the possibility that Earhart and Noonan ended up marooned on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island that today is part of Kiribati, after a forced landing.

Now the group will used sophisticated underwater gear to search a spot where they believe tides and ocean currents may have deposited Earhart’s plane some 75 years ago.

“Everything has pointed to the airplane having gone over the edge of that reef in a particular spot and the wreckage ought to be right down there,” said Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR founder, according to the Associated Press. “We’re going to search where it – in quotes – should be. And maybe it’s there, maybe it’s not. And there’s no way to know unless you go and look.”

Among the evidence TIGHAR says it has accumulated from Nikumaroro is a zipper from 1930s clothing, a cosmetic bottle which resembles those used by an anti-freckle cream sold in that era, and human bone fragments. But it’s important to keep TIGHAR’s work, however promising, in context. Many searches for Earhart have come up empty over the years.

The first search. The official search began only an hour or so after the last recorded Earhart transmission. The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca searched north and west of Howland Island, on the theory that Earhart and Noonan had simply missed their landing spot by a short distance.

“Itasca searched throughout the day to the northward of Howland Island and during the night of 2-3 July with searchlights, extra lookouts posted and all hands on the alert,” reads a Coast Guard report of Itasca’s mission.

In following days the Itasca traveled as far west as the island of Tarawa. Other ships joined the search, as well as US naval aircraft, which overflew Gardner Island. Nothing was found. The search was called off on July 19 after covering 150,000 square miles.

Earhart's husband. Immediately thereafter Earhart’s husband, George P. Putnam, financed a private search of nearby islands, including the Gilberts and Christmas Island, but again, no trace was found.

Interesting sonar readings. More recently, in 1999 venture capitalist Dana Timmer partnered with Williamson and Associates, a deep water technology firm based in Seattle, to search the seabed north and west of Howland via sonar arrays. The search lasted for six weeks, and discovered “a couple” of interesting sonar readings, according to a summary on TIGHAR’s website. Beyond that little was found.

Survey cut short. In 2002, the deep ocean recovery firm Nauticos scanned 630 square nautical miles near the same area with towed sonar arrays. The search was cut short due to a malfunctioning cable winch but Nauticos president David Jourdan said at the time that he planned to return to Howland Island for further exploration.

Vast area searched. In 2006, Nauticos teamed up with the Waitt Institute, founded by former Gateway Computer chairman Ted Waitt, to map 2,200 square miles of ocean floor via sonar. While the group found no wreckage, it said it had enough confidence in its data to say that no wreckage exists on the sea bed area it searched.

“Our results eliminate thousands of square miles from future search efforts,” said Waitt at the time.

The Waitt Institute maintains an active interest in searching for Amelia Earhart. Generally speaking, Waitt researchers believe that TIGHAR is looking too far afield – that Earhart and Noonan did not have enough fuel to reach the Nikumaroro area. TIGHAR, in turn, believes the Waitt group has underestimated the amount of fuel remaining in the Electra at the time it reached the Howland Island area.

Since 1989, TIGHAR has led 10 expeditions to its preferred Nikumaroro site. While this has produced dozens of interesting fragments and relics, it has yet to turn up anything definitive. Perhaps the latest effort will succeed where the others have not. 

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