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Back to Still Searching: The Mysterious Disappearance of Amelia Earhart | Part 1: Flying Into Fame | Part 3: Back to Nikumaroro | Part 4: High Tech and Trained Dogs Join the Hunt for Earhart

Since 1937, hundreds of people have attempted to solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance without success. The theories about what happened to she, her navigator Fred Noonan and their Lockheed Electra aircraft have ranged from logical to absurd, but no one’s been able to provide any conclusive proof to support any claim.

Then in 1988, a non-profit organization called The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) began to reexamine the original evidence which had pointed the US Navy search efforts toward the remote island now known as Nikumaroro. TIGHAR investigators began to do what the navy hadn’t — they landed on Nikumaroro and began an intensive archaeological survey for proof that Earhart and Noonan spent their final days on this tiny spot of land.

TIGHAR Goes To Work

Ric Gillespie, the Executive Director of TIGHAR, will be the first to tell you that his organization initially had no interest in the Amelia Earhart mystery. In the 1980s, TIGHAR’s work had mostly concentrated on solving an aviation mystery from the 1920s. But then a chance conversation in 1988 changed all that.

Gillespie remembered the exchange in a phone interview with the Oceanscape Network:

“We were approached by two of our members who were retired Navy aerial navigators and they were very familiar with the navigational techniques used by Amelia’s navigator, Fred Noonan,” Gillespie said. “And they said to us, ‘You know, the things Amelia said over the radio just before she disappeared make perfect sense and indicate she was flying along a line of navigation that should’ve taken her to another island and no one’s ever looked for her there before.’”

Gillespie was intrigued. While searching the depths of the Pacific Ocean for the missing Electra was an impossible task for TIGHAR, the organization was willing to cast the eye of modern science upon Nikumaroro.

“We started doing some research and discovered that this wasn’t a new theory,” Gillespie said. “In fact, this was the oldest theory. This is what the U.S. Navy thought happened to her back in 1937 and they actually flew planes over the island and saw signs of recent habitation in a place where nobody had lived since 1892. But they never searched on the ground and they just concluded Earhart crashed at sea.”

A New Look At An Old Theory

TIGHAR’s hypothesis is that after Earhart and Noonan were unable to find their intended destination on Howland Island, they turned their Electra airplane south which led them directly over Nikumaroro. They would have arrived at low tide when the coral reef surrounding the atoll was clearly visible. Because the top of the reef was relatively flat, TIGHAR believes Earhart was able to land the plane and she (and possibly Noonan) walked ashore. Shortly thereafter, the Electra was washed off the reef by the surf and sank into the ocean. With her plane permanently lost, Earhart struggled on in a makeshift campsite on the southeast end of the island, surviving on rain water, fish, clams and seabirds. How long the aviator lived like this isn’t known, but she did eventually perish and TIGHAR believes her bones were found (but subsequently misidentified and lost) by the British who established a settlement on Nikumaroro in 1939. Since only one set of bones was found, it is unknown what became of Noonan.

Bringing Science to Nikumaroro

In 1989, Gillespie and a team of archaeologists, SCUBA divers, photographers and physical science experts began to survey the tiny atoll. In the 27 years since, TIGHAR has engaged in ten expeditions to Nikumaroro.

“The closer we looked at Nikumaroro, the more we have found. Today, it’s an amazing body of evidence that says, yea, this is really what happened to Amelia Earhart,” said Gillespie.

Physical evidence indicates that an American woman castaway briefly lived and died on the lonely island during the mid-1930s , and can be reviewed in detail on the TIGHAR website. But the piece of evidence Gillespie is particularly excited about is a small rectangle of aluminum found during their very first expedition. According to Gillespie, TIGHAR’s analysis of the metal sheet has provided a high degree of certainty that it is a temporary patch placed on the fuselage of Earhart’s plane prior to its ill-fated flight toward Howland Island. (See the accompanying TIGHAR video about this piece of evidence on the right sidebar.)

Still, a metal patch is not conclusive proof and Gillespie says his team will return to Nikumaroro July 2015 and hopefully find the long-missing Electra. They think they know where the plane fuselage might lie based on an anomaly found during a side-scan sonar survey of the Nikumaroro reef in 2012.

“There’s something strange down there,” said Gillespie. “It’s an object that’s the right size, the right shape and in the right place to be the body, or the fuselage, of her airplane.”

So what is TIGHAR’s next step?

“We are going back out with an underwater remotely-operated vehicle (also known as an ROV) which has lights and cameras all over it and is tethered to the ship. It’ll go down and take pictures of this ‘thing’… whatever it is.”

Gillespie and his team acknowledge that their version of the Earhart mystery differs from the mainstream theory propagated since 1937, but also point out that the very nature of scientific inquiry is to question, challenge and possibly refute preexisting ideas. So will TIGHAR find the definitive evidence that had eluded so many people for so many years or even rewrite history? The Oceanscape Network hopes to provide additional updates on this archaeological investigation in the months ahead. Be certain to check our Virtual Expeditions page for details.

Related Features: Secrets of Shipwrecks

Photo Credits: TIGHAR, courtesy of Ric Gillespie.

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Artifact 22V1

In 1991, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), discovered a piece of aluminum that appeared to be of aircraft origin on the remote island of Nikumaroro. Could this artifact be connected to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart? (TIGHAR video, used with permission.)

Still Searching: The Mystery of Amelia Earhart

When Amelia Earhart vanished in 1937, most people thought she was lost at sea. But new archaeological evidence may suggest that she lived out her last days as a castaway on a remote tropical island. Ric Gilespie of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) explains.