Mystery of the air
Latest on the search for Amelia Earhart
The ocean detective who found the wreck of the
Titanic in 1985 believes he’s solved another enduring mystery: what happened to aviation pioneer Amilia Earhart after she took off from Lae more than 80 years ago and vanished over the Pacific.
Oceanographer Dr Robert Ballard and his team sailed to Kiribati last August following evidence Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, ended up on the island of Nikumaroro. Ballard’s expedition on the 64-metre Nautilus was filmed by National Geographic for a documentary.
“I have always been intrigued by the story of Amelia Earhart because she shocked the world doing what everyone thought was impossible, much like what I have attempted to do my entire career as a deep-sea explorer,” says the founder and president of the Ocean Exploration Trust.
In 1932 Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and three years later completed the first solo flight from Hawaii to California. Then, in July 1937, she landed in Lae near the end of an attempt to complete the longest circumnavigation of the world.
“The American aviator must have looked like a glamorous international oddity when she stopped over in a frontier town dominated by gold miners, planters, traders, land grabbers, tough patrol officers and the odd missionary,” says Canberra historian Dr Daniel Connell, a former Highlands resident.
“But her daring risk-taking approach to life probably caused her to feel quite comfortable with Lae’s wild spirit.”
For many years it was believed Earhart’s Lockheed Electra E10 ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean after leaving Lae. Others speculated that Earhart was an American spy captured by the Japanese.
Ballard prefers the theory that Earhart and Noonan may have crashed on the uninhabited coral atoll and possibly
survived for months.
He’s drawn to this view by evidence they couldn’t find tiny Howland Island, the next scheduled stop on their world flight.
Further confirming that possibility is a skeleton found on Nikumaroro in the 1940s and confirmed to be that of a tall woman. Unfortunately, the skeleton has since been lost.
More recently, Pentagon analysts enhanced an old photo, taken on the island, which apparently showed the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra.
But, despite an extensive search of Nikumaroro and surrounding waters with drones, sonar and undersea equipment, Ballard’s expedition found no plane.
The 77-year-old explorer is not discouraged. He hopes to return to Nikumaroro and continue searching if more evidence turns up.
The search continues ... Amelia Earhart (opposite page); Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who found the Titanic (above left); the Nautilus search vessel (above).