Was Amelia Earhart’s plane found off the coast of Papua New Guinea?
Amelia Earhart is known as being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. But her legacy is inextricably tied with the mystery that surrounds her. Since her mysterious disappearance in 1937, the world has speculated on her fate. Could a recent discovery off of the coast of Papua New Guinea hold the key to the decades-old enigma?
Before being the famed pilot
Amelia Earhart is an American icon, an example and inspiration for women in aviation and around the world. But before she was “Lady Lindy,” as her fans affectionately called her, she was simply Amelia Mary Earhart. Earhart had been bending traditional gender roles from a very young age.
She played basketball, studied auto repair, and even attended college, even if it was for a brief time. While we’re here discussing how awesome Earhart was, before she was a pilot, she was a Red Cross nurse’s aide during WWI. If that doesn’t impress you, try this one on for size: Before Earhart rode in her first plane, she was a premed student at Columbia University.
One airplane ride changed it all
Of course, all that changed when Earhart took her first airplane ride in December 1920. Once she was flying along the cloud line, she was smitten. She never wanted to put her feet back on the ground. It was then that Earhart knew her heart belonged to the sky. The following year, Earhart began taking piloting lessons.
She took on a job as a filing clerk at the Los Angeles Telephone Company and saved up enough money to buy her first plane — a secondhand yellow Kinner Airster she called “The Canary.” After receiving her piloting license in 1921, she went on to set new records, including being the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet, and eventually, her solo journey across the Atlantic in 1932.
She wanted to fly around the world to prove a point
We all know how this story ends. On July 2, 1937, Earhart seemingly vanished from the face of the Earth, leaving no trace of her location. Taking on a solo trip with her navigator, Fred Noonan, she dreamed of achieving the impossible. Earhart listed her reasons for flying in her autobiography, The Fun of It. She described her rooted determination to set records and fly toward the horizon.
Her comment on flying across the Atlantic was a precursor to flying around the world: “I chose to fly the Atlantic because I wanted to. It was, in a measure, a self-justification — a proving to me, and to anyone else interested, that a woman with adequate experience could do it.” Well said, Earhart!
First woman to attempt circling the globe disappears
In hindsight, it’s depressing to see the words of the very woman who thought to tackle the impossible. Earhart became one of America’s greatest mysteries. The last time Earhart and Noonan were heard from was during their departure from Lae en route to Howland Island. However, they would never make it to their next destination, and it was the last time they were ever seen.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent out a search party for the duo, only to come out empty-handed. Many began to speculate about the mysterious fate of the missing pilots. Conspiracies began to circulate, ranging from being captured by Japanese soldiers, to returning to the U.S. under a new name. Whatever the cause, as the years went by, it began to look like the truth about Earhart would remain a mystery. That is, until they found skeletal remains.
Might have found her bones in 1940
In 1940, nearly three years after Earhart’s disappearance, skeletal remains were found on the island of Nikumaroro in the South Pacific, along the same route that Earhart reportedly followed. According to Forbes, a local living on the island found a skull and a bottle on September 23, 1940. It was thought to belong to the missing aviatrix, but it could not be confirmed at the time.
Sure, the assumption was that her plane crashed somewhere in the middle of the Pacific. But the remains were found with what was believed to be a woman’s shoe and a sextant box. Of course, some experts would have been more than curious to investigate the uncovered remains.
The remains were in pieces
The remains found on the island were disjointed and broken apart, most likely by coconut crabs. According to NewScientist, a coconut crab’s large claws are strong enough to lift up to 60 pounds and can crack open hard-shelled coconuts. Its massive claws could easily break a bone and pick at whatever unfortunate soul was laid to waste on their turf.
The bone left behind was an incomplete skull missing its upper jaw. Its lower jaw was unable to provide any dental records. Also found: one vertebra, half a pelvis, part of a scapula, a humerus, radius, tibia, fibula, and two femora. The medical practitioner who surveyed the remains had some bad news.
Doctors speculate the remains are hers
It was Dr. Duncan Macpherson, the central medical authority in the Western Pacific High Commission, who examined the remains. In the fall of 1941, Macpherson told authorities that it was difficult to decisively ascertain whether the remains belonged to Amelia Earhart. The bones that remained missing happened to be the skeletal clues needed to accurately determine the identity in their analysis.
Dr. Macpherson concluded that the tests on the remains found on Nikumaroro were inconclusive. It wasn’t until the remains were sent to a second physician that the identity of the person to whom thy once belonged could be determined, once again resurrecting hope that Earhart’s final resting place had been found.
Test results are inconclusive/not her remains
Once the second physician got hold of the remains found on the island, there was time to thoroughly study the age, sex, and cause of death. In a most anticlimactic fashion, it was determined on February 11, 1941, that the remains were of an elderly man of “Polynesian descent” and that they were at least 20 years old (which didn’t fit the Earhart timeline).
Although the information given should have sufficed, still medical professionals had questions (and perhaps hopes) regarding the origins of the remains. After all, when you find something that could possibly be a link to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, someone better be darn sure they get the information right.
Confirmed not to be confirmed
In the end, after several months of assessment, doctors concluded that the weathered bones from the South Pacific island were from a person approximately 5-foot-6 in height. Based on the half-pelvis and leg bone, it was determined that the remains were from a male between the ages of 45-55 years old. It was suggested that the partial skeleton belonged to a native castaway.
Since then, the bones have mysteriously disappeared. All that’s left are the medical documents containing the physical records of the remains. Regardless of the conclusion, fast-forward over half a century, and we have a follow-up with technology significantly more advanced than at the time of Earhart’s disappearance.
An international group takes a stab at finding Earhart
OK, so 1999 wasn’t super technologically advanced by today’s standards. However, technology was exceedingly better than it was in the ’40s. Enter: The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), who launched an expedition to recover the missing bones and potentially additional documentation from the 1940 investigation.
Ric Gillespie is TIGHAR’s executive director. His occupation focuses on aviation accident investigations. In 1999, his team banded together a group of archaeologists to scour through documentation and document the stories of local eye witnesses from the time. It was during their investigation that TIGHAR uncovered meaningful background information. However, they could not find any other skeletal remains on Nikumaroro.
1999 Close encounter part II
Once Gillespie’s team found the medical records of the skeletal remains, they were met with disappointment when they realized the documents lacked key information they needed to determine an estimation for age, gender, and ancestry. In the end, the team was in dismay to discover that the person recording this information wrote everything down as a physician — not as a forensic anthropologist.
Yes, there is a difference. Every detail is crucial. For what it was worth, Gillespie’s team took whatever measurements previous doctors had recorded and entered said data into a computer software system that further assisted their research. Once the data was analyzed, forensic anthropologists agreed with the majority of the notes.
Turned out to be inconclusive
Turns out that the remains could have been male or female, of European or Polynesian descent. That was a step backward. But the data did support that the stature was between 5 feet, 6 inches and 5 feet, 7 inches tall if female, and 5 feet, 7-and-a-half and 5 feet, 8-and-a-half inches tall if male. After reverse engineering the measurements to Earhart’s height, anthropologists were excited to note that the bone data fit within the same range of height as Earhart’s.
After a deeper dive, the team concluded that based on the available information, the skeleton was more likely female than male, and was “more likely European than Polynesian.” Despite the results, they all agreed on one thing: They didn’t have enough bones to draw scientifically supported conclusions. The 1999 project, like the 1940s investigation, proved inconclusive … until now.
Project Blue Angel comes in
Since 1999–2003, there have been competing hypotheses regarding whether the skeletal remains found on the islands really belonged to Amelia Earhart. But time and time again, investigations came to the conclusion that there just wasn’t enough substantial evidence to confirm the discovery of Amelia Earhart’s final resting place. However, all of that changed when an organization called Project Blue Angel got involved in 2018.
It was the director of the program, amateur historian William Snavely, who might have found Amelia Earhart’s missing Lockheed Electra 10E. According to Fox News, researchers say a site in Papua New Guinea may contain the remains of Earhart’s plane. Wreckage found off the coast of Buka Island offers a “vital clue in the decades-long mystery.” Snavely thinks he may have solved the mystery through the discovery of the crash site.
The discovery changes everything
When Snavely’s team discovered the wreckage, he knew he struck gold. “We’re still exploring to try to find out whose plane it is. We don’t want to jump ahead and assume that it’s Amelia’s … but everything that we’re seeing so far would tend to make us think it could be.”
The team underwent a diving expedition in August 2018 where the sunken plane that matched characteristics of Earhart’s plane was discovered. What solidified the find and hypothesis was finding a glass disc that is believed to be the light lens from the plane. Something fascinating about the discovery is that the lens was almost identical to the model used on the Lockheed Electra 10E.
The search continues for conclusive evidence
Snavely’s team has been researching the site for 13 years. Snavely is convinced that based on Earhart’s route, it’s plausible that she turned the plane around after realizing she was short on fuel on her way to Howland Island. Snavely was quoted on Fox News as saying: “The Buka Island wreck site was directly on Amelia and Fred’s flight path, and it is an area never searched following their disappearance …”
Snavely also stated, “What we’ve found so far is consistent with the plane she flew.” Snavely continues to pursue his findings by comparing data in connection with other findings. However, though Snavely feels strongly about his find, there’s still more work to be done. The data is currently under meticulous review by experts.
Project Blue Angel is still investigating today
Although Project Blue Angel is still investigating the wreckage, there’s no confirmation that the plane belonged to Earhart. However, the clues are too aligned to dismiss as coincidence without further inspection. The organization took donations on their GoFundMe page to help finance their mission of identifying the wreckage.
Snavely commented that their mission is to identify the wreckage and hopefully discover remains belonging to the pilot and crew. If successful, they plan to notify the loved ones of the confirmed discovery. But they don’t want to jump the gun, and will have to wait until the wreckage is confirmed as Earhart’s.
15-year-old hears last words belonging to Earhart
Project Blue Angel isn’t the only team who has been looking for Amelia Earhart. In fact, some may have heard her last radio broadcast before she disappeared forever. In the summer of 2018, The Washington Post published an article with sourced accounts of witnesses who overheard Earhart’s intercepted calls on her radio.
A 15-year-old girl in St. Petersburg, Florida, wrote down desperate pleas for help that she heard: “waters high,” “water’s knee-deep; let me out,” and “help us quick.” The detailed accounts are absolutely chilling. Were these notes a transcript of the last things Earhart said before disappearing forever? Others around the world also claim to have heard these intercepted radio distress calls at the time.
Another woman heard different things
A 15-year-old heard the harrowing calls for help from an anonymous voice over her radio, but a Toronto housewife says that she heard different messages that were just as chilling: “We have taken in water … we can’t hold on much longer.” The Washington Post also reported that TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) believes the messages were sent during Earhart’s final moments of life.
They were made days after Earhart’s disappearance, and many are left to wonder if anyone else might have heard the call. If a random civilian could hear the call, why not authorities? TIGHAR has a hypothesis as to what might have happened to Earhart and her navigator.
Marooned on an Island in the South Pacific
TIGHAR currently believes that as Earhart was circumnavigating the globe, she might have crash-landed and possibly been marooned on a deserted island, where she radioed for help. TIGHAR also believes her plane crashed in the shallow waters of an uncharted island when the tide was low. In this scenario, Earhart could have made a journey back to her plane while her engine wasn’t yet flooded.
They would have been calling every night since their alleged crash. But as we know now, help never came. Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR director, told The Washington Post that the pair most likely exhausted themselves and perished on the island as castaways.
Did the Navy hear them too?
As for anyone else hearing Earhart’s supposed last transmissions via radio? Some of her messages were indeed heard by the military and others who were looking for her, The Washington Post reported. However, almost all the messages were dismissed by the U.S. Navy. It was concluded that Earhart’s plane crashed in the Pacific and sank to the bottom.
However, TIGHAR director Gillespie says differently — he believes the recordings were authentic and that the U.S. Navy prematurely dismissed them. Unlike Project Blue Angel, TIGHAR believes her plane crashed on the then-uninhabited Gardner Island, which is basically a tiny speck in the vast ocean and lies over 2,500 miles north of New Zealand.
The radio could only be picked up within a few hundred miles
Why were the messages ignored? The reason can be explained if we rewind the proverbial tape to July 2, 1937 — the last day anyone heard from Amelia Earhart. Once she was disconnected from the rest of the world, the U.S. Navy reportedly put out an “all ships, all stations” bulletin.
It was also reported that authorities told anyone listening in on the radio to listen closely to any incoming calls she sent on her trip. Despite the precaution, the task was easier said than done. The Electra’s radio was simply designed to communicate within a radius of a few hundred miles. But considering the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, it would be like a needle in a haystack.
It was like playing Marco Polo
As her rescue party listened for any distress signals, they picked up a carrier wave, which indicated that someone was speaking on the other side. However, there wasn’t anything listeners could decipher. They even heard a poor attempt at Morse code. If Earhart’s radio could only be heard from a few hundred miles from its location, then how did people from thousands of miles away hear her message?
TIGHAR claims it’s because of the scientific principle of harmonics that Earhart’s message was pushed out. According to The Washington Post, the transmitter could put out multiple wavelengths, and those wavelengths (or harmonic frequencies) could “skip” off the ionosphere and be carried for greater distances.
A storm might have resulted in Earhart’s demise
Basically, whoever was listening to the radio at the right time could have heard Earhart’s messages. One listener named Nina Paxton from Ashland, Kentucky, allegedly heard Earhart say “KHAQQ calling,” and then the report: “on or near the little island at a point near.” Paxton commented on how she heard Earhart say something along the lines of “a storm” and that the “wind was blowing.”
In the end, the last thing Paxton heard over her radio was “… will have to get out of here … we can’t stay here long.” After her final message on July 3, 1937, Earhart was never heard from again. Well, at least from Paxton’s radio. Perhaps Paxton was not the only listener who accidentally caught hold of Earhart’s plea for help.
Others believed she was a spy
Can anyone imagine hearing a plea for help from somewhere landlocked, thousands of miles away, only being rendered unable to do anything about it? Absolutely terrifying. However, there are some who speculate that Earhart was no victim of the Pacific. In fact, some believe Earhart worked for President Franklin Roosevelt as a spy for the U.S.
The conspirators firmly believe that she was spying on the Japanese army during the dawn of WWII and was subsequently captured in the Marshall Islands by the Japanese. Subscribers to this theory believe that her disappearance was the product of her capture, and eventually, execution.
A photo may hold the key to Earhart’s disappearance
Perhaps being captured by Japanese soldiers is not as far-fetched as it sounds at first. In 2017, a photograph was rediscovered in a mislabeled file at the National Archives by a former U.S. Treasury agent named Les Kinney. The discovery was covered in a History Channel documentary entitled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence.
In the documentary, scholars investigate a photograph that has a figure who is facing away from the camera, reported to be Earhart. The figure matched Earhart’s body type and signature cropped hair. The figure next to her does look like her copilot, Noonan. The photograph was said to have been taken near an atoll at the Marshall Islands. However, there are some who doubt its legitimacy.
Experts analyzed the photograph and found it to be authentic
Two different photo experts analyzed the discovered black-and-white picture that was supposedly of Earhart and Noonan. Both experts were convinced that the photos had not been manipulated. Analysts compared the facial features and body proportions of the figures in the photos against those of Earhart and Noonan. The picture of Noonan was unmistakable. Noonan’s hairline and the nose were the most defined features in the person’s face.
Although it seemed the mystery came close to being solved, there were still doubts about the photo and the identities of the people in it. One of those doubts was regarding the time the photo was taken. And timing wasn’t the only issue: TIGHAR also believes that the figures in the photo are not Earhart and Noonan.
Experts are not sure when the photo was taken
Of course, when something seems too good to be true, it often is. There is no decisive timestamp for the archival photo, nor is there a record of Earhart being near or in the Marshall Islands. Investigators traveled to the Marshall Islands and interviewed those who repeatedly reported seeing Earhart land her plane at Mili Atoll in 1937.
Investigators even interviewed the last living person who had repeatedly claimed to have seen both pilot and navigator after their landing. However, there are still pockets of doubt. The TIGHAR team believes that the figures in the photo are basically unrecognizable and dismiss it as evidence that is not credible.
TIGHAR believes Earhart was not in the photo
Despite the circumstantial evidence that Earhart might have been seen alive after her disappearance, researchers behind TIGHAR believe there are other issues with the photo. For instance, it’s reported that the National Archives did not misfile the photo. They concluded that the recovered image was from the file that was “unrelated to Earhart.”
According to them, the photo was exactly where it should have been. The people in the photo are questionable. Earhart and Noonan’s clothes are reportedly wrong in the photo. It’s also believed that Earhart’s hair was too long and that there is no clear visualization of their faces, only a side profile (allegedly belonging to Noonan).
The hairline is all wrong
Photo experts supposedly identified Noonan by overlaying a photo of the navigator and matched his hairline. Unfortunately, the photo used for comparison was flipped. According to the TIGHAR official website, the photo was horizontally reversed, which created the “illusion” that the hairline matched that of the man on the dock. Noonan reportedly parted his hair on the left. The man in the photo had it parted on the right.
In the end, his hairline does not match the photo. If experts in TIGHAR see flaws in Noonan, who’s to say there aren’t any flaws in identifying Earhart? Now here’s the million-dollar question for those of you reading out there: Why do we care so much about how she disappeared and died?
What doesn’t make sense is that despite all the convincing evidence presented to all the experts, no one dares to declare the mystery solved. Why not believe that the skeletal remains found on Nikumaroro Island belonged to Earhart? Despite ongoing investigations, the question boils down to this: Does anyone really want to find Earhart?
Or do many relish in delving in the romance of the mystery? We’re addicted to the thrill of discovery, piecing clues together to create a bigger picture. Perhaps the enigma of Earhart is greater than the truth. For now, the fate of the first female pilot to attempt circling the globe remains a mystery. Perhaps someday, we will know her fate.