The Earhart Expedition: And so it Begins…

Yesterday, the Niku VII expedition landed on the tiny island of Nikumaroro. Over the next 7 to 10 days, the members hope to solve a spectacular mystery that has baffled experts for 75 years…the disappearance of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan.

Amelia Earhart (1928)
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, No copyright found; checked by staff December 2000

Background

We first looked at this mystery back in July 2011. Amelia Earhart was a famed aviatrix and the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1936, she decided to attempt a 29,000 mile circumnavigational flight around the Earth.

With Fred Noonan as her navigator, she left California on May 21, 1937. Thirty-eight days and 22,000 miles later, she landed in Lae, New Guinea. On July 2, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae in her Lockheed Electra 10E, heading for Howland Island. Hours later, they vanished, never to be seen again.

For more than two decades, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR – pronounced “tiger”) has searched for answers to this mystery. They believe Amelia and Fred landed on a reef off Nimumaroro’s west end and safely evacuated the aircraft. A few days later, rising tides swept the airplane over the reef edge. Although they’ve uncovered some circumstantial evidence that might support their case, they have yet to find definitive proof for their theory.

The Niku VII Expedition

On July 3, TIGHAR launched it latest expedition to Nikumaroro from Honolulu on the R/V Ka’Imikai-o-Kanaloa. The goal is to search the underwater reef slope for any remaining debris from Amelia’s Lockheed Electra 10E.

The voyage took a little longer than anticipated and arrived yesterday rather than the scheduled date of July 9. Based on the updates provided by TIGHAR, the voyage itself was rather uneventful. The crew used much of the time to prepare for its mission.

“The atmosphere aboard is rather like the mood aboard an LST as it approaches an island the troops have to take. They are going into action soon; all ‘weapons’ have been cleaned and checked and rechecked, plans refined and massaged. There is a palpable sense of pressure and stress, but in a good way; everyone is impatient to get started with the mission.” ~ TIGHAR Update, Dateline: At Sea, July 11, 2012

During the voyage, the crew finalized a search grid for the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Upon arrival, they mapped the ocean floor using SeaBeam sonar technology. They will use this information, along with “local knowledge,” to work the edge of the reef slope over the next 7 to 10 days.

Afterward, the crew sent the AUV into the water for a four hour test in order to get a feel for the area and do some “micro-planning.” Unfortunately, the AUV malfunctioned and the crew lost many hours diagnosing the problem, namely a non-turning prop.

While the problem was being fixed, the crew deployed its Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) for a test run over the wreckage of the SS Norwich City. On a side note, the SS Norwich City ran aground on Nikumaroro’s reef in November 1929. It was still quite visible at the time of Amelia’s disappearance.

Much of the search will be done using the AUV. The AUV is essentially a robotic submersible that operates on programming rather than on human manipulation. At the end of each search mission, the data is collected and batteries are switched out. Then the AUV is launched again. As it conducts another mission, the crew will have the opportunity to analyze the data and flag any potential areas of interest. Later, these areas of interest will be explored by the ROV. Unlike the AUV, the ROV is operated by human hands. It contains a manipulator arm to move objects. It also has strong lights and video cameras in order to provide images to its operator.

This is not a salvage expedition. Instead, TIGHAR merely hopes to test its hypothesis that large pieces of wreckage survived the crash and subsequently sank into the extremely deep waters off the reef slope. Thus, the objective is to “locate, identify, and photograph any and all surviving aircraft wreckage.” If any debris is located, it will most likely be left untouched…for now. But the images of it will be used to fund and mount a salvage expedition at some point in the future.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Take

And so it begins.

We’re extremely interested in this expedition. However, we’re also quite skeptical of success. The odds that Amelia reached Nikumaroro are fairly low. The supporting evidence is interesting, but razor thin. There’s the 1937 Bevington Photo. Also, island residents reported finding aircraft debris in the vicinity around 1940.

RG: Let me repeat this back to be sure I understand. No plane arrived or crashed while you were at the island. But, people said that before the people came a plane had crashed there near the ship. And when you refer to the ship you mean the ship that was on the reef, that was aground.

ES: It is true.

RG: Did you ever see any part of that plane?

ES: Only the frame, a piece of steel. [Mr. Tofiga offers clarification, &“Uh, it’s not a piece. The term she uses ‘afiti,’ it could be this long or this long.” Moves his hands close together then far apart. “ But it’s steel. Only the framework.”]

RG: And where was this piece?

ES: Nearby that wrecked ship. It was not far from there. From about here to that house. [She points to a house across the road.]

Source: Transcript Of Ric Gillespie’s Videotaped Interview With Emily Sikuli, July 27, 1999

Our biggest problem with the TIGHAR hypothesis is it represents a sort of backward approach to science. They constructed the hypothesis that Amelia and Fred crashed on Nikumaroro’s reef. Then they collected evidence and attempted to fit it into their story. They’ve spent all their efforts attempting to prove their hypothesis, stretching the available evidence in the process.

A proper scientific expedition would do the opposite – attempt to refute its own hypothesis. In other words, TIGHAR should’ve tested their hypothesis as severely as possible. They should’ve been trying to refute it, not support it. If it managed to survive every attack on it, then they would’ve been in a position to consider the possibility their original hypothesis was correct.

With that being said, there is a slim possibility TIGHAR is correct and the Lockheed Electra crashed on the reef. If this is the case, it could still prove difficult to locate it. Most likely, it broke up while on the reef and the large pieces slipped down the reef slope. And that presents a problem.

“The water is extremely deep at the slope, plunging beyond 3,000 feet in certain places. The Niku VII expedition will be equipped with high-freqency side-scan sonar and will be able to take ‘photographs’ at that depth. However, any surviving pieces of the aircraft likely took a beating on the reef before they sank. And once that happened, underwater currents might have torn them into shreds.” ~ David Meyer, The Search for Amelia Earhart Begins Today!

Adding to the problem are the limitations of side-scan sonar. It works best when utilized over a flat, sandy floor. And the reef slope is not flat nor is it sandy. In addition, the wreckage of the SS Norwich Cityis strewn about the area, which will make it difficult to distinguish aircraft parts. So, even if Amelia did crash on the reef, TIGHAR will be hard-pressed to locate the aircraft.

 

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