Asia Life

Amelia Earhart: Cracking the Case of the World’s Most Famous Missing Airplane

New evidence has been brought forward in the Amelia Earhart mystery.

Jonathan DeHart

Amelia Earhart. The name conjures mystery, even conspiracy for some. Ever since the American pilot disappeared 76 years ago somewhere over the South Pacific, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, a legion of theories have been posited, but none proven.

After departing Papua New Guinea on July 2, 1937, in a quest to orbit the earth at the equator, they disappeared the same day and were never heard from again. Theories – from conspiracy to the relatively mundane – have sprung up over the years since.

Some say the Japanese brought her plane down near the Marshall Islands. Others are of the opinion that she safely returned to the United States where the government changed her identity and let her disappear from the public eye. Then there is the argument that she landed on a coral reef near Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific (800 miles southwest of Honlulu), where she managed to survive – at least for a bit.

Last year a privately funded investigation into her disappearance, headed by Ric Gillespie, was launched by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). As the investigation developed, the last conjecture – of her living briefly as a castaway in the South Pacific – gained a bit of traction when an anti-freckle cream jar was discovered on the island of Nikumaroro in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati last November. Earhart was known to have had freckles, which she disliked. Piles of skeletons from fish and birds, a zipper from 1930s-style clothing and a pocketknife were also found at the site.

As of this weekend, more evidence has been announced that seems to support the castaway hypothesis. TIGHAR researchers unveiled images of something amorphously resting on the ocean floor, which some think may be a piece of her Lockheed Electra plane.

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“It looks unlike anything else in the sonar data,” TIGHAR said. “It’s the right size, it’s the right shape and it’s in the right place.”

But what is it? Truth is, no one knows.

“So did (last summer's) expedition actually succeed in locating the wreckage of the world's most famous missing airplane?” the group asks on its website. “Or is this sonar target just a coral rock or ridge? Of course we're not going to know until we can get back out there, but until then the anomaly is worth close study.”

To be sure, there are skeptics, or at least those with reservations about the new developments. “We don’t want to shrug off the hard work anyone is doing,” said Louise Foudray, caretaker and historian of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kansas. She added, “We don't expect anything.”

“The resolution on the sonar does not suffice to conclusively determine what this is,” said Jeff Glickman, TIGHAR’s forensic imaging specialist. “It is unique, and suggestive of being man made. It is in the right place, but whether it’s a fuselage or a wing is difficult to say.”

Despite the find, the researchers are keeping things in perspective. “Listen, we’re realistic: This could be coral, this could be a sunken fishing boat, but it looks promising,” TIGHAR’s Gillespie said. Either way, he added, “It’s a great clue.”

While many have questioned the relevance of discovering the truth behind her mission, prominent leaders, including Hillary Clinton, have emphasized her significance as a female icon and a source of inspiration. The ongoing searches, which now represent an investment of more than $6 million, have if anything revived the collective fascination with her.

“There are really two Amelias, the Amelia of history and the Amelia locked in this mystery of the missing plane,” said Susan Ware, author of Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism. “Hers is a fascinating story, but it’s one without an ending, and people can’t seem to get over that.”