If you were paying any attention to the news over the past few weeks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that pioneering American aviator Amelia Earhart had, at last, been found. The headlines were written at a fever pitch.
“Bones from Pacific Island Likely Those of Amelia Earhart, Researchers Say,” said CNN.
“Bones Discovered on a Pacific Island Belong to Amelia Earhart, a New Forensic Analysis Claims,” reported the Washington Post.
“Amelia Earhart Found!” said the Los Angeles Times. “Great for Science, But Sad News for Mystery Buffs.”
The blitz came after the journal Forensic Anthropology released a paper by Richard Jantz, professor emeritus and director emeritus of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center. Jantz compared old data about 13 human bones found in 1940 on the remote Pacific island of Nikumaroro with what’s known about Earhart’s physique. Although the bones in question have long since vanished, they were examined at the time by a Fiji-based forensic anthropologist named D.W. Hoodless, who concluded that their size indicated that they came from a male. Revisiting the info, Jantz scrutinized the remains relative to old photographs of Earhart and to clothing that once belonged to her. He decided that given Earhart’s likely skeletal structure and height (about 5'7"), they were consistent with a body type very similar to hers.
“This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample,” Jantz wrote.
“In the case of the Nikumaroro bones,” he continued, “the only documented person to whom they may belong is…Earhart. She was known to have been in the area of Nikumaroro Island, she went missing, and human remains were discovered which are entirely consistent with her and inconsistent with most other people.”
Great. Except there’s no “documented” evidence that Earhart was anywhere near Nikumaroro. Jantz’s argument depends on accepting the claim that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crashed on Nikumaroro’s reef and survived there for a while as castaways. But this notion remains the unlikely and unproven theory of a single organization: the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which is run by a Pennsylvania-based aviation enthusiast named Ric Gillespie. Though Jantz is not a member of TIGHAR, Gillespie helped facilitate the cooperation of a Purdue University archive that provided measurements from a pair of Earhart’s trousers. Jantz himself calls his relationship with Gillespie “collaborative.”
“TIGHAR had a lot of resources that enabled me to get what I got,” says Jantz, reached at his home in Tennessee. “It was TIGHAR that got the measurements from Purdue University archives on her clothes…I know there are criticisms of TIGHAR, but TIGHAR has invested heavily in the Nikumaroro hypothesis, and there was evidence she was there.”
But what if Gillespie’s contention that Earhart crashed on Nikumaroro is wrong? Jantz acknowledges that there’s nothing about the bones in and of themselves that establish them as being Earhart’s. “It’s pretty clear on bone length alone that Earhart would have looked like a male, because she’s so tall,” he says. “So that’s as much evidence as there is that the bones point to female. If there were just these bones and nothing else, the argument would be much weaker.”
The assertion that Earhart’s bones have been found fits in with a long pattern of TIGHAR claiming that some new artifact or lead was about to solve the mystery for good. Indeed, if the recent flood of headlines sound familiar, it’s because they are.
“Researchers Think They Know Where Amelia Earhart Died,” reported the Washington Post in the spring of 2017.
In 2014, after Gillespie announced finding a photograph of Earhart’s plane, a Lockheed Electra, showing an aluminum patch that could, maybe, resemble a piece of aluminum scrap recovered from the island on a prior expedition, he declared, “We reached a point where we feel very confident we have a part of the airplane.”
“On a scale of 1 to 10, Gillespie’s confidence is at 9.8,” wrote the Inquirer. “Finding proof could happen soon, with a June expedition planned.”
All this after the huge wave of hype surrounding a TIGHAR expedition that happened in the summer of 2012, which was based on newly discovered images that, according to Gillespie, showed a piece of the Electra’s landing gear in the waters off Nikumaroro. “I’m quite sure it’s there,” he told the Washington Post. Among those who bought in were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who stood before cameras at the State Department to throw support behind TIGHAR’s dream. “Even if you do not find what you seek,” she said, “there is great honor and possibility in the search itself.”
This kind of thing has been going on since 1989, when TIGHAR’s first expedition to Nikumaroro yielded a metal bookcase that, Gillespie was convinced, came from Earhart’s plane. Ultimately, nothing came of this object, which Gillespie once referred to as “the grail.”
In the years since, TIGHAR has made 11 more trips to a largely barren island just 4.5 miles long by 1.5 miles wide—a place reached by a five-day, thousand-mile voyage from Fiji. During that time, they have found a woman’s shoe, a bottle that may have once contained freckle cream, a wooden box that may have held a sextant, a piece of aluminum and assorted other items, and a baby skeleton in an island grave that they dug up.
Over time, none of these leads have panned out. That landing gear? Side-scan sonars found no sign of it. An effort last year involving forensic dogs that was supposed to find remains of Earhart and Noonan? The dogs got excited at the base of a tree that was supposedly the site of the human bones found in 1940, but excavations uncovered nothing.
These speculations abound in part because there aren’t many established facts about Earhart’s last hours. But there are some, and they are important. In 1937, as Earhart got underway on the longest and most dangerous leg of her around-the-world flight, she was flying from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island. Howland, too, was small—a bare speck in the sea—but it had a landing strip, a fuel cache, and the Itasca, a waiting U.S. Coast Guard cutter with trained radio operators helping to guide Earhart in. Flying with her was Noonan, a deeply experienced aerial celestial navigator who had pioneered Pan Am’s Clipper routes across the Pacific.
Although Earhart’s radios were not working properly and she was unable to hear the Itasca, its radio operators could hear her. Among other communications, she reported a position at 200 miles out and then again at 100 miles out. Operators on the Itasca recorded signal strengths on a one-to-five scale, with five the strongest and clearest. During each report, her signals gained in strength. She was, it seems, heading to Howland as planned, in clear-sky conditions.
During her approach, Earhart said, “I must be on you but cannot see you,” at which point the radio operator recorded the strongest signal yet, a 5+, so strong that men ran out onto the deck expecting to see her plane. They didn’t, and Earhart’s next transmission, which came soon after, dropped to a five as she reported that she was nearly out of fuel and flying north to south along compass bearing 157–337, which bisected Howland Island.
And then nothing. Silence. Earhart and Noonan had vanished.
Gillespie and TIGHAR believe that the pair flew farther south along that line until reaching Nikumaroro, where they successfully landed on the island’s exposed reef. Over the next five nights, they were able to power up the Electra and send a series of cryptic radio transmissions, picked up by listeners as far away as the United States. Before long, waves washed the plane into the ocean, and for weeks the castaways lived on the island, eventually dying of thirst and starvation.
But the castaway theory is full of holes. Nikumaroro lies 350 nautical miles south of Howland, and Earhart herself reported that she was running out of fuel near the island. Those radio transmissions supposedly picked up by random people thousands of miles away? None have been verified as coming from Earhart. Navy search planes flew over Nikumaroro a week after her disappearance and saw nothing related to the aviator: not a human, not an airplane or the debris of one, not a smoke signal, not an SOS written with palm fronds.
What about the various pieces of junk and bones found there over time? Fishermen and voyagers had been stopping at Nikumaroro for centuries. Waves and wind send flotsam and jetsam across vast stretches of ocean. There had been at least one documented attempt in the 19th century to create a coconut plantation on Nikumaroro, and one night in 1929, the SS Norwich City, a 400-foot freighter, ran aground on the reef. Of the ship’s 35 crew members, 11 perished on or near the island. The 24 survivors made camp until their rescue a few days later.
For these and other reasons, TIGHAR’s theory is absurd, argues Dave Jourdan, who’s been looking for Earhart since 2002. A former Navy submarine officer and physicist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Jourdan began developing sophisticated ocean navigation and locating software for the U.S. Navy in the 1980s, helping it track and locate its submarines.
After leaving Hopkins, Jourdan teamed up with Thomas Dettweiler, a veteran deep-ocean explorer who managed the discovery of the Titanic in 1985 and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Deep Submergence Laboratory. Together, they began locating objects in the ocean for a variety of clients, including the Navy. Many of their projects remain classified, but among their more famous finds are the I-52, a World War II–era Japanese submarine that they located in 1995 at a depth of 17,000 feet, and the Israeli submarine Dakar, which vanished in the Mediterranean in 1968. They found that one in 1999 at a depth of 10,000 feet.
In 1999, a detailed analysis of the fuel consumption of Earhart’s plane—done by Fred Culick, a professor of mechanical engineering and jet propulsion at Caltech—determined that Earhart was, as she stated, nearly out of fuel right at the time when she said she was, putting Nikumaroro far out of reach. Jourdan modeled her radio signals, which supported the Itasca’s conclusions that Earhart was on her intended flight path, coming closer with every transmission, and “within tens of miles” of Howland Island.
Jourdan fed all the known data into his proprietary Renav software, which spit out a likely crash area. He then performed what’s known as a Monte Carlo analysis, a blind statistical game in which a computer randomly modeled every possible permutation of 4 million flight paths, again resulting in a likely crash area. In a third analysis, he asked questions about each possible data point: How accurate was Earhart’s compass likely to be? How accurate was Noonan’s navigation? This, too, resulted in a high probability area.
Where all three analyses overlapped is where Jourdan believes Earhart crashed—somewhere near Howland Island, inside an area measuring 6,000 square miles, about twice the size of Connecticut, in water 18,000 feet deep. During three expeditions since 2002, he has searched 3,600 square miles with side-scan sonar at a resolution of one meter, leaving him with 2,400 square miles still to go.
Jantz’s forensic paper and its recent press notwithstanding, Jourdan remains incredulous about TIGHAR’s claims. “Everything that they declare as evidence isn’t evidence at all,” he says. “You take an item that in itself cannot be connected to Amelia Earhart in any way, and then take ten more items that in themselves can’t be connected to her, and say we have all this evidence, and together they give weight and people believe it. So many people say this that it must be true. But the consensus about the wrong answer is still wrong.”
TIGHAR’s whole theory, Jourdan believes, persists because it’s easy and cheap for a group of amateurs to look on an island instead of under 18,000 feet of ocean, which requires massive amounts of money, know-how, and technology. “An island is a much easier place to search than under 18,000 feet of ocean,” he says.
So, what comes next? Asked if the latest development in the Earhart case will be followed by another expedition, Ric Gillespie says, “We have no immediate plans to go back to the island.” Having combed the place so many times, the only thing left is to search the deep ocean off Nikumaroro, which, as Jourdan says, is daunting. “We’d like to go back, but what needs doing is a very thorough underwater search for the airplane, and that’s very expensive,” Gillespie says. “You need a lot of tech and a much bigger boat, and I’m not about to go beating the bushes for that.”
“And, look, it doesn’t really matter what happened to Amelia Earhart,” Gillespie adds. “She’s dead. The real value in what we’re doing is that her mystery is a wonderful opportunity to explore and teach the scientific method of inquiry.”
Which leads to an odd possibility. At TIGHAR’s greatest moment of triumph—“Amelia Earhart has been found!”—it almost sounds like they’re giving up.