The Search for Amelia Earhart Nears an End

For the last few days, the Niku VII expedition has been scouring the reef off Nikumaroro, hoping to solve the 75 year old disappearance of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan. Unfortunately, the expedition appears to be coming to a premature end. But why?

Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance?

We first looked at Amelia Earhart’s famous disappearance back in July 2011. She was 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 Nikumaroro’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.

Troubles and Setbacks?

On July 16, the expedition experienced a “frustrating and crazy day.” Its Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) collided with land, necessitating time-consuming repairs. The Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) experienced technical difficulties. Then the boat’s throttle controls went haywire.

On July 17, the AUV got stuck twice underwater, the second time at a depth of 2,368 feet. They sent the ROV after it and recovered the AUV…but just barely. The ROV was forced to go to the edge of its maximum depth. Fortunately, the operator was able to use its claw to extract the AUV from a cave. And of course, this necessitated more repairs, this time to the ship’s power train.

On July 18, TIGHAR was able to resume its search for the plane. They decided to use the ROV to check out two strong targets. After a closer look, one target turned out to be a “large coral boulder.” The other target was manmade. However, it was determined to be a piece of wreckage from the British freighter SS Norwich City.

“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 City is 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.” ~ David Meyer, The Earhart Expedition: And so it Begins…

A Premature Ending?

Last night, TIGHAR reported “there is very little point in extending the trip.” Apparently, the expedition failed to find anything on the initial shelf, 250 feet below water. The next shelf lies 1,000 to 1,200 feet under water. This is where the wreckage of the SS Norwich City lies. For all intensive purposes, this appears to be the expedition’s last hope. Barring a miracle, they plan to give up and return to Honolulu later today.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Take

And that’s all she wrote.

It’s a disappointing and strange ending for an expedition that began with such high hopes. TIGHAR has been trying to fund this trip for years. They experienced some early setbacks, but just a day ago, there was talk of extending the trip an extra day or two. Now, they’ve decided to completely abandon it instead.

We’ve been a bit skeptical of success for awhile now. The odds that Amelia reached Nikumaroro are fairly low. The supporting evidence is interesting, but quite thin.

The biggest difficulty with the TIGHAR hypothesis has always been the lack of falsifiability. In other words, it’s impossible to test. In a proper scientific expedition, researchers attempt to refute their own hypothesis. That’s the essence of the scientific method. But due to the nature of this problem, there’s really no way to do that. Simply put, unless Amelia Earhart’s plane is found elsewhere, it’s impossible to prove she didn’t crash at Nikumaroro.

“Given what we now know about this place, is it reasonable to think that an airplane which sank here 75 years ago is findable? The environment is incredibly difficult, with nooks and crannies and caves and projections; it would be easy to go over and over and over the same territory for weeks and still not really cover it all. The aircraft could have floated away, as well.” ~ Niku VII Expedition, July 19 Update

See what we mean? The plane could’ve crashed at Nikumaroro and drifted anywhere. Or maybe not. It’s just impossible to know without finding the plane itself.

TIGHAR is trying to make the best of a bad situation. They claim the data will be useful, not just to them but also “to anyone doing ocean and reef research in the area.” Still, it’s difficult not to look at this as a major disappointment.


Guerrilla Explorer’s Coverage of Amelia Earhart

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