Opinion: Amelia Earhart and the continuing search for her Lockheed Electra

Editor’s Note: Dorothy Cochrane is curator for General Aviation in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and is responsible for the collections of general aviation aircraft and flight materiel, aerial cameras and the history of women in aviation. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

The sonar image is intriguing, to say the least. A marine robotics company recently captured an object on the ocean floor, about 15,000 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

Dorothy Cochrane - Carolyn Russo, NASM
Dorothy Cochrane - Carolyn Russo, NASM

The object — which faintly resembles the shape of a plane — lies roughly 100 miles from Howland Island, the uninhabited strip of land just north of the equator where pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan were due to land on the morning of July 2, 1937. Their failure to arrive at Howland in their Lockheed 10-E Electra following more than 19 hours of flight from Lae, New Guinea, made headline news more than 87 years ago and has remained one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time.

Earhart, who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and consistently graced most admired and best dressed lists in her day, was the first woman to fly nonstop and solo across the Atlantic Ocean and across the United States in 1932; she set several speed and altitude records. When she vanished in 1937, while trying to fly around the world, the world mourned — and still does. She continues to captivate us because she flew when very few people did and even fewer women. She was an aviation pioneer and a bona fide celebrity. As I wrote in 2017, while she “had achieved economic and personal independence, she empathized with the average woman and challenged her to be more autonomous. She used her celebrity status to appeal for individual, legal and societal change.” Her fate remains one of the greatest unsolved American mysteries.

Tony Romeo, chief executive of Deep Sea Vision (DSV), is convinced the image captured by a submersible vehicle shows Earhart’s plane. While some experts aren’t so sure, it’s safe to say that Romeo and his team have at the very least found something worthy of further investigation. Another expedition will hopefully result in photographic images with more clarifying details as to its identity.

While we wait for those details, the good news for me and many other historians, aviation aficionados and Earhart fans is that DSV is following the facts of her flight. Given just how many theories there are surrounding Earhart’s fate, it is critical that DSV is taking a fact-based approach and searching in the right area of the Pacific Ocean. Mobilizing the necessary resources and funding is difficult and deep-water searches are daunting and tedious. Therefore, it makes sense to stick with the premise that Earhart and Noonan were following their intended flight path – they were indeed flying to Howland Island.

Not everyone follows the logic of this plan. Many other theories about their disappearance and final resting place have been brought forth. To date, no one has found definitive evidence of Earhart, Noonan or the Lockheed Electra.

However, people following the facts of the flight should have the edge. Earhart’s flight plan was well known. According to Earhart biographer Doris Rich, the US government had obtained permits for the countries she would stop in along the way. As the Roosevelt administration was establishing a US presence in the western Pacific Ocean in the face of Japan’s expanding presence, Earhart’s husband George Putnam suggested the stop at Howland Island, wrote Rich.

And it fit her need of a refueling stop in the western Pacific Ocean. The US government built the landing strip and the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca was drifting off the coast of Howland to provide fuel for the next leg of her flight — from Howland to Honolulu, Hawaii. The stage was set. Earhart’s sporadic radio transmissions to the Itasca grew ever stronger as the time for her arrival neared — suggesting she was approaching the island. In some of her last transmissions, she stated she had only a half hour of fuel left. The transcripts were recorded by the Itasca and have been quoted in nearly every article, newsreel, and book about her: “We must be on you but cannot see you, but gas is running low.” The captain and crew stated in official records, cited by Rich, that they were sure Earhart was not far away.

Searching in the vicinity of Howland was and still is the logical thing to do. The US government mounted immediate sea and air searches around this and other islands, noted by Rich as encompassing 250,000 square miles, all of which came up empty. The official search was called off on July 19, 1937. However, private underwater expeditions, like the one conducted by DSV, continue.

In the 21st century, how do you select a worthy search area? It’s a tough call given the sheer size of a “reasonable” position around Howland at the time of her fuel exhaustion. In 1997, pilot Elgen Long and his wife Marie Long published the book, “Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved.” The Longs laid out facts and solid suppositions for others to follow. The Longs’ extensive research over 25 years, including interviews with Earhart’s contemporaries, US Coast Guard personnel, and industry and government professionals combined with Elgen’s own professional aviation knowledge and calculations (and others), shrank the outer perimeter of possibility, and offered more practical search options.

In the early 2000s, the ocean exploration company Nauticos Inc. brought together an experienced oceanographic team that refined and “reengineered” the Longs’ data and selected sonar search areas. The team made three expeditions to the vicinity of Howland Island but was unsuccessful in locating relevant information or imagery. They are refining their next search area.

DSV utilizes the Longs’ research and its team members’ own diverse backgrounds, including in the ever-evolving tech industry, to calculate its own search area and now has a sonar image worthy of more research. Once again, the public’s attention has been piqued.

When the Lockheed Electra NR16020 is finally found, the next challenge will be to assess its condition and determine if is it feasible, or in the best interest, to attempt to raise it (or parts of it) from the ocean floor. Recovery will be very difficult and costly and preservation plans will need to be in place prior to a recovery. The National Air and Space Museum will certainly be interested in its final disposition.

It is natural to want to know what happened to one of the most famous people of the 20th century. How could she, her navigator and her Electra, just vanish? Ultimately a variety of issues, especially communication problems with the Itasca, doomed their safe arrival at Howland. But if we can lay this question to rest, we can then integrate it into the broader picture of Earhart’s life and legacy.

Earhart the aviator made great contributions as a record-breaking pilot and as a woman. Earhart the lecturer earned her own living and supported the well-being and advancement of women. Earhart the celebrity drew people to aviation. She is still doing all of those today. We all hope for a resolution to this enduring mystery.

This article was modified to more accurately characterize where the US Coast Guard cutter Itasca was positioned.

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