An old tool may have finally solved an even older mystery.
A team of researchers at the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery spotted an "anomaly" on sonar images that may be the remains of Amelia Earhart's plane.
The images show a narrow object at a depth of about 600 feet in the waters off Nikumaroro, about 350 miles southeast of Howland Island, the target destination Earhart never reached.
"What initially got our attention is that there is no other sonar return like it in the entire body of data collected," Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.
"It is truly an anomaly, and when you're looking for man-made objects against a natural background, anomalies are good."
Over 10 expeditions, TIGHAR researchers have recovered artifacts that suggest Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, made a forced landing on the reef, Nikumaroro, in the Phoenix Islands of Kiribati in the western Pacific, and eventually died there. The researchers believe this object is roughly the right size and shape of the plane, and is right in line with the debris that are almost certainly part of the Electra.
"It’s exciting. It’s frustrating. It’s maddening," the TIGHAR site, announcing the find, says. "There is a sonar image in the data collected during last summer’s Niku VII expedition that could be the wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra."
"It looks unlike anything else in the sonar data, it’s the right size, it’s the right shape, and it’s in the right place... Once you know what to look for, the anomaly is painfully obvious. It gives the impression of being an object that struck the slope at the base of the second cliff at a depth of 187 meters (613 feet), then skidded in a southerly direction for about 40 meters (131 feet) before coming to rest.
Gillespie said the new evidence fits perfectly into the series of events they believe occurred from the time of the Electra's disappearance:
- Earhart lands safely on the reef on July 2, 1937, sends radio calls for at least five days
- Sometime before Navy search planes fly over on the seventh day, rising tides knock the Electra off its landing gear, sending it off the edge of the reef into the ocean. It leaves behind the landing gear assembly (the so-called Bevington Object) in the reef. Earhart and Noonan are stranded.
- The landing gear is photographed by British Cadet Officer Eric Bevington in October. It later breaks off the reef and sinks down to a catchment area 200 feet deep.
- The plane is battered and sinks to just past the reef edge. Some wreckage washes ashore to be discovered by later residents of Nikumaroro (Garden Island).
- The fuselage eventually falls over a cliff, and hits a slope at 600 feet. It skids, eventually coming to a rest with its starboard wing stub pointing upward.
Researchers won't know for sure if the anomaly is a false lead or the real thing without sending another expedition to the island.
"We currently project that it will take nearly $3,000,000 to put together an expedition that can do what needs to be done," Gillespie said. "It's a lot of money, but it's a small price to pay for finding Amelia."