On the morning of 2 July, 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Lae, New Guinea, on one of the last legs in their historic attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Their next destination was Howland Island in the central Pacific Ocean, some 2,500 miles away. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the Itasca, waited there to guide the world-famous aviator in for a landing on the tiny, uninhabited coral atoll.
But Earhart never arrived on Howland Island. Battling overcast skies, faulty radio transmissions and a rapidly diminishing fuel supply in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra plane, she and Noonan lost contact with the Itasca somewhere over the Pacific. Despite a search-and-rescue mission of unprecedented scale, including ships and planes from the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard scouring some 250,000 square miles of ocean, they were never found. Despite a court order that declared Earhart legally dead in January 1939, 18 months after she disappeared, debate has raged over what actually happened on 2 July, 1937 and afterwards.
Ric Gillespie, the 73-year-old founder of the nonprofit organisation The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) in Oxford, Pennsylvania, whose work over the past 30 years has debunked many of the Earhart theories, explained that his research has uncovered the most plausible answer to what happened to Earhart, navigator Fred Noonan and the Lockheed Electra 10E Special (NR16020) she was flying. Gillespie felt that after so many years, the airplane, an all-metal, twin-engine, low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear, designed as a small, medium-range airliner, was probably ‘undiscoverable.’ The disappearance of the Electra had spawned number of wild theories over the years, which Gillespie wanted to avoid, but after evidence was produced by one of their team members, Tom Gannon, scientific research principles were applied by taking a closer look into the celestial bearing flight path Earhart was following, and that had been confirmed by radio transmissions picked up by the Coast Guard and three Pan American Airways direction-finding stations in the Pacific Ocean.
Gillespie followed the suggestion by the Navy that Earhart’s Electra might be found somewhere in the Phoenix Islands along the 157.337 bearing line she was flying. Nikumaroro Island is around 300 miles from Earhart’s Howland Island destination and was on the bearing line. It had been flown over by rescue aircraft in 1937, but never closely searched. Gillespie works solely with concrete evidence and, on a three-week trip to Nikumaroro in 1991, he found an artifact – an 18 inch by 24 inch piece of Alcoa aluminum, manufactured in the United States, with crisscrossed drilled holes and a rivet. It is the size of a patch that had been fitted to the Electra along the route to replace a damaged window - that has kept him returning to the site, believing it to be a real indicator that the island is where Earhart and Noonan most likely landed.
The artifact also raised the distinct possibility that Earhart and Noonan may have had to make an emergency landing on the island, and, according to preliminary results of a two-week expedition on the tiny coral atoll believed to be her final resting place, they may indeed have survived for several weeks, or even months as a castaway on a remote South Pacific island. On subsequent Nikumaroro visits, around a campsite where female human bones were located, Gillespie uncovered pieces of a broken bottle and jar from the Earhart era that a scientific analysis determined to have held skin cream manufactured for women. Nine fire features containing thousands of fish, turtle and bird bones were found, suggesting that many meals took place there. During previous campaigns, the team uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence. Nearly 100 objects were recovered, several of which were sent to a Canadian laboratory for DNA testing. This would be 'touch DNA;' genetic material that can be retrieved from objects that have been touched.
During the summer of 2019, explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the shipwreck of the Titanic, spent two weeks in search of Amelia Earhart's lost plane, but found not even a hint of it, according to the New York Times. Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean (declared lost at sea on 18 July 1937) on a journey that would have made Earhart the first female aviator to circle the globe. Her vanishing has led to numerous search efforts and spawned several conspiracy theories, but no one has been able to find conclusive evidence as to where she might have gone.
National Geographic reported Gillespie’s speculation on 26 August 2019 that the Electra must had been washed off the reef into deep water where it probably was broken up and spread over time in small pieces throughout the area, which is where future technology could be employed and change the mystery to historical fact.