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Waitt Institute

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The U.S. Coast Guard fails to find Amelia and becomes the first of many unsuccessful search efforts over the years…

Official Search (1937)
Approximately an hour and a half after the last recorded message from Earhart, the USCG cutter Itasca12 searched the area surrounding Howland Island to no avail. The U.S. Navy soon joined the hunt and all other available resources were subsequently sent to the search area near Howland Island, but no evidence of Earhart and Noonan was located. Four days after the flyers’ last radio transmission, the captain of the battleship Colorado was ordered to coordinate all naval and Coast Guard search efforts.13

Naval aircraft from the Colorado flew over the Phoenix Islands, and then again north, west and southwest of Howland Island, but no trace of the Electra was found. Unsuccessful search efforts by the Itasca, Colorado, Navy aircraft carrier Lexington and other ships continued until July 19, 1937, covering 150,000 square miles and costing up to an unprecedented $4 million dollars.14

Putnam Search (1937)
At the conclusion of the official search, a private search of the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island, Fanning Island, the Gilbert Islands and the Marshall Islands was financed by G.P. Putnam, but again, no trace of the Electra was found.15

TIGHAR Searches (1989-2010)
Based on pre-1939 accounts of a plane wreck with two survivors on Gardner Island, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR)16, founded by Richard Gillespie in 1985, believes Earhart’s Electra may have landed on the then uninhabited island (now Nikumaroro) in the Phoenix Group, approximately 400 statute miles southeast of Howland Island.

Gillespie maintains Earhart’s plane could have put down safely on a particularly flat and open stretch of Nikumaroro’s coral reef just north of where a British freighter, the SS Norwich City, ran aground in 1929. Standing on the shipwreck in 2001 and taking a photo of the reef at low tide, Gillespie is convinced that landing the Electra here—especially with her big, low-pressure tires—was entirely possible.

Nikumaroro Coral Reef

View of the Nikumaroro coral reef where TIGHAR believes Earhart may have landed safely. (Photo courtesy of Ric Gillespie of TIGHAR)

Key support for the theory comes from analysis of radio transmissions allegedly made by Earhart and received at Honolulu, Wake Island and Midway Island radio operator stations. But numerous questions exist also, not the least of which is whether or not the Electra could transmit any signal with inoperative engines and generators, especially following an off-field landing or water-ditching.17

The research of many investigators indicates it would be unlikely that Earhart flew another three or more hours beyond Howland Island, once that location could not be identified. If Earhart’s last transmission was at 2013 GMT, an hour after arriving at Howland, and they commenced to divert to Gardner Island, then Earhart would have had to arrive at Howland Island with more than five hours of fuel remaining.18

TIGHAR has led 10 expeditions 19 to the island since 1989 in search of evidence to support their theory; however, while some interesting artifacts have been discovered, none has yet been positively identified as being from the Earhart mission. The most recent Niku VI expedition (20) took place May - June 2010, returning with over a hundred artifacts, hundreds of bones and reams of new data, observations and measurements, all of which are still being cataloged, analyzed and interpreted. TIGHAR is hoping to conduct yet another expedition to Nikumaroro to search the deep water off the west end of the atoll for the Earhart Electra aircraft sometime prior to July 2012, the 75th anniversary of the Earhart disappearance. 21

Timmer/Zajonc/Williamson Search (1999)
In 1999, venture capitalist Dana Timmer worked with Williamson and Associates of Seattle along with businessman Guy Zajonc to launch a six-week underwater search for Amelia Earhart’s Electra aircraft. Although it reportedly produced some interesting targets, positive ID of the aircraft was not obtained.22

Nauticos Search (2002)
Nauticos Corporation 23, founded by its president, David Jourdan, funded a 2002 Nauticos Expedition 24 to locate Amelia Earhart’s lost Electra. Led by famed Amelia Earhart researcher Elgen Long 25, who along with his late wife Marie wrote Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, the search was scheduled to last 60 days but was cut short due to equipment failure. While no evidence of Amelia’s plane was discovered, approximately 600-square nautical miles were scanned using a deep sea sonar system developed by Nauticos.

Nauticos/Waitt Institute Search (2006)
Nauticos and the Waitt Institute worked together on 2006 search for Amelia Earhart 26, using a 6,000-meter towed search system configured with sonar and imaging sensors. Although the Electra was not discovered in this search either, the at-sea team did successfully map the search grid and came away with a fairly high degree of certainty that Earhart was not in the area surveyed.

Importantly, the expedition provided the Waitt Institute with a wealth of knowledge and insight, which in turn gave birth to the CATALYST Program and its strategic focus on using state-of-the-art technology and inspired collaborations to accelerate deep sea exploration, scientific research and sustainable ocean policy.