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Where in the World
Is Amelia Earhart?
Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart.
Farewell, First Lady of the Air.
—Red River Dave McEnery, "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight"
So ended a briefly popular song of 1937, the year aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. Record-setting pilot, writer; lecturer, role model for ambitious women, and major celebrity, Earhart was coming to the end of a globe-circling "World Flight" when she and Noonan vanished.
Vanished without a trace, just as they were approaching Howland Island, a tiny outcrop of coral in the mid-Pacific where they were scheduled to refuel before hopping on to Honolulu and California, to the welcome accorded heroes by their adoring fans. Vanished without a trace, despite tantalizing radio messages suggesting that they were so close they should have seen the island or the Coast Guard cutter waiting there to guide them in. Vanished, never to be found, despite a tremendous effort to find them.
Never to be found until, perhaps, now.
"You're writing about Amelia Earhart?"
Tom King looked up from his laptop at the attractive young woman in the seat next to him in the jam-packed airliner. Some people find King rather forbidding—gray-bearded, bald, rather weather-beaten. She quickly apologized.
"I'm sorry; I couldn't help noticing—didn't mean to read over your shoulder, but ..."
"No problem. Yes, I'm working on a book, with a few colleagues. Are you interested in Earhart?"
"Oh, she's one of my heroines; I've always admired her. I heard they found her shoe on some island."
"Well, that's us, and we're not really all that sure it's her shoe, but we've found quite a bit of other stuff, too. That's what the book's about—what we've found, how we've found it, what we think happened."
"You mean you found the shoe?"
"No, I wasn't on that expedition, but I'm the project archaeologist—it's kind of my recreation. My wife says it's cheaper than a shrink."
"So you think she crashed on—what's the island?"
"Nikumaroro, in the Phoenix group. Really beautiful, uninhabited island about as far from anyplace as you can get. But actually we don't think she crashed; we think she landed, but then died."
"Why did she die? Why wasn't she found."
King saved his file. The battery was running low anyway, and it was still three hours to San Francisco and his grandchildren.
"Well, would you like to hear the whole story?"
It's hard for us, in the early twenty-first century, to imagine the way someone like Earhart captured the public's imagination in the 1930s. A time before television, before instant celebrity. A time between world wars, with the nation struggling through a crushing depression. A time when air travel was still a new thing, still an adventure. Following hard on the heels of the wildly popular Charles Lindbergh, but very much her own person, Earhart was a dashing, heroic figure. Her disappearance into thin air was a headline-grabbing shock felt across the nation.
The Roosevelt administration responded accordingly, sending the U.S. Navy to join the Coast Guard on what was, at the time, the most massive air-sea rescue mission ever undertaken. The battleship Colorado, the aircraft carrier Lexington, their support ships and aircraft, the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, the minesweeper Swan were all involved. The British colonial government in the Gilbert Islands lent a hand; the Japanese authorities in the Marshall Islands conducted their own search. Nothing was found; not a life raft, not a piece of wreckage, not an oil slick. No living aviators, safe on an island or reef. No floating bodies.
Eventually the search had to end, and it did, with the conclusion that Earhart and Noonan, for some reason unable to find Howland Island, had run out of gas, crashed into the trackless Pacific, and sunk. A logical, efficient conclusion, but one that has never entirely satisfied the many people who have been, and remain, intrigued by the flyers' fate.
Why does the "crashed and sank" explanation not satisfy? Partly, no doubt, because we don't easily give up our heroes. We still have Elvis sightings, after all. Partly because it's rather boring, relative to other possibilities. But partly, too, because it's based entirely on "negative data"—in other words, on the absence of information. They didn't land on Howland, they haven't turned up anyplace else, therefore they must have crashed and sunk.
And partly because there are things about it that don't quite add up—notably the fact that the plane had taken on enough fuel for about twenty-four hours of flying at the speed Earhart was primed to fly, and when it disappeared it had been in the air only a bit more than twenty hours. Are there ways to account for this? Sure. Fuel may have been lost somehow, or miscalculated, or Earhart could have flown in an inefficient way, wasting fuel, or there could have been some kind of catastrophic system failure. But here again we're thrown back on negative data. There's no actual evidence that anything like that happened, other than the fact that the flyers didn't show up on Howland.
In the absence of certainty, scores of writers have suggested—indeed insisted on, and defended tooth and claw—a number of alternative explanations. Captured by the Japanese. Engaged in a secret spy mission and captured by the Japanese. Engaged in a spy mission and not captured by the Japanese, still alive in one place or another—even New Jersey!—under false identities. Taken by space aliens. Some of these notions are more plausible than others, but they all share one important feature: there is nothing but anecdotal evidence—things people have said—to support any of them. All are based on what someone says they saw or heard, or what someone says someone told them they'd seen or heard, often years or decades after they ostensibly saw or heard it. Maybe one or more of these anecdotes is true, accurately remembered, and accurately reported, and maybe one or more of them reflects what happened to the famous flyers, but without some sort of hard—at least semihard—data to back them up, they all amount to hearsay.
There is a body of evidence that's not just hearsay, though.
· The last radio message known to have come from Earhart said they were flying along "the line 157-337," looking for Howland. That means a line bearing 337 degrees (north-northwest) and 157 degrees (south-southeast) that Noonan had plotted as running through Howland Island. In navigator language it's known as the "line of position," or "LOP."
· North of Howland Island along the LOP there's nothing but open water for thousands of miles. About 400 miles south along the LOP is Nikumaroro—in 1937 known as Gardner Island. A beautiful coral island in the Phoenix Group, part of the modern island nation of Kiribati. Uninhabited in 1937, uninhabited today.
· In 1940, pioneers for a new colony on Nikumaroro found a partial human skeleton. With it were the remains of a woman's shoe and a man's shoe, together with a sextant box. The box had numbers on it that closely resemble those on a similar box known to have belonged to Fred Noonan.
· A medical doctor measured the bones in 1941. When modern forensic anthropologists analyzed his measurements, the results suggested that the skeleton most resembled that of a woman of northern European origin, about 5 feet 7 inches tall—a dead ringer for Earhart.
· In 1991, the remains of two more shoes were found on Nikumaroro—a blucher-style oxford, probably a woman's, probably from the 1930s, and the heel from what appears to be a man's shoe. The oxford is the kind of shoe shown in photographs of Earhart taken during the World Flight.
· People who lived on the island during its colonial period—1938 to 1963—say (okay, it's anecdotal) that there was airplane wreckage on the fringing reef and—in one case—on the lagoon shore. One such report is from 1940, another from the 1950s, and both identify wreckage as being at about the same location on the reef. They say that the colonists warned their children not to play with the wreckage because it was haunted by the ghosts of the airplane's crew. There is no record of any airplane crashes on Nikumaroro.
· During archaeological work on Nikumaroro in 1989, '91, '96, '97, and '99, dozens of airplane parts have been found in and around the site of the colonial village. Most of them can't be traced to any particular airplane, and some are definitely from World War II military planes, probably brought in from crash sites and airfields on other islands. A few, however, more closely resemble Earhart's plane than they do any other aircraft known to have operated in the area.
Aha! So obviously, Earhart and Noonan, when they couldn't find Howland, flew southeast along the LOP, crashed on Nikumaroro, and died there. Mystery solved.
Well, not so fast. Certainly the evidence we've just summarized points that way, toward what we call the "Nikumaroro Hypothesis." But does it prove it? Absolutely not. The Nikumaroro Hypothesis is just what its name indicates—a hypothesis, an idea about what happened, that can be tested against more information, through research.
That's what TIGHAR is trying to do: test the hypothesis.
TIGHAR? That's The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. Pronounced "tiger," of course, as in "go get 'em ...," except by some of our British compatriots who insist on pronouncing it "tigger." Which is appropriate in some respects; it's a pretty bouncy organization.
In 1984, aviation insurance investigator Ric Gillespie got sick of flying around the country looking at crash sites and ferreting out insurance scams, so he quit. Like other people sliding into midlife, Gillespie wanted something meaningful to do. A lifelong love affair with airplanes, and a fascination with history, combined to bring him into the esoteric field of aviation historic preservation. Time after time he had seen historic aircraft "restored" to a point where there was nothing original left. Time after time he had seen such airplanes flown and crashed, destroying unique relics of aviation's history. And time after time he had seen and read of vintage airplanes being "recovered" from old airfields, crash sites, swamps, lagoons, the ocean floor, using such sloppy techniques that the "recovery" amounted to destruction. Encouraged and joined in the enterprise by his wife, Pat Thrasher, Gillespie decided to form an organization to grapple with such problems—to recover historic aircraft right, to help establish standards for deciding what should be flown and what should be put in museums, to work out ways to interpret them for the public without destroying them. Thus was TIGHAR born.
Today, TIGHAR has some 750 members worldwide, a Web site (www.tighar.org), an Internet discussion and research group called the Earhart Forum, a newsletter called TIGHAR Tracks, and modest offices—TIGHAR Central—in Wilmington, Delaware. The Web site contains accessible copies of most of the unpublished material we'll refer to in this book, or directions for where it can be found. Thrasher is TIGHAR's president, Gillespie is its executive director, and with a little clerical help they make up the organization's staff. They're assisted, supported, argued with, and troubled by a large number of volunteer researchers, including King and his co-conspirators in this book, Randall S. Jacobson, Karen R. Burns, and Kenton Spading.
Gillespie is a controversial fellow in historic airplane circles. He can be brash, he can be abrasive. He's a true polymath, as is Thrasher—they have amazing encyclopedic knowledge of the most dizzying assortment of things, and both can be impatient, even haughty, with lesser mortals—and almost everyone winds up in the "lesser mortal" category from time to time. Gillespie is—well, dashing might be the word, with his beat-up pilot's leather jacket and sometime Clark Gable moustache. He's articulate and clever, and can be maddeningly pigheaded. And he promotes ideas that make others uncomfortable. Like the notion that fixing up and flying old airplanes isn't necessarily a laudable historical endeavor. And like the idea that you can't solve a mystery like Earhart's disappearance by stringing together selected anecdotes and announcing a solution. And, of course, like the idea that what really happened to Earhart is perhaps that—subject to confirmation through scientific research—she and Noonan landed and died on Nikumaroro.
There's some tendency among aviation historians, airplane buffs, and Earhart fans to dismiss TIGHAR's investigation of the Earhart disappearance as merely Ric's schtick—Gillespie's personal crusade, with no more scientific or historical legitimacy than the Alien Capture Hypothesis. We're here to tell you that—unless Gillespie is a far better con man than we think he is—it's a lot more than that.
And who are "we"? We are four of TIGHAR's volunteer researchers. In our day jobs King is an archaeologist who consults, writes, and teaches about historic preservation and environmental impact assessment. Jacobson is a civilian scientist who manages programs in oceanography and mine countermeasures for the U.S. Navy; Burns is a forensic anthropologist with a penchant for the study of genocide; and Spading is a civilian engineer with the U.S. Army. Over the years each of us has stumbled into TIGHAR's investigation and been unable to get out. And we're having such a good time with it that we thought it unconscionable not to share the fun with the reading public. Besides, the story is getting too long to tell verbally, even to nice young college students on transcontinental flights.
Why tell the story, though—a mystery story, after all—when we don't yet have a definitive, thoroughly proven solution? Well, because we may very well never solve the mystery to the satisfaction of everyone we might want to satisfy—including ourselves—but in trying to solve it we've come up with what we think are some intriguing facts, and had some exciting times doing it. Because in some ways a mystery's more interesting before it's solved than it is afterward. And besides, each reader can decide for herself or himself, having read what we have to say, just how close TIGHAR actually is to a real solution. We think we may be close.
Our story is told largely from King's point of view, in King's voice. This is mostly because King has spent the most time working on it, and because, unlike Jacobson, Spading, and Burns, he's been with the project almost from the beginning. But his coauthors have contributed their own stories, their own perspectives, and kept King alert by questioning his interpretations, recollections, and portrayals of the facts.
This book isn't an official TIGHAR product, though Gillespie and Thrasher have cooperated with us as we've written it, and have generously shared photographs, documents, and other material. When and if TIGHAR's research yields a firm conclusion, Gillespie plans to write the definitive book on the subject, and we wish him well in doing so. But in the meantime, we have a story to tell.
Excerpted from Amelia Earhart's Shoes by Thomas F. King Randall S. Jacobson Karen R. Burns Kenton Spading. Copyright © 2001 by AltaMira Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.