Robert Ballard Launches Search for Amelia Earhart's Airplane

Robert Ballard's E/V Nautilus calls Apia, Samoa, August 5 (Ocean Exploration Trust)

Published Aug 12, 2019 7:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

Famed oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard and the crew of his foundation's research vessel, the Nautilus, are in the midst of a search for the long-lost wreck of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra airplane. 

Earhart - the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic on a solo flight - disappeared in July 1937. Along with her pilot, Fred Noonan, Earhart went missing during a flight from Papua New Guinea to Howland Island, a tiny outlying American territory in the Phoenix Islands group. The flight was one of the last legs of an attempt at the longest distance round-the-world journey to date, an equatorial route of about 29,000 miles in length. 

Multiple government and private search attempts have been made over the years since, but none have produced solid evidence of the wreck site. However, an old photograph of a reef on tiny Nikumaroro Island - about 350 nm south-southeast of Howland - could hold new evidence. The image, taken by a British officer several months after Earhart went missing, happens to include a tiny blur on the left hand side which could correspond to the landing gear from a Lockheed Electra. This controversial find was first noticed by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), and it has been reviewed by experts from the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. 

To bolster this theory, the island also happens to be the only nearby land feature that corresponds with Earhart's last known course. Before she disappeared, she radioed that she was searching for Howland Island along a line of position that would also pass through Nikumaroro. 

Ballard's team sailed for Nikumaroro on August 7, and it is currently surveying the deep waters near the reef for signs of Earhart's plane. "We believe she landed on the reef near the edge of a cliff. Eventually, the plane slid down the steep slope into the deep ocean. The plane will probably be in pieces, which will actually be good for us. If you can find one piece, you can find them all. And so our first order of business will be to make an extremely detailed map," Ballard said. 

The expedition will also conduct a search on the island for signs that Earhart and Noonan survived the crash. To improve their chances, they have brought specially-trained search dogs to hunt for remains, according to a release from the University of Rhode Island (Dr. Ballard is on the school's faculty). 

National Geographic has funded Dr. Ballard's expedition, and the search will be featured in a documentary on the National Geographic Channel to air in October.