Ocean Exploration Company Thinks It Found Earhart’s Airplane

Deep Sea Vision has a fuzzy underwater image it thinks is Amelia Earhart’s Electra, but it plans to go back and look to be sure.

Ocean exploration company Deep Sea Vision has a fuzzy underwater image it thinks is Amelia Earhart’s Electra, but it plans to go back and look to be sure. [Courtesy: Deep Sea Vision]

An ocean exploration company thinks it may have found Amelia Earhart's airplane. The Lockheed Electra 10-E went missing 86 years ago when Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared during an attempt at an around-the-world flight.

On January 26, Deep Sea Vision (DSV), based in South Carolina, announced that it had captured a sonar image in the Pacific Ocean that "appears to be Earhart's Lockheed 10-E Electra.''

The DSV team used radio messages received by the Coast Guard cutter Itasca to narrow the search area. The Itasca was on station at Howland Island to assist Earhart with refueling. In preparation of Earhart's arrival, a runway had been carved into the coral, and barrels of fuel awaited the famous aviatrix.

Howland Island is an uninhabited, cucumber-shaped coral landmass located roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii. The island measures less than 1 square mile and is part of the Phoenix Island chain.

The DSV expedition was led by Tony Romeo, a pilot and former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. According to The Wall Street Journal, Romeo sold his real estate company in 2022 to start the ocean exploration business. In September 2023 the 16-person crew launched on the expedition from Tarawa, Kiribati, a port near Howland Island in the central Pacific.

The search continued until December, with the DSV group surveying more than 5,200 square miles of ocean floor using a sophisticated underwater drone. One of the images captured appears to show something that has the same dimensions as Earhart's aircraft.

The image, swamping the media, shows a fuzzy gold object on a dark background and looks a little like an giant anchor, with a vertical line longer than the horizontal, slightly swept back lines that may be the wings, or an airplane as viewed from above if its nose was pointed to the bottom of the image.

Through multiple channels, Romeo has expressed cautious optimism that this is Earhart's airplane, but skeptics want more proof—such as the registration number, NR1620.

FLYING reached out to DSV but had not received a reply by press time.

At the time of their disappearance, Earhart and Noonan had covered more than 75 percent of the around-the-world distance. The leg between New Guinea and Howland Island was a navigational challenge. Noonan was relying on celestial navigation, which requires noting the position of stars and the sun at a particular time on a particular date. It has been suggested that as the aircraft had crossed the International Date Line, the data Noonan was using was slightly off, putting the aircraft off course.

At 7:42 a.m.on July 2, 1937, Earhart transmitted, "We must be on you but cannot see you... but gas is running low." The aircraft had been flying for more than 17 hours.

At 7:58 Earhart asked the Itasca to send signals so that she could take a bearing using the Electra's radio direction finder, and the radio operators aboard the cutter complied, but they could not get a fix on the airplane. There were no more transmissions.

This is not the first time someone has thought they found Earhart's aircraft, and aviation historians are paying attention. No one wants to get their hopes up, but you have to keep an open mind.

"The image is intriguing, offering a variety of possibilities," said Dorothy Cochrane, curator of the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum. "It’s a sonar image of something on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that should be further investigated. I believe DSV will do so."

Cochrane noted that it is a positive sign that the image was captured within 100 miles of Howland Island since, based on the strength of the radio transmissions that day, the Coast Guard determined that Earhart was probably nearby but could not hear its replies. In an effort to help them find the island, the cutter poured smoke from its stack. Unfortunately, the atmospheric conditions were such that the smoke did not rise very far but rather settled onto the water, resulting in a haze.

Ironically, at the last stop in New Guinea, Earhart made the decision to leave a trailing wire antenna behind to save weight. The antenna, designed to boost radio reception and measuring approximately 25 feet in length, was deployed behind the airplane on a winch.

When it was determined Earhart's aircraft was missing, the U.S. Navy launched a massive aerial search that lasted several weeks. The aircraft carrier USS Lexington was deployed to the area. According to a 1937 issue of Time magazine, the week after Earhart's disappearance, 60 of the carrier's 62 airplanes searched at a cost of $250,000 a day. The actual number was later reduced to 42. Some historians note that had Earhart not been close personal friends with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the search might have been called off much sooner.

No wreckage was found—with not even an oil slick spotted.

In 1939 George Putnam, Earhart's husband, had her legally declared dead.

The Theories

Over the years, there have been many theories about what happened to Earhart and Noonan. The most common theory is that the aircraft ran out of fuel and Earhart ditched in the ocean, or they crashed on a coral atoll and succumbed to thirst and hunger. The most outlandish theories are that they were abducted by aliens, captured by the Japanese and executed for allegedly being spies, or were held in a prison camp during the war then quietly brought back to the U.S. to live under new identities.

Over the decades, the Earhart family has heard the theories, and like many, are skeptical, waiting for positive proof. They aren't the only ones.

"I consider this one of the great mysteries of the 20th century, extending now into the 21st," said Cochrane. "Not only would the resolution solve the mystery, but it would also allow Earhart to be remembered for her pioneering aviation career and overall commitment to aviation and to women."

What Do You Think Happened?

According to Mindi Love Pendergraft, Executive Director of the Amelia Earhart Hangar Museum in Atchison, Kansas, museum guests have been asking about Earhart’s disappearance since the story broke about DSV’s discovery.

“It  has been a natural segue into our exhibit about her disappearance and the numerous theories that have been proposed. We do ask our visitors to vote on which theory they believe to be most probable and as of today, 42 percent selected the option that the plane crashed and sank.”

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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