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"The world's most famous missing person."
September 22, 2009 6:11 AM   Subscribe

"The unburied come back to haunt us." On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae, Papua New Guinea (map) in their Lockheed Electra en route to Howland Island (map). They were never seen again.

Earhart and Noonan's flight was one of the last legs of an attempted around-the-world flight at the Equator. (A previous attempt, flying east to west, failed when Earhart's plane was damaged in Hawaii and had to be sent to California for repairs.)

The most common explanation is that they ran out of fuel, ditched in the ocean, and drowned, but the disappearance is an enduring mystery. In Search of...Amelia Earhart (part 2, part 3). Where's Amelia Earhart?

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR; previously) is a leading supporter of a theory that the Earhart and Noonan crash-landed at Nikumaroro (then called Gardner Island; map) TIGHAR's map of Nikumaroro shows the locations of possible evidence to support their theory.

TIGHAR recently obtained a reference sample of mitochondrial DNA from a direct female relative of Earhart's, and is making a new expedition to Nikumaroro in May 2010 to look for DNA evidence.

Crash Reconstruction by the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University.
posted by kirkaracha (27 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
As the child of airplane crash victims, I can empathize with friends and relatives wanting to know what happened to them. (Presumably, not this.) That having been said, this earlier comment sums it up pretty well. The Pacific is a mighty big place.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:00 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


The most common explanation is that they ran out of fuel, ditched in the ocean, and drowned, but the disappearance is an enduring mystery.

How can it reasonably be considered an "enduring mystery" when people flying a primitive airplane out in the middle of the Pacific report that they are low on fuel and then are never seen again? They ran out of gas, they hit the water, and they sank in the middle of the Pacific. No mystery. With 1930s search technology, they were not found, and after all these years, how deep is the mud covering anything that's left of them? How many square miles is the possible crash zone? How deep is the water out there?
posted by pracowity at 7:14 AM on September 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I like to read stuff like this now, as we'll soon have a new movie coming out that will, in the minds of many of the viewing public, become the defacto true history of her life and death.
posted by thanotopsis at 7:22 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Was anyone else hoping that the [more inside] would reveal that Earhart's body had been found?
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:29 AM on September 22, 2009 [5 favorites]


Huh. I had no idea there was someone else in the plane with her.
posted by notmydesk at 7:38 AM on September 22, 2009


I was going to snark about the odds of finding useful DNA from human remains that have spent 70 years in the tropics, but this was interesting:
During the 2007 trip, Gillespie and his crew uncovered early 20th-century makeup and two pieces of broken glass that match a 1930s compact mirror, among other artifacts. DNA can be extracted from such remnants as long as those artifacts aren't contaminated during the collection process. Unfortunately, in 2007, they were. Armed with a new collection protocol, Gillespie and his team will return to the site to seek out new items during their May 2010 excursion. ... Because mtDNA is found in the cell's mitochondria, rather than the chromosomes of the cell's fragile nucleus, it isn't as quick to break down even when subject to difficult environmental conditions.

posted by exogenous at 7:52 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Earlier this year I enjoyed a chat with CarolAnn Garatt who had just set a world record for westbound around-the-world flight. The main purpose of her flight, which took seven days, was to raise money for research on Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

CarolAnn would, I'm sure, be embarassed to be mentioned in the same context as Earhart, but the relative speed and safety of the later flight goes to show how times have changed. The flight is described in a book.
posted by exogenous at 8:12 AM on September 22, 2009


Earhart's disappearance is an enduring mystery because we want to believe that, rather than a remarkable person crashing in the ocean and dying meaninglessly, a remarkable person crashed on an island and lived for a bit and then died meaninglessly.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:38 AM on September 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


So they're going to look for remains or belongings that might be Earheart's, in the hopes of finding DNA. That makes a lot more sense. When I read this:

TIGHAR recently obtained a reference sample of mitochondrial DNA from a direct female relative of Earhart's, and is making a new expedition to Nikumaroro in May 2010 to look for DNA evidence.

I swear I thought they were going to start testing islanders to see if any of them were descendants, and I thought that was an awfully long shot.
posted by Faint of Butt at 8:42 AM on September 22, 2009


That would spice up the movie version.
posted by exogenous at 8:50 AM on September 22, 2009


Google Maps is off by a couple of miles between the cartographic map and the overhead photos. Here's the overhead view of Howland Island.

I'm just learning to fly airplanes. The thought of launching yourself over the Pacific aiming for a spec like that terrifies me.
posted by Nelson at 9:02 AM on September 22, 2009


A good friend of mine, Ann Pellegreno, flew a Lockheed 10 around the world in 1967- and dropped a wreath onto Howland Island thirty years to the day from Amelia's disappearance. Her book about the flight- World Flight: The Earhart Trail (out of print- link to Wiki's ISBN listings) is a good read.

And... if any a youse has dis book I'd be happy to arrange an autograph.
posted by drhydro at 9:06 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Forgive the snark and the derail, but for us non-Americans, it can be a little wearing to see the automatic transition of biggest/most etc of something American to the rest of the world.

She's not the world's most famous missing person. She's America's most famous missing person.

In the UK nobody gives much of a fig and I suspect we'd far rather know where Lord Lucan or Ritchie Manic ended up. I dare say other countries have their most famous missing people. Like the tank man at Tiananmen Square. Or (at least until 2000), Antoine de St Exupéry.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:16 AM on September 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


She's not the world's most famous missing person. She's America's most famous missing person.

and...
World Series->North American Series
Superbowl -> Rather Good Bowl
posted by nightwood at 9:50 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was on the first TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro in 1989. Seriously. It was the experience of a lifetime and although there were a few bad moments here and there, I'm eternally grateful to TIGHAR for shlepping a petite uncoordinated biochemist out to the middle of the Pacific to swing a machete and a metal detector. (I'm still not sure why they thought a biochemist would come in handy.) For that expedition, TIGHAR paid for virtually everything, which is even more amazing. Anyway, it was a real-life adventure that I'd never have expected even in my wildest dreams and 20 years later, I still think about it surprisingly often.

Getting back to the thread, the main support for the theory that Earhart landed on dry land is some post-loss radio transmissions coming from the area, which was mostly uninhabited at the time and had very few radios. The Electra could only transmit if the battery was dry, and since it was in the lower part of the fuselage, it would have been soaking wet even if the plane was floating after ditching. So if the radio signals really were from Earhart's plane, it must have been on dry land for a while. TIGHAR's summary of their theory and the evidence is pretty succinct and readable. (Same link as in the FPP; just wanted to emphasize it.)

And in case you're wondering, TIGHAR doesn't hero-worship Earhart. As you learn the details of her life she becomes distinctly less impressive than her legend, a dilettante who did some cool stuff but really wasn't very good at it. Nevertheless, she was an important role model for little girls of her era, who didn't have many bold adventurous women to look up to.

Anyone looking at a map of the Pacific would assume that Earhart just ditched and sank, but there are a few pesky suggestions to the contrary. I think TIGHAR has amassed some pretty good evidence for the theory that Earhart landed on Nikumaroro (then called Gardner), they're trying to be objective about it, they have at least one real professional archeologist involved, they do consider alternate explanations, and this is not their only project so if this theory is proven wrong it won't be the end of the world for them. I'm certainly biased in their favor thanks to the amazing adventure they took me on, but I think they're trying to do solid work on a subject full of crackpots. (And if you ever have a chance to hear Ric Gillespie talk, go for it. Better still if you can have a beer with him - the man has amazing stories and the delivery of a born comedian. I can't think of a better guy to be stranded on a desert island with.)
posted by Quietgal at 10:00 AM on September 22, 2009 [50 favorites]


Earhart's disappearance is an enduring mystery because we want to believe that, rather than a remarkable person crashing in the ocean and dying meaninglessly, a remarkable person crashed on an island and lived for a bit and then died meaninglessly.

You forgot the theory that Erhart was captured by a UFO and sent back in time, where she constructed the Pyramids and Stonehenge. The face on the Sphinx is actually a portrait of her, you see.

Hell, it's as plausible as any of the other theories, and more entertaining as well.
posted by happyroach at 10:01 AM on September 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


The TIGHAR site is fascinating. Thus far, my favorite page is the experiment they did to determine if land crabs would disperse bones while scavenging.

They want to redo the experiment using a dead pig and infrared videocams. Send them money, I want to see that.
posted by jamaro at 10:37 AM on September 22, 2009


The spookiest thing I've ever heard about Earhart was this interview on North Carolina's NPR show The Story with Betty Klenk Brown. Her notes from that day gave Tighar some clues...
posted by Diablevert at 10:54 AM on September 22, 2009 [7 favorites]


nightwood: World Series->North American Series
Superbowl -> Rather Good Bowl


Leader of the Free World -> Leader of The United States of America
Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth -> Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth other than EuroDisney
posted by shakespeherian at 11:06 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


By far my favorite Earhart theory is that FDR sent her to spy on the Japanese, who shot her down and then captured her. I've definitely seen some program on the History Channel (possibly that In Search Of, I can't watch it from here) that found some dilapidated prison in the jungle and claimed that it was where Amelia spent her last days. As you might imagine from the History Channel, there was a lot more dramatic panning across creepy stone walls than making connections to facts. I guess I should be glad that she didn't crash in the Baltic instead or it just would have been another excuse to show stock footage of German tanks.
posted by Copronymus at 11:13 AM on September 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oooo, they did the pig experiment.
posted by jamaro at 11:17 AM on September 22, 2009


Thanks for that link Diablevert. That was indeed spooky.
posted by marsha56 at 3:18 PM on September 22, 2009


I think the reason why Earhart's disappearance is considered mysterious is that people assume her round-the-world flight was meticulously planned (it wasn't - it was a bit of a cockup, really) and the search and rescue efforts were heroic and unstinting. Well, I don't like to diss the Coast Guard because those guys/gals really are heroes more often than not, but the SAR effort was also bungled a bit. One pilot reported seeing signs of recent habitation on Niku a few days after Earhart went missing, but they never actually went onto the island to look around.

The whole flight was one big publicity stunt, being milked for all it was worth. (Earhart referred to her Electra as a "flying laboratory" - complete rubbish, since the only experiment they did was to see if they could keep people's attention on them for the whole trip.) Telegrams from Earhart and Noonan reported their progress and the colorful sights and people they encountered, and the press ate it up. In 1937 there wasn't much happy news and people eagerly followed the flight for a momentary escape from the Great Depression. Back in civilization, the publicity cranked up even higher after she went missing, partly because Earhart's husband George Putnam, the publisher, pulled strings in the media. (I'm not implying he did it for cynical reasons - he knew that her best chance of being found was if the Coast Guard and Navy didn't stop looking, and he needed to keep the heat on them.)

Anyway, to the folks back home, it seemed impossible that the woman they'd been following so closely for weeks could simply crash and disappear. Flying laboratory! The latest in modern radio equipment! Pan Am's best navigator! (However, with hindsight and a bit of inside dope: #1 Rubbish. #2 Earhart couldn't send Morse worth a damn and voice radio was easily garbled. #3 Noonan was rumored to be an alcoholic and Pan Am wasn't too sorry to see the back of him.)

So rather than accepting a mundane mix of poor planning + various degrees of incompetence + random bad luck, the public wanted a more romantic end for their heroine. Thus the "captured by the Japanese and taken to Saipan" type of theories. (One of these even has Earhart turning into Tokyo Rose.) If that's too kooky for you, though, you just leave it as a big mystery.

For the record, at the end of the first expedition us grunts had our own theory, totally not endorsed by The Management. 3 weeks of hacking through iron-hard underbrush with machetes, getting scratched up, drinking canteenfuls of hot water laced with bleach but somehow never needing to pee, grousing, swearing, and frying our brains out in equatorial sun led us to the following conclusion: Earhart never set foot on Nikumaroro. She was captured and taken to Saipan, whence she escaped and eventually made her way to New Jersey, where she's alive and well and running a coffee shop with Elvis.
posted by Quietgal at 4:58 PM on September 22, 2009 [14 favorites]


Oh, my - I've been sidebarred! *blushes* Thanks, mods.

If TIGHAR ever proves what happened to Earhart, Nikumaroro or not, I'm getting the expedition logo tattooed on my other arm.
posted by Quietgal at 5:20 PM on September 22, 2009


Earhart referred to her Electra as a "flying laboratory" - complete rubbish

"Too right", Tom (de)railed, "Everyone knows it was Tom Swift and His Flying Lab."
posted by Herodios at 7:41 PM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I tend to think it's a long shot, but TIGHAR's motivation seems to be part of an overall sense you see sometimes that it's the 21st century and, dammit, there shouldn't be any more mysteries, not when we have Keyhole satellites and mitochondrial DNA testing.

I mean, I'm not really sure why we should be telling people solving a mystery for their own reasons in life to not solve that mystery.
posted by dhartung at 8:45 PM on September 22, 2009


I've long been interested in the Nikumaroro theory, for about 8 years in fact, it seems a very solid hypothesis and the evidence found on the island is very interesting indeed.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 1:22 AM on September 23, 2009


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