Amelia Earhart was someone I read about as a kid. She seemed almost larger than life, this woman who was the first to cross the Atlantic solo, who set so many flying records in her day, and then who vanished while trying to circumnavigate the globe, never to be seen again. What happened? Did her plane run out of fuel and crash (the leading theory)? Did she land on a deserted island, unable to contact potential rescuers? Was she held captive by the Japanese? Something else?
Today my DAR chapter hosted a presentation by Lonnie Schorer who has gone on several expeditions with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (or TIGHAR, pronounced “tiger”) to the south Pacific to research what may have happened on Earhart’s fatal flight. Her talk was absolutely fascinating to hear.
Just getting to Nikumaroro (or Niku, for short) is an adventure because it’s a five-day boat journey from Fiji — and simply getting to Fiji from the United States is a long trip! The expedition members lodged each night on a research boat off the shore of Niku, going back and forth between the boat and the island on Zodiaks. They’d pull up next to the coral reef surrounding the island (which is dry only during low tide), then hop off (fully loaded with gear) and walk across to the island itself, trying not to trip or step into a hole in the coral.
Their days sounded grueling. The most recent trip was in June 2015, so the daytime temperatures were in the 100s. The sharp edges of the coral and spikes on the dense vegetation meant that hiking boots had to stay on at all times to avoid puncture wounds that could get infected. (Even so, Lonnie said that by the end of the 24-day stay, every member of the crew had been on antibiotics of some sort.) Getting back on the Zodiaks in the late afternoon was equally challenging. One day, a Zodiak popped up in the surf after being hit by a wave, and a crew member fell overboard and got trapped underneath. (They rescued him in time, though it took a few minutes.) And a typhoon went through at one point, trapping the team on the island for several days.
The island was beautiful, and it must have seemed so at first to Amelia and Fred Noonan, her navigator (assuming they landed here). But the atoll has no natural fresh water source, and food sources are limited to coconuts and any fish or sea turtles they could catch in the reefs and the interior lagoon. Some of the other wildlife would have been edible, but not all. There are birds (here, here, and here) and huge coconut crabs (the largest arthropod in the world), as well as moray eels and sharks in the waters surrounding the atoll.
The team has uncovered a range of artifacts over the years, including a broken knife blade, apparently used to try to pry open shells for food; pieces of a mirror from a woman’s compact that match the kind Amelia is known to have used, as well as bits of rouge (blush, in modern terms) from the 1930s; pieces of a woman’s shoe, again that match the kind she wore; remnants of fish and birds near a bivouac site that did not follow the pattern of eating used by island natives in the general region. Intriguingly, remnants of a woman’s skeleton were found in 1940 at the bivouac site and brought to a hospital in Fiji but have since disappeared.
One fascinating link came from a woman named Betty, who was a teenager in Florida when Amelia vanished. She was listening to her shortwave radio when she suddenly picked up a transmission by someone identifying herself as Earhart and began taking notes. (You can read the transcript of Betty’s notebook here.) TIGHAR team members were able to interview Betty who said the woman mentioned something that sounded like “New York City” several times. Now, at the end of the reef where TIGHAR believes Amelia landed her plane is a ship that ran aground in 1929… a ship that was named Norwich City. (It’s still there, trapped in the reef.)
So what happened to Amelia? Lonnie told us that the TIGHAR team believes she landed on the reef around the island, where she and Noonan were able to survive for a little while. But they both probably died of infection from injury or illness (quite probably from dysentery caused by eating toxin-infected fish from the coral reefs). From what’s known about the flight preparations, Amelia wasn’t as skilled with the radio as she might have been and apparently didn’t have a back-up plan in case she couldn’t find their original destination. And weather conditions on that last flight day conspired against them, making it hard for Noonan to locate precisely where they were. On a flight over hundreds of miles of open ocean, any one of those things would have meant trouble. Tragically, a search plane flew over the island one week after Amelia vanished and saw signs of habitation on the island but (incorrectly) believed the atoll to be inhabited by native islanders and so did not follow up or land. If only…
Lonnie is clearly committed to the effort to find out what happened and her enthusiasm was infectious. She’s collected a lot of Amelia-related items over the years, including a suitcase from the 1930s that was part of the line Amelia Earhart designed, and articles and books about the flight. Oh, and before I forget, Lonnie officially became a member of our chapter today — hooray!
For the adventure travelers among you, Betchart Expeditions is offering an Amelia Earhart cruise in 2017 on the 80th anniversary of her disappearance. You’ll go from Fiji to Niku and help excavate with TIGHAR members (see the bottom of this page for photos of the 2015 ship). Ready to sign up?