An American Obsession
When she vanished-70 years ago this July-she was as big a star as Greta Garbo. Is that why some are still driven to solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart?
- By Paul Hoversten
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
NASM (SI Neg. #80-11040)
(Page 2 of 3)
The flight itself was “not historically significant,” says Gillespie, noting that it was possible in 1937 to fly commercially around the world and that newspaper reporters already had done so. Earhart’s goal was not to be the first woman to fly around the world, but to be the first person to circumnavigate Earth near the equator, thereby besting in distance Wiley Post’s around-the-northern-hemisphere flights. But Earhart’s fame—and her husband’s penchant for promotion—made everything she did newsworthy.
Central to Gillespie’s hypothesis are reports of distress calls from the Phoenix Islands made on Earhart’s radio frequency for days after she vanished. (Gardner is part of the Phoenix chain.) The Electra could have broadcast only if it were on land, not in the water. The Coast Guard and later the Navy, believing the distress calls were real, adjusted their searches, and newspapers at the time reported Earhart and Noonan were marooned on an island. “It all comes down to the credibility of the post-crash calls,” Gillespie says. “Either Earhart was on land in the Phoenix Islands or there was a hoaxer in the Phoenix Islands with her radio.”
Equally adamant that the calls were bogus and that Earhart and Noonan ditched in the water is David Jourdan, a former Navy submariner and ocean engineer in Cape Porpoise, Maine, who specializes in deep-sea recoveries. His company, Nauticos, has raised and spent $4.5 million on two deep-sea sonar searches around Howland in 2002 and 2006. Armed with the materials of Earhart researcher Elgen Long, which he had purchased in the late 1990s, Jourdan so far has searched about 1,200 square miles north and west of Howland. From his research, Long postulates that Earhart’s airplane ran out of gas within 52 miles of the island and is sitting somewhere in a 6,000-square-mile area at a depth of 17,000 feet.
“The analysis of all the data we have—the fuel analysis, the radio calls, other things—tells me she went into the water off Howland,” says Jourdan, who sold his company’s deep-water equipment to Houston-based Oceaneering International in 2002 while retaining the rights to the Nauticos name. To Jourdan, “it makes perfect sense” that Earhart would continue flying on her line of position in search of Howland—as she had radioed—until the Electra simply ran out of gas and splashed into the sea. (The “line of position” is a line plotted at a right angle to the direction toward a celestial body, based on its observed elevation above the horizon at a precise time. On the morning of July 2, 1937, the course derived from an observation of the rising sun yielded a line of position of 157–337. The numbers 157 and 337 refer to points on a compass: 157 degrees southeast and 337 northwest; a line drawn through those points would intersect Howland.)
As for the airplane, “it would still be shiny,” Jourdan says. “At that depth, you wouldn’t even expect to find a layer of [silt].”
That’s unsettling for some Earhart researchers. “The notion of seeing images of Amelia’s leather jacket 18,000 feet down [disturbs] me,” says Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum. Based on the condition of artifacts found aboard the Titanic, which came to rest in the north Atlantic at 13,000 feet, Crouch thinks that not only Earhart’s jacket would have survived, but her shoes and probably her teeth as well.
“I want to know where she is, but there’s something uncomfortable about finding out,” Crouch says. “I’m convinced that the mystery is part of what keeps us interested. In part, we remember her because she’s our favorite missing person.”
Whoever finds Earhart’s airplane stands to make a great deal of money. “From a business standpoint, we’ve always felt it was a great opportunity,” Jourdan says. “There’s a fantastic exhibition you could put together if we have that plane in our hands. A clever businessperson could certainly make something of this. I’m not a treasure hunter, but I’d like to do this and make some income so I could offset the cost [of looking for Earhart] and fund other expeditions.”
He agrees the search for Earhart may be something of an obsession. “There’s some truth to that. It does grab you, but I try to keep it from being an obsession. Ric and I disagree profoundly on the basics, but he’s a good guy and we get along. I encourage any of those people looking anywhere, if there’s any chance you’re right, let me know so I can stop wasting my time and go on and do other things.”