5km deep: Is this Earhart’s lost Electra aircraft?

Sonar image of what is suspected to be the wreck of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft (Deep Sea Vision)
Sonar image of what is suspected to be the wreck of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft (Deep Sea Vision)

Pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan took off from Lae in New Guinea on 2 July, 1937, with only 7,000 miles left to go to complete a record-breaking flight around the world. Then their plane vanished.

Now a team from US marine robotics company Deep Sea Vision have found what they believe to be the wreck of the missing Lockheed 10-E Electra aircraft – though it is could take a 5km submersible dive into the central Pacific to confirm their claim.

Earhart and Noonan had left Miami on 1 June on their round-the-world attempt, reaching Lae on 29 June. When they disappeared they had been heading for the 1sq mile Howland Island, just north of the Equator about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. At the time there was a US settlement on the coral island.

Amelia Earhart with the Electra in 1937 (Smithsonian Institution)
Amelia Earhart with the Lockheed Electra in 1937 (Smithsonian Institution)
US settlement on Howland Island in 1937 (nd (LAB Pearl Harbor /  National Archives)
US settlement on Howland Island in 1937 (LAB Pearl Harbor / National Archives)

Deep Sea Vision CEO Tony Romeo and his 16-strong team were working on the “Date Line Theory” of why the Electra disappeared.

Advanced in 2010, this suggests that, weary after 17 hours of flying, Noonan had simply forgotten to turn back the date from 3 to 2 July as the aircraft crossed the International Date Line. Such a navigational error would have shifted the aircraft's likely position by 60 miles.

Following up on this idea, Deep Sea Vision scanned more than 5,200sq miles of seabed from the research vessel Offshore Surveyor, using its modified Kongsberg Discovery HUGIN 6000 AUV with synthetic aperture sonar-scanning system to eventually obtain the images it believes reveal the missing aircraft.. 

Deep Sea Vision team
The Deep Sea Vision team

“The image was captured on day 32 of the expedition,” Romeo told Divernet. “However, it wasn’t discovered that they had the image until the last day of searching on 30 November. The expedition officially ended on 2 December.

“Utilising data from the flight-path and other clues, we were able to narrow down our search and target the very specific area we believed the plane to be in.”

US aviation historian Steve Zuger commented that although the wings in the image appeared swept back, unlike those of an Electra, it was possible that they had corroded and been pushed backwards by currents. “The twin rudders show vaguely in the picture… very few aircraft from that time-period had twin stab [vertical stabiliser] tails like the Electra, leading me to think this could be Earhart’s.

“Also, very few Electras around that time were reported in accidents in that part of the Pacific, let alone that close to Howland.

Steve Zuger
Steve Zuger

“I have not heard what direction Amelia and Fred Noonan’s possible aircraft is facing… if the nose is facing towards Hawaii, she didn’t try to turn around but ditched with the nose pointing towards Howland Island.

“She was a competent aviatrix and probably tried to gently set the Lockheed down on the water. Earhart did not have a raft with her, because she left it at one of her stops to save weight, so she knew the importance of trying to not wad her aircraft up on landing.

“She after all needed her Electra to double as a life-raft and stay afloat as long as possible.

“When the weight of the engines eventually pulled the Lockheed below the waves and it sank, ending up miles down in the cold, dark ocean, it could have been intact from the soft-water landing.”

Sonar images of the suspected plane wreck (Deep Sea Vision)
Sonar images of the suspected plane wreck (Deep Sea Vision)

Born in Kansas in 1897, Earhart began flying only after moving to California in 1920. She set out to break down barriers, beginning with the female altitude record only two years later. In 1928 she became the first women to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger – and in 1932 was first to make the same trip flying solo.

She formed the Ninety-Nines organisation for female pilots, and in 1935 completed the first solo flight from Hawaii to California. 

Howland Island with the Earhart light in the background (Joann94024)
Howland Island, with a lighthouse named after Earhart in the background (Joann94024)

In August 2019 deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, mounted his own expedition in an unsuccessful bid to solve the riddle of the plane’s disappearance.

His search centred on the remote atoll of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati. Known in 1937 as Gardner Island, it lies about 400 miles south-east of Howland and Ballard believed that the aviators might have camped there.

Both islands are part of the Phoenix Island Protected Area, the largest and deepest mid-ocean World Heritage site.

“The Deep Sea Vision team are currently planning their return to the site with a media partner and ROV to properly document their findings,” said Romeo.

Also on Divernet: Ballard out to solve Earhart puzzle, Divers locate ‘ahead of time’ 1906 Defender sub  

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