Chasing Amelia Earhart

December 1, 2007
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Advanced surveying technology aids a dedicated recovery group in its search for the aviation icon.

The sun rises over Howland Island where Earhart is theorized to have landed on her last flight in 1937. A beacon has been positioned on the water as a memorial to Earhart.


The Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes all made their marks on the science and sport of aviation, but few names are as well known in the field as that of Amelia Earhart. While the Wrights, Lindbergh and Hughes are known for their landmark efforts and accomplishments, Earhart is an icon not only because of her effort to become the first woman to fly around the world, but because of her mysterious disappearance during that flight.

This summer, 70 years after Earhart’s historic trip, a group of aviation archeologists dedicated to finding more evidence about that day took a new approach during its fifth expedition to the island where Earhart is thought to have landed. This time they looked to advanced surveying technology to aid their efforts. The findings from the aid of a robotic total station would progress the team closer to proving its theory about the disappearance and putting the mystery to rest.

Josh and Ric Gillespie of the TIGHAR expedition group locate a few artifacts using a Sokkia SRX Robotic Total Station.

An Historic Flight

Earhart was born in Atchison, Kan., on July 24, 1897. As a child she was known as a tomboy and became fascinated with aviation at the age of 10. In 1920 she took her first ride in an airplane (at age 23) and knew she was destined to be a pilot. She began flying lessons in January 1921, bought her first airplane six months later and began setting aviation records.

Earhart was almost 40 years old when she took on the challenge to be the first woman to pilot an airplane around the world. That record would have cemented her name in aviation history, but she also sought to set the record for the longest round-the-world flight by circumnavigating the globe along the equator.

Earhart selected a Lockheed 10E Electra for the flight and fitted the plane with larger capacity fuselage fuel tanks. She chose Fred Noonan as her navigator because he was an experienced marine and flight navigator, and very knowledgeable in celestial navigation.

On June 1, 1937, Earhart and Noonan took off from Miami, Fla., and began their attempt at a 29,000-mile voyage around the world flying west to east. It took approximately one month for Earhart and Noonan to fly 22,000 miles to Lae, New Guinea. The next part of the journey was the longest single leg at 2,500 miles. Their intended destination was the small and flat Howland Island, a blip in the ocean measuring 6,500 feet long by 1,600 feet wide. At 12:30 p.m., July 2, 1937, they flew from Lae through overcast skies with rain showers toward their destination … but never arrived.

The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was assigned to communicate with Earhart’s Electra and guide the plane to Howland Island. The Itasca reported that it received clear voice transmissions from Earhart, but the Electra’s radio receiver antenna was lost on take-off and she was unable to receive transmissions from the Itasca. At 7:42 a.m. on July 2, Earhart reported to the Itasca that she thought she was near them and her fuel was running low. At 7:58 a.m. she asked the Itasca to send voice signals so she could take a radio bearing. The cutter attempted both voice and Morse Code messages. Earhart’s last communication with the Itasca was a short message stating, “We are on the line 157 337. We are running on line north and south.”

No further word came from Earhart and Noonan, and a $4 million search and rescue operation ensued--the most extensive and most costly at that time in history. Air and sea search continued through July 18, with no recovery or evidence of Earhart, Noonan or the Electra.

Ric Gillespie hand records measurements of locations.

On the Trail

July 2007 marked the 70th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance and the eighth expedition of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) to the Phoenix Islands as part of its “Earhart Project.” According to the group’s Executive Director Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR’s stated purpose was to investigate “the Earhart/Noonan disappearance according to accepted academic standards and using sound scientific methodology.” Gillespie, who has authored several articles and a book on the Earhart disappearance, describes himself as “… hooked on the process of discovery--developing and using the techniques and technologies that enable us to clear away the fog of myth and legend and get closer to the facts.”

Many theories have been put forth as to the disappearance of Earhart and Noonan, but TIGHAR feels the evidence supports one in particular. Gillespie and his team have concluded that since Noonan was a celestial navigator and Earhart reported that they were flying along an azimuth of 157-337, they were flying in a line perpendicular to the sunrise of July 2. This was their “Line of Position,” or LOP. According to the theory, Noonan’s idea was to fly up and down the line until he saw Howland Island, reached the Itasca or found a larger Island in the Phoenix chain known as Gardner Island. Today that island is known as Nikumaroro and has become the focus of TIGHAR’s effort to recover evidence of the lost plane and crew.

A great deal of evidence supports TIGHAR’s contention that Earhart and Noonan went down on Nikumaroro. Gerald Gallagher, a British colonial officer, found a partial skeleton and a sextant box when colonizing Nikumaroro in 1941. At that time, the bones were measured and believed to be from a male. The bones were later lost, but in 1998 a further analysis of the partial skeleton’s measurements by forensic anthropologists indicated that the bones were from a tall female of European descent.

TIGHAR’s previous trips to Nikumaroro produced further evidence that Earhart and Noonan occupied the island for some time. Prior expeditions recovered the heel of a woman’s size nine shoe (the same type Earhart was photographed wearing before her flight); pieces of airplane aluminum; and Plexiglas used by the local villagers occupying the island from 1939 to 1963 for handicrafts. After further analysis, the Plexiglas proved to be of a composition and curvature consistent with that used by Lockheed on the 10E Electra.

The most recent TIGHAR expedition saw a 15-member team embark on a journey in hopes of finding bones and more aircraft parts. The crew also planned to survey the reef where it is hypothesized that Earhart may have landed the Electra before it fell over the edge and into the deeper waters below.

Ric Gillespie consults with a team member by phone during the Niku V Expedition to recover evidence about Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.

Using the Latest Technology

When the TIGHAR team members geared up for the 70th anniversary expedition (dubbed Niku V), they needed technology that would make their trip more productive than prior trips, and that allowed them to document findings and aid in planning for future expeditions. Because TIGHAR had worked with him on prior expeditions, Ric Gillespie contacted Bill Weismann at Instrument Sales and Service (ISS) in Delaware for advice regarding the best way to measure and record data about the island, the specific sites to be searched and the locations of any artifacts discovered.

The information to be gathered only needed to be tied to local datum and because foliage was dense in the search areas, Weismann ruled out providing the team with GPS equipment. Gillespie explained to Weismann that the team would be working at two sites on the island. In order to efficiently work in two sites with the least amount of manpower, Weismann recommended that the team use robotic total stations for its location work. He arranged for a loan of a Sokkia (Olathe, Kan.) SRX Robotic Total Station, and Crain (Mound City, Ill.) tripods and composite prism rods.

Because the team members were archeologists and not surveyors, they decided against using data collectors and software, and elected to use the robotic total station in its basic mode, with an operator keeping notes in a field book and a rodman locating points with the prism. The total station was controlled either by the controls on the instrument or the controller on the prism rod, depending on the task at hand. But because previous expeditions had relied upon a compass and tape or rangefinders to make measurements, a total station--especially robotic--was a serious step forward.

Weismann provided crew members Ric Gillespie and his nephew, Josh Gillespie, with training in the basic use of the equipment. They did the rest, reading and re-reading the manual. According to Ric Gillespie, once they understood how to use the total station to meet their needs, they found it very reliable and appreciated the speed with which they could collect data to map the location of the discovered artifacts. They enjoyed working the instrument so much that because of its beeps and automated tracking, they nicknamed the gun “R2D2” after the loveable robot in the “Star Wars” movie series.

In addition to using the instrument to locate artifacts at specific sites, the Gillespies made shots of 680 meters and 1,000 meters to tie two sites together that were more than a mile apart. “We took several manual sightings over long distances to compare reef elevations at distant points on the island,” Ric Gillespie says. “For one sighting I had a team member hold his hat over his head so I could get an approximate elevation.”

The Gillespies appreciated the speed of the Sokkia SRX and nicknamed it “R2D2” after the loveable robot in the “Star Wars” movie series.

Valuable Findings

The latest expedition saw the TIGHAR team recover more than 100 artifacts. Among them were a mirror from a woman’s makeup compact and a bottle fragment traced to an Owens, Ill. Glass Company. The bottle was made in 1933 and contained traces of hand lotion made from lanolin and oil. Many other artifacts were consistent with the personal effects of a castaway fitting the description of an American woman.

These findings, along with items recovered from previous expeditions, cause TIGHAR director Gillespie to believe that the conclusive evidence of the Electra’s disappearance is within reach.

While discussing the artifacts found on his recent trip, Gillespie noted the similarity between archeology and surveying. “Both professions seek data and evidence, and attempt to analyze and understand it without forcing it to fit any preconceived model,” he says. “Sometimes you have bits and pieces and you have to see how they fit together without forcing them.”

Ric Gillespie says that both archeology and surveying professionals seek data and evidence, and attempt to analyze and understand it without forcing it to fit any preconceived model.

Future Expeditions

TIGHAR is now in the process of analyzing all of the data collected on the island, and will soon begin planning for the next expedition. Convinced that the team has enough information to show that Earhart and Noonan went down on Nikumaroro, Gillespie is turning his focus toward the reef where he believes the plane landed and was lost. The next TIGHAR trip is a few years in the future; funds will be raised to cover the cost of more expensive surveying and data collection equipment, possibly including sonar surveying gear, to aid in the search and recovery of the Lockheed Electra.

Based on the scope of the next expedition, Gillespie said that the addition of a professional surveyor to the team is a possibility.

In celebration of TIGHAR’s impressive efforts to date and the 110th birthday of Earhart, the team baked a cake and decorated it with a pilot figurine and Earhart’s name on July 24, 2007. They lit the candles and yelled out, “Happy Birthday, Amelia!”

Then, a gust of wind blew out the candles.

With the help of new technology and positive momentum by the committed TIGHAR team members, the next expedition to Nikumaroro may well discover the resting place of Earhart’s Lockheed aircraft and bring to an end one of the longest searches in modern history.

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