Exclusive: Inside the search for Amelia Earhart’s airplane

Many attempts have been made to discover the famed aviator's fate, but never with the technological tools at Robert Ballard's disposal.

Photograph by Gabriel Scarlett, National Geographic
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Best known for his 1985 discovery of the Titanic, National Geographic Explorer Robert Ballard studies video monitors inside the control room of the research vessel E/V Nautilus.

Photograph by Gabriel Scarlett, National Geographic

It’s a balmy tropical night south of the equator in the Pacific Ocean, but inside the control room of the E/V Nautilus it’s cold and dark and hushed. Banks of monitors provide the only light. Moving around is treacherous—wires hang along the walls and the space between work stations is narrow. Despite the heat outside, crew members wear fleece to fend off the frigid air. Their voices are barely audible as they speak softly to each other through headsets.

The screens mounted on the black-painted walls provide a vision of another world. One shows a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) floating in shadowy blue light, dwarfed by what looks to be a massive cliff face. Another screen provides a closer view—bedrock and coral rubble occasionally obscured by a flurry of marine snow.

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Amelia Earhart strides in front of her Lockheed Electra, the plane in which she disappeared in July 1937 while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world.

“We’re looking for colors that aren’t natural to the background,” says Robert Ballard, as he stares intently at the screens from his perch in the back row. The man who found the Titanic is on a mission to find out what happened to Amelia Earhart when she disappeared during her quest to be the first woman to fly around the world.

Earhart would likely have been enraptured by the ship’s space-age display. The aviator always had her eye on the future, whether it was records to be broken in the skies or new paths to be forged by women. She even ventured underwater in an early version of a diving suit.

Yet she would have been astonished at the technological wonders being marshaled to discover her fate.

View Images

Inside the control room, crewmembers pilot remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) and keep round-the-clock vigil in four-hour shifts.

Ballard has directed his state-of-the-art ship, the E/V Nautilus, to the waters off Nikumaroro, an isolated ring of coral and sand surrounding a turquoise lagoon. Only four and a half miles long and one and a half miles wide, the island appears on most maps as a mere speck in the vast Pacific Ocean.

“There are various theories about where Amelia’s plane landed, and some of them are a little wild,” says Ballard, a National Geographic Explorer. Some people believe Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan ended up in the Marshall Islands, some say Saipan or even New Jersey, others that the plane crashed and sank. “We’re going with the one that she actually landed.”

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan were aiming for Howland Island, which is even smaller than Nikumaroro. After taking off from Lae, New Guinea, on the third to last leg of Earhart’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe, they failed to locate Howland and vanished without a trace.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has spent the last several decades investigating the hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan landed their Lockheed Electra 10E on Nikumaroro when they couldn’t find Howland.

The researchers base their hypothesis on Earhart’s last radio transmissions. At 8:43 a.m. on July 2, Earhart radioed the Itasca, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter awaiting Earhart at Howland: "KHAQQ [the Electra's call letters] to Itasca. We are on the line 157 337." The Itasca received the transmission but couldn't get any bearings on the signal.

The “line 157 337” indicates that the plane was flying on a northwest to southeast navigational line that bisected Howland Island. If Earhart and Noonan missed Howland, they would fly either northwest or southeast on the line to find it. To the northwest of Howland lies open ocean for thousands of miles; to the southeast is Nikumaroro.

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Outfitted with an array of underwater sensors, E/V Nautilus works a grid-like search pattern Ballard likens to "mowing the lawn."

The line-of-position radio message was the last confirmed transmission from Earhart, but radio operators received 57 messages that could have been from the Electra. Wireless stations took direction bearings on seven of them. Five of those crossed near Nikumaroro, then called Gardner island.

At the time of Earhart’s disappearance, the tide on Nikumaroro was especially low, revealing a reef surface along the shore long and flat enough for a plane to land. If Earhart sent any of those 57 radio transmissions, the plane must have landed relatively intact.

The TIGHAR researchers theorize that Earhart and Noonan radioed at night to avoid the searing daytime heat inside the aluminum plane. Eventually the tide lifted the Electra off the reef, and it sank or broke up in the surf. The last credible transmission was heard on July 7, 1937.

Earhart Mystery

On May 20, 1937, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Oakland, California on the first leg of their historic round-the-world flight. They disappeared 43 days later while trying to locate tiny Howland Island in the remote Pacific.

The flight plan

After a westbound attempt in March that failed with a crash in Hawaii, Earhart decided on an eastbound route that would cover nearly 29,000 miles.

Oakland, Calif.

May 20

May 22

May 21

U.S.

Saint-Louis

June 8

June 1

May 23

June 2

June 4

June 3

June 6

June 7

Saint-Louis

June 8

June 19

June 18

June 13

June 20

June 11

June 14

June 17

June 10

June 15

Bangkok

SIAM

June 20

June 12

June 13

Oakland, Calif.

Bangkok

SIAM

June 20

Honolulu, Hawaii

(U.S.)

June 21

Lae

N.E. NEW GUINEA

(AUS.)

July 2

June 24,27

Howland I. (U.S.)

June 25

Gardner I.

(Nikumaroro)

(U.K.)

June 28

June 29

Missed rendezvous

Howland Island, with its rudimentary airstrip, was Earhart’s next stop. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was on station, receiving the pilot’s last radio transmissions. In her last heard in-flight message, Earhart reported flying along the 157°/337° line. Nikumaroro is southeast of Howland Island along it.

Last reported navigational line

Howland

I.

U.S.C.G.C. Itasca

N.E.

NEW

GUINEA

(U.S.)

EQUATOR

Gardner I.

(Nikumaroro)

(AUS.)

(U.K.)

PACIFIC

OCEAN

Lae

New Guinea

Enlarged

BELOW

PAPUA

(AUS.)

400 mi

AUSTRALIA

400 km

Earhart’s final landing?

S.S.

Norwich City

wreck

Years of research and many archaeological expeditions strengthen the case that Earhart landed on this isolated atoll.

Nikumaroro

Beach

Reef

Castaway

camp

Aircraft wreckage

MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NGM STAFF.

BOUNDARIES AS OF 1937 ARE SHOWN.

SOURCES: THE INTERNATIONAL GROUP FOR HISTORIC AIRCRAFT RECOVERY; NASA, LANDSAT; U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT

Earhart Mystery

On May 20, 1937, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Oakland, California on the first leg of their historic round-the-world flight. They disappeared 43 days later while trying to locate tiny Howland Island in the remote Pacific.

Missed rendezvous

Howland Island, with its rudimentary airstrip, was Earhart’s next stop. U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was on station, receiving the pilot’s last radio transmissions.

Saint-Louis

FR.W. AFRICA

June 8

Calcutta

June 18

Karachi

June 17

Khartoum

June 13

Gao June 11

INDIA

(U.K.)

Dakar

FR.W.AF.

June 10

Assab, June 15

Massawa

ITALIAN W. AF.

June 14

Akyab

(Sittwe)

BURMA

(U.K.)

June 19

Oakland, Calif.

Oakland, Calif. May 20

Akyab (Sittwe)

BURMA (U.K.)

June 19

Fort Lamy

(N’Djamena)

FR.EQUA.AF.

June 12

U.S.

Saint-Louis

FR.W. AFRICA

June 8

Tucson, Ariz. May 22

Burbank,

Calif.

May 21

El Fasher

ANGLO-EGYPTIAN

SUDAN

June 13

Rangoon June 20

Honolulu, Hawaii

(U.S.)

Miami, Fla. June 1

Bangkok SIAM

June 20

New Orleans, La.

May 23

San Juan, P.R.

June 2

Singapore (U.K.)

June 21

Fortaleza

June 6

Fortaleza

June 6

Caripito

VENEZUELA

June 3

Bandung NETH. INDIES

June 24,27

Howland I. (U.S.)

Surabaya

June 25

Natal

June 7

Gardner I.

(Nikumaroro)

(U.K.)

Paramaribo

SURINAME (NETH.)

June 4

Darwin

June 29

Lae

N.E. NEW GUINEA

(AUS.)

July 2

The flight plan

Kupang

(PORT.)

June 28

After a westbound attempt in March that failed with a crash in Hawaii, Earhart decided on an eastbound route that would cover nearly 29,000 miles.

AUSTRALIA

BRAZIL

Last reported

navigational line

500 mi

Gilbert

Islands

Earhart’s final landing?

S.S.

Norwich City

wreck

500 km

U.S.C.G.C. Itasca

Howland Island

(U.S.)

Years of research and many archaeological expeditions strengthen the case that Earhart landed on this isolated atoll.

(U.K.)

EQUATOR

Baker Island

(U.S.)

Nauru

(U.K.)

Phoenix

Islands

Bismarck

Archipelago

N.E.

NEW

GUINEA

(U.K.)

Nikumaroro

Enlarged

at right

Gardner I.

(Nikumaroro)

(AUS.)

Beach

(U.K.)

Lae

(U.K.)

PACIFIC

OCEAN

(U.K.)

Tokelau

Islands

PAPUA

Reef

Santa

Cruz Is.

Castaway

camp

(AUS.)

(N.Z.)

(U.K.)

(U.K.)

Clues from final radio contact

(U.S.)

Wallis I.

Savaii

(FRANCE)

In her last in-flight radio message heard by Itasca, Earhart reported flying along the 157°/337° line.

Nikumaroro is southeast of Howland Island along it.

Aircraft wreckage

Samoa

Islands

Fiji

(U.K.)

MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NGM STAFF. BOUNDARIES AS OF 1937 ARE SHOWN.

SOURCES: THE INTERNATIONAL GROUP FOR HISTORIC AIRCRAFT RECOVERY; NASA, LANDSAT; U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT

Viti Levu

(U.K. &

FR.)

Members of TIGHAR have traveled to the island 13 times, but never with the technological tools that Ballard has at his disposal. The Nautilus is equipped with a multi-beam sonar on the hull, two ROVs with high definition cameras, an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV), and multiple drones—plus Ballard’s years of experience finding treasures under the sea.

On this expedition he’s aiming to discover where Earhart’s plane ended up after it tumbled off the reef.

It’s painstaking work. The Nautilus didn’t approach the island directly but took a sweeping path that allowed the sonar to map the underwater terrain. But the ship couldn’t get too close; the reef is extremely dangerous, as demonstrated by the wreckage from the S.S. Norwich City that still dominates the northeastern shore of the island.

View Images

Ballard's search centers on Nikumaroro Island, an uninhabited atoll that's part of the Micronesian nation of Kiribati. Some researchers believe Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan landed here and died as castaways.

Once the Nautilus arrived at the island, a routine quickly developed: Send out the ASV (essentially a robot boat) to map the terrain near the surf. When it returns, analyze the data to see what, as Ballard puts it, “comes out of the soup.” Ballard and his colleagues are looking for targets—anomalies—though a lack of them doesn’t mean nothing interesting lies below the waves.

Ballard puts great stock in laying eyes on his quarry. “Everything I ever found was found visually,” he says.

Expedition Amelia

Ocean explorer Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, is searching for Amelia Earhart’s airplane. Watch a preview of the two-hour National Geographic special premiering October 20, 2019.

That’s where the ROVs come in. Usually launched at night, they can go as deep as 4,000 meters. Hercules, a bright yellow box with a metal base, offers the first-person view, while smaller Argus keeps a camera pointed at Hercules.

The ROV pilots operate on four-hour shifts day and night, and mostly they don’t see much. But on the first night they found wreckage—items that looked to be a propeller, a boiler, a crank shaft, and much more—all from the Norwich City.

It wasn’t the wreck Ballard was looking for, but it answered an important question: How deep could the plane go? The Norwich City debris clustered at depths between 100 to 300 meters. “Anything of similar mass—part of a plane or part of a ship—would have been sliding down slope in that zone,” explains expedition leader Allison Fundis. “We’re really focusing on that zone with the ROV dives.”

Earhart’s custom-

built aircraft

For her flight around the world in 1937, Amelia Earthart chose one of the most advanced aircraft of her time, the Lockheed Electra 10E. Modifications included additional fuel tanks, an autopilot, and special windows for the navigator.

Radio

direction

finder

Antenna

Navigator's

station

2

Toilet

3

3

Auxiliary

battery

1

Transmitter

Pratt & Whitney

Wasp S3H1

Engine

1

The engine

Earhart's airplane was only the fifth Electra equipped with new and more powerful 550- horsepower engines.

2

Navigation aids

The Electra had a radio direction finder coupled to a manually-rotated loop antenna located over the cockpit.

3

Extra fuel tanks

Earhart removed the plane's seats to add six fuel tanks, making it necessary to crawl over the tanks to reach the cockpit.

6 Extra tanks

6 Regular tanks

Total capacity

1,151 gallons

Cabin materials

Aluminum thickness

U.S. quarter (for comparison)

0.069”

A

B

C

A

Cloth headliner

Thicker

part

(belly)

0.040”

Thinner part

(nose, tail)

0.025”

Foil moisture barrier

B

Aluminum

C

Radio problems

Earhart reported her progress to the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, awaiting her arrival at Howland Island. But she was unable to hear their replies, perhaps due to the loss of an antenna.

38’7’’

1. Ventral antenna

2. Trailing wire antenna

1. The lost antenna

On its last takeoff, the plane's ventral antenna suffered damage, a possible cause of the communication failure experienced later.

2. Trailing wire antenna

To reduce weight, Earhart removed this antenna used for the international distress frequency. It could be extended 250 feet.

Reef landing

Some think Earhart landed on the flat reef at Nikumaroro Island during low tide. The plane may have remained there several days before rising tides washed it into the ocean. The plane may have broken up in the surf or floated away to sink in deep water.

Nikumaroro

Island

3,281 ft

(1,000m)

AREA

ENLARGED

Plane

Reef

2,297 ft

(700 m)

Terrain

profile

Possible remains

Center

section

The plane was made of thin aluminum and unlikely to remain intact after 82 years. Its center section, landing gear, and engines were the heaviest and most durable parts.

Engines and

propellers

MONICA SERRANO AND FERNANDO BAPTISTA, NG STAFF. KAYA BERNE. SOURCE: RICHARD GILLESPIE, THE INTERNATIONAL GROUP FOR HISTORIC AIRCRAFT RECOVERY.

Earhart’s custom-built aircraft

For her flight around the world in 1937, Amelia Earthart chose one of the most advanced aircraft of her time, the Lockheed Electra 10E. Modifications included additional fuel tanks, an autopilot, and special windows for the navigator.

Radio

direction

finder

Aluminum thickness

U.S. quarter (for comparison)

0.069”

Antenna

Navigator's station

Thicker part

(belly)

0.040”

Thinner part

(nose, tail)

0.025”

Toilet

Transmitter

Auxiliary

battery

Transmitter

Cloth headliner

Foil moisture barrier

Aluminum

Extra fuel tanks

Pratt & Whitney

Wasp S3H1 Engine

6 Extra tanks

6 Regular tanks

Total capacity

1,151 gallons

Navigation aids

The engine

Earhart's airplane was only the fifth Electra equipped with new and more powerful 550- horsepower engines.

The Electra had a radio direction finder coupled to a manually-rotated loop antenna located over the cockpit.

Earhart removed the plane's seats to add six fuel tanks, making it necessary to crawl over the tanks to reach the cockpit.

Radio problems

Reef landing

Earhart reported her progress to the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, awaiting her arrival at Howland Island. But she was unable to hear their replies, perhaps due to the loss of an antenna.

Some think Earhart landed on the flat reef at Nikumaroro Island during low tide. The plane may have remained there several days before rising tides washed it into the ocean. The plane may have broken up in the surf or floated away to sink in deep water.

38’7’’

Nikumaroro

Island

3,281 ft

(1,000m)

AREA

ENLARGED

Plane

Reef

2,297 ft

(700 m)

Terrain

profile

The lost antenna

Trailing wire antenna

Possible remains

On its last takeoff, the plane's ventral antenna suffered damage, a possible cause of the communication failure experienced later.

To reduce weight, Earhart removed this antenna used for the international distress frequency. It could be extended 250 feet.

The plane was made of thin aluminum and unlikely to remain intact after 82 years. Its center section, landing gear, and engines were the heaviest and most durable parts.

Center

section

Engines and

propellers

MONICA SERRANO AND FERNANDO BAPTISTA, NG STAFF. KAYA BERNE.

SOURCE: RICHARD GILLESPIE, THE INTERNATIONAL GROUP FOR HISTORIC AIRCRAFT RECOVERY.

Earhart’s custom-built aircraft

For her flight around the world in 1937, Amelia Earthart chose one of the most advanced aircraft of her time, the Lockheed Electra 10E. Modifications included additional fuel tanks, an autopilot, and special windows for the navigator.

Aluminum thickness

Radio direction

finder

U.S. quarter (for comparison)

0.069”

Antenna

Navigator's station

Thicker part

(belly)

0.040”

Thinner part

(nose, tail)

0.025”

Toilet

Auxiliary

battery

Transmitter

Cloth headliner

Foil moisture barrier

Aluminum

Extra fuel tanks

Pratt & Whitney

Wasp S3H1 Engine

6 Extra tanks

6 Regular tanks

Total capacity

1,151 gallons

Navigation aids

The engine

Earhart's airplane was only the fifth Electra equipped with new and more powerful 550- horsepower engines.

The Electra had a radio direction finder coupled to a manually-rotated loop antenna located over the cockpit.

Earhart removed the plane's seats to add six fuel tanks, making it necessary to crawl over the tanks to reach the cockpit.

Radio problems

Reef landing

Earhart reported her progress to the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, awaiting her arrival at Howland Island. But she was unable to hear their replies, perhaps due to the loss of an antenna.

Some think Earhart landed on the flat reef at Nikumaroro Island during low tide. The plane may have remained there several days before rising tides washed it into the ocean. The plane may have broken up in the surf or floated away to sink in deep water.

Nikumaroro

Island

AREA

ENLARGED

3,281 ft

(1,000m)

38’7’’

Reef

Plane

2,297 ft

(700 m)

Terrain

profile

Center

section

The lost antenna

Trailing wire antenna

Possible remains

On its last takeoff, the plane's ventral antenna suffered damage, a possible cause of the communication failure experienced later.

To reduce weight, Earhart removed this antenna used for the international distress frequency. It could be extended 250 feet.

The plane was made of thin aluminum and unlikely to remain intact after 82 years. Its center section, landing gear, and engines were the heaviest and most durable parts.

Engines and

propellers

MONICA SERRANO AND FERNANDO BAPTISTA, NG STAFF. KAYA BERNE.

SOURCE: RICHARD GILLESPIE, THE INTERNATIONAL GROUP FOR HISTORIC AIRCRAFT RECOVERY.

Earharts custom-built aircraft

For her flight around the world in 1937, Amelia Earthart chose one of the most advanced aircraft of her time, the Lockheed Electra 10E. Modifications included additional fuel tanks, an autopilot, and special windows for the navigator.

Aluminum thickness

U.S. quarter (for comparison)

0.069”

Radio direction

finder

Antenna

Thicker part

(belly)

0.040”

Thinner part

(nose, tail)

0.025”

Navigator's station

Toilet

Auxiliary

battery

Transmitter

Cloth headliner

Pratt & Whitney

Wasp S3H1 Engine

Foil moisture barrier

Aluminum

Extra fuel tanks

6 Extra tanks

6 Regular tanks

Total capacity 1,151 gallons

Navigation aids

The engine

Earhart's airplane was only the fifth Electra equipped with new and more powerful 550- horsepower engines.

The Electra had a radio direction finder coupled to a manually-rotated loop antenna located over the cockpit.

Earhart removed the plane's seats to add six fuel tanks, making it necessary to crawl over the tanks to reach the cockpit.

Radio problems

Reef landing

Earhart reported her progress to the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, awaiting her arrival at Howland Island. But she was unable to hear their replies, perhaps due to the loss of an antenna.

Some think Earhart landed on the flat reef at Nikumaroro Island during low tide. The plane may have remained there several days before rising tides washed it into the ocean. The plane may have broken up in the surf or floated away to sink in deep water.

Nikumaroro

Island

AREA

ENLARGED

3,281 ft

(1,000m)

38’7’’

Reef

Plane

2,297 ft

(700 m)

Terrain

profile

The lost antenna

Trailing wire antenna

Possible remains

Center

section

On its last takeoff, the plane's ventral antenna suffered damage, a possible cause of the communication failure experienced later.

To reduce weight, Earhart removed this antenna used for the international distress frequency. It could be extended 250 feet.

The plane was made of thin aluminum and unlikely to remain intact after 82 years. Its center section, landing gear, and engines were the heaviest and most durable parts.

Engines and

propellers

MONICA SERRANO AND FERNANDO BAPTISTA, NG STAFF. KAYA BERNE.

SOURCE: RICHARD GILLESPIE, THE INTERNATIONAL GROUP FOR HISTORIC AIRCRAFT RECOVERY.

When the pilots do spot something, their reactions tend to be muted (unless it’s a charismatic creature such as a dumbo octopus). During a recent watch a tube-shaped metallic object hove into view. The Hercules pilot murmured, “It looks anthropogenic. Should I pick it up?”

The answer was yes. After a moment of hesitation, Hercules stretched out its arm and very slowly closed its pincers around the tube and delicately placed the item into a white storage container on its side.

What was it? The answer would have to wait until the ROVs were recovered and the box could be opened, which wouldn’t be until the next day.

View Images

Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan consult a map of the Pacific that shows the planned route of their round-the-world flight.

Spoiler alert: It was not part of Earhart’s plane. Instead, it appeared to be a piece of oceanographic equipment—a sign that other explorers had been here before Ballard.

Ballard shrugs off false alarms, especially this early in the search. “We did this nine days for the Titanic,” he says.

Amelia Earhart had planned to use her Electra to test the latest in aviation equipment—even nicknaming it the “Flying Laboratory.” By the end of this expedition to find the pilot and her plane, the Nautilus’s equipment will be tested to the limits, and the small island of Nikumaroro will be thoroughly mapped. Whether her fate is discovered or not, maybe Earhart would be satisfied with that result.