Episode 7: Amelia Earhart Part I: The Lady Vanishes

The truth about what happened to Amelia Earhart often depends on who’s telling the story. Yet with little evidence, the wide-ranging theories often discount the most important clue in the entire mystery: Amelia Earhart herself.

Amelia Earhart stands June 14, 1928 in front of her bi-plane called "Friendship" in Newfoundland. Earhart (1898 - 1937) disappeared without trace over the Pacific Ocean in her attempt to fly around the world in 1937.
Photograph by Getty Images

Ever since Amelia Earhart made her last radio transmission somewhere over the Pacific, theories about her disappearance have proliferated; more than 80 years later, the constant re-telling of her story shows no signs of slowing. Although the search to find a “smoking gun” has yielded little evidence, there are many who believe they know how Amelia’s story ended. Whether they’re right or wrong, one thing remains true: their stories have little to do with Amelia herself.

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AMELIA EARHART (AVIATRIX): The pilot, winging his way above the Earth at 200 miles an hour, talks by radio telephone to ground stations, or to other planes in the air. He sits behind engines, the reliability of which, measured by yardsticks of the past, is all but unbelievable. I myself still fly a Wasp motor, which has carried me over the North Atlantic, part of the Pacific, to and from Mexico City, and many times across this continent.

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): That voice could only belong to one person: Amelia Earhart. It’s so confident, so self-assured. It was recorded at the height of her fame. A world-famous career that was to be topped off by a circumnavigation of the Earth—it was a journey she would never complete.

The name Amelia Earhart conjures up all kinds of things for me. A daring adventure that becomes an unsolved mystery. A story without an ending.

CATHY HUNTER (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARCHIVIST): And I think there's one more folder here. There's something called the Amelia Earhart Foundation.

BRIGGS: Mm-hmm.

HUNTER: It talks about an unsolved mystery.

BRIGGS: Archivist Cathy Hunter is showing me a stack of memorabilia from deep inside Nat Geo’s archives.

What's the purpose of the foundation? Does it say?

HUNTER: Let’s see. It says, to conduct an expedition to clear up the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the lost aviatrix, and captain Frederick J. Noonan, her navigator. And to attempt to determine beyond doubt whether or not they are still alive.

BRIGGS: Oh my goodness, when's this from? Is there a date?

So here’s what most of us know: Amelia Earhart was a pilot. Amelia Earhart was a celebrity. Amelia Earhart disappeared.

HUNTER: Let's see. Twenty-third day of December, 1937.

BRIGGS: That soon!? Oh my goodness. Wow. So right from the get-go, there were people searching. Like that's … [sound of Amy’s head exploding].

Of course I’m not the only one fascinated by this story. It has become a kind of tragedy whose captivating final act is continually rewritten, updated, and amended as new evidence is found, or—as is more often the case—as new people try their hand at telling the story. It’s been running for more than eight decades—captivating entire generations.

And because Amelia Earhart is a story without an ending, it invites tellers of all kinds.

When I was a kid, I was first introduced to the mystery of Amelia Earhart on Saturday mornings, courtesy of one of the finest documentary shows ever produced: In Search Of. Was it the unmistakable voice of its host Leonard Nimoy that fascinated me? Or was it an obsession with the popular mysteries of the day? I mean, where else could a kid learn about killer bees, UFOs, and various man-beasts?

But Amelia’s story always felt different.

BOB BALLARD (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EXPLORER AT LARGE): It’s Bigfoot. It’s Bermuda Triangle. It’s the Loch Ness Monster. But this is real.

BRIGGS: Bob Ballard, National Geographic Explorer at Large, might be the most famous finder in the world. He found the Titanic. He found the Bismarck. In 1977, he was featured on another episode of In Search Of, looking for the Loch Ness Monster. Spoiler alert: He didn’t find it.

But Bob Ballard is driven to find Amelia for the same reason most people are.

BALLARD: No, this is a real one. I mean, it’s like the Titanic. There really was a Titanic. So there’s a lot of Atlantis, and a lot of the cockamamie things out there. This ain’t cockamamie. This really happened.

BRIGGS: But he’s quick to point out how difficult a task this might be.

BALLARD: But it’s a big puddle of water. The Pacific is a third of the Earth. It’s a big bucket of water and it’s deep. There’s not too many people that can swim in this swimming pool.

BRIGGS: That swimming pool is so big, in fact, that after more than 80 years—and a tremendous amount of effort—the search for Amelia has yielded no smoking gun. There’s no plane. There’s no body. She remains a kind of historical question mark.

Without evidence, there is no ending. Only that nagging uncertainty—which drives explorers and storytellers stark raving mad. And, hint, hint, they are one in the same. I should know.

This episode of Overheard is the story about the quest for an ending.

The quest involves more than just proving what happened to a pilot and her plane. It’s a story about our obsession with solving mysteries, whether we really know what happened or not.

I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and this is Overheard at National Geographic—a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

Over the next two episodes, we’re going to get to know a few of the searchers who have spent years looking for clues about Amelia Earhart. They all share a common trait: They are highly skilled at weaving a compelling story.

And one of those highly skilled storytellers is Amelia herself.

More after the break.

NEWSREEL REPORTER: Roaring into the Oakland airport, she brings to a triumphant finish her 2,400-mile hop from Hawaii after 18 hours in the air.

BRIGGS: There’s Amelia in black-and-white, on the tarmac. Throngs of well-wishers surround her plane.

NEWSREEL REPORTER: Ten thousand cheer the end of the flight …

BRIGGS: … handing up bouquets of flowers as she emerges from the hatch. In 1935, the year she set this Pacific record …

NEWSREEL REPORTER: … The first woman to fly the Pacific and the first person to fly it solo.

BRIGGS: … she is a wildly popular public figure. She is a heroine in a world of heroes.

NEWSREEL REPORTER: She receives one of the most tumultuous greetings ever accorded a flier.

BRIGGS: Three years earlier, she’d completed a solo transatlantic flight—the first woman to do so, and only the second pilot after Charles Lindbergh, giving her that nickname “Lady Lindy.” In 1935 on that sunny January day in Oakland, she was in full command of another nickname she had earned—this one a little less derivative—”Queen of the Air.”

NEWSREEL REPORTER: How does it feel to fly both oceans, Ms. Earhart?

EARHART: Well, it was very interesting to me to fly in southern waters rather than in the north. On the Atlantic flight, I had ice conditions and general storm. On this flight, really no bad weather at all except a few little rain squalls. I saw the moon and stars most of the night.

BRIGGS: Amelia smiles, as if she’s remembering she’s on camera. She’s fresh faced. And if she’s exhausted from flying solo for 18 hours, she doesn’t show it.

EARHART: Of course, in both flights I was very glad to see land.

BRIGGS: It’s a triumphant end to a difficult journey—one that had ended tragically for many pilots at that time. But Amelia makes it look effortless.

That same year, she broke another record as the first woman to cross the U.S. solo. Her career seemed boundless—to the point where the only records left to break were her own. And she did that too. She took her place, center stage, as a darling of the media.

Amelia Earhart spent most of her childhood in Atchison, Kansas. A freckle-faced kid with a thirst for adventure, she wanted independence—above all else. She had a dream to fly.

On the day she roars into the Oakland airport from Hawaii, Amelia has accomplished the impossible. During this period of depression and dust storms, Americans want to fly too. Her success is felt by everyone—but most especially by women.

EARHART: Aviation, this young modern giant, exemplifies the possible relationship of women and the creations of science.

BRIGGS: In 1935 Amelia is blazing trails. Her talent and ambition seem boundless. Which makes what happens just two years later so shocking.

NEWSREEL REPORTER: Only a short time ago, Amelia Earhart checked over every detail of her 80,000 dollar flying laboratory in preparation for her round-the-world flight. This was to have been her greatest achievement. A sky dash of 28,000 miles. [sound of a plane flyover] Then to a waiting world came news of disaster, as the plane failed to reach tiny Howland island in the Pacific.

BRIGGS: Well, you already know what happened. She was never found. And a mystery began.

So out of all the aviation mysteries in the world, which one do you get asked about the most?

DOROTHY COCHRANE (AVIATION HISTORIAN): Well, certainly for me, it’s Amelia Earhart.

BRIGGS: Dorothy Cochrane knows her planes. She’s the curator for general aviation at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution. She walked me through the events that led to the disappearance of Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan. They began their journey in California on June 1st, 1937, and made some stops along the way.

COCHRANE: So they’re just flying, flying, flying. Stopping, making appearances. Everyone is following her around the world. So they’re invested in it and they’re rooting for her. And so when she doesn’t arrive in Howland Island, everyone is aware of this, and it’s a shock to the world, and the headlines are broad. They’re big all around the world. And there is absolutely no sign of her.

BRIGGS: Howland Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was supposed to be a refueling stop on their way to Hawaii before heading home to Oakland. But Howland Island would prove itself to be a tough target. It’s two miles long and one mile wide.

COCHRANE: When you really study that last flight and where she was headed, it’s not surprising that she didn’t make it.

TOM CROUCH (AVIATION HISTORIAN): And that last leg of the flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island was far and away the most difficult leg. Howland Island is a tiny little flyspeck.

BRIGGS: Tom Crouch is Dorothy’s colleague at the Smithsonian. He’s the curator emeritus there, with a special interest in early flight.

CROUCH: She had a navigator with her, of course, Fred Noonan, who was really an experienced aerial navigator. But there were also problems too that they probably should have paid more attention to, and communications was one of them. Neither of them were really proficient at Morse code. And at that point in 1937, that’s the way people communicated long-distance in that part of the world. But Amelia was going to try to do it by voice.

BRIGGS: Because the challenge of this leg of the journey was significant—they planned to fly over 2,500 miles of open ocean—a backup plan was in place.

CROUCH: The Coast Guard had sent the cutter Itasca all the way to Howland Island to kind of bring her in via radio, and that communication hadn’t been the best before the flight.

BRIGGS: And on the morning of July 2,1937, somewhere between New Guinea and Howland Island, Amelia’s plane went off course.

And communication problems continued to plague Amelia’s arrival. On the morning she was supposed to land, Amelia had a very hard time hearing the Itasca. The good news was that the Itasca could hear her—very well.

COCHRANE: So much so that the crew was out on deck looking for her basically. They thought she was very close because of the strength of these calls and because she said she was on this line of position, which is something that Fred Noonan would have done as a navigator—if they haven’t found the island directly on course, they’ll fly on a perpendicular course to try and locate the island.

BRIGGS: They flew along a line of position, 157/337, a north-south compass reading. But still no luck. Amelia let the Itasca know that she was low on fuel.

COCHRANE: So she really can’t fly much further. And so all of this she communicated to them, you know. “We are here. We are looking for you. We just can’t find you.” And they’re looking back for her. And then there’s silence.

BRIGGS: “We are here looking for you. We just can’t find you.” Those words continue to haunt aviation experts to this day.

CROUCH: When she did not arrive, when she disappeared, they launch the largest search ever launched up to that time to try to find her.

BRIGGS: And just over two weeks later, on July 19, Amelia and Fred were declared “lost at sea.” According to Dorothy, what happened is simple.

COCHRANE: You know, it was just an accident.

BRIGGS: Dorothy and Tom are squarely in what is known as the “crashed and sank” hypothesis of Amelia’s disappearance. Her plane crashed, and it sank—probably not too far from Howland Island. The circumstances leading up to it were unfortunate.

COCHRANE: The problem is, you know, that they’ve been flying now for almost 24 hours since they left Lea, New Guinea. They had to battle some storms. They had to climb. And in the morning, you can imagine how tired they are. And now they’re flying directly into the sun, directly east going to Howland Island.

BRIGGS: Amelia and Fred were off course. Their Lockheed Electra ran out of fuel. And that’s it. Dorothy and Tom believe that any evidence of that accident is most likely near Howland Island. But don’t count on finding it.

COCHRANE: I mean if you find an aluminum airplane in that area that fits the general configuration, that is what you’re looking for and could possibly still be there. But, boy, it’s going to be hard to find.

BRIGGS: But most crash and sank believers aren’t holding out for proof.

CROUCH: It's a really tough area to do an underwater search. The water mostly in that part of the Pacific is as much as 18,000 feet deep. Huge depths. And it’s a relatively little airplane.

BRIGGS: Although it was the official finding of the U.S. Navy, the crashed and sank explanation has always had its detractors. Why? Well …

COCHRANE: Well, the problem is that the most likely theory is boring.

BRIGGS: And—since nobody likes a boring ending— this is where opinions among Amelia searchers diverge. Everyone agrees that Amelia’s plane never made it to Howland Island, but what happened instead is the source of decades of fierce debate.

The truth is, the Amelia Earhart mystery has no smoking gun—which, when you come to think of it, is a weird bit of mystery terminology to use for this story. Among all the theories out there, none involve a gun, smoking or otherwise. But the search for that so-called smoking gun has definitely heightened this story into a kind of “true crime,” left unsolved since 1937.

Why does this story wrack so many brains? Because we need an ending. I mean, as a species, we need to understand a basic question: What happened? If we don’t understand an answer to that question, well, humans have a tendency to fill in the blanks ourselves.

More after the break.

BALLARD: I mean, it’s all about telling a good story. I mean, that’s how we transmitted information for generations of sitting around the campfire. And that’s all we are. We’re storytellers. The key is, Do you have a story to tell? I got a lot of them.

BRIGGS: Bob Ballard’s sentiment is shared by so many explorers. He’s always got a story in mind. His knack for finding lost things might—might—be surpassed by his ability to sit down and tell you the captivating story of how he finds them.

And the truth is, we all love a good story. And when it comes to mysteries, if you’re gonna tell one of those, you’d better have a good ending. The folks out looking for Amelia Earhart have some pretty good ones. Case in point, I’d like to introduce you to Ric Gillespie.

RIC GILLESPIE [AMELIA EARHART SEARCHER]: I guess I’m the only person who has ever made his living searching for Amelia Earhart, which is kind of weird. I know that island better than I know our farm, which is pretty weird. But yeah, I’ve been at this a long time.

BRIGGS: Ric Gillespie has a keen interest in the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Hold on. That’s an understatement. He’s actually been looking for a definitive ending to this story for more than 30 years.

Ric is the executive director at TIGHAR, which stands for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. And when I sat down to speak with Ric in 2019, it was clear to me that not only is he a storyteller, he’s extremely aware of how his story is perceived. Although TIGHAR is interested in investigating and documenting issues around historic planes, it’s most well known for finding clues about Amelia Earhart.

Hmm, that also might be an understatement.

The island he knows so well is teeny tiny Nikumaroro, or Niku for short. It’s about 400 miles south of Howland, where Amelia was supposed to land. Ric has led a dozen expeditions to Niku, on the dime of TIGHAR members, over the course of three decades.

GILLESPIE: I’m not an Amelia Earhart fan. And I approach this whole thing as an accident investigation. The disappearance of Amelia Earhart has no particular historical value. The world wouldn’t be terribly different today if she had completed her world flight.

BRIGGS: Although Ric doesn’t put much stock into Amelia the person, he and his followers have spent untold energy trying to figure out what happened to her. Which, according to him, is this:

GILLESPIE: I see abundant and conclusive evidence that she ended up on that island.

BRIGGS: Ric believes—inspired in part by radio signals that were reported on July 2, 1937—that Amelia and Fred headed south on that line of position, 157/337, away from Howland island, and landed on or around the tiny atoll of Nikumaroro.

And although those radio signals have never been confirmed as coming from Amelia’s plane, that’s where TIGHAR has been looking. Here’s how Ric explains the logic of this hypothesis.

GILLESPIE: OK, so the airplane’s not in the bushes. Where could it go? Well, it had to go in the water. Well, how would it get in the water? Well, there are plenty of places you could land on the reef. It’s smooth enough. Land on the reef, but then the tides going to come in, the surf’s gonna come in, it’s gonna wash … That explains why the signals were there, but then the signal stopped. And then she survives as a castaway for a while, and her bones get found.

BRIGGS: This is what is known as the “castaway” theory. And, thanks to TIGHAR, this theory has gained in popularity in the past decade. Despite the fact that they haven’t found a smoking gun, they believe this theory and defend it feverishly.

GILLESPIE: [Sound of cats screeching.] Pat, the cats are fighting! This is actually unusual. They’re doing it to get attention.

BRIGGS: Ric believes that Amelia and Fred survived—for an unknown period of time—on Niku. And managed to avoid being seen by those Navy pilots who flew over during the rescue mission. They ate turtles and fish until they ran out of fresh water and died.

GILLESPIE: The bones were found, and then we also end up with a photograph of the landing gear of the airplane on the reef taken three months after Earhart disappeared.

BRIGGS: There were human bones unearthed on Niku in 1940 by a British expedition—13 of them. They were put into a box, shipped to Fiji, analyzed by a team of British doctors, and then lost. They have never been conclusively linked with Amelia Earhart or to anyone else. The grainy, black-and-white photo that TIGHAR believes shows the plane’s landing gear has not been shown conclusively to belong to her plane.

A piece of aluminum, a shoe, a little jar that may have contained freckle cream have also been found on Niku—none of it conclusively linked to Amelia.

The problem is, the island was uninhabited in 1937 when Amelia disappeared, but it hasn’t always been uninhabited. Which makes it impossible to say that everything found on Niku belonged to Amelia and Fred.

And yet Ric Gillespie believes. You can see it in his eyes. I’d call it Amelia fever.

GILLESPIE: The amazing thing to me is that the smoking gun has been staring everybody in the face since the night of July 2. That’s what happened. There’s no other explanation.

BRIGGS: If it were up to Ric Gillespie, the case of Amelia Earhart would be closed.

GILLESPIE: We’ve already found Amelia. That’s very important because of the people that have sacrificed so much to bring us to this point. And that’s what we’ve done. The people have found Amelia.

BRIGGS: But Ric’s ending isn’t the only one out there. Not by a long shot.

Fred Hiebert is the archaeologist in residence at National Geographic. Cool job, right?

FRED HIEBERT (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARCHAEOLOGIST]: My job is really to be the archaeologist whose field is the entire globe.

BRIGGS: A few years back, I was sitting in a “Stones and Bones” meeting at Nat Geo, where we talk about all the amazing archaeology stories that people are working on. And Fred begins talking about his upcoming expedition to find Amelia Earhart. My ears pricked up, to say the least.

Fred’s approach to the disappearance? To approach it as an archaeologist.

HIEBERT: I became interested in the story as something that’s impossible.

BRIGGS: So the In Search Of theme immediately pops into my head. People in my office are looking for Amelia? What’s going on here?

HIEBERT: There’s a real passion for, you know, going after those unsolved mysteries, people who’ve disappeared from history.

BRIGGS: Clearly Fred had also caught Amelia fever somewhere along the line. But in a very Fred-like way, he saw the challenge of the search differently.

HIEBERT: The more I looked at this as an archaeological question, the more I realized the biggest challenge were the people who were thinking about Amelia Earhart and her disappearance 24/7. And the fact that they knew details that were so microscopic that they feel individually that they have the true answer.

BRIGGS: Yes. There we are again—the truth—and the various people who believe they know it.

HIEBERT: You’ve got all these obsessed people who are saying, well, you know, actually there’s a possibility that, you know, she was captured by the Japanese.

BRIGGS: That would be the “Japanese capture” theory. That one has dedicated followers as well. In one version of this story, Amelia and Fred were executed on Saipan. But another version, going all the way back to that episode of In Search Of, comes from the great Garden State of New Jersey.

In the 1960s, retired Air Force Major Joseph Gervais began reporting that Amelia Earhart actually crash-landed on Japanese-controlled Saipan. She was imprisoned, then smuggled back to the U.S., disguised as a nun. And if that weren’t enough, as a final twist, she settled down to live out her life in Monroe Township, New Jersey, as a housewife.

JOSEPH GERVAIS [AMELIA EARHART SEARCHER]: I have been studying Amelia Earhart for 17 years. I have over a thousand photographs of her from the time she was a baby. I know more about her than I know about my mother.

BRIGGS: Why did Gervais think this civilian was Amelia Earhart? Because he saw her, and believed it to be true.

GERVAIS: I looked this lady straight in the face, and I knew who it was as soon as I looked at her. Amelia Earhart. I would know her anywhere in the world.

And yet here’s what this lady, who was actually a banker named Irene Bolam, had to say at the time.

IRENE BOLAM [BANKER]: I am not a mystery woman. I am not Amelia Earhart!

BRIGGS: Gervais didn’t believe her. And nearly 40 years after Irene Bolam died, there are still people who believe it. And yet, there is zero evidence to support this claim.

So, in the effort to understand what actually did happen to Amelia Earhart, perhaps one very important question is missing.

HIEBERT: How could we resolve this in a way where it’s not just starting out with the conclusion known and the data supporting that known thing?

BRIGGS: It’s a fair question. But I’m starting to wonder, maybe it’s not how the dots are being connected, but who is connecting them.

This is Tom King, a gentleman who devoted a great deal of time to solving Amelia’s mystery.

TOM KING [AMELIA EARHART SEARCHER]: She is a person that I have sort of accidentally found myself studying a great deal for the last 30 years. So my relationship to her is like the relationship of a paleontologist to his dinosaur.

BRIGGS: Although Tom is now retired, he had a long career as an archaeologist. Tom took the search for Amelia one step further, by enlisting the help of bone-sniffing dogs.

KING: We humans with our defective eyesight and our even more defective olfactory abilities might very well have missed stuff that the dogs could sense.

BRIGGS: That’s right, dogs.

See, Tom King has led expeditions to Nikumaroro himself—including two that involved forensic dogs who can detect evidence of human decomposition. The second expedition, in 2019, was also the subject of a National Geographic documentary called Expedition Amelia.

The dogs play a starring role, which makes sense. I mean, they’re very cute and very smart (they also got to fly business class for this mission, but that’s another story).

Like Ric Gillespie, Tom studied the castaway hypothesis for decades. But part of Tom’s approach involved digging for human remains and definitive artifacts or features. Specifically, at the base of a ren tree on Nikumaroro. It’s referred to as the Seven site, and it's where many believe those 13 human bones were originally found. Before they were lost, that is.

Although Tom and Ric once worked side by side on this theory, they no longer do. In fact, they no longer speak. You could say they have a different approach.

KING: People fall into the trap of trying to prove their hypothesis rather than testing their hypothesis. And that is a killer.

BRIGGS: By looking for irrefutable DNA evidence of Amelia’s presence on the island, Tom believes that the castaway theory can be proven once and for all. He has written books on this topic, both nonfiction and fiction. And finding DNA in that soil—with the help of those forensic dogs—would be a game changer.

KING: That’s going to be pretty smoking gun-ish.

BRIGGS: And, in fact, the dogs have alerted in various ways over the course of the expeditions, as well as to soil samples brought back from Niku.

KING: Now we still don’t know if it was Amelia, but it sure looks like somebody died there.

BRIGGS: So it’s not entirely clear what happened under that ren tree, or to whom. Because the evidence is inconclusive.

Focus on Niku itself has been exhaustive. It has been visited by archaeologists, citizen scientists, camera crews, and dogs. The most recent expedition also followed a massive underwater search for anything associated with Amelia’s plane in the deep water around Niku. This effort was led by none other than Bob Ballard, the world-famous explorer and finder of lost things.

BALLARD: People say, why are you going after Amelia? So I don’t have to talk about the Titanic ever again.

BRIGGS: Amelia represents one of those great unsolved mysteries for Ballard.

BALLARD: If you’re in my game, you have a list of the unscaled mountains. And I have that list, and she’s right on it. I’m a genetically programmed hunter. And so when you’re a hunter, you have to put yourself into the prey. You have to become the prey that you’re hunting. So you begin to think like it, act like it, and do everything that you would do. And so I put myself into that cockpit and I began becoming Amelia.

BRIGGS: We spoke to Ballard as he prepared for that mission in 2019. He was laser-focused on finding her. The plan included using two mapping systems: an autonomous vehicle that could hug the reef around the island, and something with even deeper capabilities—the Nautilus, a research vessel that worked offshore.

BALLARD: And I have on the bottom of my ship a multimillion-dollar, nine-ton, state-of-the-art, as-good-as-it-gets mapping sonar. So I’m going there with my quiver full of every arrow you can put in a quiver.

BRIGGS: Picture Bob Ballard in what is essentially a floating Bat Cave, with all of his tools and gadgets ready to be deployed. But even as he set off, Ballard was a realist.

BALLARD: And either I’m going to hit pay dirt in the first two days, or not. It’s either going to be a slam dunk, or forget it.

BRIGGS: And they looked.

BALLARD: It’s just methodical.

BRIGGS: And looked.

BALLARD: And you do not leave a single stone unturned.

BRIGGS: And looked.

BALLARD: You just methodically beat it to death.

BRIGGS: And what did Bob Ballard find? A hat.

Not just any hat, it was the baseball cap that belonged to the captain of the Nautilus. It had blown off his head at the beginning of the expedition. But that was it.

BALLARD: But, you know, failure is the greatest teacher you’ll ever meet.

BRIGGS: As a great raconteur, Bob Ballard knows how to leave a story just a little bit open-ended. It’s the thing that makes him most believable. Plus, it gives him an out.

BALLARD: Maybe some things shouldn’t be found. I don’t know. We’ll see if Amelia is one of them or not.

BRIGGS: And so, we come back once more to endings. And uncertainty. The mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart has only deepened over eight decades. It has become even more elusive, even if the theories become more entrenched. And as for Fred Hiebert, he remains impartial.

HIEBERT: I’m a hypothesis-testing guy.

BRIGGS: But Fred would be the first to say that it is an incredibly difficult case to prove.

HIEBERT: The castaway-hypothesis people are at 95 percent, the crash-in-the-ocean people are at 95 percent. Even the Japanese-capture people are—they believe they’re at 95. How in any of those cases can you get close to 100 percent? And this is something that fascinates me as a professional scientist, as an archaeologist. How do you get to 100 percent?

BRIGGS: How do you get to 100 percent?

Amelia’s searchers are going to continue to attempt to make that 5 percent leap, because they’re human. And they’re storytellers. And they want to write the end of this mystery.

In fact, another attempt for an ending is in the works. The intrepid Bob Ballard and archaeologist Fred Hiebert are working on another expedition, tentatively set for January of 2023. They plan on making a trip back to the Pacific in hopes of finding any remains of Amelia’s Lockheed Electra. Will they find the smoking gun at last? We shall see.

When I first began working on this story, way back in 2017, there was this niggling feeling that something was missing. And the more I looked into the disappearance, the more it nagged at me.

And then I realized. It wasn’t a missing plane. It wasn’t the missing 13 bones.

It was the person.

In all of these versions, Amelia herself—she’s absent. She’s this MacGuffin at the center of a mystery, but who she was, it just never seemed to come up.

I wondered, what was her story? And to me, that started to become the driving question. Who was this woman whose remarkable life took a back seat to her mysterious death?

As with any mystery, we need to look beyond the chalk outline to truly understand who she was.

In the next episode, we’ll reveal something new about Amelia Earhart. Perhaps by getting to know her better, we can finally understand her fate.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app AND consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.

Learn more about the search for Amelia Earhart in National Geographic magazine. You can even take a look at Bob Ballard’s search vessel, the Nautilus. It also features prominently in Expedition Amelia on NatGeo TV.

To dive deeper into the final radio log between the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca and Amelia on the morning she disappeared, check out the original, handwritten document, available online at the National Archives.

All this and more can be found in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Marcy Thompson.

Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

A big special shout-out and thank you to my fellow searchers Melissa Farris, Kristen Clark, and Jinae West.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also edited this episode.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode, and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer at Large Bob Ballard.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

David Brindley is National Geographic’s interim editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.

Want more?

 Check out the maps of Amelia Earhart’s flight plan as well as archival photos, and take a peek inside Bob Ballard’s search vessel in a National Geographic story about Ballard’s expedition. You can also watch the documentary Expedition Amelia on Disney+.

See the final radio log between Earhart and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca on the morning she disappeared.

Also explore:

Learn about how cadaver dogs are used around the world to help uncover what humans can’t detect.

There’s a reason humans are such good storytellers—it’s to our evolutionary advantage. Learn about why we crave the ending to a story.