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Groundbreaking aviator Amelia Earhart’s tragic and mysterious disappearance while flying over the Pacific Ocean has captivated the world for nearly 87 years, spurring on countless investigations and expeditions for answers on what happened to the beloved pilot.
The most recent group to join the search — a team of underwater archaeologists and marine robotics experts with Deep Sea Vision, an ocean exploration company based in Charleston, South Carolina — says it may have found a clue that could bring some closure to Earhart’s story.
By using sonar imaging, a tool for mapping the ocean floor that uses sound waves to measure the distance from the seabed to the surface, the group has spotted an anomaly in the Pacific Ocean — more than 16,000 feet (4,877 meters) underwater — that resembles a small aircraft. The team believes that anomaly could be a Lockheed 10-E Electra, the 10-passenger plane that Earhart was piloting when she went missing while attempting to fly around the world.
Deep Sea Vision announced the find through an Instagram post on Saturday, January 27.
“Some people call it one of the greatest mysteries of all time, I think it actually is the greatest mystery of all time,” said the company’s CEO Tony Romeo, a pilot and former US Air Force intelligence officer. “We have an opportunity to bring closure to one of the greatest American stories ever.”
Solving an underwater mystery
The imagery was taken roughly 100 miles away (161 kilometers) from Howland Island, Romeo said, the next spot where Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan were expected to land following their last takeoff from Lae, Papua New Guinea. The pair was declared lost at sea after an extensive 16-day search conducted by the US government.
Deep Sea Vision scanned more than 5,200 square miles (13,468 square kilometers) of the ocean floor using an advanced autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) known as Hugin 6000, which maps the seabed using sonar technology. The company’s expedition began in early September 2023 and ended in December, Romeo told CNN.
Romeo hopes to return to the site within the year to get further confirmation that the anomaly is a plane, which would most likely involve the use of an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) with a camera that would allow the object to be investigated more closely. The team would also look into the possibility of bringing their find to the surface, Romeo said.
“While it is possible that this could be a plane and maybe even Amelia’s plane, it is too premature to say that definitively. It could also be noise in the sonar data, something geologic, or some other plane,” said Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and the lead archaeologist for Project Recover, an organization dedicated to finding MIA soldiers and aircrafts from World War II.
“That being said, if I was searching for Amelia’s plane and had this target in the data set I would want to interrogate it further,” Pietruszka said in an email.
More theories on Earhart’s disappearance
A 2017 History Channel documentary proposed a theory that Earhart and Noonan had crashed in the Marshall Islands — about 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) away from Howland Island — where they were captured and taken to Saipan Island, held hostage and eventually died. The theory was based off a photo from the US National Archives that featured several blurry figures; investigators claimed the aviator and her plane were in the image.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, theorized in 2016 that Earhart and Noonan survived a rough landing on a reef in the Pacific Ocean but later died as castaways when the pair could not radio for help. The TIGHAR team claimed that a skeleton of a castaway found on the island of Nikumaroro, Kiribati, in 1940 had matched with “Earhart’s height and ethnic origin.”
The most widely believed theory, held by the US government and the Smithsonian, is that Earhart and Noonan crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Howland Island when the plane ran out of fuel.
The new sonar image of the proposed missing aircraft is of particular interest because of the anomaly’s proximity to Howland Island, said Dorothy Cochrane, a curator for general aviation in the aeronautics department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. In Earhart’s last communications, her radio transmissions progressively got stronger as she got closer to Howland Island, indicating that she was nearing the island before she disappeared, Cochrane said.
However, the plane-shaped object found by Deep Sea Vision lacks certain features of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra, such as the twin engines, according to David Jourdan, the cofounder and president of Nauticos, a deep ocean exploration company that has conducted search operations for the lost aircraft.
“It is impossible to identify anything from a sonar image alone as sound can be tricky and the artifact could be damaged in unpredictable ways altering its shape. For that reason, you can never say that something is (or isn’t) from a sonar image alone,” Jourdan said in an email.
Confirming that the newly discovered anomaly is Earhart’s plane would require returning to the site to further investigate the plane, and more definitively, locating the certification “NR16020” that was printed on the underside of the missing Lockheed’s wing, Jourdan said. If the plane were to be uncovered at such depth in the ocean, where the temperatures are very cold and with low oxygen content, the plane could be very well-preserved, Jourdan said.
“(Earhart) was kind of the rock star of the era, the Taylor Swift of the era … Everybody’s pulling for her, they want her to make it around the world, and she disappears without a trace,” Cochrane said. “It’s the mystery of the 20th century, and now into the 21st century.”
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