A New York Times article this week about a new development of sorts in the search for the fate of famed aviator Amelia Earhart was uncharacteristically sensational. “Finding Amelia Earhart’s Plane Seemed Impossible. Then Came a Startling Clue.”
The meat of the story is that there’s a not-so-new clue in the hunt and that this “startling” evidence has encouraged famed investigator Bob Ballard to join the hunt for the Lockheed Electra that went missing in 1937 on Earhart’s around-the-world flight just two legs from completion.
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Before I get to the clue, it’s important to note that Ballard has, for more than four decades, made a name for himself by finding missing things, and we’re not talking about your car keys. Ballard, 77, is a famed underwater archeologist who has among other noteworthy achievements found the wreck of the Titanic (1985), the Battleship Bismark (1989), the US Navy aircraft carrier Yorktown (1998) and the wreckage of John F. Kennedy’s famous PT boat in 2002. He has a track record not only of big goals but also of monumental successes. Using state-of-the-art submersible technology, Ballard uses the best in tech to find things that were long given up as lost forever. His joining in the hunt for the famed aviator, who went missing along with her navigator Fred Noonan in 1937, marks a major change in the story, which has been resurrected time and time again by searchers who have focused on what seems to me like the flimsiest of evidence.
Are things different this time? Well, maybe.
The key to Ballard’s joining the case, says the well-researched and written Times story by Julie Cohn, was the discovery in a photograph of an anomaly, a grain-sized irregularity in the image that has become the X Files-like Rorschach test of belief that something, Amelia’s plane, is out there.
The organization known as TIGHAR, aka The International Group For Historic Aircraft Recovery has been looking for Amelia for decades and regularly releases new information about its latest find, usually finding willing, indeed, enthusiastic journalists to feed off of TIGHAR's excitement however tenuous the evidence might be. We at Plane & Pilot prefer to use the time-honored policy of requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims, and so far such evidence has not surfaced.
Still, TIGHAR has played a big role in getting to this point. Plane & Pilot’s TJ Buzzeo spoke with TIGHAR’s Executive Director, Richard Gillespie, who noted that Ballard will be looking in the same place that TIGHAR has searched multiple times previously. He did wish Ballard luck and said, “I hope to heck he finds something.”
Back to the title of the Times piece, that a “startling clue” had gotten Ballard into the game. Well, we agree that the clue is indeed “startling,” in that it’s “startling” that such a tiny anomaly would pass muster as a starting point for conducting a million-dollar (it will certainly cost more) high-tech search for the downed Lockheed Electra. The object the investigators see in an old photograph taken by a British naval officer, Eric Bevington, three weeks after the flight went missing. The image shows a panorama of the beach of Nikumaroro Island, but unbeknownst to Bevington, the shot also captured, or so claim folks from TIGHAR, an object that can only be the landing gear assembly of a Lockheed Electra. Okay, what they said was that it’s consistent with the gear of an Electra, a theory championed by Kurt Campbell, a diplomat who served under President Obama, who believes that Earhart and Noonan wound up on Nikumaroro. Back in 2012, says the Times article, Campbell met with Ballard and showed him the Bevington photograph that reputedly shows what has come to be known as the “Bevington Object,” and Ballard was in.
I’m glad. But it’s important to recognize that the engine that’s driving this whole search is the huge market for real-life mystery and investigation stories. National Geographic is reportedly sponsoring the Ballard expedition—he’ll bring his gear to the South Pacific and start peering into the dark to see what he can find. National Geographic will air a program documenting the hunt by land and by sea. The show will air on October 20, 2019.
Like many others, I’m very excited by Ballard’s joining the hunt. Like my friend Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the National Air & Space Museum, I believe that it’s most likely that Earhart’s plane crash landed not near Nikumaroro but nearer to her hoped-for destination of Howland Island, hundreds of miles away.
I hope that TIGHAR has been right all along and that I’ve been wrong. I hope it as the landing gear assembly in the Bevington photograph shows, that Ballard triumphantly captures the first images of Earhart’s plane since 1937, and that this mystery is laid to rest.
The converse is more likely, that Ballard will find nothing. Then again, with television picking up the tab, I guarantee that the hunt will be at least filled with intriguing clues that the searchers might find something, even if there’s nothing there to be found.
And if that’s the case and they do indeed come up empty handed, I hope that we can lay this mystery to rest and accept that Amelia and Fred’s flight ended far from land in a deep ocean place no one will ever find.
But I’m realistic enough to know that whatever clues are found, or not found, Ballard’s expedition will only fuel the adventures of future investigators who have will have chanced upon a clue that just has to be something.