Amelia Earhart’s disappearance near the end of what she hoped would be a flight around the world in 1937 created an enduring mystery. But a 1978 graduate of Kalamazoo College is part of an organization that may have found the aviator’s final resting place.
The official government explanation was that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea after missing a planned stop on a tiny Pacific atoll called Howland Island. But retired Air Force colonel and aircraft navigator Patricia Webb says expeditions by TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) have found strong evidence that they actually came down and survived for a short time on another island nearby: Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island) in the Pacific island nation Kiribati.
TIGHAR mounted its seventh expedition to Nikumaroro in the summer of 2012 and Webb played a supporting role back in the U.S. Webb says the expedition that included searches on land and offshore using “autonomous underwater vehicles” found pieces of metal that probably came from Earhart’s plane, a twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10. Other artifacts include bottles and other objects dated to the late 1930’s. Another expedition is planned in 2014. Watch TV news reports about the expedition here and here.
Although TIGHAR hasn’t found a “smoking gun” confirming conclusively that Earhart and Noonan were on the island, Webb says Nikumaroro’s coral beach would have provided an ideal emergency landing strip for a plane out of gas. Earhart and Noonan took off from New Guinea in early July 1937, intending to re-fuel on Howland Island and continue on to the finish of their around-the-world flight in California. Drawing on her own flight experience, Webb says navigation techniques used in Earhart’s day also make Nikumaroro the most likely place where they landed. Because radio navigation aids were crude and skies were often cloudy. Webb says aerial navigators often intentionally aimed to earlier side of the intended target and then simply flew north or south to find it.
Webb says radio transmissions by Earhart after the plane came down correctly described landmarks on Nikumaroro, including a shipwreck visible from the beach. The messages were dismissed at the time as hoaxes. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard to conduct a massive search after Earhart’s plane disappeared. Nikumaroro was inspected from the air but no one actually searched the island.
Webb, who graduated from Paw Paw High School in 1974, says she thinks the Earhart story continues to fascinate people today because it is a good mystery, albeit one that may be soon resolved once and for all. She says any artifacts confirmed to be from Earhart’s plane will eventually go on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.