Do We Finally Know What Happened to Amelia Earhart?

IMAGE Smithsonian Institution/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Could the mystery of Amelia Earhart's disappearance be finally solved? A breakthrough finding by Richard Jantz, former professor of Forensic Anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville was just released through the journal, Forensic Anthropology, and made public this week.

Earhart was the first woman to pilot a plane across the Atlantic when she successfully completed a transatlantic solo flight in 1932. In 1937, she attempted to be the first woman to fly around the world. Halfway through her Pacific flight, however, she disappeared, together with her co-pilot Fred Noonan. It was a time when commercial aircrafts had not yet been designed to withstand severe weather or long-haul flights.

The picture above shows the heavily modified Lockheed Electra 10E which Earhart used for her fateful flight in 1937. The plane’s cabin windows were removed and the body was uniquely fitted with a fuselage fuel tank designed to sustain longer flights. 


The following map shows the planned route of Earhart’s flight around the world.

Earhart began her journey eastward from California, and then flew through South America, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and New Guinea, where she made her last known stop. On the map, the star is Earhart’s starting point in California. The solid red line represents the completed flight, while the broken lines represent the projected flight route that Earhart missed during the Pacific leg of her round-the-world flight. The red dot on the map is Howland Island, where she was supposed to make her final stop before completing flight back to California. The X-mark is Nikumaroro Island, where she crash-landed. She had completed 35,000 kilometers of flight; the remaining 7,000 kilometers would be the flight over the Pacific.

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On the day Earhart disappeared, radio signals from her plane were supposed to have been picked up by USCG Itasca, a United States Coast Guard ship stationed in Howland Island to support Earhart’s flight. The Itasca was supposed to have used radio navigation with the Earhart to help her pilot her way to the Island. However, due to several circumstantial errors, Earhart and the Itasca failed to communicate properly, resulting in Earhart’s blind flight. 

For decades, people believed that they would never find out what had happened to Earhart, thinking that her plane crashed into the ocean, offering no chance of survival for anyone. But in 1940, bones were discovered on Nikumaroro by Gerald Gallagher, a British colonial officer. He sent the bones to Fiji for examination, believing that there might be a small chance they could be Earhart’s. The bones, including the skull, have since been lost, but detailed measurements on it are still preserved. It was these measurements that Jantz used to determine that the bones belonged to Amelia Earhart. "What I can say scientifically is that they are 99 percent likely to be her," Jantz told The Daily Mail


The forensic anthropologist used a computer program to estimate the sex, ancestry, and stature of the bones based only on skeletal measurements. He also used many of Earhart’s photographs, measurements of her clothes, and information from her seamstress (there were little to no off-the-rack clothing in those times; most were really tailor-made for one's precise measurements) to compare the bones’ lengths with her body structure, which turned out to match accurately.

The study was made together with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery or TIGHAR, of which Jantz is a member. According to a report by Mental Floss, TIGHAR has spent decades investigating Earhart’s last flight. Its members have traveled to Nikumaroro Island numerous times, and have recovered artifacts such as leather shoe parts, fragments of a jar that may have been freckle cream (Earhart had freckles), and what could be fragments of a plane such as aluminum and Plexiglass.

“Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers," concludes Jantz in his paper.

What Can be Deduced from the Findings 

With the new study, we can deduce several things that may have happened to Earhart in her final days. The following are some of them: 

She died as a castaway. Imagine survival on a bare, remote, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There is no vegetation to support human life, and there is very little shade to protect from the scorching heat of the sun. These are the probable conditions that Earhart faced when she got stranded on Nikumaroro Island. The island is part of a chain of small islands and islets in Kiribati, a small country made up of small islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Her final days were difficult. Kiribati lies on the equator, which means it receives direct sunlight. If she landed on Nikumaroro in March, she would have experienced summer heat, which can be very uncomfortable. To survive, she would've needed sufficient fishing skills and would have known how to make potable water from seawater using a pit and some canvas, if she had one.

She may have been injured. Crash-landing or landing in a state of emergency is a very difficult task to manage, especially on a rough surface such as the ocean or on Nikumaroro. Surviving unscathed in her modified plane would have been miraculous.

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