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The Fate of Amelia Earhart: The Nikumaroro Hypothesis

Could Earhart and Noonan Have Crashed on a Pacific Island?


Satellite image, Nikumaroro

Nikumaroro: Satellite imagery by Space Imaging Corp

TIGHAR collection

What "the Toms"—Willi and Gannon—pointed out to Ric Gillespie back in the '80s was that to a celestial navigator, that last radio message, about flying 157-337, had a very specific meaning. A line from 157 to 337 degrees on the compass is a line perpendicular to the sunrise on the morning of July 2. It's a line that, following standard navigational practice of the day, Noonan would have laid out when he shot the sunrise with his navigational instruments and fixed their position. He then would have advanced that line—alled the "line of position" or LOP--by dead reckoning along their line of flight until he calculated that they should be within sight of Howland Island. If they couldn't see the island, then they'd simply fly up and down the line until they did see it, or got in contact with the Itasca. And if they didn’t see Howland, didn't contact the cutter? Then there was another bigger island, much more visible than Howland, a couple of hours flying time right down the LOP—an uninhabited island in the Phoenix Island group, at the time called Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro. That, the Toms proposed, was where Earhart and Noonan had wound up. Nikumaroro today is part of the Republic of Kiribati, pronounced "Kiribas". In Earhart’s day it was part of the British Crown Colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.

Ric and Pat raised the several hundred thousand dollars necessary to get a team to Nikumaroro, and in 1989 we undertook our first archaeological survey. We've been back to the island five times in the last 16 years, and have done research on other islands in the vicinity as well as in Fiji, Tarawa, Funafuti, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, the Solomon Islands, and even--to gain comparative data from Lockheed Electra crash sites--in Idaho and Alaska. We haven’t proved the hypothesis to be correct, but we have quite a bit of evidence pointing that way. A lot of that evidence is archaeological.

Evidence From the Village

In 1938, Nikumaroro was colonized as part of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme (yes, the PISS)--an effort to bleed off surplus population from the southern Gilbert Islands into economically self-sufficient coconut plantations in the mostly uninhabited Phoenix group. A village was established near the north end of the island, and in 1940 the colonial administrator, Gerald B. Gallagher, set up his headquarters there. Gallagher died and was buried on the island in 1941, but the colony lasted until 1963 when it succumbed to drought conditions.

The village is a rather ghostly place today. Through the rampant vegetation--coconut, pandanus, a really nasty shrub called Scaevola--you can still see the neat coral-slab curbs that line the dead-straight, seven-meter-wide streets, and the remains of the big flagstaff can still be seen in the middle of the graveled parade ground, next to Gallagher’s grave. Public buildings stood on concrete platforms, which today loom out of the foliage, and the ground is littered with the artifacts of daily life--cans, bottles, dishpans, a bicycle here, a sewing machine there--poking up through the rotting coconuts and palm fronds.

Aircraft Aluminum?

We didn’t plan to do archaeology in the village--an unlikely place to find a big Lockheed Electra or a couple of lost flyers--but as it’s turned out, we've done a bit of work there, and found a lot. To put it simply, the place is crazy with aircraft aluminum, most of it cut into small pieces for use in handicrafts--made into hair combs, used as inlay in woodwork. The colonists were apparently "quarrying" the aluminum somewhere and bringing it to the village. In surveys of specific house sites and in more general walkabouts, we’ve found several dozen little pieces, and a few bigger ones.

Where were they quarrying it? Some of the aluminum is from a B-24; it's got part numbers that match B-24 specifications. A B-24 crashed on Kanton Island, northeast of Nikumaroro, and there was some travel between the islands during and after the War, so the source of these pieces is easily nailed down. But much of the aluminum, especially the small, cut-up pieces, doesn't appear to be military. No serial numbers, no zinc chromate paint. And some pieces have rivets that match those in Earhart's Electra. Four pieces, all from the same part of the village, represent some kind of interior fixture that was nailed to a wooden deck. Until recently we thought they were “dados”--used along the edges of an airplane’s deck to give it a finished look and cover up control cables, but we now think they may be insulating devices, perhaps used to insulate fuel tanks from nearby heater ducts. But we still don't know where any of the apparently non-military aluminum came from.

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