MISSING PERSONS

08.17.12

Amelia Earhart: New Documentary Searches Underwater for Pilot and Her Plane

A team of explorers are searching under the ocean for the vanished pilot and her plane.

“The deeper you go the more desolate it becomes.” This is what Rick Gillespie told me about the underwater environment in which he went searching this summer for evidence of Amelia Earhart’s plane off an atoll in the Pacific. The same could be said of the aviation pioneer herself: the deeper you go into her story, the more mysterious and singular she becomes.

Amelia Earhart and Nikumaroro Atoll
Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), believes the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's airplane may be found near the atoll of Nikumaroro. (AP Photo ; Spaceimaging.com / Reuters)

Gillespie’s adventure at sea--filmed by a Discovery Channel crew—is the subject of a new documentary, “Finding Amelia Earhart: Mystery Solved?” that airs on Sunday, August 19. (I was interviewed for the film but have not yet seen it.) What happened to Earhart when she disappeared while attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1937? There are rumors, theories, clues, and an intriguing amount of circumstantial evidence that she landed on a desert island. But with each tantalizing find—a campsite, bones, a piece of a shoe, a jar of face cream—-the more the woman herself eludes detection. It’s as if she were determined to escape the world’s prying eyes. After so many years of being chased, she is still unfound.

By 1937 Amelia Earhart was the most famous aviatrix in the world, a modern female icon. But all she really wanted to do was fly. She said she flew “for the fun of it” and for the challenge. She was beloved not only for her daring exploits, brilliant style, and record-breaking skills, but also because she followed her dream. She knew it was dangerous and she did it anyway, always accepting “the hazards.” This combination of action and accountability makes her a worthy inspiration for us all. Yet in order to pursue her dream she had to contend with the business of fame and fundraising, marketing and the commercial machine. Perhaps in the end what she most wanted was an experience of pure flight, to abandon everything and everyone. And maybe this is one of the reasons we still care so much about what happened to her: because her enduring mystery makes it appear as if she orchestrated her own disappearance, as if she both wants and doesn’t want us to find her.

Rick Gillespie is determined to be the man who does. An airline investigator who has made a life’s work of searching for Earhart, his expedition this summer to the Pacific island of Nikumaroro was his ninth. I first became aware of Gillespie’s search and of his organization, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), when I read an article in the mid-90’s that mentioned he might have found a piece of Earhart’s plane, and possibly a piece of her shoe, on an atoll in the Pacific. The idea of Earhart surviving on a desert island sparked my imagination and I wrote a novel about it, a fictional account of her disappearance that attempted to unravel the mystery without solving it, using it as way of talking about myth and history and one woman’s bold, intrepid journey.

Years after the book was published, the search for Earhart continues with more intensity than ever. Gillespie and his team have just returned from Nikumororo, where—prompted by a new analysis of an old photograph that appeared to show the landing gear of an Electra, Earhart’s plane, sticking out of the water near the island—they searched with the most advanced technology and technicians to seek out evidence for the first time underwater.

Gillespie’s team set off on a 223-foot University of Hawaii ship with the Phoenix Group, the people who found the Air France Flight 447 black box at the bottom on the Atlantic. TIGHAR brought an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), a $2 million piece of equipment that takes side-scan sonar, and a remote-operated vehicle (ROV) with cameras. The trip from Honolulu to Nikumaroro takes eight days and the island itself is harsh, dehydrating, unforgiving. On previous journeys the team searched for Earhart’s remains on land, but this time they stayed on the ship while the equipment explored under the sea. Specifically, they were looking at the enormous coral reef that extends out from Nikumaroro’s shore for evidence of the Electra.

The trip from Honolulu to Nikumaroro takes eight days, and the island itself is harsh, dehydrating, unforgiving.

The plan was for the AUV to find “areas of interest” and for the ROV to follow up with pictures. According to Gillespie this was easier envisioned than done. The underwater environment was “very difficult,” he told me. A series of vertical cliffs, 25 miles offshore and almost four miles deep, the reef face was unstable and there were “frequent landslides.” The AUV got stuck in the pockmarked and jagged terrain often, and at one point, the robot submarine had to be rescued by the ROV from a cave. The machinery even set off a landslide of its own, which the team watched from the darkened cockpit on video screens. While the rig started to head for the bottom of the ocean, the viewers had the illusion that they were aboard the vehicle itself, going down. What did they find? The team was not able to view the high-definition images on board the ship. These are now being studied by forensic imaging specialists to see if there’s anything “interesting.” The jury, Gillespie says, “is still very much out.”

Video screenshot

Watch a preview of the new Amelia Earhart documentary from Discovery

What struck me most about the search was the astounding natural landscape in which it took place. The coral reef off of Nikumaroro is in pristine condition, colorful and teeming with fish at scuba-dive depth As you go deeper, desolation replaces the sea life and there is a constant snowfall of debris. This builds up on the reef-slope surface and looks like several inches of snow. Gillespie described the view as “like driving along a mountain hillside in winter, in a snowstorm, at night.” I asked him if there was any color at the bottom. “All you see,” he said, “are shades of blue.”

Perhaps Earhart, or her plane, lurks in this spooky atmosphere. It certainly sounds otherworldly.  It also sounds like a fantastic place to hide. It could take many return trips to find her, if she is ever found at all. In the meantime, Earhart seems to have become more than a heroine, a myth, or even a mystery. A shade of blue, a snowstorm, a mountain in winter, she has become perhaps what she truly dreamt of becoming: a pure force of nature.