Dr. Robert Ballard, the legend who discovered the Titanic, is looking for another, greater adventure. How much greater? He wants to take on the unsolved mystery of Amelia Earhart, and to find the place where Earhart crashed.
In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1937, she set off with a co-pilot, Fred Noonan, and attempted to fly around the world. In July 1937, the Lockheed Electra, flown by Earhart and her co-pilot, vanished somewhere over the Pacific. Earhart’s disappearance has been an 80 year mystery. Some believe she and Noonan crashed and sank in the ocean, others believe that the pair found an island to land on, then died waiting for a rescue that never came.
For decades, Dr. Ballard has avoided the Earhart mystery. He thought the area where the crash could have occurred was too large, and a search would take forever. That was until he was given a key clue: a photo of Nikumaroro, an island in the Pacific, taken by a British naval officer in 1940. A careful analysis of the image reveled a blurry object sitting on the reef. An object that looked a lot like the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra. It wasn't much, but it was enough for Dr. Ballard's team.
In August 2019, Dr. Ballard and his team sent a ship with multibeam sonars around the island five times to map it out. They also sent out a floating autonomous surface vehicle for shallow areas and four aerial drones to gather additional information. For deep water searches, they sent the Hercules and Argus, which are remotely operated robots equipped with spotlights and high definition cameras. These robots descended to 650 feet, and scouted the seafloor around the whole island.
The picture was not the only clue that Earhart crashed near Nikumaroro. Another clue is that a Panamerican Airway radio station picked up a distress call coming from the area. Furthermore, on Nikumaroro, at an archeological site called Campground Seven, 13 bones were gathered and determined to be the bones of a European male. It was later decided that the bones were from a female and matched Earhart's figure. Since the year 1980, there have been 12 more expeditions searching for more skeletal remains and DNA samples. All of them found nothing.
Scientists hypothesized that if the plane did crash in the water off Nikumaroro, the tides would have dragged it over the reef. Heavier objects like the radio and engine would have washed up on the island. So Dr. Ballard's team focused on the northwest corner where the picture was taken. They searched underwater drainage sea gullies to a depth of 8,500 feet.
Despite the efforts of Dr. Ballard and his team, their expedition turned up no sign of the missing Lockheed Electra.
The big question that remains, besides the missing plane, is why would Ballard want to solve this mystery that happened so many years ago? For fame? For money? For satisfaction? No, it’s all for his mother.
Dr. Ballard has a great fondness for his mother, who reminds him of Earhart whom she deeply admired. His mother dropped out of college to raise three children. In some ways, you could say he feels like he owes solving this mystery to his mother. Through this mindset, he keeps pushing forward and using every failure as an opportunity to get closer to his goal.
In 2021, Dr. Ballard and his crew will be returning to the South Pacific. They are planning to map the underwater American territories around the destination where Earhart intended to stop for re-fueling. They will be following an alternative Nikumaroro hypothesis that states that the plane crashed at sea closer to Howland Island. Although Dr. Ballard has led many investigations, most have been unsuccessful. But he keeps hitting this mystery head on and moving to the next place.
Dr. Ballard even brought his daughter, Emily Ballard, with him on a few of the expeditions. To carry out his mother’s dream, he wants to pave a road to encourage kids like her granddaughter to pursue an adventurous career.
[Source: The New York Times; National Geographic; The Earhart Project]