Feb 05 2024

Did They Find Amelia Earhart’s Plane

Is this sonar image taken at 16,000 feet below the surface about 100 miles from Howland island, that of a downed Lockheed Model 10-E Electra plane? Tony Romeo hopes it is. He spent $9 million to purchase an underwater drone, the Hugan 6000, then hired a crew and scoured 5,200 square miles in a 100 day search hoping to find exactly that. He was looking, of course, for the lost plane of Amelia Earhart. Has he found it? Let’s explore how we answer that question.

First some quick background – most people know Amelia Earhart was a famous (and much beloved) early female pilot, the first female to cross the Atlantic solo. She was engaged in a mission to be the first solo pilot (with her navigator, Fred Noonan) to circumnavigate the globe. She started off in Oakland California flying east. She made it all the way to Papua New Guinea. From there her plan was to fly to Howland Island, then Honolulu, and back to Oakland. So she had three legs of her journey left. However, she never made it to Howland Island. This is a small island in the middle of the Pacific ocean and navigating to it is an extreme challenge. The last communication from Earhart was that she was running low on fuel.

That was the last anyone heard from her. The primary assumption has always been that she never found Howland Island, her plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean. This happened in 1937.  But people love mysteries and there has been endless speculation about what may have happened to her. Did she go of course and arrive at the Marshall Islands 1000 miles away? Was she captured by the Japanese (remember, this was right before WWII)? Every now and then a tidbit of suggestive evidence crops up, but always evaporates on close inspection. It’s all just wishful thinking and anomaly hunting.

There have also been serious attempts to find her plane. However, assuming she was off course, and that’s why they never made it to their target, there could potentially be a huge area of the Pacific ocean where her plane ended up. Romeo’s effort is the latest to look for her plane, and his approach was entirely reasonable – sonar scan the bottom of the ocean around Howland Island. He and his crew did this starting in September 2023. After the scanning mission was over, while going through the images, they found the image you can see above. Is this Earhart’s plane?

There are three possibilities to consider. One is that the image is not that of a plane at all, but just a random geological formation or something else. Remember that Romeo and his team poured through tons of data looking for a plane-like image. It’s not all that surprising that they found something. This could just be an example of the Face on Mars or the Martian Bigfoot – if you look at enough images looking for stuff you will find it.

The second possibility is that the sonar image is that of a plane, just not Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. There are lots of known missing aircraft. But more importantly perhaps, how many unknown missing aircraft are there? How many planes were lost during WWII and unaccounted for? There could be private unregistered planes, even drug smugglers. And of course, the third possibility is that this is Amelia Earhart’s plane. How can we know?

First, we can make some inferences from the information we have. Is the image that of a plane? I think this is a coin toss. It is reasonably symmetrical, has things that can be wings, a fuselage, and a tail. But again, it’s just a fuzzy image. It could just be a ledge and a rock. Neither outcome would shock me.

If it is a plane, could this be Earhart’s plane? The one data point that is in favor of this conclusion is the location – 100 miles off Howland Island. That is within the scope of where we would expect to find her plane. But there are two big things going against it being the Lockheed Electra. First, the Electra had straight wings, while, if this is a plane, the wings appear to be swept back. If this image is accurate, then the answer is no. But it is possible that the plane was damaged by the crash. Perhaps the wings broke and were pushed back by the fall through the water.

Also, the Lockheed Electra was a twin engine plane, with one large engine on each wing. They are not apparent in this image, and they should be. So we also have to speculate that the engines were lost in the process of the plane crashing and sinking, or that the image is too distorted to see them.

As you can see, speculation from the existing evidence is pretty thin. We need more data. What we have with the sonar image is not confirmatory evidence, just a clue that needs follow up. We need better images, hopefully with sufficient detail to provide forensic evidence. This will require a deep sea mission with lights and cameras, like the kind used to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. With such images it should be easy to tell if this is a Lockheed Electra. If it is, then it is almost certainly Earhart’s plane. But also, we may be able to read the registration numbers on the side of the plane, and that would be definitive.

Romeo is in the process of planning a follow up mission to investigate this sonar image. Unless and until this happens, we will not be able to say with any confidence if this is or is not Earhart’s plane.

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