Oceanographer Robert Ballard, famed for finding the wreck of the Titanic in the North Atlantic, has a bold prediction about Amelia Earhart’s airplane, missing since she disappeared in 1937 over the Pacific Ocean.
“I absolutely expect to find this plane,” Ballard said Wednesday evening in a phone interview from aboard the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. “I’m not in the business of failing.”
Ballard has supreme confidence that his team will develop a complete picture of what lies beneath the waves around the Pacific atoll of Nikumaroro, where, according to one theory, Earhart and navigator Frederick J. Noonan landed after they disappeared July 2, 1937.
“We’re going in with the A-team. We have every kind of technology you can need,” he said. “We’re just relentless. We work 24 hours a day. We don’t come up until the job’s done.”
Ballard even attaches a date to when he expects to find Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E: Aug. 12.
The University of Rhode Island oceanographer and Nautilus are currently en route to Nikumaroro, which was known as Gardner Island in the 1930s. The island, about 2,600 miles north of New Zealand, became the focus of one theory about what happened to Earhart and Noonan after several people around the world reported hearing mysterious radio transmissions in the days after the pair disappeared.
One of those whom Ballard pointed out was a 15-year-old girl, Betty Klenck, who lived in St. Petersburg, Florida, where her father had set up a sensitive short-wave radio receiver. Betty kept a diary of what she heard.
Betty wrote that she heard a distress call from a woman who identified herself as Amelia Earhart and who provided personal details about herself and Noonan. The woman in the distress call even described where she landed: just off a small island in an area that was dry at low tide. And she provided a telling detail: just off the island was a shipwreck with the name Betty recorded as S.S. New York City, Ballard related.
Gardner Island was the site of the 1929 shipwreck of a freighter called S.S. Norwich City, which Ballard said could easily be mistaken for New York City in a faint radio transmission.
Also, three months after the disappearance, a British officer, Eric Bevington, took a photograph from just off the island, showing the wreck of the Norwich and a mysterious object sticking up from the water a short way from the wreck. Some analysts have said it is the wheel strut from a Lockheed Electra.
“This is what caused us to home in,” Ballard said.
If Earhart touched down at the edge of Gardner Island, Ballard expects that the plane is now in deep water not far away. He described the island as a large volcanic mountain with a flat top that barely sticks out of the water.
“She doesn’t know she’s parked her plane next to a giant cliff,” he said. Storms almost certainly would have pushed the plane off that cliff to tumble down the “rugged, rugged terrain” below.
Ballard doesn’t expect to find the plane intact, but thinks the two 900-pound Pratt & Whitney Wasp S3H1 radial engines should be easy to spot. Whatever they find, they’ll bring to the surface.
Ballard does concede that the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance could survive his expedition if she never landed at Gardner Island. Skeptics point out that U.S. Navy search planes flew over the island a week after the disappearance without finding Earhart or her plane.
“Either one of two things happened: she either just vanished in the ocean, or she landed,” Ballard said.
With Gardner Island lying between two areas of the ocean he is mapping for the U.S. government and with National Geographic willing to foot the bill for the search, Ballard said, it only makes sense to look.
It might have seemed against all odds when Ballard went looking for Titanic in 1985, but he found the British ocean liner. He also found the German battleship Bismarck, which the British navy sunk during World War II.
Ballard contemplated how finding Earhart’s plane would compare to finding Titanic.
“They’re different,” he said before noting that finding the plane of a woman aviation hero would have special meaning. “This one is perfect for this time.”
He ultimately decided: “It’s equal.”
He compared the technological advances over the three decades since finding Titanic. “I couldn’t have done what I’m doing here then. But I can now,” he said. “I can’t believe what I’m doing. This is really pretty amazing.”
Live video of the Nautilus’s expedition to find Amelia Earhart’s plane can be viewed at: https://nautiluslive.org/