The Lagoon at  Niku (7908 bytes)
NIKU III: Once And For All
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February 20 to March 22, 1997

The objective of the expedition was to find, photograph and, where practical, recover additional physical evidence relating to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. The scientific party was comprised of 12 individuals. As with previous expeditions, a representative of the Republic of Kiribati monitored all activity at the island. Fourteen days of operations at Nikumaroro were planned. Thirteen days were accomplished despite unforecast severe weather conditions. Departure from the United States was on February 20, 1997 as scheduled. The expedition was scheduled to return on March 18 but most of the team did not get back to to the U.S.until March 22.

Search operations during Niku III focused on three areas.

Village Survey

A team under the direction of noted archaeologist Thomas F. King, Ph.D. (TIGHAR #0391CE) conducted a survey of some of the island’s formerly settled areas. Tom has extensive archaeological experience in Micronesia and served as Project Archaeologist on TIGHAR’s Niku I expedition in 1989. The detailed exploration of the densely overgrown village was aided by digitized and enhanced aerial photos of the settlement taken in its heyday. Global positioning system (GPS) technology provided by Trimble Navigation, Ltd. was used to collect data for the creation of accurate maps of searched areas. The methodology employed involved identifying specific formerly inhabited sites and carefully clearing away subsequent overgrowth and fallen vegetation to permit both visual and remote-sensing inspection. This survey resulted in the recovery of over 100 artifacts a number of which appear to be aircraft components. Whether any will be conclusively identifiable as components salvaged from the Earhart Electra remains to be determined.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydrologist Kenton Spading (TIGHAR #1382CE) led a team which operated a launch especially outfitted with remote-sensing technology with which to search the lagoon floor for large metal targets. An electromagnetic (EM) sensor and a Schonstedt Instruments underwater magnetometer were configured to detect the presence of both ferrous and non-ferrous objects, even if buried under silt and sand. In addition, a Scuba Team led by retired USAF Lt.Col. Van Hunn (TIGHAR #1459CE) performed a visual search of the designated search areas. While the lagoon search did not yield wreckage from the Earhart aircraft, only a small portion of the lagoon bottom could be covered in the limited time available.

A search for further personal effects and possibly even human remains was conducted in Aukaraime (south) District, the area where previously recovered artifacts and island folklore indicate that Earhart and Noonan may have perished. Methodology was be similar to that employed by the Village Survey team but also included the deployment of a Geonics EM38 Ground Conductivity Meter. Scholarly opinion holds that human remains encountered by Gilbertese laborers were probably buried near the site of discovery and the graves marked, but not necessarily in a durable fashion. An EM38 sweep of the suspect area produced data which indicate anomalies. These data will now be analyzed using more powerful software than was available on the expedition and will then be interpreted by experts to determine if there are sites worthy of excavation. There were also archaeological discoveries made at the site which were recovered and will be analyzed.

To provide aerial reconnaissance and photographic support for the search teams, the expedition was equipped with a two-place, Quicksilver MXL Sport R 583, ultra-light type aircraft on floats. However, severe weather prevented its use.

The Niku III expedition was led by TIGHAR’s Executive Director Richard E. Gillespie.

Enroute back to Fiji, the severe weather that otherwise hampered the expedition also prompted an unplanned stop at Funafuti Atoll in the nation of Tuvalu. While there, an interview with former residents of Nikumaroro unexpectedly produced two first-hand accounts of aircraft wreckage seen on the island’s shoreline in the late 1950s. TIGHAR does not consider anecdotes (recollections of long-past events) to be evidence, but such stories may lead to the discovery of documents, photographs or artifacts which do constitute real evidence. The new anecdotal information from Funafuti, if true, suggests a rather different picture of what may have happened to the Earhart aircraft than TIGHAR has previously considered.

  • Air Pacific – overseas shipping of expedition gear
  • Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), Pittsburgh, PA – artifact analysis
  • FedEx – domestic shipping of expedition gear
  • ESRI Inc., Redlands, CA – archaeological mapping software
  • G&N Services, Gibson, LA – towfish for underwater magnetometer
  • Geonics Ltd., Toronto, Ontario – EM31 and EM38 electromagnetic sensors
  • Geosoft Ltd., Toronto, Ontario – software for EM target mapping and interpretation
  • ICOM America, Ltd., Bellevue, WA – communications radios
  • Instrument Sales & Service, Inc., Wilmington DE – Infrared and laser pulse surveying
  • JWA ScubaPro, Inc. Sturtevant, WI – outfitting of the underwater search team
  • North Coast Resource Management, Redlands, CA – archaeological systems management
  • Schonstedt Instrument Co., Reston, VA – GAU-20 underwater magnetometer
  • Trimble Navigation Ltd., Sunnyvale, CA – Global Positioning System (GPS) technology
  • White’s Electronics, Sweet Home, OR – PI 3000 pulse-induction metal detectors
  • Willis & Geiger Outfitters, Madison, WI – outfitting of the land search team
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