have taken some pictures and airlifted an engine that appeared to be a
1340 from the coral beach of Gardner Island.”
This sentence was
part of an email message which greeted us immediately upon our return
from the Niku III Expedition in late March. Sent by a man who teaches
aviation maintenance at a California community college, it went on to
explain when, how and why the recovery was made. We immediately contacted
the individual and found him to be friendly and helpful. He told us
that the engine had been “airlifted” by helicopter to Canton
Island, about 200 miles northeast of Nikumaroro. The “pictures”
referred to are 8mm home movie films. We soon made arrangements for
a TIGHAR researcher to interview him on videotape and view the films.
We also began an investigation into the informant’s credibility and
started checking the verifiable parts of the story he told. After six
months of investigation, the bottom line is that there is every reason
to suspect that one of the engines from the Earhart aircraft is now
on Canton Island.
is readily accessible by air (the island has a 6,000 foot paved runway),
we are not releasing the informant’s name nor the engine’s alleged specific
location. If the engine is there, it should be recovered according to
accepted archaeological standards. We are, however, making the story
public in the hope of attracting support for an on-site investigation
and, if warranted, recovery. Here is what we have learned.
A Credible Informant
The informant is
54 years old, married with two children and has lived in the same house
since 1970. He has taught aviation maintenance at the same school for
the past 24 years and is now the head of his department. He has provided
his information to TIGHAR freely and with no desire for publicity or
payment. He has become a TIGHAR member and has been active in helping
us verify the various parts of his story.
A Secret Project
In 1970 he was
working as a mechanic for a helicopter operation in California when
the firm went bankrupt. With a young family and a mortgage, he needed
to find work.
That same year,
the USAF’s Space and Missile Test Center was activated at Vandenburg
AFB, California, and a test program was inaugurated which would use
the Phoenix Islands (uninhabited since 1963) as a target area for ICBMs.
Temporary radar towers were erected on Canton, Hull, and Enderbury Islands
to track the incoming missiles. Environmental surveys were carried out
on other islands of the group including Sydney, Gardner, McKean, and
Birnie. Three Sikorsky HH-3 helicopters supported these operations from
the test program’s base at Canton, the largest atoll of the Phoenix
Group. The helicopters were flown and maintained by civilian contract
pilots and mechanics. Several employees of the defunct California helicopter
company were hired for this work, including TIGHAR’s informant. He spent
a total of four months at Canton Island in late 1970/early 1971.
Canton Island had
been a major American base during World War II. After the war, its 6,000
foot, paved runway became a refueling stop for American and British
trans-Pacific airline travel, but the advent of nonstop jet service
in the mid-1960s caused the island to be abandoned. During the missile
test program the island was inhabited by approximately 300 men, mostly
civilian contract employees with a few USAF personnel. The civilian
helicopter crews enjoyed a great deal of freedom and the work of supporting
the test program was often boring. The informant’s home movies show
daily life on Canton and many scenes of helicopter airlift operations
to outlying islands. Although he is quite sure that he filmed the events
described below, he has been unable to locate that particular reel.
A 9 Cylinder,
Single Row Radial
One day while flying
low over one of the Phoenix Islands, he spotted what looked like an
old radial aircraft engine awash on the reef flat not far from the beach
at the western end of the atoll. Although the informant’s original message
to TIGHAR said that the engine had been recovered from Gardner Island
(now Nikumaroro), subsequent interviews and interrogation make it clear
that he is not at all sure at which island the engine was found. That
it was one of the Phoenix Group is certain. Other aspects of his recollections
indicate that it was probably either Sydney, Hull or Gardner. Wherever
he was, he called the object to the pilot’s attention and asked him
to land on the beach. Being in no particular hurry, the pilot consented
and the informant waded out through the knee-deep water to inspect the
object. Seeing that it was a nine cylinder, single row, radial engine,
the informant decided to bring it back to Canton as a curiosity. Attaching
a cable from the helicopter, they picked up the engine and flew it home
as a sling load. For approximately the next two weeks, the informant
poked at the engine in his spare time. He was puzzled by the fact that
the beat-up and badly corroded engine appeared to be either a Pratt
& Whitney R985 or R1340, both of which types seemed far too small
to have been on any airplane that could reach such a remote place as
the Phoenix Islands. At this time, according to the informant, he had
never heard of Amelia Earhart.
came down that there was to be an inspection of the missile test facility
by an Air Force general and, in cleaning up the maintenance area, the
informant removed the engine to a remote location on Canton Island where,
as far as he knows, it remains to this day. A former co-worker remembers
that the informant had an old radial engine at Canton and that he later
hauled it away.
Since the end of
the test program in 1979, the island has seen almost no activity. A
review of official records made available to TIGHAR by the U.S. Air
Force details various environmental cleanup measures implemented when
the project was shut down, but indicates that the area where the engine
was allegedly deposited was not disturbed. The runway remains serviceable
and jet fuel is available. Canton Island is now part of the nation of
Kiribati. At present, a few families live there to make weather observations
and maintain the aviation fuel farm in anticipation of future airline
The Right Engine?
has shown the informant’s initial impression to be correct. Although
the P&W R985 and R1340 are still probably the most common radial
engines in the world, no aircraft that operated in the Central Pacific
before, during or since World War II used either type of engine, with
- The three Vought
O3U-3 Corsair floatplanes launched from the battleship USS Colorado to search for Amelia Earhart in 1937 were powered by the P&W R1340.
None of those aircraft was lost.
- The Vought OS2U
Kingfisher carried on American cruisers and battleships during World
War II was powered by the P&W R985, but none are known to have
been in the Phoenix Islands area, let alone lost there.
- The only aircraft
equipped with such engines and known to have been lost in the area
is Earhart’s Lockheed 10E Special which carried two Pratt & Whitney
R1340 S3H1s, serial numbers 6149 and 6150.
Not The Wright Engine
Could the informant
have mistaken some other nine cylinder, single row radial for a P&W?
The only candidate would be the Wright R1820 used on PBYs, C-47s and
B-17s (among others). These engines develop twice the horsepower of
the 985 or 1340 and are physically much larger. The informant, when
asked to consider the possibility, is adamant that he would have known
the difference. Even so, no aircraft equipped with the Wright R1820
is known to have been lost at any of the outlying Phoenix Islands.
If there is a Pratt
& Whitney R1340 on Canton Island, could expert analysis determine
if it was from the Earhart aircraft? If the data plate is present and
legible under the layers of rust and corrosion, identification would
be easy. However, even without a data plate, positive identification
of one of Earhart’s engines may also be possible. The crankshafts and
cams of R1340s have serial numbers and these components are protected
deep within the engine. Pratt & Whitney maintains an excellent company
archive and it should be possible, with their cooperation, to match
the components to the production period and even the individual engine.
If the engine is
there and turns out to be Earhart’s we still won’t know for sure which
island it came from. Such a discovery would, however, effectively eliminate
the theory that the aircraft went down at sea. By proving that Earhart
and Noonan met their end at one of the islands of the Phoenix Group,
the engine would lend significant support to the mounting evidence that
Nikumaroro is that island.
this fascinating lead we’ll need an aircraft capable of making the 2,000
mile flight from Hawaii to Canton. It should be a turbine aircraft because
only Jet A is available on the island. The aircraft should carry a scientific
team of at least six people and must have a door large enough to accommodate
the dimensions of an R1340 (51.6 inches by 43.01 inches) and be able
to handle the engine’s 865 pound weight. While we’re in the neighborhood,
we’d want to overfly Nikumaroro and get the detailed aerial photography
we’ve always wanted.