Earhart Project Research Bulletin
February 25, 2010

This Bulletin is in Three Parts:

Where is the Electra?        Connecting The Dots        What Might we Find?

Where Is The Electra?

Electra on reef

If Earhart and Noonan, died on Nikumaroro, where is the Electra? The short answer is, we don’t know. We can, however, make a few logical deductions about where it can’t be and where it might be.

button If any of the nearly two hundred radio distress calls that were heard for at least four nights after the disappearance were genuine – and about half of the reported signals do seem to have been genuine – then the aircraft had to have made a relatively safe wheels-down landing and been able to run an engine to recharge the batteries. Dry reef
button That means the distress calls could not have been sent if the plane landed in the lagoon or the ocean.
button Had the airplane landed on the beach or in any of the atoll’s few open areas it should have been discovered by the Navy’s aerial search, later island inhabitants, or TIGHAR’s searches.
button That leaves as the only alternative the atoll’s fringing reef, which dries at low tide and is smooth enough in some places to land an airplane.
Could the Electra have landed on the reef at Nikumaroro?
button The island is on the navigational line Earhart said she was following in the last in-flight radio transmission heard by Itasca.
button They should have had more than enough fuel to get there.
button The tide was low and the reef was dry during the time they could have arrived.
button The reef is smooth enough in places to permit a safe, if bumpy, landing.
Are there any clues that the airplane was landed on the reef at Nikumaroro?
button The times when credible radio distress calls were heard over the next four nights correspond with times when the water level on the reef at Nikumaroro was low enough to provide enough prop clearance for an engine to be run.

Bearing map thumbnail
Click on the map to open a much larger version in a new window.

button Directional bearings taken by Pan American and the U.S. Coast Guard on radio signals believed to be sent from the missing plane crossed in the vicinity of Nikumaroro.
button By the time Navy search planes flew over the island a full week after the disappearance, the credible radio calls had stopped. The pilots and observers saw “signs of recent habitation” on the officially uninhabited atoll but no aircraft. A photo of the island taken during the Navy search shows that the tide was high with significant surf on the reef edge. If there was an aircraft there it was hidden by the surf.
Is there any evidence that the plane was there and, if so, where?
Date: December 1, 1938 1938 photo
Source: Photograph
button An aerial photo taken as part of the New Zealand Survey shows what appears to be an anomaly just below the surface on the reef edge just north of the shipwreck. The sea was calm with minimal surf on the reef.
Date: Sometime between January 1940 and November 1941 Emily
Source: Anecdotal recollection in 1999 TIGHAR interview
button Emily Sikuli (née Segalo Samuela), teenage daughter of the island’s carpenter Temou Samuela, saw debris that her father told her was airplane wreckage on the reef edge at low tide about 100 meters north of the Norwich City shipwreck.
Date: 1942 1942 photo
Source: Photograph
button An aerial photograph shows the effect of severe weather that struck the island in January 1939. At that time the stern of Norwich City separated and tumbled down the reef slope into deep water. Other debris from the shipwreck was scattered shoreward. The photo shows no sign of the anomaly seen in the 1938 photo.
Date: 1944 John Mims
Source: Anecdotal recollection in 1995 TIGHAR interview
button U.S. Navy PBY pilot John Mims saw island residents using an airplane control cable as a fishing line leader for large fish. When he asked where they had gotten the cable the islanders said there was an airplane wreck on the island when the first settlers arrived in 1939. When he asked where the wreck was they said they didn’t know.
Date: Sometime between 1946 and 1963 Pulekai
Source: Anecdotal recollection in 1997 TIGHAR interview
button Island schoolteacher Pulekai Songivalu saw airplane parts on the lagoon shore opposite the main passage. The parts were salvaged by island residents for local purposes.
Date: 1953 Photo analysis thumbnail
Source: Photographs

Forensic imaging of two aerial mapping photos shows what appears to be a debris field of four pieces of light colored metal roughly 4 feet square on the reef flat downstream of the possible wreck site.

(Click on the photo to open a much larger version in a new window.)

Date: Sometime between 1958 and 1963 Tapania
Source: Anecdotal recollection in 1997 TIGHAR interview

Tapania Taeke, between 5 and 10 years old, saw a piece of an airplane wing on the reef in roughly the same area as the debris field in the 1953 photos.

Date: November 1991 Skin by store
Source: Artifact

TIGHAR’s second expedition to Nikumaroro found a section of badly torn aluminum airplane skin that appeared to have been washed ashore in a severe storm that had struck the island since our initial visit in 1989. Whether the artifact could be from the Electra is the subject of intense controversy but the circumstances of its discovery strongly suggest that it came from the sea and was flung ashore by the storm.

Date: June 2002 Electra Wheel
Source: Anecdotal recollection in 2002 TIGHAR interview

During a New England Aquarium marine biology expedition to the island in 2002, the expedition leader, Dr. Greg Stone, saw a wheel (no tire) near the shore in the main lagoon passage that looked to him like it might be an airplane wheel. Greg was familiar with TIGHAR’s work and, because the wheel was so easy to see, he assumed that TIGHAR had examined it and dismissed it. Only after leaving the island did he learn that we had never seen such an artifact at Nikumaroro. After close questioning, his description of what he saw sounded right for a wheel from the Electra so we mounted a special expedition in 2003 to see if we could re-locate it. Unfortunately, in the interim, more storms had devastated the west end of the atoll and the object that Greg Stone had seen was gone.


Where is the Electra?       Connecting The Dots        What Might We Find?

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