Earhart Project Research Bulletin
March 9, 2011
Too True to Believe

TIGHAR has received numerous requests for comment about recent media reports of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra being found near Papua New Guinea.

“The Post-Courier had known about the plane wreck since 2004 but has been collecting information and also because perhaps this was too true to believe ….”

That non sequitur in a recent Papua New Guinea newspaper article sets the tone for one of the most over-the-top tales in the long history of bizarre proposed solutions to the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.

On February 28, 2011 Papua New Guinea’s Post-Courier reported that there are “strong indications” that Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra has been discovered under 70 meters (230 feet) of water near Buka Island in Bougainville. “The crash site is in direct alignment with Earhart’s flight path out of Lae…” Inside the wreck is a treasure in gold bullion guarded by a six-meter (20 ft.) snake.

buka detail
Although Buka Island is on Earhart’s presumed flight path out of Lae, any crash at Buka would have to have occurred during an attempt to return to Lae.
Cockpit shot
On March 3rd local businessman Cletus Harepa, who is reportedly paying divers to inspect the wreck, explained further about the gold. He told Radio Australia News that one of his divers found two skulls and three boxes of gold bullion in the cockpit but the bars were too heavy to carry to the surface. He is confident that it is Earhart’s plane because there is an old rumor that female pilots smuggled gold out of Lae in the 1930s. Mr. Harepa says the part about the giant snake is not true. “It’s an eel. It’s a brown eel that uses the plane as just a place to hide.”

Like the giant snake – sorry, eel – this tale is long and twisty. TIGHAR first heard of the wreck in May of 2010 when an individual who identified himself as a sailboat captain phoned TIGHAR’s Ric Gillespie to say that a civilian Lockheed with NR16020 legible on the tail lies in shallow water someplace in the central/south Pacific. The captain took pains to explain that he was not a treasure hunter but he would “like to see the local people get something out of this.” He was calling to ask what pictures we would need to establish the authenticity of the discovery. Ric said a photo of the numbers on the tail and a shot of the side of the fuselage should be adequate. The informant said he expected to have photos to send us in a couple of weeks.  That was the last we heard from the sailboat captain.

The story surfaced next in late August 2010 when a website in New Zealand asked Ric Gillespie to comment on a Papua New Guinea journalist’s report that a Lockheed Electra “with the remains of two humans in it – is lying in the Solomon Seas, off the west coast of the island of Buka in Papua New Guinea.” The wreck was said to be at a depth of 40 meters (131 ft.). Ric pointed out that, based upon the strength of the radio transmissions heard by the Coast Guard, Earhart was within 200 miles of her intended destination, Howland Island when she was last heard from. At that time, after nearly 21 hours in the air she was at least 1,792 miles from Buka with, at most, about four hours of fuel remaining. Earhart’s Electra cruised at 150 mph. Returning as far as Buka would take about twelve hours.

tail number

The registration number of Earhart’s Electra was, indeed, painted on the tail.

Pacific Map

Earhart did not have sufficient fuel to return to within a thousand miles of Buka Island.


A Lockheed PV-1 Ventura crashed near Buka in 1944.


Although there is virtually no chance that the airplane near Buka Island is Earhart’s, we were curious to know what airplane it might be. Bougainville was an area of intense aerial activity during WWII. We researched known losses in the region and discovered that U.S. Navy records list a Lockheed PV-1 “Ventura” as having gone down near Buka Passage on February 3, 1944. The PV-1 Ventura was essentially a larger, faster evolution of the basic Electra design and had the same twin engine, twin tail layout. Other aircraft of similar configuration, both Allied and Japanese, were also lost in the region.

Over the next several months other individuals contacted TIGHAR about the alleged wreck. Each time the story changed. The water got deeper or shallower. Human remains were removed from the wreck for identification – or not. In October 2010 there were 26 “blocks” of cargo aboard measuring 600 cm by 600 cm ( 20 ft. by 20 ft.), weighing 3,000 kilograms (6,613 lbs.), and marked “U.S. Tresury” [sic]. Our response was always to ask for photos. Photos were always promised. None were ever forthcoming.

By the time the Post-Courier ran the story in February of this year, the cargo had become gold bullion and a 20 ft. snake had arrived to guard the treasure (until he became an eel who just wanted to hide). Most recently, one of the informants emailed Ric to say that it’s not Amelia’s plane after all.

Hi Mr. Gillespie,
Electra 10E is not in Buka.
I am only one hove pruf.
Electra was over loded and lost ful and vas forsed to return back.
44 boxes of AU from EU. was faund in cargo ho.
E. A. was worcking for US Tresury.
She was fl. thro Red river Bougainvillee Island, not Buka

It’s nice to have that cleared up. Where the story goes from here will be fun to watch. Maybe photos will finally be presented. We’d love to see that eel.

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