Tag Archives: Earhart

How To Write A History Book

How do you write a history book? Well, you seek out the source material, figure out what happened, and tell the story – right? Right, but to make the book as truthful and accurate as possible, each of those steps requires a great deal of diligence.

Right now I’m working on the third chapter of Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra. The title of the chapter is “The Realization of a Dream” and it covers March through July 1936. This was the period during which the deal with Purdue University was finalized including initial plans for the world flight; the order for the Electra was placed with Lockheed; and the airplane was constructed and delivered to Earhart.

The first step is to make sure you have the best primary source material available. Books don’t count. Books are secondary sources. The information they provide is useful only to the extent that they cite primary sources, and then you have to go and check the primary source to make sure the author got it right. Sometimes, the source cited is “interview by author” which is a euphemism for “anecdotal recollection.” Human memory is notoriously unreliable. Oral history is history the way somebody remembers it. There is no way to know its accuracy without corroboration by contemporaneous written or photographic documentation.

Fortunately, for this subject, there are some excellent primary source materials available.

  • Earhart’s own writings and newspaper stories about her and the Electra are readily available, but they’re a record of what was said publicly, and private sources often tell a different story.
  • Purdue University Special Collections has extensive correspondence between Earhart, Putnam, and various Purdue University officials, and also internal Purdue correspondence, much of it available on-line via the excellent Purdue e-Archives. There are some drawbacks. The correspondence is not reliably chronological and the images are often scans of carbon copies, fuzzy and hard to read.
  • The FAA has a fairly extensive file of official correspondence and inspection reports relating to the Earhart Electra, but it’s far from complete.
  • The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum archive has the research papers of Doris L. Rich, author of Amelia Earhart – A Biography (1989, Smithsonian Press). The file includes copies of extensive correspondence between Putnam, Paul Mantz and Lockheed relating to the selection and construction of the Earhart Electra.
  • Photographs can be important primary sources of information if they can be reliably dated. The best way to do that is to find original copies with the dated news service captions and credits glued to the reverse side. TIGHAR member Larry C. Inman has assembled the finest collection of original Earhart-related press photos for his Remember Amelia exhibit and has graciously given TIGHAR full access to his collection.

Once you have identified the available primary source materials the next step is to integrate them into an accurate comprehensive chronology. This is especially important in this case because it has never been done before. Doris Rich did not reference the Purdue material. Susan Butler (East to the Dawn [1997, Addison Wesley]) covered the Purdue connection but didn’t have the Putnam–Mantz correspondence. None of the Earhart authors has had the full story.

Once you have the chronology you then have to carefully wade through the material to get an understanding of the sequence of events and what was going on. This is the most interesting part because it’s where you often discover that the true story is quite different from the traditional story.

Finally, you start writing. This is the hardest part because now you have to interpret the raw data. You have to look at the whole picture and present the trajectory of events in such a way as to allow the reader to draw insights into why things happened the way they did. You can’t dumb it down or over-simplify, but it has to be fun to read or no one will read it. Good history might be the toughest writing there is, but it may also be the most important.

Nauticos Strikes Out

After 42 days at sea, Nauticos has concluded search operations and is headed home, having failed for the third time to find any trace of the Earhart Electra. The technology deployed by scientists and technicians from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution seems to have functioned well, and the 1,800 square-mile target area was presumably examined. There is, undoubtedly, some value in mapping that relatively tiny segment of the vast Pacific, and the daily educational postings on the expedition’s website were well-received, but the point of the reportedly three million dollar effort was to find the aircraft – and it didn’t.

Nauticos’ failure to find the Lockheed on the ocean bottom near Howland Island doesn’t prove it isn’t there. What proves it isn’t there are the many radio distress calls that were sent from the aircraft for six nights following its disappearance. As was known at the time, those signals could only have come from the aircraft if it was on its wheels and able to run an engine to recharge the battery upon which the transmitter relied for power. When the Navy’s aerial search failed to see an aircraft on land, it was assumed – but never proved – that the messages were somehow bogus. The subsequent open-ocean search turned up nothing. If only one of the 57 credible receptions was genuine, the airplane did not go down at sea.

Adherents of the Crashed & Sank theory are quick to disregard the artifacts TIGHAR has found on Nikumaroro as being attributable to later activity – always a possibility with archaeological discoveries. Bones and objects found in 1940, before the island was subject to much in the way of human presence, are more difficult to dismiss. Electromagnetic phenomena, documented in contemporary sources, are not subject to the “it could be anything” wave of the hand. Those signals came from a radio that was transmitting on frequencies that were reserved for U.S. registered aircraft, and they originated from the vicinity of Gardner Island.

There are two possibilities:

1.  There was a hoaxer who had a transmitter that could broadcast on Earhart’s two primary frequencies; knew that neither Earhart nor Noonan was adept at Morse code; was able to mimic Earhart’s voice; and was pre-positioned on or near Gardner Island and therefore knew several days in advance that the flight would not reach Howland Island —


2.   The signals were sent from the Electra on Gardner Island.

Take your pick.

Looking for the Why

In trying to discover the fate of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, our search naturally focuses on finding evidence of what happened. But, as an accident investigator, I’m just as interested in knowing why it happened. The point of all accident investigation, beyond determining cause and assigning blame, is the prevention of future accidents. My commitment to that goal began many years ago when I witnessed the worst disaster in air racing history.

T-6s racing at Reno, 2016.

In the summer of 1969 I was 21 years old, fresh out of college, and grabbing any flying job I could find to build time while waiting to go on active duty with the U.S. Army. By September I had scraped together enough money to buy a standby airline ticket to Reno, Nevada for the National Championship Air Races. By pure dumb luck I landed a place as gofer on the pit crew for Ed Snyder, a T-6 racer from Jacksonville, FL. Ed and his wife Jerri adopted the all-agog young pilot and, for a wonderful week, I was a junior member of the air racing fraternity.

Two years later, as a 2nd Lt. in Advanced Radio Systems School at Ft. Monmouth, NJ, I learned that there was to be an air race at nearby Cape May that included a T-6 class. Hoping to re-connect with old friends, I rounded up my fiancée and, with my brother and his wife, we made the pilgrimage. Sure enough, Ed, Jerri and the whole gang from Reno were there. We agreed to get together for dinner after the race, but horror intervened.

On the start, the seven-plane field came snarling past the stands, rounded the scatter pylon and banked left into the first turn. My friend Dick Minges and another T-6 were trailing behind the leaders. Dick didn’t see the other airplane flying tight with him at 3 o’clock low and when he rolled out of the turn, his right wing came down on the other guy’s canopy. Dick’s wing folded up like a fighter parked on the deck of a carrier. The other plane pulled up and away, the pilot lacerated by the shattered canopy but otherwise okay. Dick’s airplane did a complete roll on its way to the ground. He hit doing something over 200 mph, raising a huge cloud of dust but no explosion.

The other pilots, out ahead, had not seen the accident, but by the third lap the dust had cleared and the crumpled aircraft was visible. The three leaders, tight one behind the other, came around the turn, over the crash site, and headed down the backstretch.

Nobody seems to have seen what happened next. Everyone was focused on the emergency vehicles racing toward the wreck until a sound I’ll never forget snapped our eyes to the spectacle of three T-6s headed straight down like three fence posts. One of them was Ed Syder. They disappeared into the trees and were gone. Where a minute before there had been the deafening blat of R-1340s at full throttle there was now only the muted wail of the crash trucks.

Watching my friends die was a shattering experience. I grew up with airplanes. I learned to fly literally on my father’s knee. Aviation had always been a positive part of my life. I was, of course, aware that airplane accidents happened, but they were not something that touched me personally, until now. Aviation safety took on a new meaning and when I got out of the Army I chose a career as a risk manager for an aviation insurance company. I discovered that I had a particular talent for accident investigation.

Thinking back to that sad day at Cape May, there was no mystery about what had happened. Four midair collisions had resulted in four fatalities, but why? What went wrong? There were no known photographs or motion picture images of the race, but the cause of the first accident was obvious. Dick simply didn’t see the other plane.

The three-airplane collision is more difficult to explain. The FAA eventually determined that the second airplane hit the first airplane and the third plane ran into the debris of the first two. But why did number two hit number one?

Human factors are often behind the “why” of an accident. Ed Snyder was in the number two position. Dick Minges was his close friend. Flying in tight formation requires unblinking concentration. After Ed flew over the wreck of Dick’s plane he may have looked back over his shoulder to see if Dick was all right. That’s all it would take.

I left the insurance industry in 1984 and, with my wife Pat Thrasher, founded TIGHAR the next year. The cases are colder but the principles of investigation are the same. The research for my new book, Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra, makes it clear that human factors led directly to the tragic events of July 2, 1937. As in my first book, Finding Amelia- The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, original contemporary sources tell a very different story than the popular legend.

Amelia Earhart was keenly aware that her record-setting flights were essentially publicity stunts. In the wake of her 1935 Honolulu to Oakland and Los Angeles to Mexico City flights she said, “My flights haven’t meant anything to the scientific advancement of aviation.”[1] It has become an article of faith that flying around the world was Amelia’s primary goal, but it is not true. The world flight was a financially motivated publicity stunt. Amelia’s first priority was to justify her fame to herself by making genuine contributions to the development of aviation.

Earhart’s husband’s original appeal to Purdue University for funding for a new airplane focused on her desire to make “certain flights as laboratory tests involving various scientific aspects of modern aviation.”[2] The airplane Amelia wanted was a Lockheed Model 10 Electra. After becoming “intimately familiar with the ship under all conditions” Amelia would establish some new transcontinental records, make a flight to Panama or Cuba, and undertake “detailed experimental work at various altitudes, including oxygen flight.” The scientific test flights would be followed by “the ultimate big flight, to be attempted only if and when everything proves out satisfactorily, to be around-the-world [emphasis in the original], starting at the Purdue airport and ending at Purdue. The plane could carry the name ‘Purdue’.”[3]

Reality intervened. Test flights do not make money. They cost money, and there was no money for scientific work. Record-setting stunt flights make money. Before the deal with Purdue was even completed, Putnam and Earhart had reversed the plan. The world flight would now take precedence over the experimental work, but there was a problem. The Lockheed Electra was the wrong ship for a trip around the world. Earhart’s technical adviser Paul Mantz felt that the safest choice for the world flight would be the new Sikorsky S-43 “Baby Clipper” amphibian. Putnam agreed, but Amelia was adamant – she wanted an Electra.

And so began a cascade of compromises fueled by human factors rather than prescribed by best practices. The tragic events of July 2, 1937 were not the consequence of misfortune, nor wanton negligence, but by a progression of poor decisions made in response to practical, emotional, and financial pressures. Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Electra will be the “prequel” that permits a new understanding of the events chronicled in Finding Amelia – The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance.



  1. Speech in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on March 21, 1935.
  2. “The Amelia Earhart Project,” memorandum from George Putnam to Purdue President Elliott, November 11, 1935.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.

Responding to Nauticos, Part Three

Third and final installment.

Jourdan: So, what about the “mounting evidence” that Tighar touts? I got a chuckle out of a TV news reporter who said they “… had been finding evidence for 24 years.” I would have said, “… they have been FAILING to find evidence for 24 years”! But once you accept the (false) premise that Amelia flew to Niku, then you are tempted to associate ANYTHING you find with her!

Gillespie: TIGHAR is testing a hypothesis, not accepting a premise. In the course of eleven expeditions to Nikumaroro over a period of 28 years TIGHAR has found thousands of artifacts and collected hundreds, mostly for the purpose of establishing context. You can’t spot what is unusual if you don’t know what is usual. Of the 418 artifacts collected, only 54 (about 13%) are thought to be possibly associated with Earhart, Noonan, or the Electra.

Archeological recoveries, however, are by no means the most compelling evidence that the Earhart flight ended at Nikumaroro. Anything found on the island after 24 years of habitation (1939 to 1963), unless unquestionably attributable to Earhart or Noonan, is open to interpretation. Of far more certain significance are original historical documents and photos contemporary with the events in question.

Fifty-seven credible post-loss radio transmissions establish that the flight reached land and made a relatively safe landing.[1] The directional bearings taken by Pan American and the Coast Guard indicate that the signals were coming from the vicinity of Gardner Island.[2] Reconstruction of the water levels on the reef where photographic evidence suggests the plane was landed, show that the transmissions, which spanned six days, were made only at times when an engine could be run to recharge the battery upon which the transmitter depended for power.[3]

A photograph of the western shoreline of Gardner Island taken in October 1937, three months after the airplane disappeared, shows an object on the reef that forensic experts agree is consistent with the wreckage of a Lockheed Electra main landing gear assembly.[4]

Three years after Earhart disappeared a partial skeleton was discovered at a crude campsite at the remote southeast end of the atoll. The presence of the remains of a woman’s shoe and a box which had once contained a sextant caused the recently-arrived Colonial Service officer to suspect that the unfortunate castaway was Amelia Earhart. British authorities in Fiji chose not to inform the American consul nor seek help from anatomical experts in Australia. The bones were examined by a doctor in Fiji and judged to be male. The sextant box was identified as being for a mariner’s instrument, not a bubble octant as was used for aerial navigation. No further inquiries were made.[5] The bones and artifacts were dismissed as unimportant and apparently discarded or lost. The entire incident survived only as a distorted and widely ridiculed rumor until, after ten years of dogged research, TIGHAR tracked down the original British file in 1998. Re-assessment of the bone measurements taken by the British doctor by anthropologists using current forensic tools suggest that the castaway was a female of northern European descent.[6] The numbers reported to have been on the sextant box indicate it was the same kind of sextant Noonan used as a back-up instrument.[7]

None of that has anything to do with artifacts we have found.

Jourdan: Here is a short list of the claims made by TIGHAR and their outcome. Tighar has NEVER found a thing remotely proven to be related to Amelia, that doesn’t have a much simpler explanation.

The presence of a shipwreck (the Norwich City, with passengers & crew of 34), colonists (up to 100, including a British colonial HQ), and debris that washes on shores all around the world are reasonable & likely sources for what man-made items they have found.

Gillespie: Let’s take those objections in order.

The SS Norwich City had a crew of 35 men. There were no passengers and there were no women aboard. When the ship went aground on the reef on the night of November 30, 1929 extreme seas prevented the successful launch of the ship’s lifeboats. Everyone went in the water. Twenty-four made it to the shore alive. Four bodies washed up and were buried by the survivors. The other seven were presumed drowned and/or taken by sharks. The survivors were rescued five days later.[8]

Could the castaway whose partial skeleton and campsite were found in 1940, have been an unknown survivor of the Norwich City shipwreck in 1929? For that to be true he would have to make it to shore alive but not re-unite with the others for five days. He would also have to be wearing one man’s shoe and one woman’s shoe. I suppose stranger things have happened. I just can’t think of any at the moment.

Could artifacts found on the island be attributable to the 100+ colonists who once lived there? Of course they could. They could also be from the U.S. Coast Guard LORAN station that was there from 1944 to 1946. Most of the artifacts collected and studied by TIGHAR are clearly attributable to the island’s 24-year period of inhabitation. They establish context. As noted above, anything found on the island now, unless unquestionably attributable to Earhart or Noonan, is open to interpretation. Objects found in 1940? — not so much.

And what about wash-up? Could the shoe parts and sextant box found with the castaway in 1940 have been washed there by the ocean? All kinds of flotsam does wash up on Pacific islands but the site is well above the high tide line on relatively high ground at the southeast end, a part of the island that is sheltered from storms. There is no indication that it has been over-washed. Of course, a castaway could beachcomb useful objects, but it’s difficult to explain what use he could make of part of the sole of a woman’s shoe. It’s easier to think that he might find a sextant box useful, but finding a box for the same kind of American sextant Fred Noonan used as a back-up instrument would be an extraordinary coincidence. It seems more reasonable to attribute the objects found at the site in 1940 to exactly what they appeared to be: items worn or belonging to the castaway.

Jourdan: A woman’s shoe sole that was claimed to be from the type she wore. However, it was not the right size, and could have been from many other sources. (They theorized she wore bigger shoes while flying because her feet would swell.)

Gillespie: Mr. Jourdan’s information is at least 16 years old. TIGHAR’s current research on the shoe parts found in 1991 was published in the April 2016 issue of TIGHAR Tracks.[9]

Jourdan: Aluminum plate that had rivet patterns different than a Lockheed L10 Electra. Tighar suggested it was a repair to the plane, hence the different rivet patterns. When it was pointed out that there was no documentation of such a repair, they said it could have been an “undocumented repair.” (P.S. This is the source of the metal piece they are now touting as a window covering. It is actually very likely from a PBY flying boat. The rivet patterns DO match that!)

Gillespie: That a special window on the Electra was replaced with a plain aluminum patch while the aircraft was in Miami at the start of Earhart’s second world flight attempt is beyond question. The repair was undocumented, except in a series of irrefutable photographs.[10]

The artifact has been shown to definitely not be from a PBY flying boat.[11]

Jourdan: A bone claimed to be Amelia’s finger bone, that upon lab examination could not be verified as human, and was probably the rear flipper bone from a turtle.

Gillespie: TIGHAR never claimed the bone was Amelia’s finger bone. The following is from a press release we put out on March 1, 2011:

As detailed in the Earhart DNA Research Update released by Cecil M. Lewis, Jr., Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma Molecular Anthropology Laboratories, tests of a bone fragment that could conceivably be from Amelia Earhart’s finger are, to date, inconclusive. The bone fragment was found on Nikumaroro, known at the time of Earhart’s 1937 disappearance as Gardner Island, where a large and growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests the missing flyer and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed and lived for a time as castaways only to eventually perish on the uninhabited, waterless atoll.

The archaeological site where the bone fragment was found fits the description of where the partial skeleton of a castaway was discovered in 1940, three years after Earhart disappeared. No hand bones were found at that time so the presence of a surviving human finger bone on the site seems plausible. The bone fragment is clearly from an animal that was neither a bird nor a fish, and is structurally finger-like. The only animals known to have been on Nikumaroro that have finger-like bones are humans and sea turtles. Although there were some turtle bones in the area, all were associated with the shell – no limb bones have been identified. As described in Dr. Lewis’ report, initial tests for the presence of human mitochondrial DNA in the bone fragment were positive, but subsequent testing was unable to replicate those results. More general tests for animal DNA were negative. As Dr. Lewis says, at this time it is not possible to make any definitive statements on the bone’s origin.

Jourdan: Lumps of “clay” in the sand around the campfire that they claimed was Amelia’s poop. They even put it in a plastic bag and sent it to the U. of Oklahoma for analysis! No luck.

Gillespie: From the same press release:

The lab’s analysis of clumps of a substance recovered from the same archaeological site that may be human fecal matter has been more rewarding. The clumps’ physical characteristics were initially examined by University of Maine anthropologist Kristin Sobolik, Ph.D., who has extensive experience in analyzing ancient fecal material. She concluded the mass had some fecal properties and recommended that TIGHAR ask Dr. Lewis to further evaluate the clumps using molecular genetic methods. The University of Oklahoma Molecular Anthropology Laboratories were successful in detecting human mitochondrial DNA in the material. Unlike the bone fragment, the presence of human DNA in the clumps is unambiguous. DNA from two individuals was detected but, to date, the amount extracted is not sufficient for comparison to reference samples. More sophisticated testing is now under way in the hope of learning more.

Jourdan: A rust-colored pixel in a satellite image of the reef. They claimed it was the rusting hulk of the plane. Never mind the plane was made of aluminum, which has never been known to generate iron oxide when it corodes! Turned out to be brown algae.

Gillespie: TIGHAR never claimed the rust-colored pixels were anything but an unusual feature that was worth investigating. It turned out to be algae.

Jourdan: Some sonar images that show straight lines, claimed to be parts of the plane. Independent analysis by at least two experts, after correcting for glitches in the image, shows this feature to be much bigger than initially supposed and part of a larger geological structure. No plane.

Gillespie: There were no glitches in the image and the scaling of the object was correct. The object was anomalous in the sonar mosaic delivered to us by the contractor who conducted the survey of the reef slope. We thought it might be the airplane but we never claimed it was the airplane. It was something that needed further investigation. Upon digging into the raw sonar data, we discovered that the contractor had used only one of four sonar lines to construct the mosaic. When the other lines were examined it became apparent that there were several other similar features in the same area. They are probably low coral ridges.[12]

Jourdan: And others, equally unprovable. See a fairly scathing commentary: Randall Brink. Despite debunking of all of this, they still claim there is “mounting evidence.” The only connection between what they have found and Amelia Earhart is: They are LOOKING for Amelia Earhart.

Gillespie: It is not difficult to find critics of TIGHAR who are equally as uninformed as Mr. Jourdan. We accept that as inevitable in a subject as emotionally charged as the fate of Amelia Earhart.

Jourdan: Oh, and BTW, Niku Island is less than 4 square miles in area! It’s available for satellite imagery, aerial photography, and ground surveys. Tighar teams have visited many times over decades. Don’t you think they would have found something by now? (By contrast, we are searching 1,800 square miles at 18,000 ft. depth.)

Gillespie: I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Jourdan.

Jourdan: In conclusion, I would not advise anyone to contribute to Gillespie’s efforts if they hope that he will find the Electra. If you feel sorry for Ric and want to subsidize his personal income, or help Tighar with an educational program, or just want to get PR for associating with their expedition, fine. But don’t for a minute believe that he is conducting a valid search for Amelia!

Gillespie: It’s regrettable that Mr. Jourdan attempts to undermine TIGHAR’s efforts by resorting to personal insults.

I hope my responses to his allegations have been useful and informative to anyone who is interested in TIGHAR’s investigation, but what I have presented here is only the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find a wealth of historical documents and research reports in TIGHAR’s Earhart Project Archives, and the on-line TIGHAR Tracks archives. If you’re not already a member of TIGHAR, I invite you to join us and support our continuing research. Click HERE for several membership options.

Thank you.


Responding to Nauticos, Part Two

Continuing the response to Nauticos

Jourdan: TIGHAR has attached to one of the many legends that say she actually was doing something different and flew to an island.

Gillespie: TIGHAR thinks Earhart was doing exactly what Nauticos thinks she was doing – trying to find Howland Island. We think she was doing what she said she was doing, flying on the line north and south. Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) is south of Howland on the line. We do not think she flew there intentionally.

Jourdan: They cloak their work with a veneer of science, but actually they do a disservice to science as they start with a conclusion (that Amelia was castaway on an island) that does not agree with the primary data.

Gillespie: We did not start with a conclusion. We started, as all scientific inquiries do, with a hypothesis to be tested. It is essentially the same hypothesis the U.S. Navy formulated in 1937: that Earhart flew down the 157/337 line of position and landed on one of the islands in the Phoenix Group. The Navy only abandoned that line of investigation when brief aerial searches of the islands failed to find the airplane. The Navy’s second hypothesis – that the plane went down at sea – also failed to find any trace of the airplane. TIGHAR’s testing of the Navy’s original hypothesis has been more successful and has constantly evolved as new information has become available. We did not accept the “legend” that the bones of a castaway believed to be Earhart were found on Gardner Island until, after ten years of determined research, we tracked down the official British file that proves it happened.

TIGHAR’s “veneer” of science has enjoyed, among many others, the volunteer services of:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Laboratories
  • The National Transportation Safety board (NTSB) Laboratories
  • The National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) – since 2004 part of The National
 Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA)
  • The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL)
  • The University of Oklahoma Molecular Anthropology Laboratories
  • The U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR)

Jourdan: They cherry pick facts, make speculation look like fact, and lend credence to extraordinary claims to support their premise. They are very much like climate change deniers in this regard.

Gillespie: As detailed in Part One, this sounds more like Nauticos than TIGHAR.

Jourdan: They can be credited for doing a lot of research and collecting facts, though their interpretation of those facts is a problem.

Gillespie: It’s the facts TIGHAR has collected, not our interpretation of them, that present a problem for the Crashed & Sank theory.

Jourdan: They are VERY good at debunking other people’s theories, using a much higher standard of evidence than they apply to themselves.

Gillespie: There is only one standard of evidence: historical documents, datable photographs, and identifiable artifacts. We apply that standard to everyone. It is not difficult to debunk theories that are devoid of supporting evidence.

Jourdan: As best I can tell they take archaeological standards seriously, though I have heard the archaeologists apologize for the conclusions that Gillespie draws from their work.

Gillespie: TIGHAR is blessed with a diverse membership that includes experts in many disciplines including, among others, archival research, forensic imaging, hydrographic analysis, radio wave propagation, and archaeology. My job, as executive director, is to pull together and present the results of all aspects of the investigation. We usually reach a consensus, but not always. Members of the team who disagree with me are free to dissent but no one needs to apologize.

Jourdan: In case you want to read further, here is a summary I sent to someone privately who asked my opinion about TIGHAR’s position.

First of all, it has been my practice to stay out of Gillespie’s world. I am certainly NOT concerned that he will succeed, because the plane isn’t there! Getting drawn into a debate will only be a distraction, and time consuming. If asked publicly, I always say that he should prove his assertions, but should present real evidence.

Gillespie: I feel much the same way about Mr. Jourdan’s world, but I do not, in private or in public, attack his organization or his character.

Jourdan: Privately, if someone is interested in supporting him and asks, I have the following advice: There is no evidence that Amelia flew to Gardiner (Nikumaroro) Island.

Gillespie: I welcome the opportunity to correct Mr. Jourdan’s errors and misconceptions.

Jourdan: Tighar’s premise rests primarily on the following ad-hoc assumption, quoted from their website:

“Roughly twenty hours into the flight, and with somewhere between three and four hours of fuel remaining, Earhart and Noonan have been unable to make visual or two-way radio contact with Howland Island. They implement the only procedure available to them which will minimize the chance of having to land the aircraft in the sea: they proceed southeastward on a course of 157 degrees.”

Gillespie: What Mr. Jourdan calls an “ad hoc assumption” is known in science as a hypothesis. TIGHAR is testing the hypothesis that the Earhart/Noonan flight ended on Nikumaroro. Mr. Jourdan is testing the hypothesis that the flight crashed and sank at sea.

Jourdan: Amelia didn’t think she had much fuel left, and credible analysis (Fred Culick, Cal Tech) indicates she ran out about the time of the last radio transmission heard by Itasca. The details are highly technical.

Gillespie: The CalTech study is replete with tables, graphs, and equations, but its conclusions are only as credible as the assumptions and interpretations upon which they are based. No matter how technical the analysis, the old axiom applies, “Garbage In/Garbage Out.”

Jourdan: But let’s say she DID have 3-4 hours of fuel left (and, more to the point, THOUGHT she did). Was “flying southeastward” truly the “only procedure available”? Consider:

A. No one knew she had this “contingency plan.” Nuku was uninhabited, had no place to land, no provisions, and no one was expecting her to go there.

Gillespie: Including Earhart. There is no evidence that Earhart and Noonan had any information about the island and there is reason to believe she didn’t even know its name.

No one knows, and no one will ever know, exactly how the airplane got to Nikumaroro, but the scenario that seems to require the fewest assumptions and the least interpretation is that Earhart did exactly what she said she was doing – running on the line north and south.

B. If you had 3-4 hours of flying time left, why spend it flying 350 miles to look for another island? By far, your best bet is to do a methodical search for the island you’re supposed to be flying to. That is, “flying north and south” as Amelia said she was doing.

Gillespie: Agreed. The available evidence suggests the following scenario:

They reached the line of position shortly before 07:42 but the island did not appear (WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE U) so they knew they must be off to the north or off to the south. At 08:00 Amelia tried to take a bearing on a signal from Itasca to find out which way she should turn on the line, left or right? No luck. No bearing. The 157/337 line of position is their only lifeline. Howland is somewhere on that line.

She turns left (north) hoping they are south of Howland, but after they’ve gone as far as they dare there is still no island in sight. They conclude they must have been off to the north. Howland must be behind them, so they turn around and head back down the line to the south, back-tracking over ocean they’ve already searched. When they get to their starting point they keep going, searching southward on the line. At 08:43 she explains what they’re doing (WE ARE ON THE LINE 157 337 … RUNNING ON LINE NORTH AND SOUTH). It is worth noting that if they had not already turned around and begun searching in the other direction she would not have said “North AND South.” They continued on. Still no island. What’s wrong? Maybe they should have explored further to the north, but now there’s not enough fuel to back-track again. They have to keep going south. There is no other option. The island that appears is not Howland, but it’s an island and any island is better than no island.

C. Amelia was lost. But one thing she knew for sure is that she was NOT on the line of position that ran through Howland and Nikumaroro. If she WAS on that line, she would NOT have been lost!

Gillespie: A baffling statement. Her last in-flight transmission heard by Itasca is clear evidence that she was not “lost” in the sense of having no idea where she was. She clearly believed that she was on a 157/337 line and that running on the line was the best way to find Howland.

Jourdan: If she was able to fly precisely down 157 degrees, she would be GUARANTEED to miss Niku as well.

Gillespie: Anyone with a good nautical chart, such as Defense Mapping Agency Chart INT 52, can check it for themselves. A 157° line through Howland passes 12 nautical miles to the northeast of Gardner. The atoll would be on her starboard side – down-sun – so she wouldn’t be contending with sun glare. Gardner would be easily visible from a plane flying at 1,000 feet.

Jourdan: So, when she got to the vicinity of Nuku, she would have to search for it (see “methodical search,” above). And after flying another 350 miles, her position would be only more uncertain, and fuel certainly exhausted.

Gillespie: To fly 350 miles to get to Niku she would have to start from directly over Howland Island, which seems rather unlikely. Based on the strength of the in-flight transmissions heard by Itasca and TIGHAR’s computer-modeling of the Electra’s antenna system, the plane probably reached the line of position at a point roughly 200 nautical miles south of Howland. Gardner would be only 150 miles away, but of course she wouldn’t know that.

D. There is an argument that Niku was larger, and somehow easier to find. Maybe, but not much. It’s about twice the size (Howland is about as big as the DC Mall), only ~4 miles long and a mile wide. You would still have to be about as close to see it as you would Howland.

Gillespie: The turquoise color of a lagoon makes atolls much easier than islands like Howland to spot from the air, but it’s a moot point. If she did what she said she was doing she should have come within easy distance of seeing Niku.

E. If she did decide to fly south (and who knows what state of mind she was in?), why didn’t she tell anyone? Tighar says she sent all kinds of messages AFTER she crash-landed on the reef of Nuku, but was strangely silent for the 3-4 hours it took her to fly there, in spite of the fact that she was doing something no one would have expected.

Gillespie: Itasca should have expected her to do what she said she was doing, flying on the line north and south. She may very well have sent further messages. Her last in-flight transmission heard by Itasca was sent on her “nighttime” frequency, 3105 kHz. Since the wee hours of that morning she had made at least eight transmissions to Itasca on that frequency but had heard no reply. Now the sun was well up and she decided to try her “daytime” frequency. “WL REPT MSG WE WL REPT THIS ON 6210 KCS WAIT” Itasca listened on 6210 but heard nothing. Why? Because the plane went down? Or is there an explanation supported by actual evidence?

The last time she tried to contact someone on 6210 was the previous morning after she left New Guinea. Before leaving, she had made arrangements with the Lae radio station to call at eighteen minutes past each hour “but local interference prevented signals from the plane being intelligible until 2.18 p.m.”[1] By that time the plane had to be at least 400 nautical miles from Lae. Did the more than four hour gap between her 10:00 a.m. takeoff and 2:18 p.m. mean the plane had crashed? Or was 6210 simply not a viable short range frequency for the Electra’s problem-plagued communications system?

There is further evidence that Earhart could only be heard on that frequency at distances greater than at least 400 nautical miles. On three occasions shortly after sunset (6:31, 6:43, and 6:54 p,m.) on July 2, the radio operator on the island of Nauru, listening on 6210 kHz, heard “fairly strong signals, speech not intelligible, no hum of plane in background, but voice similar that emitted from plane in flight last night between 4:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.”[2] It is not uncommon in HF radio reception to recognize a person’s voice but not be able to make out what they are saying.

Nauru is 1,100 nautical miles from Gardner Island. Itasca, 350 miles away, heard nothing on 6210.

Jourdan: So in summary, she had no reason to go to Nuku, no plan to do so, didn’t say she was, and didn’t have enough fuel to get there anyway. All of Tighar’s subsequent “analysis” is resting on this false premise. Tighar has collected NO evidence that Amelia was on Gardiner (Nikumaroro) Island.

Gillespie: Given the abundance of errors in Mr. Jourdan’s grasp of the facts and the depth of his misconceptions about TIGHAR, it’s not hard to see why he might make such a statement.
In Part Three we’ll address Mr. Jourdan’s comments about some specific aspects of TIGHAR’s investigation and I’ll reply to his personal attack on me.


  1. Chater Report, https://tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/Archives/Documents/Chater_Report.html.
  2. Telegram from American Consul Sydney Australia to Secretary of State, Washington, DC; July 3, 1937.