Robert Ballard has no doubt he will be the man to solve one of the most well known mysteries of history: the disappearance of Amelia Earhart‘s plane.An oceanographer and former Navy officer, the 77-year-old made a name for himself discovering iconic ships, such as the Titanic, the Bismarck and even John F. Kennedy‘s sunken PT-109.Now, on Thursday he’s taking off from a California airport and headed to Nikumaroro, an uninhabited Pacific island where one theory posits that Earhart emergency-landed her plane before her disappearance.“I wouldn’t be going if I wasn’t confident…. Failure is not an option in our business,” Ballard said on the phone from Beverly Hills. “If I get one piece, I get them all.”Ballard said he’s doing this for his mom and Earhart, who was also from his home state of Kansas.He believes, based on a lot of the evidence collected by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, that Earhart did not crash somewhere in the Pacific, nor was she taken prisoner by the Japanese. Instead, every bone in his body tells him all signs point to Nikumaroro.
Underwater archaeologist/TV personality Robert Ballard, of the television show “100th Anniversary Titanic Specials,” speaks during the National Geographic Channel and Nat Geo WILD portion of the 2012 Television Critics Association Press Tour at The Langham Huntington Hotel and Spa on January 13, 2012 in Pasadena, California.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
He credits his certainty to 60 years in the field and 160 research expeditions. His confidence is only bolstered by the top-line equipment he has with him.On Aug. 7, he will depart Somoa and spend three weeks with a mostly female crew, crawling the depths surrounding the isolated island that now belongs to the Micronesian state of Kiribati. The expedition will cover land and sea, with Ballard leading the underwater exploration using the E/V Nautilus , a 64-metre research vessel equipped with echo sound technology, remotely operated vehicles, a wet lab and a data lab. Archeologist Fredrik Hiebert will comb sites on the island, National Geographic reported, searching for any human remains or personal items that might belong to Earhart or Fred Noonan, her navigator.Robots will be working around the clock, constantly sending data to the ship.“The technologies we have now makes things possible that were never possible before. We have new robotics systems, mapping systems, we have quite a quiver of arrows that we can throw at this and we have all of them,” Ballard said.Nearly a decade after Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1928, she attempted the longest circumnavigation of the world in a Lockheed Electra E10, flying roughly around the equator. She was accompanied by navigator Noonan, who would help chart her path along the way.On May 20, 1937, she took off from Oakland, Calif. and travelled east, hitting stops in Miami, Khartoum, Calcutta and Singapore. Her last documented stop was in Lae, New Guinea on July 2, 1937.TIGHAR, a non-profit headed by Ric Gillespie, theorizes Earhart landed her plane on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner’s Island, about three hours after she took off from Lae.She was destined for Howland Island, one of the last stops on her 47,000-kilometre journey, when she would have started running out of gas, Gillespie said.“The last thing she … said to the coast guard was she was flying along a particular navigational line.” That line she was flying — 157, 337 — directly overlays atop Nikumaroro.
A map showing the navigational line Amelia Earhart said she was travelling.
What makes Gillespie further believe that Earhart landed on Nikumaroro was that from 6 to 9 p.m. that night, the coast guard started hearing radio signals on her frequency. This is particularly important, because if she crash landed, her plane would not be able to send radio signals, he said. In order for the radio to function properly, the engine had to have been running — which would not have been possible if she was floating in the ocean.For several days, she would send out radio signals, but the U.S. Navy was unable to find her when the USS Colorado finally made it to the island on July 9 — she stopped sending out calls for help on July 7.TIGHAR found that the bones discovered on the island in the 1940s likely belonged to Earhart because the territory was uninhabited.
American aviator Amelia Earhart smiles May 22, 1932 upon arriving in London, England having become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic alone.
It also discovered the notebook of Betty Klenck, a 15-year-old girl at the time in St. Petersburg, Fla. Klenck said she heard frequencies on her short wave radio and the frightened voice of a woman saying “This is Amelia Earhart, this is Amelia Earhart.”This particular fact resonated with Ballard, who said reading her notebook was chilling. “It’s so descriptive of everything we know about Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, including his wife’s name and the location,” he said.Gillespie believes he has solved the mystery of Earhart, saying the evidence points to her landing on Nikumaroro after running low on fuel. Still, “people want the plane.”TIGHAR has been on about a dozen search expeditions, but its resources were limited, only being able to go as deep as 1,200 metres off the coast. With Ballard’s vessel, his equipment can discover objects as much as 7,000 metres below sea level.Ballard “expects to be successful,” but he recognizes there will be challenges. “Imagine I gave you a flashlight and told you to find my wallet in the Grand Canyon, in the dark,” he said.Gillespie describes Nikumaroro as a coral atoll that grew around the crater of an extinct, sunken volcano. Ballard noted that the surface of the atoll sits just 15 metres above sea level and Earhart would have landed at low tide, just on the edge of the crater.“It wouldn’t take much to push (the plane) over the cliff,” Ballard said.The side of the volcano is very steep. That actually helps Ballard narrow his search area. Think about how a plane might hit the side of a mountain, he said. “I’m searching for it at right angles.”
An aerial photo showing the coral atoll Nikumaroro. Seven Site is where bones thought to belong to Earhart were found.
He also noted that iron has a tendency to turn coral black while the metal itself turns orangey-yellow underwater, which could help him spot a piece of the plane.Ballard likened himself to a hunter, noting that just like a hunter searches for signs left by wildlife, he imagines the mindset of his prey.“I’ve been hunting tracks for 60 years. You get into the mind of (Earhart). What decision was she making? How did she react? You become a part of the action and look at the consequences of what happened and let that guide you and tell you what to look for.”National Geographic is funding the Ballard expedition, and will air a two-hour special called “Expedition Amelia” on Oct. 20.