Ballard, team searching off Nikumaroro Island for Earhart’s plane

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Robert Ballard
URI Professor Robert Ballard, photo courtesy National Geographic

KINGSTON, R.I. — August 13, 2019 — University of Rhode Island oceanography professor Robert Ballard and his team, aboard Ocean Exploration Trust’s E/V Nautilus, are positioned off Nikumaroro Island, a remote atoll in the western Pacific on an expedition to find Amelia Earhart’s airplane.

A photo, taken by a British colonial officer in 1937, provided a clue to where the aviator may have crashed and U.S. intelligence officials who viewed the image said the object in the photo appeared to match the type of plane Earhart was piloting.

Ballard said during a recent telephone interview that if his team finds the wreck, they plan to raise portions of the plane, including its two Pratt & Whitney engines, for conservation and preservation. Joining Ballard, National Geographic, and the Ocean Exploration Trust on the expedition are URI graduate students Megan Lubetkin and Kristopher Krasnosky.

Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared more than 80 years ago during her around-the-world flight. Earhart’s plane was reported missing July 2, 1937, during the second-to-the last leg of the flight after taking off from Lae, Papua New Guinea.

Ballard, the ocean explorer who found the Titanic in 1985, departed Aug. 7 from Samoa for Nikumaroro. The expedition will be filmed by National Geographic for a two-hour documentary airing Oct. 20. In addition to his work at URI, Ballard is an explorer-at-large at National Geographic.

Amelia Earhart, photo courtesy National Geographic
Amelia Earhart, photo courtesy National Geographic

“She was supposed to land at Howland Island, (a territory of the United States that is about 1,650 miles southwest of Honolulu),” Ballard said. “The Coast Guard even made a landing strip there for her.”

She never arrived. Instead, Ballard believes, like The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), that the deep ocean surrounding Nikumaroro is the final resting place of the plane.

“Think of the island as a mesa with a flat-top mountain that rises up 10,000 feet,” Ballard said. “So it’s a 10,000-foot volcanic mountain that is very steep going up to its summit. We believe she landed on the reef near the edge of a cliff. Eventually, the plane slid down the steep slope into the deep ocean. The plane will probably be in pieces, which will actually be good for us. If you can find one piece, you can find them all. And so our first order of business will be to make an extremely detailed map.”

Ballard said the first goal is to find the plane, but that the team will also be searching on land for the remains of Earhart following leads discovered by previous expeditions to the island. The land-based expedition team will be using bone-sniffing dogs, which have been specially trained to lead archaeologists to human remains, to conduct the search.

“Whatever we find will be turned over to the local government of Kiribati,” he added.