Finder of RMS Titanic in bid to solve Earhart mystery

Posted on: August 20, 2019 by

In something a bit different for followers of underwater cultural heritage, and a reminder that underwater heritage is not only about shipwrecks, news this week from the New York Times amongst others that veteran underwater sleuth Dr Robert Ballard, finder of RMS Titanic, has charted a course for a remote atoll in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati to recover the remains of the plane flown by Amelia Earhart when she disappeared in 1937.

Amelia Earhart standing under nose of her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra

The disappearance of Earhart remains an enduring mystery of the twentieth century. The classic view of Earhart’s end is given by the US Navy – on or about July 2, 1937 near the end of a round-the-world flight, aviator Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were lost over the Pacific. Later in July 1937, the US Navy concluded that Earhart and Noonan died after crashing into the ocean.

Conspiracy theories abound about Earhart’s demise – for example that she was an American spy captured by the Japanese, and that she lived out her life having assumed a false identity as a New Jersey housewife.

As the Times puts it, Dr Ballard, founder of the Ocean Exploration Trust, is “the finder of important lost things”.

Undoubtedly he is a scientist to whom underwater cultural heritage owes a substantial debt. In addition to his work to locate Titanic in 1985, scattered two and a half miles beneath the Atlantic, Ballard and his team have also located the Nazi titan Bismarck and, more recently, a further 18 wrecks in the Black Sea. Ballard is reportedly confident that he and his team will solve the Earhart mystery.

The account of the Times suggests that Ballard’s epiphany – and encouragement for a successful expedition – came as a result of the presentation of an admittedly grainy black and white photograph originally taken by Eric Bevington, a British colonial officer, in October 1937 which reports suggest might show the remains of the landing gear from a Lockheed Model 10-E Electra (apparently the model of Earhart’s craft) on a reef on Nikumaroro Island (formerly Gardner Island) in the mostly uninhabited Phoenix Islands.

The NY Times also hails the important role played by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, a non-profit organisation dedicated to aviation archaeology and aviation preservation which has, it is reported, been heavily involved in searching for Earhart at Nikumaroro.

The potential discovery highlights the crucial role played by technology in such recoveries – the NY Times indicates that the Bevington photo was enhanced by experts at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and studied by intelligence analysts at the Pentagon.

Ballard’s expedition is funded by the National Geographic Society. Ballard and his team will use vessel Nautilus, which has a 3D mapping system and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs). Reports say that the National Geographic Society will air a television report on 20 October. The mission is also notable in that Ballard will according to reports share command of Nautilus with Allison Fundis, Chief Operating Officer for the Ocean Exploration Trust, whom Ballard hopes will succeed him in his work.

If successful the discovery will raise some interesting legal points, including ownership of the site and its preservation, and management of any human remains.

Of particular interest from an international law perspective is the operation of the 2001 Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention to which the site could in principle be subject. This will likely depend on where the exact remains of the craft are located and which state has jurisdiction. Kiribati has been independent since 1979. It is a sovereign state and not a states party to the 2001 Convention. That said, Ballard and his team are likely to follow strict best practice as required by the Convention (in terms of in situ preservation and so forth).

With publicity comes the risk of potential looting. It is also not clear what role the living relations of Earhart or any insurer might take to the site and whether they will seek to assert a (moral or legal) claim. Given the passage of time, however, this seems relatively unlikely. But first things first: let’s see whether the site can indeed be found.

Image credit: (c)Underwood & Underwood (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons