New clues in Earheart disappearance
Discovering Amelia Earhart's fate may rest on two new clues.
While a new search for the missing aviator and her navigator by intrepid ocean explorer Dr Robert Ballard found no wrecked aircraft, significant discoveries were made.
"Expedition Amelia", revealing the results of this August expedition in the Pacific, is set to screen on Tuesday night (October 22) on the National Geographic channel.
Dr Ballard, famous for his discovery of the Titanic and Bismark wrecks, is not deterred by the fact no aircraft was found.
"Well, they all get away initially, you know," Dr Ballard told news.com.au.
"Titanic, there were four missions … Bismark we didn't get until the second one. Guadalcanal, we didn't get the (HMAS) Canberra until the second time. So we're used to second."
The multimillion-dollar, two-week search covered every inch of remote Gardner (Nikumaroro) Island, part of the Phoenix Islands group in the Republic of Kiribati.
Search parties probed its surface. Aerial drones scoured the small coral atoll and its surrounding reefs. A floating drone explored the shallow waters just offshore. The survey ship Nemo circled at a distance, mapping the cliffs of the rugged seamount with its powerful sonars. Two robotic submarines probed deep underwater trenches.
But the best results came from remarkably low-tech methods.
The sharp eye of an academic researcher identified one and another was sniffed out by a team of specialist tracking dogs.
Dr Ballard remains confident the mystery will be solved - if not from clues recovered during this expedition, then by a follow-up search in 2021.
ON THE SCENT
"I'm a hunter - you have to become the prey that you're hunting," 77-year-old Ballard told National Geographic in August.
"I put myself in that cockpit, and I began becoming Amelia."
The fliers were on the last legs of their high-profile around-the-world flight. Earhart was on the brink of becoming the first woman to complete the epic journey.
But, one last hurdle brought her - and the world's - hopes down.
Taking off from New Guinea, she set out for a mere pinprick in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean: Howland Island. It was a vital refuelling point for Earhart's Lockheed Model 10 Electra aircraft on the way to Hawaii.
Earhart and Noonan never arrived.
Her frantic radio calls attempting to contact the makeshift airfield were picked up by the US Coast Guard Cutter stationed there.
Eventually, they fell silent.
Earhart was a darling of the world's media. She captured the essence of a liberated woman. In an era of speak-easies and flappers, she was an independent spirit taking on men at their own game.
The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca spent a fortnight in the waters around Howard Island in search of the wreckage.
Nothing was found.
Earhart's millionaire husband, George Putnam, paid for ships to continue the search.
Nothing was found.
Decades of study has focused on her last radio messages, some of which may have been picked up halfway around the world.
The last confirmed message, however, was received by the US Coast Guard cutter at Howland Island. It heard Earhart saying they would follow a flight line of 157SE 337NW.
That would have taken her close to Gardner (Nikumaroro) Island.
SECRETS IN THE SAND
"I wouldn't totally write Gardner Island off," Dr Ballard said.
"We're waiting on two things. We're waiting on the analysis of soil from where they believe a skeleton was taken off the island by the British and then later lost. "
He said the cadaver dogs brought to the island by the expedition had signalled the scent of human remains in the soil under a wrecked bivouac shelter.
"So we're waiting to see if we get any DNA evidence … I'm sort of holding my fire right now."
The second wait is also promising.
There is a chance the missing Garden Island human remains - a cluster of 13 bones recovered three years after she disappeared - have been located.
Dr Erin Kimmerle of the University of South Florida is seeking to determine if the bones she found in the Te Umwanibong Museum on the island of Tarawa, Kiribati, were those autopsied by doctors in Fiji in 1940.
She found remnants of a female skull sitting on an unmarked shelf.
"They had four or five large boxes of remains that were co-mingled," Dr Kimmerle told Fox News.
"The skulls that were there, there was one set of female remains that matched that description."
Dr Ballard concedes the clues for Earhart's whereabouts are thin. Radio messages suggesting she had force-landed on a coral reef were unverified. And the rest was based on imputations based on weather observations, her course and observations made by the US Coast Guard cutter stationed at Howland Island to meet her.
And then there was a blurry photo taken by a British officer surveying Pacific Islands in 1940, shortly after the outbreak of war with German in 1939.
The photo - after undergoing a variety of digital image enhancements - appeared to show something that seemed to fit the outline of the Lockheed Electra's landing wheel struts and structure.
The risk was that it had long since been washed away. Or that they saw the shapes they wanted to see in the fuzzy cloud of pixels, in much the way faces and animals appear in clouds.
Dr Ballard said the picture became something of a joke, with his explorers jibing each every time they found a boulder that it was the "landing gear rock".
But the strength of the evidence isn't what the search is about, Dr Ballard says.
"We don't have a dog in the fight. Our job is to prove the wrong idea wrong and the right idea right. We'll see how it flows out."
This year's search was not a failure, he says. They know where the plane isn't.
NEEDLE IN AN OCEAN
If the DNA from either source proves points towards Earhart or her navigator, then the RV Nautilus will soon be headed back to Gardner Island.
If not, the team will explore the waters around Howland Island where she had been scheduled to land.
"The reason we took on Gardner Island first is our present diving ability is limited to 4000 meters, so that island was within our technological capabilities," Dr Ballard said. "But with Howland Island, you have to have a 6000m capability - which we're bringing online next year".
He says his research vessel Nautilus will remain in the Pacific surveying the sea floor for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), putting it in the ideal position to resume the hunt.
Earhart's Lockheed Electra won't be the only subject of that search. Dr Ballard says the Nautilus will also be hunting the wreck of an early PanAm airliner - piloted by its chief pilot - that mysteriously went down in the Pacific.
But the 2021 Howland Island search, Dr Ballard says, will be tough.
"The search area is almost equal to that of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 … and you know how long and how challenging that search has been."
The depth of water needing to be searched is also similar. But Earhart's Electra is much smaller than a Boeing 777.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation | @JamieSeidel