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Amelia Earhart’s disappearance is a decades-old mystery. Sonar images have just shed new light on the case

A sonar image captured by Deep Sea Vision, an underwater scanning company, that may show the remains of Amelia Earhart’s lost Lockheed 10-E Electra aircraft in the Pacific Ocean (Deep Sea Vision)
A sonar image captured by Deep Sea Vision, an underwater scanning company, that may show the remains of Amelia Earhart’s lost Lockheed 10-E Electra aircraft in the Pacific Ocean (Deep Sea Vision)

Amelia Earhart made her final airborne radio call at 8.43am, local time, approximately one hour after she warned the Coast Guard cutter Itasca that she was running out of fuel and could not see her target destination, Howland Island.

“We are on the line 157 337," she said from the cockpit of her Lockheed 10-E Electra aircraft. "We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.”

She did not repeat the message.

Earhart's fate has been one of America's great enduring mysteries. Her doomed 1937 attempt to become the first woman to circumnavigate the world by aircraft spawned the most expansive — and expensive — rescue operation in the history of the US Navy and Coast Guard.

Since then, countless researchers, reporters, and historians have attempted to find out what really happened to Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, high over the Pacific on the day of their disappearance.

Advances in deep sea scanning tech — and a hefty $11m investment — may finally provide some definitive answers.

Amelia Earhart stands June 14, 1928 in front of her bi-plane called
Amelia Earhart stands June 14, 1928 in front of her bi-plane called "Friendship" in Newfoundland. (Getty Images)

Deep Sea discovery

Deep Sea Vision, a Charleston, South Carolina-based company, believes it may have finally found Earhart's plane resting on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

The company began scanning the ocean floor in September. Its powerful sonar, attached to a $9m submersible named Hugin, searched the murky depths, scanning in total more than 5,200 square miles of the region where Earhart is believed to have crashed.

Approximately 16,000 feet below the Pacific's surface, resting among the silt and marine sediment, Hugin's sonar spotted something unusual; the shape of an airplane.

“Well you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that’s anything but an aircraft, for one, and two, that it’s not Amelia’s aircraft,” Deep Sea Vision’s founder, Tony Romeo, said in an interview with NBC's Today show. “There’s no other known crashes in the area, and certainly not of that era in that kind of design with the tail that you see clearly in the image.”

Mr Romeo, a former US Air Force intelligence officer, sold off his real estate assets and poured $11m into funding the expedition to find Earhart's lost plane.

"This is maybe the most exciting thing I'll ever do in my life," he told the Wall Street Journal. "I feel like a 10-year-old going on a treasure hunt."

Mr Romeo, while excited, maintained his expectations after the initial discovery. He admitted that the images could be that of rocks or some other underwater object. He noted, however, that the image does reflect the shape and dimension of the aircraft Earhart flew on her final voyage.

Unfortunately for Deep Sea Vision, the image was one of many thousands taken during their scans, and the anomaly was not discovered until three months after it had been taken. By then, the crew had traveled far from the discovery site.

With an image and coordinates in hand, the next step in unraveling the mystery will require examination of the physical remains.

Earhart's rise

Earhart's disappearance was the culmination of a decade of newspaper and radio stories documenting her record-setting flights.

On June 17, 1928, at the age of 30, she became the first woman to pilot a plane — a bright red Lockheed Vega 5B, which she called "old Bessie, the fire steed"— across the Atlantic. The endeavor made headlines across the nation.

Later, she became the first person to complete a solo flight across the Pacific, flying from California to the Hawaiian islands in 1934.

Earhart was initially treated as an aviation oddity due to her gender; news reports at the time called her the first "girl" to fly across the Atlantic, and another referred to her as an "aviatrix". At the time, the skies were dominated by men. But as she continued to prove her prowess in the cockpit she gained notoriety as a great pilot, rather than as a curious outlier. Even still, she used her growing prominence to push for equality in the skies; in an interview with the Evening Star in 1929, Earhart pleaded with the public to "give women a chance in the air."

American aviator Amelia Earhart (1898 - 1937) (centre) is surrounded by a crowd of wellwishers and pressmen on arrival at Hanworth airfield after crossing the Atlantic. (Getty)
American aviator Amelia Earhart (1898 - 1937) (centre) is surrounded by a crowd of wellwishers and pressmen on arrival at Hanworth airfield after crossing the Atlantic. (Getty)

"Women can qualify in the air as in any other sport. Their influence and approval are vital to the success of commercial aviation," she said at the time. "Women and girls write to me by the thousands to learn the truth about aviation and what women's chances are. There is nothing in women's make-up which would make her inferior to a man as an air pilot. The only barrier to her swift success is her lack of opportunity to receive proper training."

After numerous successful and record-setting flights in the late ’20s and early ’30s, Earhart set her sights on a new goal; becoming the first woman to circumnavigate the planet in an aircraft.

Following her disappearance, the public remained somewhat hopeful that she would be found to fly again another day. But after a two-month search that turned up no trace of her or Noonan, the pair were presumed dead.

Finding Amelia

Researchers have attempted to find Earhart's remains — or any evidence of her fate — since her disappearance nearly 90 years ago.

The most recent search to bear some fruit occurred in 2012, when the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery discovered that Earhart may have sent out numerous distress calls over the radio following her crash. Those transmissions, the group argues, went ignored.

"Amelia Earhart did not simply vanish on July 2, 1937. Radio distress calls believed to have been sent from the missing plane dominated the headlines and drove much of the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy search," Ric Gillespie, the executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News. "When the search failed, all of the reported post-loss radio signals were categorically dismissed as bogus and have been largely ignored ever since."

He believes Earhart crashed on Gardner Island, approximately 350 nautical miles from her intended destination on Howland Island. In his theory, Earhart spent a week calling for help before the tides washed her plane out to sea.

Mr Gillespie was skeptical of Deep Sea Vision’s discovery.

“Despite media hype, this is NOT a sonar image of Amelia Earhart’s airplane,” he wrote on his Instagram page.

In 2018, researchers used modern forensics to examine a set of human remains found on Nikumaroro Island in 1940 that were candidates for the remains of Earhart. According to Richard L. Jantz, an anthropology professor at the University of Tennessee, studied the remains and determined that they are likely those of Earhart.

Mr Jantz theorised that Earhart landed her plane on Nikumaroo and died as a castaway on the island, according to The Florida Times-Union.

Now, Deep Sea Vision's discovery looks to shake up what we know of her final days.

Next steps

Sonar experts will need to take a closer look at the object discovered by Deep Sea Vision before it can be confirmed that it is actually Earhart's lost plane.

"Until you physically take a look at this, there's no way to say for sure what that is," expert Andrew Pietruszka told the Wall Street Journal.

Mr Romeo said he planned to take his team back to the site to collect more images of the object.

“The next step is confirmation and there’s a lot we need to know about it. And it looks like there’s some damage. I mean it's been sitting there for 87 years at this point,” he said.

Until Deep Sea Vision can return, the mystery of Earhart's lost plane will remains just that.

“I think myself, that it is the great mystery of all time," Mr Romeo said. "Certainly the most enduring aviation mystery of all time."