Man who found the Titanic on the mission to solve one of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries

Melanie Chalil
Amelia Earhart disappeared in 1937 during a circumnavigational flight of the globe. — Pix courtesy of National Geographic

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 18 — When deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard and his team travelled to the remote Nikumaroro Island in the western Pacific Ocean, they not only wanted to find Amelia Earhart’s airplane but to bring it up from the bottom of the ocean.

Although they didn’t find anything in their three-week search, Ballard is positive that the team is able to find the American aviation pioneer’s plane that disappeared in 1937 during a circumnavigational flight of the globe.

After all, he is the man who found the shipwreck of the Titanic back in 1985 and has more than 150 deep-sea expeditions under his belt.

His latest mission to find the remains of Earhart’s plane is documented in Expedition Amelia, a two-hour special jointly funded by National Geographic Partners and the National Geographic Society.

For the retired navy officer and Ocean Exploration Trust president, the story of the first female aviator who flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean is one that reflected significant social themes.

Being born in Kansas just like Earhart, made the story even more personal for Ballard.

Robert Ballard is most famously known for locating the shipwreck of the Titanic in 1985.

At a time where women were not allowed to go to college, Earhart was breaking down gender barriers to make history.

“She was an inspiration to my mother who was a very smart woman but her place was at home raising children – she could have done so much professionally but she wasn’t allowed to,” said Ballard who is the first of 13 generations to go to college.

In many places in the world today, that narrative still hasn’t changed.

“We all know what’s going on in the world right now – this is not only an old story; this is a real story right now about women getting the rights to do what they can do.

“That’s why it’s important that our team has so many women on it in positions of leadership and authority and as long as we keep looking for Amelia, we keep telling that story,” he said.

Onboard the research vessel E/V Nautilus, Ocean Exploration Trust chief operating officer Allison Fundis was just one of the many women who were part of the search.

Earhart remains an inspirational figure for so many, says Ocean Exploration Trust chief operating officer Allison Fundis.

She told Malay Mail it was their mission to make sure women are equally represented at sea with the ocean exploration organisation.

“When you watch the special, you’ll see quite a few women on board, driving the cranes and working in science, it’s really remarkable,” said Fundis.

According to Ballard, there is no other research ship at sea that has as many women involved in leadership positions as the Nautilus.

“When I started out as an oceanographer, the only woman on the ship was on the bow carved out of wood – there were virtually no women in the field of oceanography,” he said.

Not knowing what they were going to find, the crew prepared a year in advance, deploying new technology such as drones, robotic vehicles and mapping software.

There, they were up against very rugged terrain and would work in total darkness as the search ran for 24 hours a day.

The research vessel E/V Nautilus combed Nikumaroro in the western Pacific Ocean for three weeks.

Fundis and Ballard said they are currently waiting for results from the forensic evidence collected at Nikumaroro and would return to scour the other side of the island if DNA evidence confirms that Earhart died there.

The team, who have a major contract with the US government to map America’s territorial trust islands, will head to Howland Island in 2021 to continue their search.

Back in Malaysia, Earhart made headlines last month after a mural of her was presented in Taiping, Perak – the aviator stopped at the now-defunct Tekah Airport to refuel on June 7, 1937 before flying off to Singapore and New Guinea.

“If you look at any of these great legends, they have so many different sub-stories,” said Ballard.

Eighty-two years after Earhart disappeared with her navigator Fred Noonan, she continues to fascinate many.

“I think it’s really because of how she lived her life and who she was, just how brave of a pioneer she was for so many people.

Forensic evidence collected at Nikumaroro being studied.

“She is still a very inspirational figure for so many people. She was definitely a woman that was very ahead of her time,” said Fundis.

Expedition Amelia premieres November 2, 10pm on National Geographic ASTRO Ch 553 (SD) & Ch 573 (HD) and Unifi TV Ch 508.

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