Having failed to find Howland Island, Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan continued on the navigational line Amelia said they were following.
In the last in-flight radio message heard by the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, Earhart said, “We are on the line 157 337 …. We are running on line north and south.” The numbers 157 and 337 refer to compass headings – 157° and 337° – and describe a Line of Position that passes through her intended destination, Howland Island. Running north and then south along that line in an attempt to find Howland makes perfect sense.
That line led them to uninhabited Gardner Island where Amelia landed the Electra safely on the island’s fringing reef.
Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro) lies on the 157/337 line 356 nautical miles from Howland – well within the Electra’s calculated range. In several places the fringing reef at Gardner Island dries at low tide and is flat and smooth enough to land an airplane.
For the next several nights they used the aircraft’s radio to send distress calls.
The post-loss radio signals are a crucial, but often neglected, piece of the Earhart puzzle. Government, commercial and private radio operators around the Pacific and in the U.S. reported hearing the distress calls. Some were transparent hoaxes but several were judged to be genuine. Lockheed engineers insisted that the plane could not transmit if afloat on the ocean. The initial phase of the U.S. Navy search was based on the assumption that the plane was on land, on its landing gear and able to operate an engine to recharge the batteries.
Radio bearings taken on the signals crossed in the vicinity of Gardner Island.
Of six bearings taken by Pan American Airways Radio Direction Finding stations on Oahu, Midway, and Wake Island, the four strongest cross near Gardner Island. A seventh bearing taken by the Coast Guard also passes near Gardner.
One week after the flight disappeared, three U.S. Navy search planes flew over Gardner Island. By then, the distress calls had stopped. Rising tides and surf had swept the Electra over the reef edge.
The available evidence points to a landing on the reef on the west end of the island. One of the last credible distress calls mentioned rising water. The aircraft appears to have been washed seaward and become hung up in the surf zone at the reef edge. A photo of the area taken by a British expedition three months later shows an unidentified object on the reef edge. Later residents of the island told of aircraft wreckage in that location.
The Navy fliers saw no airplane but they did see “signs of recent habitation.” They thought that all the islands in the area were inhabited so they moved on. In fact, no one had lived on Gardner since 1892.
From 1890 to 1892 a small work party planted coconuts. Eighteen months after Earhart disappeared the island, renamed Nikumaroro, was settled by a few dozen Pacific islanders under British colonial administration. The colony was shut down in 1963 due to a severe drought. Archaeological work in the abandoned village clearly shows that the residents had access to aircraft wreckage which they cut up and used for local purposes. Some of the recovered aluminum and Plexiglas is consistent with Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.
Earhart and Noonan lived for a time as castaways on the waterless atoll, relying on rain squalls for drinking water. They caught and cooked small fish, seabirds, turtles and clams. Amelia died at a makeshift campsite on the island’s southeast end. Noonan’s fate is unknown.
In 1940, three years after Earhart disappeared, a British Colonial Service officer found the partial skeleton of a castaway on a remote part of the island. A campfire, animal bones, a box that had once contained a sextant, remnants of a man’s shoe and woman’s shoe made him think he may have found Amelia Earhart but, based on measurements, a doctor judged the skeleton to be male and American authorities were never notified.The bones were subsequently lost, but computerized re-evaluation of the bone measurements by forensic anthropologists suggests that the skeleton was probably that of a white female of northern European descent who stood roughly Earhart’s height.TIGHAR has found a site on the island that fits the description of where the castaway’s remains were found in 1940. Archaeological excavations in 2001, 2007 and 2010 have found and recovered physical evidence suggesting residence by an American woman of the 1930s including several artifacts of the same type as items known to have been carried by Earhart. TIGHAR research has shown that serial numbers reported to have been on the sextant box found in 1940 are consistent with the make and model of sextant used by Fred Noonan.
Whatever remains of the Electra lies in deep water off the island’s west end.
TIGHAR’s 2010 expedition mapped and searched selected areas of the reef down to a depth of 300 meters (1,100 feet) using sonar and an ROV with HD video. No wreckage was found but the reef slope was discovered to be extremely steep until the slope only began to level out at 300 meters – the bottom limit of the ROV’s capability. Niku VII, held in the summer of 2012, discovered a debris field at a deeper level using better equipment. A new expedition is planned for 2014 to pursue this work.