Numerous expeditions have provided no answers, only confirming that there are no traces of his twin-engined monoplane in areas of the ocean floor. Tony Romeo now believes his marine exploration company, based in South Carolina, has captured the silhouette of the famous American Lockheed 10-E Electra pilot.
Archaeologists and explorers are optimistic. But it remains uncertain whether the wild-haired pilot's plane was at a depth of 4,800 metres, and there are many debates about the proper handling of any object discovered.
Archivists hope that Deep Sea Vision, Romeo's company, is on the verge of solving the mystery — at least to draw attention to Earhart's accomplishments.
Regardless, the search for the first woman to fly across the Atlantic continues.
How did Deep Vision discover the object that could be Earhart's plane?
Romeo wanted to have more adventures than his career in real estate sales would allow. His father was a pilot for Pan American Airlines, his brother was a pilot for the US Air Force, and he himself had a private pilot's license. He comes from an “aviation family,” and has long been interested in the Earhart mystery.
Romeo says he sold his real estate holdings to finance the search that took place last year and to purchase an underwater drone worth $9 million (44 million Brazilian reals) from a Norwegian company. The advanced technological equipment is called Hugin 6000, in reference to its ability to penetrate the deepest layer of the ocean, at a depth of 6,000 metres.
A crew of 16 began the nearly 100-day search in September 2023, searching more than 13,000 square kilometers of ocean floor. They limited the investigation to the area surrounding Howland Island, an atoll located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Papua New Guinea and the US state of Hawaii.
But it wasn't until the team analyzed sonar data in December that they saw a vague yellow silhouette of something that looked like an airplane.
“In the end, we got an image of a target that we strongly believe is the Amelia plane,” Romeo told the Associated Press.
The next step is to pick up an underwater camera and take a closer look at the unknown object. If the images confirm the explorers' high hopes, Romeo says the goal will be to recover Electra after all this time.
Ultimately, he says, his team embarked on a costly adventure to “solve aviation's biggest unsolved mystery.” An open hatch could indicate that Earhart and her flight companion escaped after the initial impact, according to Romeo, and a cockpit display could provide information about exactly what went wrong.
Amelia Earhart: Remember the story of the pilot in the Fantastic Women panel
From alien abductions to Japanese executions, theories abound
Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared while flying between New Guinea and Howland Island, while the pilot was attempting to become the first aviator to circumnavigate the world. She radioed that she was low on fuel.
The Navy searched, but found no trace. The official US government position is that it was Earhart and Noonan who crashed the plane.
Since then, theories have entered the realm of absurdity, and include alien abduction, or the possibility that Earhart is living in New Jersey under an assumed name. Others speculate that she and Noonan were executed by the Japanese or died in a shipwreck on an island.
“Amelia is America's favorite missing person,” Romeo says.
Deep Sea Vision's foray is far from its first. David Jordan says his exploration company, Nauticos, searched unsuccessfully during three separate expeditions between 2002 and 2017 to explore an area of seafloor roughly the size of East Timor. These efforts were preceded by a $1 million (SAR 4.8 million) search in 1999 led by Dana Timmer from the US state of Nevada. As of 2014, Timmer had not given up yet, and was trying to raise nearly $2 million for another attempt.
Between 1998 and 2002, the International Historic Aircraft Restoration Group made six trips to another island in the western Pacific, under the impression that Earhart had crash-landed on a flat reef 2,900 kilometers south of Hawaii.
Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, encouraged the group in 2012 when she launched a new search for the wreck, supported by analysis of a 1937 photo believed to show the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra protruding from the island's shore.
The pilot disappeared while traveling around the world in 1937
James Delgado, a marine archaeologist, says Romeo's potential discovery would change the narrative, but “we need to see more.”
“Let's send some cameras up there and take a look,” says Delgado, senior vice president of archeology company SEARCH Inc.
The Romeo expedition used cutting-edge technology that was previously classified as “revolutionizing our understanding of the deep ocean,” Delgado says.
But he says Romeo's team needs to provide “a forensic level of documentation” to prove it is Earhart's Lockheed. This could mean aluminum patterns in the fuselage, tail configuration, and cabin details.
Jordan from Nauticus expected to see straight wings, not slanted ones, as the new sonar scan indicates, as well as engines. But he realizes that this could be explained by damage to the plane or by reflections that distort the image.
“It could be an airplane. It certainly looks like an airplane. It could be a geological feature that looks like an airplane,” he says.
Romeo's team searched for the right place near Howland Island, says Dorothy Cochrane, curator of aviation at the National Air and Space Museum. There, Earhart desperately searched for an airstrip when she disappeared on the final leg of her flight.
If the object is truly the historic plane, the question for Cochrane is whether the removal process will be safe. The amount of machinery still intact depends in part on how smoothly Earhart landed, he adds.
“This is where you really need to look at this image and say, ‘What do we have here?’” Cochrane says.
What if Earhart's Lockheed Electra plane was found?
If the blurry sonar images turn out to be the plane, international standards for underwater archeology strongly point to the plane staying put, says Ollie Farmer, a retired attorney at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a senior fellow at the Ocean Foundation.
Non-intrusive research can still be done to uncover possible causes of the plane crash, according to Farmer.
“You preserve as much history as you can,” he says. “It's not just about the wreck. It's about where it is and its context on the seafloor. That's part of the story about how and why the wreck got there. When you remove it, you destroy part of the site that could provide information.”
Rescuing the plane and placing it in a museum will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Farmer. Although Romeo could theoretically ask the court for salvage, the plane owner has the right to refuse.
Earhart bought Lockheed with money raised, at least in part, by the Purdue Research Foundation, according to a blog post from Purdue University in Indiana. She intended to return the plane to the institution.
According to Romeo, the team considers the plane to belong to the Smithsonian Institution. Acknowledging the “uncharted territory” of potential legal issues, he says his exploration company “will address them as they arise.”
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