COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A grainy sonar image recorded by a private pilot has revived interest in one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the past century: what happened to Amelia Earhart when her plane disappeared during her flight around the world in 1937?
Numerous expeditions have yielded nothing, only confirming that parts of the ocean floor showed no trace of her twin-tailed monoplane. Tony Romeo now believes his new South Carolina-based marine exploration company has captured a sketch of the iconic American Lockheed 10-E Electra.
Archaeologists and explorers are hopeful. But whether the disheveled pilot’s plane is at a depth of about 15,000 feet remains to be seen. And many debates about the proper handling of any object have been discovered.
Archivists are hopeful that Romeo’s Deep Sea Vision has come close to solving the puzzle, if only to draw attention to Earhart’s achievements.
Either way, the search is on for the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.
How did Deep Sea Vision detect the object that could be Earhart’s plane?
Romeo wanted more adventure than his commercial real estate career. His father flew for Pan American Airlines, his brother is an Air Force pilot and he himself has a private pilot’s license. Coming from an “aviation family,” he had long been interested in the Earhart mystery.
Romeo said he sold his real estate interests to finance last year’s search and bought a $9 million underwater drone from a Norwegian company. The state-of-the-art technology is called the Hugin 6000 – a reference to its ability to penetrate the deepest layer of the ocean at 6,000 meters (19,700 feet).
A crew of 16 people began a roughly 100-day search in September 2023, scouring more than 13,468 square kilometers of seabed. They limited their research to the area around Howland Island, an atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.
But it wasn’t until the team looked at the sonar data in December that they saw the faint yellow outline of what looked like an airplane.
“We finally came up with an image of a target that we very strongly believe is Amelia’s plane,” Romeo told The Associated Press.
The next step is to take a camera underwater to better examine the unidentified object. If the footage confirms the explorers’ greatest hopes, Romeo said the goal would be to retrieve the long-lost Electra.
Ultimately, Romeo said his team undertook the costly adventure to “solve aviation’s greatest unsolved mystery.” An open hatch could indicate that Earhart and her flight companion escaped after the initial collision, Romeo said, and a dial in the cockpit could provide insight into what exactly went wrong.
From alien abduction to Japanese execution, theories abound
Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared while flying from New Guinea to Howland Island as part of her bid to become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the globe. She had radioed that she was running low on fuel.
The Navy searched but found no trace. The official position of the US government is that Earhart and Noonan crashed their plane.
Since then, the theories have become absurd, including alien abduction, or Earhart living in New Jersey under an alias. Others speculate that she and Noonan were executed by the Japanese or died as castaways on an island.
“Amelia is America’s favorite missing person,” Romeo said.
‘We need to see more’
Maritime archaeologist James Delgado said Romeo’s potential find would change the story, but “we need to see more.”
“Let’s put some cameras there and take a look,” said Delgado, senior vice president of the archaeological firm SEARCH Inc.
Delgado said Romeo’s expedition used cutting-edge, world-class technology that was once classified and is “revolutionizing our understanding of the deep ocean.”
But he said Romeo’s team must provide “a forensic level of documentation” to prove it is Earhart’s Lockheed. These could be the patterns in the aluminum of the fuselage, the configuration of the tail and details from the cockpit.
David Jourdan said his exploration company Nauticos searched unsuccessfully on three separate expeditions between 2002 and 2017, exploring an area of the seabed about the size of Connecticut.
He had expected to see straight wings, not swept wings, as the new sonar suggests, and also engines. But that could be explained by damage to the plane or reflections distorting the image, he acknowledged.
‘It could be a plane. It certainly looks like an airplane. It could be a geological feature that looks like an airplane,” he said.
Dorothy Cochrane, curator of aviation at the National Air and Space Museum, said Romeo’s crew was looking in the right spot near Howland Island. That’s where Earhart desperately looked for a landing strip when she disappeared during the last leg of her flight.
If the object is truly the historic aircraft, the question for Cochrane will be whether it is safe to retrieve it. How much of the machinery remains intact would be determined in part by how smoothly Earhart landed, she added.
“That’s where you really have to look at this image and say, ‘What do we have here?’” Cochrane said.
What if Earhart’s Lockheed Electra is found?
If the faint sonar images turn out to be the plane, international standards for underwater archeology would strongly suggest the plane remains where it is, said Ole Varmer, a retired attorney with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation.
Non-intrusive investigations can still be conducted to reveal why the plane may have crashed, Varmer said.
“You preserve as much of the story as possible,” Varmer said. ‘It’s not just about the wreck. It is where it is and its context on the seabed. That’s part of the story of how and why it got there. If you make it, you will destroy part of the site, which could yield information.”
Lifting the plane and placing it in a museum would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Varmer said. And while Romeo could potentially file a salvage claim in court, the plane’s owner has the right to deny it.
Earhart bought the Lockheed with money raised, at least in part, by the Purdue Research Foundation, according to a blog post from Purdue University in Indiana. And she planned to take the plane back to the school.
Romeo said the team believes the plane belongs in the Smithsonian. He acknowledged the “uncharted territory” of potential legal issues and said his exploration company “will address these as they arise.”
Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia. Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.