It’s been more than 80 years since pilot Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared during Earhart’s attempt in 1937 to make a circumnavigational flight of the entire globe, and we still don’t know for sure what happened to them. But every so often, new pieces of potential evidence emerge — and this time, a report analyzing Amelia Earhart’s radio distress calls claims to paint the bigger picture of how the flight duo may have perished. The most chilling thing about the report, however, is that if its analysis is correct, dozens of people heard Earhart’s final cries for help over the airwaves.
The report was written and published by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, a nonprofit founded and led by Richard Gillespie which has been seeking to discover the truth about Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance since 1985. TIGHAR’s latest report analyzes a catalog of radio distress calls captured both by government agencies and by what are termed “accidental witnesses” — civilians who stumbled upon the distress calls purely coincidentally — which the organization completed in 2011.
One of the most famous of the “accidental witness” reports is Betty Klenck’s. Klenck, who was 15 and living in St. Petersburg, Fla. in 1937, reportedly heard what is believed to have been a distress call from Earhart via her family’s radio one day as she cruised the available stations; she jotted down what she heard in a notebook. Although Klenck’s father reported what his daughter had witnessed to the Coast Guard, it seems no action was taken by authorities — but Klenck held onto her notebook for decades. It became public in 2000; TIGHAR later acquired it and made the relevant pages available on the organization’s website.
Betty Klenck was not the only civilian to have claimed to have heard a distress call from Amelia Earhart on the radio after her disappearance, however; TGIHAR’s catalog makes that clear. And according to the group’s latest analysis, fully 57 reports, many of which were heard by civilians in similar circumstances to Klenck’s, have been determined to be either Credible or Credible Beyond Reasonable Doubt. As Gillespie noted to USA Today, these listeners neither knew each other, nor knew about each other; however, he said that according to TIGHAR’s analysis, their reports “tell a very consistent story about a deteriorating situation.” That “deteriorating situation,” believe Gillespie and TIGHAR, was that Earhart and Noonan had crash-landed on Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, part of the Phoenix Islands of the Republic of Kiribati, surviving for several days before succumbing to the ocean and their injuries.
On July 2, 1937 — the day Earhart and Noonan disappeared — between 9 and 9:45 p.m., Mabel Larremore of Amarillo, Texas reported hearing the message, “Plane down on an uncharted island. Small, uninhabited.” According to Larremore, the message stated that the plane was “partially on land, part in water,” and that both the pilot and navigator were injured. The next morning at 8 a.m., Nina Paxton in Ashland, Ky. heard a few scattered words and phrases: “KHAQQ calling,” “down in ocean,” “on or near little island at point near [unintelligible],” “directly northeast, “our plane about out of gas.” A storm was apparently brewing; “We will have to get out of here,” the message said. “We can’t stay here long.
On July 4 in the early morning, Dana Randolph in Rock Springs, Wy. said she heard, “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on a reef south of the equator. Station KH9QQ.” The signal faded before the voice conveying the message was able to give coordinates. At 10 p.m. that night, Howard Coons in San Francisco reported hearing, “Still alive. Better hurry. Tell husband all right.” Betty Klenck’s report occurred on July 5, according to the new analysis.
And on July 7 at 1:30 in the morning, Thelma Lovelace of St. Johns, New Brunswick in Canada reported hearing, “Can you read me? Can you read me? This is Amelia Earhart. This is Amelia Earhart. Please come in. We have taken in water, my navigator is badly hurt; we are in need of medical care and must have help; we can’t hold on much longer.”
This message might be the last credible trace of Amelia Earhart ever heard, according to TIGHAR's report. The analysis claims that the morning of Friday, July 9, Earhart’s plane tipped over the reef and finally sank.
TIGHAR’s report highlights the commonalities between these messages — being stuck on a reef, the mention of an uncharted island, the injuries, and the rising water — as evidence of their source. What’s more, Gillespie and senior researcher Bob Brandenburg compared the timing of the messages with the times at which high and low tides occurred on Nikumaroro — and found that, “night after night, the credible transmissions occurred only when the water level was low enough,” as Gillespie put it to USA Today. Subsequently, Gillespie believes the case for the Nikumaroro theory is stronger than ever; at the very least, the report aligns with anthropology professor Richard Jantz's assertion earlier this year that bones discovered on Nikumaroro in 1940 did, in fact, likely belong to Earhart.
TIGHAR is not without it critics, of course; the same is true of most Earhart enthusiasts with a penchant for the more complicated theories of what exactly happened to the pilot and her navigator. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning, for example, has no patience for TIGHAR, believing that Gillespie “is practicing pathological science,” as he put it in 2012. Noting that there are a number of perfectly rational explanations for what’s been recovered from Nikumaroro, Dunning wrote, “[Gillespie] has become so invested (emotionally, psychologically, and financially) in his desired conclusion that he sees only things that agree with it, and is unable to rationally assess anything that doesn't.”
Additionally, Mike Campbell, author of Amelia Earhart: The Truth At Last and the blogearharttruth.wordpress.com, has called the Nikumaroro theory to which Gillespie subscribes a “phony… cash cow,” according to a 2016 piece published at Atlas Obscura. (Per both Atlas Obscura and Smithsonian, the theory Campbell has long supported is the Saipan theory, which jumped back into the spotlight in 2017 after a viral photograph surfaced purporting to prove the theory as true. The photograph was quickly discredited, but the theory remains popular.)
Meanwhile, Dorothy Cochrane, curator in the aeronautics department of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, believes that theories like the Nikumaroro theory and the Saipan theory maintain their popularity because the official explanation — which is also the simplest explanation — just isn’t exciting or detailed enough. Working off the limited information we have, this explanation posits that Earhart and Noonan were lost and out of fuel, and subsequently crashed and sank near Howland Island. Said Cochrane to Atlas Obscura, “The problem with that is that it’s boring, and it’s unprovable at this point unless someone can find her aircraft on the bottom of the ocean.” What’s more, as Smithsonian pointed out, lots of researchers have examined the same pieces of evidence “and come to radically different conclusions.”
All of which is to say that, although the evidence might be convincing, there’s still the possibility that we’re reading it wrong. What’s more, given the amount of time that’s passed between Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance and now, the mystery will likely never be fully solved.
Obviously that’s not going to stop us from trying, though. Curiosity is an insatiable beast.
Read the full report from TIGHAR here.