A plane disappears without a trace. Advanced technology proves unable to explain the mystery. Conspiracy theories fly. The world awaits the fate of an aircraft that went down in a vast, open ocean.
Sound like the saga Malaysian Airlines Flight 370? Yes – but two accident investigators are still debating the fate of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra, which disappeared during her failed attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937.
“You’ll never convince true believers that they aren’t right,” says Elgen Long, an 86-year-old U.S. Navy air combat veteran and air accident investigator who spent almost 40 years investigating Earhart’s disappearance. “You’re just confusing them with facts.”
Long’s theory isn’t sexy: He says Earhart’s plane ran out of gas, crashed and sank.
“The inescapable conclusion is that shortly after 0843 IST, Earhart was forced to ditch the plane somewhere within 100 miles of Howland Island,” Long wrote in his 2009 book “Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved,” the product of interviews with more than 100 witnesses, including radio operators who worked with Earhart.
But how certain can Long be about Earhart’s fate, especially if her plane has not been found?
“I’m absolutely certain,” he says.
Not everyone shares his confidence.
“Elgen is the patron saint of ‘crashed and sank,’” says Richard Gillespie, a pilot, accident investigator and the 66-year-old founder of the Pennsylvania-based International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. “I don’t think Elgen fundamentally understands the methodology of figuring out what is true.”
Gillespie’s theory about Earhart’s fate is more elaborate: He says the aviator and Fred Noonan, her co-pilot, went down on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, in the Western Pacific.
There, says Gillespie, Earhart and Noonan survived for some time before succumbing to starvation — and left evidence.
“I can’t search an ocean, but I can search an island,” Gillespie says.
Abandoning aviation for archaeology, Gillespie claims to have found objects on and around Gardner Island that date from the 1930s and may have belonged to Earhart, including metal from her plane, a compact, a zipper and a jar of freckle cream.
Earhart, he says, had freckles — and hated them.
“Elgin’s hypothesis has been tested several times,” Gillespie says. “Four different efforts have failed to find [the plane]. We’re the only people who have gone out and found stuff.”
Long is skeptical.
“Rick’s going back to his old piece of metal again,” he says.
As this decades-old argument rages — well, maybe “simmers” is a better word — it seems impossible that a Boeing 777 could have vanished in the age of Facebook check-ins and live-tweeting. Yet, almost a week after Flight 370 disappeared, GPS and satellite imagery have proven as helpful as Earhart’s sextant — if she had one.
For two veteran accident investigators, that’s not surprising. Gillespie points out that questions about the reliability of electronic communication such as Flight 370’s engines, which regularly “pinged” satellites, parallel questions about the reliability of radio transmissions from Earhart’s Electra.
“That kind of thing happened,” Gillespie says. “It could happen again.”
Meanwhile, Long says Flight 370 could have fallen victim to cabin decompression. Or an engine could have exploded. Or it could have hit a bird.
Though they don’t think the same way about Earhart’s fate, Long and Gillespie agree on another point.
“All sorts of things can happen to an airplane,” Long says.
Justin Moyer is on the Outlook staff. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.