As we approach the air date of “Finding Amelia” on the Discovery Channel, and the buzz about the show builds up, there’s some tendency to reduce the complexities of testing the Nikumaroro Hypothesis to “finding the airplane.” If we can find Earhart’s Lockheed Electra off Nikumaroro’s Nutiran reef, we’ll have proved the hypothesis; if we can’t, the hypothesis will be dealt a deadly blow. I think this is nonsense, and I want to tell you why.
It’s certainly true that if we find the Electra, or some definitive part of it, down there in the deep water off the edge of the reef, that will cinch the case. But I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I think it’s a mistake to even imply that anyone ought to use it as the basis for saying yea or nay to the hypothesis.
When I say I don’t think we’re going to find the airplane, that doesn’t mean I think our hypothesis is wrong. Quite the contrary; I think it’s very, very likely to be correct. We have good evidence – from radio data, from historical documents, and from archaeology, that Earhart and Noonan landed on Nikumaroro, survived for awhile, and died. We have good evidence – anecdotal, topographic, tidal, and photographic – that they landed on the Nutiran reef flat, and that the plane sat there for several days and nights before the high tides, increasing from neap to flood, washed it over the lip of the reef.
So we ought to find it down below 300 meters, where the slope of the reef face becomes less precipitous and the talus slope is probably studded with boulders on which the wreckage could get hung up. Right?
Wrong, I think. I think finding the plane, or even substantial parts of the plane, down there is a very long shot, and while I don’t disagree with plans to look for it down there, I don’t think we should let ourselves get too hopeful. And under no circumstances should anyone think that if we don’t find the plane, we’ve disproved the Nikumaroro Hypothesis.
Assuming our interpretation of the “Nessie” photo is correct, the plane – or a big chunk of it including at least one landing gear – got hung up just over the reef edge, in shallow enough water for the gear to protrude and be captured by Eric Bevington’s camera. At that point it would have been there about three months. Assuming Emily Sikuli’s recollections are correct, some elements of the wreckage were still there a couple of years later, observable by fishermen and recognizable – exactly how, we don’t know – as the remains of an airplane. Then they disappeared. What happened to them, and to whatever parts of the airplane may not have hung together with the “Nessie” wreckage?
Currents along the face of the Nutiran reef are variable, but for the most part they flow at a pretty good clip from northwest to southeast. They’re powered by trade-wind-driven swells from the northeast, sweeping around the island’s north cape. Most of the time the Nutiran reef is in the island’s lee, but there’s still plenty of power in the waves that crash on it. And the big storms that hit the island are mostly westerlies, crashing directly into the Nutiran reef. The reef face, at least its upper parts, are a high-energy environment. A fragile thing like an airplane is not likely to last long.
A decade ago, we were blessed to have on the Earhart Project Advisory Council (EPAC) Howard Allred, a New Zealand-based coral reef geologist (though he’d gone into olive growing to make his living). Tragically, we lost Howard to a brain tumor not long before the 2007 expedition. I vividly recall Howard making a presentation to an EPAC meeting – he’d flown all the way from New Zealand to participate – on what he thought the action of the ocean on the Nutiran reef would do to the Electra. It would most likely, he said, tear it to shreds, and the pieces would then move slowly southeast along the reef face, every now and then being coughed up onto the reef flat. Such fragments may be responsible for the reflective signatures that appear on some mid-twentieth century aerial photos of the southern Nutiran reef flat, and the periodic deposition of such fragments farther southeast, along the Ritiati shoreline, could be the source of the airplane parts we’ve found in the colonial village, some of them fashioned into handicrafts.
At the EPAC meeting someone – perhaps I – asked Howard where the plane parts might be by now. He said that by now they would have reached the midpoint of the shoreline, where the currents flowing down from the northwest run into those flowing up from around the southeast tip.
And how big would they be by now? Howard opined that they could be reduced to the size of sand grains.
Of course, it’s certainly possible that biggish parts of the Electra – notably those two big heavy engines – went down into deep water before they had a chance to be ground up by weather and waves. But the engines and other heavy parts of the airplane have their own problems. They’re steel, as are the pieces of the SS Norwich City that are scattered down the face of the Nutiran reef. The 2010 ROV work didn’t turn up a great deal of Norwich City wreckage on the reef face above 300 meters, but we know that the stern of the ship broke off and went down there, and much of the rest of it must have followed. There’s probably a good-sized Norwich City debris field at the base of the reef, all made of steel. Can the Electra’s steel engines or gear be distinguished from Norwich City debris? Maybe, but I’d call it a long shot.
My point is simply this. It’s very easy to imagine ways that the Electra could have done exactly what we think it did – landed on the Nutiran reef, sat there awhile, gone over the edge and been hung up for awhile in the surf zone or just below it – and leave no trace at all that’s discernible today. Except in the form of fragments collected by the colonists and brought to the village to be made into combs, fishing lures, and inlay for wood boxes. Maybe some big pieces escaped being ground to powder or coughed up in little chunks to be recycled by the colonists; maybe some big pieces slid down into the abyssal depths and can be detected. Or maybe not. It’s the old chestnut: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. If we find the plane, good, but if we don’t find it, it will not by any means discredit the Nikumaroro Hypothesis.