Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thoughts on MH370

Since the disappearance of Air Malaysia Flight MH370 and its 329 passengers and crew I’ve been asked repeatedly about whether the 1937 Earhart/Noonan disappearance provides any insights into what may have happened.  I’m not the best person to ask, of course, and I’m relieved to pass the baton to Ric Gillespie to provide authoritative opinions.

One thing I will say, though, is that the MH370 disappearance has given me some insights into the Earhart/Noonan mystery – or rather, into how people have reacted to that mystery over the decades.  These insights fall into four categories.

1.      Regarding authoritative conclusions.  As of a couple of days ago, the Malaysian authorities decided that MH370 “ended” in the southern Indian Ocean, and it was remarkable – to me at least – how quickly the mainstream media accepted this conclusion.  I got the feeling that the media just felt like the story had run its course and it was time to go on to other news (of which, of course, there is plenty).  But the U.S. Navy was pretty definitive back in 1937, too, when it decided that Earhart and Noonan had gone into the drink.  Seventy-seven years on, it looks a lot like this decision was ill-informed.  I wonder whether back then, as (seemingly) now, it just seemed to the authorities and the media like there was nothing more to say and it was time to move on.

2.      Developing conspiracy theories.  Acceptance of the “official explanation” for the MH370 disappearance, such as it is, seemed to happen so precipitously, based on so little evidence, that even I – and I’m pretty gullible – began suspecting things.  Is the official story really the most likely one, or is it … well, covering something up?  I have no dog in the fight; I knew no one on MH370, have no personal or professional or political reason to be concerned, and yet I found myself raising an eyebrow, thinking “hmmm……”  So I find myself with new sympathy for the Earhart/Noonan conspiracy theorists like Mike Campbell of “The Truth At Last” (  Not that I think they’re right, but that I can better understand the skepticism that motivates them.

3.      Blaming the victim.  If the rush to accept the official MH370 explanation seems a bit premature, the rush to ascribe the plane’s loss to pilot suicide seems downright unseemly.  Maybe it’s true, but I haven’t seen a shred of relevant evidence.  This too reminds me of some official (and other) reactions to the Earhart/Noonan disappearance, that blamed Earhart for her own (and Noonan’s) demise.  She was said to just not have been a very good pilot, not to have thought things through, not to have prepared well enough, to have been more or less incompetent.  To judge from TIGHAR’s research, Earhart did make some serious, maybe fatal mistakes, but she was by no means incompetent; she seems to have done a solid, professional job of finding a place to land and putting her plane down in one piece.  But blaming her, I suppose, was part of making the whole disappearance understandable, and so it may be with the ostensibly suicidal crew of MH370.

4.       Insensitivity to the families.  I can only shudder at some of the news accounts quoting searchers as expressing “hope” that the satellite images from the southern Indian Ocean represent parts of the Boeing 777.  Have these people, I thought, no concern at all for how that plays with the families of those lost?  We HOPE for evidence that your loved ones have gone to the fishes?  Wouldn’t there be some more discrete, more sensitive way to say it?  I have new appreciation for the anguish that Earhart’s family, and Noonan’s, must have gone through in the weeks, months, years after the ’37 disappearance, and for how even now the enthusiasms of Earhart researchers, including TIGHAR, may seem pretty crude and unfeeling to family members. 

So, no, the Earhart/Noonan disappearance doesn’t give me any insights into what happened to MH370, but the MH370 disappearance informs me, sadly, about the events of July 1937.

Friday, March 7, 2014

This Year’s Expedition, Next Year’s Visit

Next Wednesday, March 12th, at noon, there’ll be a TIGHAR press conference at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, in Washington DC, announcing plans for the late 2014 search of Nikumaroro’s NW (Nutiran) reef using manned submersibles.  More info is on TIGHAR’s website,

And plans are progressing nicely for June of 2015, when Ric and I look forward to guiding about 120 of our closest friends on a visit to Nikumaroro, with the opportunity to do a little focused on-land research.  Betchart Expeditions has just published and is now distributing a detailed trip brochure; you can get one from their website,

The Betchart trip will run from June 17 to July 3.  We’ll start and return to Fiji, aboard MV Reef Endeavor, and make a couple of stops en route to Niku.  On Niku, besides giving people the chance to see the sites (Seven Site, Shoe Site, likely landing site on the reef) and sights (Coconut crabs, boobies, spectacular lagoon, lovely sunrises and sunsets,scaevola), we want to try to do a small survey project or two that have a chance of turning up a piece of the Electra.  We’re kicking around three ideas:

1. Systematic intensive survey of the eroding shoreline of Ritiati, the land unit containing the colonial village and government station.  The reef flat here is one of the places where plane parts would most likely wash up if the plane wound up where we think it did, AND it’s where plane parts would likely wash out if they’d been picked up and used in the village.  We know, of course, that plane parts WERE used in the village; we’ve found them – we just haven’t found any that are absolutely positively without question from a Lockheed Electra.  So, an intensive survey of the Ritiati shoreline – which is constantly eroding due to rising sea levels, so what wasn’t visible last year may be lying right there in plain sight this year – may be productive.

2. Search for the “Wheel of Fortune.”  The WOF was noted in 2002 by a biological survey party from the New England Aquarium, in Tatiman Passage, but neither recorded in detail nor collected.  TIGHAR made a vigorous effort to find it in 2003, to no avail.  It may have been blown away in a storm, but then again, maybe somehow we missed it.  It was apparently about the right size to be an Electra wheel.  We could do a systematic wading survey to take another crack at it.

3. Show ourselves the door.  During the 2011 interviews with Niku veterans now living in the Solomon Islands, our team was told about what people thought might have been an airplane’s door, found and played with by kids on Aukaraime South SE of Baureke Passage – that is, in the neighborhood of the 1991 Shoe Site.  It’s a long shot – looking for something that elderly people today recall playing with as kids – but maybe worth a close look.

Those are the major candidates for survey projects, but I’d be very interested in getting additional suggestions.  Any ideas?