On Oct. 20, National Geographic’s Explorer-at-Large Dr. Robert Ballard will hopefully answer the question of what happened to Amelia Earhart in a two-hour special titled Expedition Amelia. Earhart, who disappeared on July 2, 1937, at the age of 39, was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic. She was attempting to fly around the world when she was last heard from.
It’s been over 80 years since her disappearance, and there have been at least 12 searches for her and her navigator, Fred Noonan.
Ballard, who discovered the Titanic in 1985, thinks that his team has a real shot of rewriting history by solving one of the greatest mysteries of our time. At presstime in late August, he was leading a team of experts, scientists and technicians on an expedition expected to last about three weeks.
The expedition departed from the Solomon Islands and was headed to a remote Pacific atoll called Nikumaroro. In conjunction with Ballard’s search for Earhart’s plane, there was an independent team searching for the remains of Earhart and Noonan on the island itself.
Allison Fundis, who is the expedition leader and COO of the Ocean Exploration Trust, said that the technology they are using is amazing. It consists of the ship, which is 211 feet long; deep-sea robotic vehicles that will survey the entire area in which they think Earhart’s plane likely resides; drones; an autonomous surface vessel; hull-mounted sonar; and camera systems for mapping.
“Imagine you’re searching along the wall of a quarry for objects that are the size of the rocks in the quarry,” Ballard explained. “You cannot really discern the difference between a Pratt & Whitney engine —we believe the biggest object down there are the two Pratts, and they’re 930-pound engines — sitting next to rocks about 930 pounds. So, we are going visual and we’ve always gone visual. We went visual on finding the Titanic. We went visual on finding the Bismarck. We went visual on finding PT–109. That’s the way we do it.”
As for Ballard’s confidence for success? “I am not in the business of failing,” he says. “I’ve been at this 60 years, 156 expeditions under my belt. But to compare the technology I had when I found the Titanic, it was like two cans and a string compared to what we have right now.”
Expedition Amelia airs on National Geographic Channel Oct. 20 at 8pm (ET).