The Search for Amelia Earhart:

Covering the 2017 Nikumaroro Expedition


A Component of The Archaeology Channel Conference on Cultural Heritage Media at Hilton Eugene and Conference Center, Eugene, Oregon, USA May 3 - 5, 2018



The 2017 expedition to Nikumaroro Island organized by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery and led by Dr. Tom King was part of a long-term research project to solve the Amelia Earhart mystery. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared in the Pacific on July 2, 1937, during her attempt to become the first to pilot an aircraft on an equatorial route around the globe. This expedition afforded an opportunity to capture the story of the search for Earhart in media. Both National Geographic and Archaeological Legacy Institute organized officially sanctioned media undertakings for this purpose. Most of the individual participants shot video and still pictures as well. This symposium is a venue for media organizations and individual participants to share their approaches for capturing images and sound on this expedition as well as for conducting the scientific research that was the focus of the media work.


This is the first Amelia Earhart-Fred Noonan Symposium. The deadline for submitting Symposium abstracts as Midnight Jan. 31, 2018. The Symposium is a component of The Archaeology Channel Conference on Cultural Heritage Media and International Film Festival.


The Archaeology Channel Media Coverage & Search Assistance on Niku

Presenter: Rick Pettigrew

Presenter Affiliation: President, The Archaeology Channel



The Nikumaroro expedition of 2017 was a unique opportunity for Archaeological Legacy Institute (ALI) to pursue its nonprofit mission and demonstrate its media capabilities in a high-profile project. As ALI Executive Director and with support from National Geographic, I sailed with the research team to Nikumaroro as a media professional to shoot footage of the proceedings for a pending documentary production. At the same time, as an archaeologist I found it impossible to ignore the intriguing archaeological challenges of the project. As a result, the media coverage and research fieldwork became comingled in my daily activities on the boat and on the island. I came away with a treasure trove of images as well as unanticipated insights into the many avenues of research in the effort to test the proposition that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed and perished on Nikumaroro.


National Geographic Coverage of the 2017 Nikumaroro Expedition

Presenter: Fred Hiebert

Presenter Affiliation: National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.



National Geographic provided significant support for the 2017 Nikumaroro Expedition because it presented a fascinating and important opportunity to produce compelling TV content. A Nat Geo team of four embedded within the field personnel generated daily news reports for public consumption and shot footage for a potential documentary TV production. At the same time, I participated with the archaeological field crew headed by Tom King of TIGHAR in exploring the Seven Site. This report describes the media and archaeological work from the perspective of National Geographic.


If the Shoe Doesn't Fit, Must One Quit?

Presenter: Joe Cerniglia

Presenter Affiliation: TIGHAR member since 2010; author of TIGHAR reports on Freckle Ointment Jar, Foil Artifact, Lotion Bottle, Capacitor, Turtle Bones, the Pharmacy Vial and others.

Presenter Biography:

Joe Cerniglia was a member of the 2015 and 2017 Betchart expeditions to Nikumaroro. A focus of his Earhart research is the analysis of land-based artifacts from the island. He has authored several Earhart Project research papers and bulletins for TIGHAR. His most recent paper about a small amber medicinal vial found on Nikumaroro was featured in Dr. Thomas King's Amelia Earhart Archaeology website. Joe is a member of TIGHAR's Earhart Project Advisory Council.


The remains of five ancient shoes on Nikumaroro found between 1940 and 2017 tell a story of someone having footwear on the island. Did Amelia Earhart or Fred Noonan (or both) wear/share any of them? What are the arguments for and against? What are the shoes' archaeological contexts? Did colonists have them? I will discuss: shoe prints in forensic work; professional shoe fitting; why it matters; limits of shoe-height extrapolations; difficulties judging size; how shoes shaped public perception of the hypothesis; and what we know and don't know about the shoes worn by Amelia and Fred on the world flight. I'll touch on Michael Cassidy's landmark book, Footwear Identification, and the later work of Eugene Giles and Paul Vallandigham. Finally, we will ask what is to be made of the brass-grommeted shoe found in the old village during the 2017 expedition. This shoe will be available for brief viewing afterward.


Utilizing Specially Trained Canines in the Search for Amelia The Challenges and Solutions

Presenter: Lynne Engelbert

Presenter Affiliation: Institute for Canine Forensics

Presenter Biography:

Lynne Englebert has 25+ years of detection dog training and handling experience and is a member of the Institute for Canine Forensics. Lynne and Piper, her border collie, are currently certified as a Historical Human Remains Detection (HRD) team. Lynne is an instructor for HRD, disaster search and canine decontamination. She has worked with law enforcement agencies in doing maintenance training with narcotics, explosives and arson detection dogs. Lynne and Piper were on Nikumaroro Island in 2017.


The Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF) was invited on an expedition to a remote island in the South Pacific in the summer of 2017. Their unique technology, historical human remains detection dogs, was used to search for the remains of Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. ICF joined a large team of archeologists, scientists and volunteers dedicated to this objective on a three-week journey, by air and ship, organized by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) and National Geographic Society. Getting the dogs to the remote South Pacific Islands and working them in the tropical heat and humidity became challenges.

This presentation will discuss the solutions used to resolve these challenging conditions, including: training the dogs to work in the extreme heat and humidity of a tropical environment; complying with import and veterinary requirements to bring the dogs onto two South Pacific islands; flying the dogs on international flights and accommodating their needs on the cruise ship; and assuring that the dogs did not harm, or were harmed by, the exotic and endangered wildlife on the destination island.


And Now for Something Completely Different

Presenter: Nancy Farrell

Presenter Affiliation: Cultural Resource Management Services, Paso Robles, CA

Presenter Biography:

Nancy Farrell has been working as an archaeologist, historian and cultural resource manager since the 1960s, following studies at UCLA. After a career with the US Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, California DOT, and private engineering firms, she co-founded Cultural Resource Management Services in 1985. She became president in 1992. She has participated in projects in the southwestern U.S. California, Hawaii, Guam, the Marianas, Palau, Micronesia, and the Solomon Islands.


During the last day of the 2015 Earhart Nikumaroro Island expedition, a rock cairn was observed in the Nutiran region. During the 2017 expedition a Fijian machete-crew cut a trail into the area thought to contain the cairn, which was not found. However, the Fijian crew noticed upright coral slabs suggesting head and foot stones. One was a small, upright coral slab on the newly cleared trail; another was an area that the Fijians indicated might contain burials marked in the traditional way. The Institute for Canine Forensics team, with forensic canines, treked to Nutiran. The canines alerted in the same locations among the upright coral slabs. The following day I examined the area, which is the highest on the atoll. Half-buried blackened rounded coral slabs were upright at several locations. Although no traditional or historic artifacts were seen, this appears to be a pre-colonial cemetery. Research continues…


A Possible Previously Unpublished Source of Sextant Box Information

Presenter: Lew Toulmin, Ph.D., F.R.G.S.

Presenter Affiliation: TIGHAR; Missing Aircraft Search Team (MAST)

Presenter Biography:

Dr. Llewellyn "Lew" Toulmin is a co-founder of the Missing Aircraft Search Team. He has searched for missing aircraft, persons, plantations, towns, caves and battlefields in Vanuatu, Malaysia, Thailand, Kiribati, Canada and seven US states. In his professional capacity as a consultant in telecommunications policy and e-government, he has advised 20 US Federal agencies and 30 developing countries. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Fellow of The Explorers Club.


One of the only objects with identifying numbers ever found on Nikumaroro that was possibly related to the Earhart/Noonan disappearance, was the sextant box found in 1940, marked with the numbers 3500/1542. Previous TIGHAR research has shown that these numbers are likely a US Naval Observatory (USNO) calibration number and a manufacturer’s number. TIGHAR researchers have examined over 500 sextant boxes (many from e-bay), and found 100+ with similar double numbers -- including a box belonging to Fred Noonan, with the triple numbers of 3547/116/173. No information has ever been found regarding the history of the Niku/3500/1542 box. Previous researchers have apparently attempted to locate a body of relevant records (e.g., ship’s logs, manufacturer’s records, USNO files), but no such source has been published. In this paper, a possible new source of information will be described, and preliminary results presented.


Buzzards or Boosters? Fiction Writers and the Amelia Mystery

Presenter: Marjorie Smith

Presenter Affiliation: Writer; owner/publisher Yokoi Books; Member of TIGHAR, TwoTime Visitor/Researcher on Nikumaroro (2015 & 2017)

Presenter Biography:

In 1967 Marjorie Smith was a staff writer for a Guam newspaper in the Mariana Islands which include Saipan. She wrote a review of Fred Goerner’s book: The Search for Amelia Earhart and became fascinated by her disappearance. Over the next three decades she worked in the Mariana Islands, Japan and Thailand. Her 2012 novel, Making Up Amelia, examines the effect of AE’s disappearance on fictional characters based on people Marjorie knew in the Mariana Islands.


In the 80 years since her aborted attempt to fly around the world, Amelia Earhart has been the subject of hundreds of books – with new ones emerging every year. The perfect storm mystery of her disappearance has also inspired fiction writers through the decades. Marjorie Smith, who in 2012 published her contribution to the Amelia genre, Making Up Amelia, has surveyed a number of these works with a view to assessing whether they are tributes to an American heroine, efforts to profit from another person’s tragedy, or simply efforts to explore what drives a person to do what Amelia Earhart attempted to do. In tribute to the TAC film festival, Smith will also summarize some of the fiction films that have been made about Earhart’s disappearance.


Reassessment of Acute Environment Impacts on Earhart's Final Flight

Presenter: Greg George

Presenter Affiliation: Environmental Scientist, TIGHAR Advisory Chemist

Presenter Biography:

Greg George has a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Illinois. His work includes a 29-year career as an environmental scientist laboratory manager and as a consultant for chemical forensics cases. Greg is currently the Master Chemist and a stakeholder for the Persedo Spirits distillery technology company in Alvin, TX. He holds a patent for an exotic physiochemical process to improve the quality of distilled spirits on which the company is based.


Amelia Earhart's reputation as a flyer was compromised by sexist tropes of her era and was further damaged by her disappearance. Stereotypes of the woman have persisted to this day to taint the historical record, and have been challenged largely by judging them historical artifacts. Still, questions remain about whether Earhart's problems were self-inflicted and driven by her risk-taking, or if there were circumstances beyond her control. The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, brought on, as revealed by Professor Feynman, by the inflexibility of a critical o-ring due to weather conditions, reminds us that the best planners ignore environmental factors at their peril in risky, high technology endeavors. Scientists have an obligation not just to engage the present but to correct the historical record. Because of the unique geochemistry of volcanic ash, prop-driven aircraft are subject to significant electrical and mechanical damage from the material. An investigation of the Rabual, Papua New Guinea volcanic eruption preceding the loss of Earhart's Lockheed Electra by approximately 1 month strongly suggests ash, persisting for long periods as floating pumice islands and circulating in the upper atmosphere, may have played a role in the loss of the Electra and in communication problems. The impact of geomagnetic storms (sunspots), peaking around the time of her disappearance, is also discussed. A recommendation is made for further investigation of these environmental phenomenon as they relate to Earhart's disappearance.


Did Gerald Gallagher Unearth the Bones of a Norwich City Castaway?

Presenter: Kenton Spading

Presenter Affiliation: TIGHAR member; Co-Author of “Amelia Earhart’s Shoes: Is the Mystery Solved?” Participated in Two Trips to Nikumaroro (1997 & 2017)

Presenter Biography:

Dr. Llewellyn "Lew" Toulmin is a co-founder of the Missing Aircraft Search Team. He has searched for missing aircraft, persons, plantations, towns, caves and battlefields in Vanuatu, Malaysia, Thailand, Kiribati, Canada and seven US states. In his professional capacity as a consultant in telecommunications policy and e-government, he has advised 20 US Federal agencies and 30 developing countries. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Fellow of The Explorers Club.


Information will be presented on how human bones, and associated artifacts, unearthed by Gerald Gallagher on Nikumaroro Island in 1940, could be associated with lost sailors from the 1929 Norwich City shipwreck.
Seaman’s records from the British National Archives in Kew, England and will be discussed. The data includes the heights of selected lost sailors which will be compared to Dr. Hoodless’, and later researcher’s, estimates of the heights of the 1940 skeleton. Norwich City related sources for the shoe parts and sextant box Gallagher found will be outlined. Data collected, at Kew and elsewhere, on other castaways in this region of the Pacific will be displayed. Learn why research into the Norwich Cities’ sailors, culture and equipment is a critical component to understanding the context of the bones and artifacts recovered by Gallagher. Future avenues of research will be discussed including archives in the UK and Newfoundland, Canada.


Lessons from the 2017 Nikumaroro Expedition

Presenter: Thomas F. King, Phd

Presenter Affiliation: TIGHAR Board Member and Lead Archaeologist

Presenter Biography:

Tom King is TIGHAR Senior Archaeologist and a member of its Board of Directors. He has taken part in multiple research visits to Nikumaroro in search of Earhart-related evidence spanning 1989 and most recently in 2017. He has also done Earhart-related research in Fiji, on Tinian, on Kanton Island and elsewhere. In 2001, 2007, 2010 and 2017 he supervised archaeological work at the "Seven Site," suspected to be where Earhart last camped and died. He is a co-author of Amelia Earhart's Shoes (2004) and author of the novel Thirteen Bones (2011). He has also recently written a prequel to Thirteen Bones that imagines Earhart's last days on the island.


The 2017 expedition to Nikumaroro had several somewhat disparate objectives, and achieved them with varying degrees of success. I took away several lessons that I think are worth considering for future projects on the island.

  1. Don’t over-control. The fact that I was somewhat disabled and thus couldn’t exercise all the directorial control I might have otherwise, and that authority was distributed among several leaders, was on balance a good thing; it gave people freedom to pursue their own hunches and directions, with – I think – useful results.
  2. But do organize. We could have organized our work far better, with a more clearly understood “organization chart” and delegation of responsibility/authority.
  3. Enjoy the reef, respect the reef, but don’t expect to find much on the reef.
  4. Give more organized attention to the colonial village.
  5. Clarify what’s going-on on the North Cape.
  6. At the Seven Site, find a way to deploy forensic dogs over a much broader area, and excavate where they alert. Combine this with serious attention to the architectural and food-storage practices of Coconut Crabs and Hermit Crabs.