On July 2, 1937, pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean near the end of her historic around-the-world flight. For decades, her mysterious disappearance has perplexed explorers, who have spent millions of dollars trying to find her missing Lockheed 10-E Electra plane.
Now, a possible new clue has emerged in the case: A sonar image captured during an expedition last fall shows an airplane-shaped object sitting on the ocean floor, not far from where experts believe Earhart likely crashed, reports the Wall Street Journal’s Nidhi Subbaraman.
The blurred object is far from definitive proof, but Dorothy Cochrane, an aeronautics curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, tells Smithsonian magazine it’s “an intriguing image” that warrants a second look.
The expedition was led by Tony Romeo, who is a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Air Force, a pilot and a commercial real estate investor from South Carolina. In 2021, he sold his real estate properties and spent $11 million to fund the trip, including buying high-tech equipment to aid in the search.
“This has been a story that’s always intrigued me, and all the things in my life kind of collided at the right moment,” Romeo tells Business Insider’s Katherine Tangalakis-Lippert and Rebecca Rommen. “I was getting out of real estate and looking for a new project, so even though I really started about 18 months ago, this was something I’ve been thinking and researching for a long time.”
Last September, a team from the exploration company Deep Sea Vision, which Romeo founded, departed from Tarawa, Kiribati, in the South Pacific aboard a research vessel. Working in 36-hour shifts, the 16-person crew used an underwater autonomous vehicle equipped with sonar to scour the sea floor, scanning roughly 5,200 total square miles.
About 90 days into the trip, the team was reviewing sonar images and noticed something unusual in the data from some 60 days prior. The mysterious object looked to be about the same shape and size as an aircraft, and it was identified roughly 100 miles from Howland Island, which is within the region where experts think Earhart’s plane went down. The object is around 16,400 feet below the water’s surface.
By then, however, the crew had determined it was too late to return to the site for a closer look. The camera on the underwater vehicle was also broken, which meant they wouldn’t be able to see anything if they did circle back, reports the Post and Courier’s Tony Bartelme.
But Romeo is undeterred and hopes to revisit the area in the future.
“This is maybe the most exciting thing I’ll ever do in my life,” he tells the Wall Street Journal. “I feel like a 10-year-old going on a treasure hunt.”
In the meantime, the sonar image is not detailed enough for experts to draw any definitive conclusions.
“It definitely appears to be an aircraft of some sort,” David Jourdan, who has searched three times for Earhart’s missing plane and is the co-founder and president of the ocean exploration company Nauticos, tells the Post and Courier. “It has aircraft-like features. But sound is funny. It can mislead you. We can’t say it’s her plane until you put a camera on it.”
To truly identify the object, future missions would ideally capture detailed images that contain the registration number of the plane, says Cochrane. Or, at the very least, they might more clearly show the submerged object’s dimensions and shape to see if it matches the model of Earhart’s vehicle.
“It really requires further research,” says Cochrane. “Finding something that’s really worth investigating further is step one. Verifying it’s the actual craft is step two. And step three becomes: Is it possible to recover this or not, or should it just be left where it is?”
At the time of her disappearance, Earhart was a global celebrity—speaking with the Wall Street Journal, Romeo likens her to Taylor Swift today. In June 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean (as a passenger of pilots Wilmer Stultz and Lou Gordon), a feat that propelled her to international stardom.
Nearly four years later, in May 1932, she made history again by becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Later that year, she became the first woman to fly solo across North America and back. And in 1935, she became the first person, regardless of gender, to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California.
In the summer of 1936, the renowned pilot began to plan her most ambitious trip yet: a circumnavigation of the globe. On May 20, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, departed from Oakland for the first leg of the trip. They flew nearly 22,000 miles, making stops in Miami, South America, Africa and India along their eastward route.
By late June, they had made it to Lae, Papua New Guinea. After a few days’ rest, they departed for Howland Island, a small, uninhabited outcrop in the Pacific where a refueling station had been built for their journey. The U.S. Coast Guard had a vessel, the Itasca, stationed nearby to help with the landing.
Operators aboard the Itasca heard Earhart’s radio messages as she got closer and closer to the island. But eventually, they lost contact. Earhart and Noonan were never seen or heard from again.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard spent 16 days searching for the missing duo without success. About one and a half years later, on January 5, 1939, Earhart was declared dead.
Theories abound about her mysterious disappearance—some onlookers have speculated that she was a spy or that she was captured by a foreign military. But Cochrane believes the simplest explanation is the most plausible: that Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel near Howland Island.
“She’s got to be around there somewhere,” she adds.