Amelia Earhart disappeared July 2, 1937, somewhere over the Pacific on a line between New Guinea and Honolulu. The first woman to attempt to fly around the globe, her apparent fall from the sky has fueled intrigue for more than eight decades.
In July 2017, Rick Pettigrew, documentary producer and President of the Eugene-based Archaeology Legacy Institute, journeyed to Nikumaroro, a tiny, remote coral atoll in the western Pacific. His ocean trip to the uninhabited island included 50 other team members: crew, National Geographic Society investigators, aviation history researchers from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), and four forensic dogs trained to sniff out human remains.
Nikumaroro, it seems, may have afforded Amelia Earhart a flat stretch of coral reef, allowing for safe landing. It’s an island where she and her navigator could have established a survival camp while awaiting rescue.
The evidence is compelling — and controversial: suppressed military reports of radio signals originating near Nikumaroro in July 1937; pieces of aluminum aircraft metal like that from Earhart’s plane; a woman’s shoe, cosmetic containers and particles of rouge; a sextant box like the one used by Earhart’s navigator; human bones consistent with the size and scale of Earhart’s frame discovered in 1940 but since lost.
Enter archeologist Pettigrew with his video equipment. Enter the expedition’s sponsor, National Geographic, holding control over use of any new forensic evidence. Enter the quartet of dirt-sniffing dogs.
In accordance with his agreement with National Geographic, Pettigrew could not videotape the dogs at work. He says that although the canines didn’t find any human bones, they alerted investigators to possible human remains. Dirt samples were collected for DNA analysis. What turn will the Earhart saga take when the DNA findings are revealed? For Pettigrew, that’s only a small part of the story he wants to tell.
“I’m still compiling footage,” Pettigrew says. “My concept from the beginning has been to tell a story bigger than this particular trip to the island. The Amelia Earhart story is a huge story, a mystery, a riddle. TIGHAR’s investigation for the past 25 years? Now that’s a saga in itself!”