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Amelia Earhart stands by the plane she piloted on her last flight
Science and Society Picture Library/ Getty Images
A 1937 newspaper announcing Earhart’s disappearance.
NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Marcy, one of the dogs on the expedition, trains for the job in San Mateo County, California.
Courtesy Joseph Kral/ Institute for Canine Forensics
This map shows Amelia Earhart’s flight path for her last journey. She had about 7,000 miles left on her 29,000-mile trip when her plane disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.
Jim McMahon
Nikumaroro is an atoll, a ring-shaped coral reef that forms around a lagoon.
Rob Barrel
The Mystery of Amelia Earhart
It’s been 80 years since the famous pilot disappeared. Will a team of specially trained dogs help researchers find some answers?

By Laura Anastasia

On July 3, 1937, Amelia Earhart was on her way to making history. Already a world-famous pilot, she was about two-thirds of the way through her most daring mission: to become the first woman to fly around the world. But she never completed the rest of the trip. That day, her plane vanished somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, and Earhart was never heard from again.

Earhart’s disappearance shocked the world. Eighty years later, people are still trying to figure out what happened to her—and now, specially trained dogs are on the case too.

Researchers from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) are leading an expedition to the island of Nikumaroro (nik-uh-muhr-OHR-oh), which is co-sponsored by National Geographic. They think Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crash-landed there and lived on the island for weeks before they died. To find out for sure, the researchers brought four border collies from the Institute for Canine Forensics along on the journey. The dogs are skilled at finding bones and other human remains. TIGHAR researchers hope that the dogs will help them find some of Earhart’s bones.

GONE WITHOUT A TRACE

Earhart was a celebrity at a time when very few women flew airplanes. In 1932, she became the first female aviator (pilot or operator of an aircraft) to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Three years later, she became the first pilot—male or female—to fly solo across the Pacific Ocean.

After that, Earhart wanted to circle the globe. On June 1, 1937, she and navigator Fred Noonan took off from Miami, Florida. Thirty-one days later, they had completed much of their journey. They had reached the island of New Guinea in the Pacific Ocean. Their next stop would be Howland Island, a tiny island more than 2,500 miles away.

But something went wrong during the flight there. The sky was overcast, and Earhart and Noonan couldn’t find the island. After nearly 24 hours of flying, the plane’s fuel was running low. Earhart sent urgent radio messages to a U.S. Coast Guard ship stationed near Howland Island. Her final message was received at 8:45 a.m. on July 3. She was never heard from again.

Search teams spent about three months looking for any sign of Earhart, Noonan, or their plane. No one knew exactly where they had disappeared, so searchers covered an area thousands of miles wide. They had no luck.

THE HUNT FOR CLUES

Over the years, people have come up with many theories about what happened to Earhart. Tom Crouch is an aviation expert at the National Air and Space Museum. Like many historians, he thinks the plane ran out of fuel, crashed into the ocean, and sank.

But some people think Earhart survived. Ric Gillespie is the founder of TIGHAR. He believes Earhart crash-landed on Nikumaroro. That’s a tiny island about 400 miles south of Howland.

“There hasn’t been any doubt in my mind for years that this is what happened,” Gillespie says.

For a few days after Earhart disappeared, radio operators on islands in the Pacific Ocean reported hearing distress calls. Some of those calls came from the area near Nikumaroro. Since 1989, researchers from TIGHAR have found dozens of artifacts there. They include a pocketknife that looks similar to one Earhart used earlier in her trip and a piece of metal that might be from a plane.

But they have yet to find any of Earhart’s remains. That’s where the dogs could help. In the past, they have located human bones that were as much as 1,500 years old and buried as deep as 9 feet.

The dogs are trained to sniff a site and sit or lie down where the smell of bones is strongest. That way the research team knows where to dig. If researchers discover bones, they will ship them to the U.S., where a team of scientists will study them.

But many aviation experts seriously doubt that Earhart’s remains will turn up on Nikumaroro. They point out that search planes flew over Nikumaroro days after Earhart disappeared and saw no signs of her. Plus, people lived on the island from 1938 until the 1960s. Crouch says the artifacts that TIGHAR found on past expeditions to the island likely belonged to them. He isn’t sure the mystery of what happened to Earhart and Noonan will ever be solved.

“I think finding them will be very, very, very difficult,” he says.

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2017, issue of Scholastic News Edition 5/6.