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 Amelia Earhart's Crash Reconstruction Minimize

Funding Source: Pro Bono

Funding Period: May 2006 – July  2006  

Principal Investigator: Gerardo Olivares PhD. -

Project Monitor: Quinn Kanaly – National Geographic Documentary Producer

Research Overview: The objective of this project was to evaluate for the National Geographic Chanel (Documentary: Undercover History: Where is Amelia Earhart?) whether or not Amelia Earhart would have survived ditching her aircraft in the Pacific. Activities included the development of a finite element model of the Lockheed Electra and the simulation of the ditching event using ALE techniques. Upon completion of the work a survivability assessment and photorealistic rendering of the numerical model were submitted to the documentary producers.


World Flight 1937


In July 1936 Amelia took delivery of a Lockheed L-10E Electra financed by Purdue University and started planning a round-the-world flight. This would not be the first to circle the globe, but would be the longest at 29,000 miles (47,000 km) since it would follow a grueling equatorial route.





Through contacts in the Los Angeles aviation community Fred Noonan was eventually chosen as navigator. He had vast experience in both marine (he was a licensed ship's captain) and flight navigation. Noonan had recently left Pan Am, where he established most of the company's seaplane routes across the Pacific. He hoped the resulting publicity would help him establish his own navigation school in Florida. On St Patrick's Day, 1937, they flew the first leg, Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. The flight resumed three days later but a tire blew on takeoff and Earhart ground-looped the plane. Severely damaged, the aircraft had to be shipped to California for repairs and the flight was called off.


The second attempt would begin at Miami, this time flying east. They departed on 1 June and after numerous stops in South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia they arrived at Lae, New Guinea on June 29.


On July 2, 1937, at midnight GMT Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae. Their intended destination was Howland Island, a flat sliver of land 2000 meters long and 500 meters wide, 10 feet (3 m) high and 2556 miles (4113 km) away.



Their last positive position report and sighting were over the Nukumanu Islands, about 800 miles (1,300 km) into the flight. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was on station at Howland, assigned to communicate with Earhart's Lockheed Electra 10E and guide her to the island once she arrived in the vicinity.


Through a series of misunderstandings or errors (the details of which are still controversial), the final approach to Howland using radio navigation was never accomplished, although vocal transmissions by Earhart indicated she and Noonan believed they had reached Howland's charted position, which was incorrect by about five nautical miles (9 km), over scattered clouds which are said to have cast hundreds of island-like shadows on the ocean.



After several hours of frustrating attempts at two-way communications, contact was lost, although subsequent transmissions from the downed Electra may have been received by operators across the Pacific.


The United States government spent $4 million looking for Earhart. The air and sea search by the Navy and Coast Guard was the most costly and intensive in history at that time, but search and rescue techniques during that era were rudimentary and planning was influenced by individuals wary about how their roles in looking for an American hero might be reported by the press.


Many researchers believe the plane ran out of fuel and Earhart and Noonan ditched at sea. However, one group (TIGHAR —The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) suggests they may have flown for two and a half hours along a standard line of position, which Earhart specified in her last transmission received at Howland, to Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro, Kiribati) in the Phoenix group, landed there, and ultimately perished. TIGHAR's research has produced a range of documented, archaeological and anecdotal evidence (but no proof) supporting this theory. The third theory suggests Earhart flew to the Marshall Islands for pre-war recon intelligence after not finding Howard, then either taken hostage by the Japanese and later killed in Saipan or returned to the US under new names.

[source  text : and; source images google earth].


History of Flight


On July 1st, 1937, at 6:35 am (Local Time) Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae in a Lockheed Electra L10E, registration number NR16020. Their intended destination was Howland Island. Their last positive position report and sighting were over the Nukumanu Islands, about 800 miles (1,300 km) into the flight. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was on station at Howland, assigned to communicate with Earhart's Lockheed Electra 10E and guide her to the island once she arrived in the vicinity. 0843 IST, Out of Fuel 100 miles of Howland (radio signal strength).


Ditching Conditions:


-        July 2nd 1937

-        Departure Fuel: 1100 U.S. gallons à 1092 U.S. standard 6-pound U.S. gallons

-        Flight Conditions:

0418 GCT, Airplane: 140 knots (161.1 mph)                                                          

§       Head Wind: 23 knots (26.5 mph)

§       Average True Airspeed: 134 mph

0843 IST, Out of Fuel 100 miles of Howland (radio signal strength), [30 feet deep minimum depth]

-        Cabin Conditions:

Two-point restraint system

 Remote control box for the Bendix receiver located at eye level


-       Possible Ditching Conditions (Per Lockheed Electra 10 E Flight Test Data Page 2 Report 467 Nov 12 1935):

       Case I (Optimum case controlled flight  ditching conditions):

        60 mph

        Water 30 feet plus depth

        Flaps Landing Position

        Landing Gear Up

        Power on

       Case 2 (Worst case controlled flight ditching conditions):

        80.7 mph

        Water 30 feet plus depth

        Flaps up

        Landing Gear Up

        Power off


-        As shown in the deck log of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca the conditions prevailing in the area of Howland Island at the time the Earhart plane disappeared were:

        Sky condition – “bc” (Blue sky with detached clouds)

        Visibility – “9” (Prominent objects visible above 20 miles)

        Wind – “2” (11.3 knots)

        Sea State – “1” (Moderate swell from ESE)


-        Aircraft Weight:

Empty Weight: 3219 kg (7100 lbs)

Pilot Navigator: 131 kg (130 lbs 160 lbs)

Cargo: 191 kg (422 lbs)

TOTAL: 3541 kg (7806 lbs)

[Source: *Weight data from Lockheed Electra 10 E Specifications Form EE1135 Rev 5-1-36]


Analysis Model Description:


-        Explicit Finite Element Model with Euler Lagrange Coupling (LSdyna)

-        Aircraft:  Lagrange rigid body with the appropriate mass and cg location

-        Air: Eulerian Formulation

-        Water: Eulerian Formulation

-        Water depth: 30 ft according to data for minimum depth in the vicinity of Howland Island.


Ditching Event Simulation Results:
This acceleration field will be used in the occupant simulation.
Virtual Reality Ditching Event Visualization:

Photorealistic Virtual Reality Ditching Event Visualization:
Based on  the finite element model results a photorealistic VR simulation was created at NIAR's VR Center.
Multibody Occupant Model:
Based on prints and pictures of the actual aircraft a model for the cabin interior was created for analysis.

Amelia Computational Model Biomechanical Responses:







Amelia Computational Model Kinematics:




Data Analysis and Conclusions:

  • Lap Belt Forces:

One of the areas of concern would be the strength of the 2 point lap belt anchor locations. Per CAA, Airworthiness requirements of air commerce regulations. Bulletin No 7A, effective July 1, 1929:



According to the simulation results the maximum force applied to the belt anchor locations is 1907 lbf. Although this is a dynamic load there is a possibility of lap belt failure. If lap belt failure occurred the occupant would be unrestrained 3 seconds into the event, and would sustain fatal injuries.

  • Egress:

According to data provided by a newspaper article regarding the ditching of Lockheed Electra 10 E, the plane stayed afloat for about eight minutes before it sank.



Let’s assume Amelia had 8 minutes to egress the aircraft:


According to the Biomechanical data obtained in the analysis, she would have had not suffer any incapacitating injury to the head, neck, and thorax area. Note that the simulation results can not establish the injury risk for the upper and lower extremities. Due to the airplane configuration the only path to the Life raft would be through the Pilot Escape Hatch and accessing the aircraft through one of the side doors.




There are various factors that could prevent Amelia from opening the door to the life raft area:

-      Water Pressure

-      Structural deformations of the door frame

-      Locking Mechanisms

-        Any injuries sustain to the upper or lower extremities



Based on the analysis results the ditching event should be classified as a survivable accident. A survivable accident is where sufficient cabin structure and seats remain to aid survival of one or more occupants, and where further loss of life is the consequence of drowning, or other post- crash incidents.

Providing that there was no lap belt failure and that she was able to egress the aircraft, unless she was rescued within hours of the crash event she would have been exposed to the elements without any survival gear. More likely she would have drowned.



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