Amelia Earhart

More from this show

What happened to legendary aviator Amelia Earhart? It’s a question that has captured the nation’s attention for decades. The answer may have been found with the help of a Valley man. Karl Kern talks about the discoveries.

Ted Simons: What happened to legendary aviator Amelia Earhart? It's a question that's captured the nation's attention for decades. The answer may have been found with the help of a valley man who went on an expedition last summer to a remote Pacific island where evidence suggests Earhart may have died as a castaway. Hear to talk about his adventure is Karl Kern of Ahwatukee. It's good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Karl Kern: thank you very much.
Ted Simons: What got you involved in this?

Karl Kern: I was laying in bed one night with my I phone and I found an article on there by Rick Gillespie who is the director of TIGER, the international group for historic aircraft recovery, and in that article they said they were going on this mission, which was NiKU 6, and you could be a sponsor on that if you paid $50,000 you could actually be a sponsor and go along. They were accepting just a few sponsors to go. I thought, this would be the chance of a lifetime to do it, so I called them up first thing the next morning and was the first sponsor to get on board.

Ted Simons: There you go. What is the theory of what happened to Amelia Earhart?

Karl Kern: Amelia Earhart took off from begin and I she was heading toward Holland island, on the equator. Right on the equator. And it's about an 18-hour flight. And she was flying towards it, she was doing fine, on takeoff there's footage that it appears that the receiving antenna for receiving was ripped off the aircraft, and as she got close to the island, they could receive her, but they -- she could not receive them. With the navigation of the day, Fred Noonan, they would have headed for the island and their last transmission said they were at position -- on the line 157337. And that line is a line of position that they were going to follow up and down to see if they could find the island. They missed the island, it's a tiny speck in the ocean, and with the navigation techniques of the day, they would have headed towards the first closest land along that line. Which on that line is the island we went to.

Ted Simons: You've got an overhead photo of this particular island. This is way, way out there, and this is just a speck in the ocean. Correct?

Karl Kern: It is. This island is three miles long, by about a mile wide. And it has a huge lagoon. In this photo the tide is in, so you can't make out the coral reefs on the side, but the coral reef about a hundred yards wide, runs all around it, just like a runway.

Ted Simons: We have other photographs, these now show that island as you guys saw it, and I guess as perhaps Amelia Earhart -- that is a tropical island.

Karl Kern: It is a tropical island. This is actually coming up to the island, every day we had to carry all of our things to the island. We stayed on board ship because there's no water on the island. And this is one of the coconut groves the colonists tried to grow. It's still there. This is going on shore. This is the coral reef, and as you can see, it's extremely flat, and there is not much sand in there. So it's a very good landing field, she had balloon tires on her aircraft and I'm sure she landed on much rougher things than that. So would it have been an easy landing. This is a channel that was blown out of the coral reef back in '63, so that they could evacuate the people from the island that were living there. They have a small colony on the island --

Ted Simons: that colony was not there at the time she may have landed there.

Karl Kern: No. They were not. They came in a couple years later after that.

Ted Simons: OK.

Karl Kern: And this is us coming in every day we come in and this is where we would unload our goods and we'd have to carry them across the interior of the island to the lagoon, where we would load them into another skiff and drive up lat goon to the actual archaeological site which we call the seven site, because it's in the shape of a seven. This is a BUKA forest. When they were looking for Amelia Earhart they flew around the island for 10 minutes. And after 10 minutes they said they saw no one waving, they saw obvious signs of recent habitation, but they didn't see anyone so they left. The vegetation was very short and small. Those trees are 60 foot tall.
Ted Simons: my goodness
Karl Kern: And those were on the island at the time that she was there. So she could have been in the forest.

Ted Simons: Talk to us now about the process here of looking for evidence. What's going on here?

Karl Kern: Here we take one square meter area, and literally you can see the coral rubble in the lower right corner, that's what it looks like. We would take it and put it on flat plates and sift through everything that was there, all the coral, and most of the coral is called finger coral, and as you can see, a lot of it looks like bones. You literally would tap it with your TROW to see if it made a different sound to see if you had a piece of bone or coral all.

Ted Simons: That's amazing. Obvious 30 was some times to have a little fun in between going through all this coral. And there you are with Wilson. The castaway.

Karl Kern: That's Wilson. We took Wilson to the island and everyone signed it on the island, and this was us on the ship in the evening time.

Ted Simons: Then it was back to work. What are we seeing now as far as this particular process?

Karl Kern: In this process right here, this is a piece that we're trying to take a clean sample of the lower half of a jar I found when we were excavating. It is turning out in recent days that it appears to be a freckle cream jar. And she was known to use -- be very self conscious about her freckles and she carried a cream for it, and this is us taking it out of the ground. You can see she's got her mask and gloves on so she's going to be taking the jar and putting it into a clean bag.

Ted Simons: That's remarkable evidence. That says something.

Karl Kern: It does.

Ted Simons: There's another example of what you guys were -- this -- again, you saying this could be a tropical rain forest in which rain would not appear for long periods of time.

Karl Kern: Yes. The plants, the ground didn't absorb a lot of water. The leaves are very thick and heavy, all the plants are very heavy, and they absorb so much water, they retain a lot of the water.

Ted Simons: Now we have another shot here of another process. Tell us what's going on.

Karl Kern: In this process we've made some lanes, and in these lanes underneath that tarp, there is a metal container that he's looking through and it's got a black light in it. And the idea is that the coral does not shine up under a black light and the bones will shine up. So this was an identification process that we went through prior to even digging.

Ted Simons: OK. And last photo here involves a hazard, I guess. What in the world is that?

Karl Kern: That is a coconut crab. And they're a very large crab, they are big enough to be able to take a finger off if they clamp down on you. They weren't chasing you and hunting you down, but they were pretty large. And they would get up to about 12 inches or so across. When you're holding them you could hold them out about like that.

Ted Simons: We've got Wilson onset with you as well. Your pal has joined us onset. As far as wreckage, did you see anything in plane wreckage, anything along those lines?

Karl Kern: What is left on that island are very small pieces. The theory is that the plane landed on the reef, and it had to have been on the reef and out of the water to be able to make the transmissions. Which there are transmissions that were triangulated to that island that were identified as Amelia Earhart, although some people say they are not real, there would be no reason for someone to do that. And the aircraft, if it was on the reef, it would have been picked up within a couple of days, gone off the side of the reef. So consequently not a lot of the debris came too short as we think. We are finding little bits of aluminum, aircraft aluminum and some sheets of aluminum, but trying to prove it came from the plane is very difficult. And there's consistencies in plexi-glass with the thickness of the plexi-glass and the windows in her aircraft and a lot of that is being studied right now.

Ted Simons: And fragments of bones, bones have been found on that island?

Karl Kern: There's a fragment of -- there's a bone right now that appears to be a finger bone, that we found on this expedition that is in Oklahoma, a lab in Oklahoma being tested for DNA right now.

Ted Simons: So very quickly, how long do we have to wait to find out an answer?

Karl Kern: I don't know.

Ted Simons: You don't know?

Karl Kern: No, I don't know what the DNA process is. That's the most asked question, and I don't know what that time is.

Ted Simons: The bottom line is, a castaway almost certainly died on that island alone.

Karl Kern: In 1940, they found the skull and 13 bones of a castaway. They found a woman's shoe and parts of a man's shoe, and they found an empty SEXTANT box that had numbers on it consistent with the Navy's SEXTTANT serial number series and known to be carried by Fred Noonan. And they turned those bones over in 1940 to FiJi for investigation. Over the course of the war, the bones have been lost. The report is still there, we still know the dimensions of the bones, but we don't have the bones, and that's one of our projects is to look for those.

Ted Simons: This is fascinating stuff. And best of luck on the next project. This is great stuff. Thank you for joining us.

Karl Kern: Thank you very much for having me.

Karl Kern

A graphic for the Arizona PBS news show,
airs April 27

New and local

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

Earth Day Challenge graphic with the Arizona PBS logo and an illustration of the earth

Help us meet the Earth Day Challenge!

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 12

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: