Looking for Amelia
David Jourdan (MS '84) and his team of deep ocean explorers have charted a new course in the search for and recovery of historic sailing vessels. Now they're out to solve the ultimate 20th-century mystery: Where is Amelia Earhart?
|Opening Photo: In 1995, Jourdan and his team helped find the I-52, a World War II Japanese sub laden with gold bullion.||
"Decide... whether or not the goal is worth the risk involved. If it is, stop worrying."At the Sheraton Hotel in Columbia, Maryland, during a roast turkey luncheon made formal by white tablecloths and sculpted balls of butter, David Jourdan (MS '84) speaks about the final moments of Amelia Earhart's doomed 'round-the-world flight.
Amelia Earhart, July 3, 1937, 19:12 Greenwich civil time: "We must be upon you, but cannot see you ... gas is running low." Earhart's final radio transmissions to the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca were recorded in the ship's logs as the aviatrix frantically searched for tiny Howland Island in the South Pacific. Today, her words are highlighted in Jourdan's PowerPoint presentation, flashed on a screen flanked by the American flag.
Earhart was trying to make history as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. As she approached Howland Island, she was only 7,000 miles short of her goal, Jourdan tells the suburban businessmen and -women of the Columbia Town Center Rotary Club. It was Earhart's second attempt -- a previous try having ended when she crashed on takeoff from Honolulu, Hawaii.
On this sunny afternoon in February, Jourdan -- a former senior physicist at the Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and president of Nauticos, a deep ocean exploration business -- gets caught up in Earhart's tragic tale. Her disappearance more than 60 years ago is still aviation's most famous mystery.
"She never made it to Howland Island. There was no evidence, no wreckage of her plane, though there was an extensive search," Jourdan tells his fellow Rotarians. "What we do know is that she left New Guinea with as much fuel as she could carry, and was forced by clouds or a storm to go to 10,000 feet early in the flight, so she burned a lot of gas."
The fateful leg of her flight also was plagued by a series of errors and equipment malfunctions -- a fatal combination. "She shouldn't have had to search for Howland Island," Jourdan adds. "There were three radio direction-finders, one on her plane, one on the ship, and one on the island. But they weren't functioning properly. There was no two-way communication and they were never able to get a direction."
Earhart was flying with an experienced navigator named Fred Noonan. But the charts of the day -- the 1930s hovered at the primitive dawn of global aviation -- apparently failed them as well. "The observation of the sun should have given them enough to get their location," Jourdan says of Earhart and Noonan, who likely crossed the international date line just after sunrise. "But the island was misplotted by about five to six miles to the west, so her navigation put her just short of land. She couldn't see the island. We believe she went into the water and her plane sank."
Jourdan pauses, his eyes tearing up: "Sorry, I can't tell these stories without getting emotional about them.
"Amelia Earhart was an icon of her day, an adventurer, an explorer who proved you could do anything, that women could do things they didn't traditionally do," says Jourdan, referring to Earhart's record-breaking transatlantic flight and other legendary successes. "When something mysterious happens to an important person, that generates myth."
|Jourdan working poolside. On many expeditions, he keeps up from home.||
Jourdan is the featured luncheon speaker just a few weeks
before he and a group of engineers, sonar and communications
experts, U.S. Navy personnel, Earhart experts, and crew
embark on a 60-day ocean search for the remains of Earhart's
twin-engine Lockheed Electra.
It's a near-secret expedition, with no press conference fanfare and a limited release of cryptic e-mail notices to Nauticos investors and supporters. In fact, Jourdan's presentation to the Rotary club in mid-February provides one of the few detailed public descriptions of the current expedition, a nearly $2 million effort funded by investors and company coffers. His team will tap sophisticated undersea sonar techniques, decades of navigational research, and cutting-edge analysis to search the ocean floor near Howland Island for scraps of aluminum, a corroded engine, notebooks, or other clear evidence of Earhart's plane.
They know it's a long shot. Numerous people have tried to find such evidence. A frantic U.S. Navy scoured nearly 250,000 square miles in the weeks after the disappearance. And over the decades, avid Earhart fans have conducted their own searches based on theories that she was abandoned on a nearby island, or was taken hostage by hostile Japanese forces in 1937. A shoe has even turned up that could have been hers. If Jourdan and his team are right, the Electra lies in an icy grave about 17,000 feet down on mostly flat abyssal plains, where very little oxygen, silting, or underwater currents would disturb the craft. (As far as finding Earhart herself, the sea would have taken away her remains long, long ago, Jourdan notes.)
|A gyroscope from the Dakar.||
Competition to find Earhart's plane, meanwhile, has become
cutthroat. As Jourdan's team left in early March on a leased
research vessel with Nauticos' 30-ton sonar cable system and
computer labs aboard, there were rumors of another search
being launched in the same area. A few days before leaving,
Jourdan fretted that the team's location at sea could be
tracked by monitoring satellite communications from the
ship. A third hunter, media mogul Mike Kammerer, "stepped
down" after Jourdan turned away his $2.5 million offer of
funds, mostly because Kammerer had demanded all
Earhart-related media and merchandising rights.
Nauticos could have the best shot yet. Jourdan himself brings a unique approach to this search and to the entire field of ocean exploration -- at 47, he's a complex mix of highly organized businessman, history buff, scientist, dreamer, and mild-mannered P.T. Barnum. Even before leaving for the South Pacific, he lays out a detailed time line for a successful recovery mission. Phase I: 60 days for the search. Phase II: 60 days for forensic and salvage operation. Phase III: Conservation and restoration of the Earhart plane. Phase IV: Traveling exhibition of the restored plane. Phase V: Within the decade, permanent exhibition, perhaps at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
"We feel that the discovery and exhibition of Amelia Earhart's plane would be a wonderful way to honor her legacy and do good business," Jourdan says, shifting into language befitting a one-time Rotary Club Rookie of the Year. "And, it would underwrite the costs of our other missions."
Jourdan knows that finding Earhart could mean big money. Nauticos expects to make profitable deals for documentaries, films, and IMAX presentations, as well as museum exhibitions of the famous plane. In a marketing sense, Jourdan has Vision. "We want to create a brand: where you turn on the TV and watch Nauticos, just like with Jacques Cousteau," he says, acknowledging the most famous 20th- century ocean explorer and media star.
Jourdan's dreams have grown from humble beginnings. He helped launch the company in the mid-1980s, partly using advanced navigational technology he developed while working at APL. The start-up, initially called Meridian Sciences, Inc., was co-founded with fellow APL employees Joseph Crabtree and Dan Schoenberger. The entrepreneurs opened their balance sheet with various Navy and other federal contracts, providing undersea navigation analysis and engineering -- a range of projects still core to the firm's portfolio. But in the mid-1990s, the company, based in a nondescript business park in Hanover, Maryland, changed its name to the catchier Nauticos and began carving a niche as one of the world's leading deep ocean exploration and recovery operations, tallying up success after success on missions to solve history's mysteries.
Nauticos finds include the discovery of an ancient Greek merchant vessel that gives credence to claims of widespread Greek seamanship, the location of a Japanese sub laden with gold and sunk on a clandestine voyage during World War II, and an explanation of what befell the lost sons of the fledgling Israeli Navy who perished aboard the submarine Dakar on its maiden voyage more than 30 years ago. Now, Jourdan and his colleagues are out to solve the ultimate 20th-century mystery: Where is Amelia Earhart?
|Fool's gold? Heavy ingots strewn about the wreck of the Japanese sub I-52 turned out to be tin.||
Among the Rotary crowd, Earhart, and the story of glinting
gold bullion stashed in a Japanese submarine on the ocean
bottom, capture the collective imagination. Alan Ray, a past
chapter president, steps up to Jourdan after the
presentation. "Let me know if you need anyone to tie knots,"
he says of the Earhart expedition.
Out in the hotel lobby, a group is gathered.
"Do you need a cook?" asks Pamela Ray, Alan's wife.
"We have a cook," Jourdan replies.
"I could be a cook's helper," she offers.
Others jump in. "I can fish!" "I can cut bait!"
"I've lived my whole life wondering about this," says Pamela Ray of Earhart. "I read her biography when I was young. There were very few women to look up to: Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Amelia Earhart. People who were doing something important and following their dream, as opposed to doing what was expected."
But would finding Earhart's plane rob some of the romance from the mystery? "I always think that knowledge is the best undertaking," she says. "It is what we are here for."
That describes a central element of Jourdan's raison d'Étre -- that and a bit of Earhart-style bravado: "We have been able to find anything we went out to look for, no matter how deep," he says.
"There are all kinds of reasons why this would not work out," Jourdan admits of the search for the lost aviatrix: equipment failures, crew sicknesses, miscalculations, difficult-to-search areas of the ocean bottom. "But I'm willing to take that risk."
A young David Jourdan woke to his mother's voice at 5 a.m. to watch the Mercury space capsule launches in the early 1960s. He would sit alongside her, glued to the family's tiny television set, awed by the excitement of the moment. Lorraine Jourdan asked her son to join in a prayer just before each launch.
"I guess I always thought I wanted to be an astronaut," he remembers. "And I would still take the chance if I could go!"
Jourdan is a Baltimore native. His father, Harvey, comes from a family of tomato farmers in Harford County, his mother grew up in East Baltimore's Patterson Park neighborhood. When David was 8, and his sister, Susan, 2, the family moved to Maracay, Venezuela, when his father was transferred to a South American subsidiary of the American Can Company.
|The Nauticos team found the Israeli sub Dakar lying at about 10,000 feet.||
The family began to travel, visiting turquoise-lapped
Caribbean beaches, rain forests, and the peaks of the Andes
mountains. In the six years the Jourdans lived in Venezuela,
young David came of age, with a desire for discovery part of
his psyche. "My father's willingness to take us anywhere and
see anything created a latent sense of adventure," he says.
In 1972, that yearning brought him to the U.S. Naval Academy. He earned a B.S. with distinction in engineering physics, and soon after graduation married Lynn Radcliffe, who was finishing her nursing degree. Over the next few years he gained underwater experience, serving out his naval commitment as an engineer on the USS Kamehameha, a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine based in New London, Connecticut.
When Jourdan's tour of duty ended in the summer of 1981, he left the Navy as a lieutenant and high-ranking engineer. "I never aimed at being a career naval officer," he says. "It's hard if you have a family. It is a tough sacrifice to make to come into port, and there's a 2-year-old who doesn't remember his father, and the mother has to say, 'That's Daddy.'"
Their daughter, Bethany, was born the year he left the Navy, once Jourdan had landed a job at APL. (A son, Eric, would come along two years later.) "My submarine background was helpful," he says of his hiring at APL. "I had been out in the field and understood what goes on. People who sit in a lab every day don't have the same kind of perspective. They didn't understand what it was really like."
Jourdan knew he was in for less travel and adventure but was intrigued by the hint of top-secret projects: "When I was hired at APL, they told me, 'There isn't anything we can tell you about this job, but you'll love it.'"
Working for APL's Navy Ocean Engineering Program for six years, Jourdan became an expert in underwater navigation analysis. In the early months, while waiting for his security clearance, he started working on navigation software to help reconstruct submerged submarine paths and locate targets such as U.S. Navy equipment lost at sea. He also attended Hopkins' part-time graduate programs, earning an M.S. with honors in applied physics in 1984.
Dakar's 4-ton sail
(shown in a photo reconstruction)
is pulled out.
The $6 million-a-year "mom and pop operation," as Jourdan still describes Nauticos, has about 45 employees, including Lynn Jourdan, who handles media relations and many, many other jobs. The company makes much of its income from work-for-hire projects -- mostly in navigation analysis and software development, as well as commercial, scientific, and classified Navy deep water search-and-recovery operations. (Other finds include a downed Israeli F-16 aircraft, a Japanese H-2 rocket booster, an 1860s Mediterranean steamer, and a U.S. test missile dummy warhead.)
In 1995, for example, Jourdan's group, under contract with historian Paul Tidwell, helped find the I-52, a World War II Japanese submarine that was carrying rubber, tin, opium, and two tons of gold bullion bound for Germany in 1944. The ship, sunk by American bombers near the Cape Verde Islands, was discovered more than 10 miles from where the Navy believed it lay. The gold would be worth close to $20 million today but hasn't been recovered, partly because of questions over ownership and deep sea salvaging difficulties. Jourdan also claims he's no treasure hunter: "Whenever there's bars of gold," he notes, "someone will fight you for it."
Many Nauticos employees, though not immune to the lure of treasure-laden ships, are of the same mind. "So many people in the [ocean exploration] business get involved with treasure hunting. We are looking more at historic legacy," says Julie Nelson, Nauticos' maritime attorney. In the case of I-52, the courts likely would find the Japanese government retained ownership anyway, she notes.
The I-52 find garnered media attention for Nauticos, including a mention on the CBS Nightly News with Dan Rather and a National Geographic article and documentary. "We found out we could do this stuff," Jourdan says. "We can find old things in the ocean and tell fascinating stories." When, in spring 1999, Nauticos located the IJN Kaga, a Japanese aircraft carrier sunk during World War II in the Battle of Midway, Jourdan found out something else as he stood on the search vessel's deck at dawn.
"The ocean was calm and really peaceful, yet we were right on top of metal that was all twisted and melted. When you are there, you feel the physical presence. You realize that thousands of Japanese and hundreds of American pilots died right there, right under you. You didn't cause that to happen, but you know that you can do something that provides closure and solves the mystery.
"We are always excited to solve a mystery, but we are also talking about pretty sad events -- carnage, death, and destruction," he adds. "It is something that stops you at some point."
|Radio analysis of Earhart's last transmissions proved key in defining the search area.||
The most moving mystery solved -- the 1999 discovery of
Israel's lost submarine, the Dakar -- gives a glimpse into
how Nauticos has been successful where others were not.
For Israel, the Dakar was the Titanic and Amelia Earhart twisted into one -- a haunting legacy of loss and lingering mystery. In January 1968, as one of the first subs in that nation's fleet, the Dakar disappeared with 69 Israeli submariners aboard. Purchased from Great Britain, the refitted T-class submarine was en route to the Israeli port of Haifa, where a hero's welcome awaited. Under Israeli Navy sailing orders, the crew checked in every six hours via HF Morse Code. On January 25, the last transmission was received. The submarine was never heard from again.
For the next 30 years, Israelis pursued a national quest to
find the vessel and to learn what happened. The search,
pressed by families of the lost men, was filled with grief.
By Israeli custom, no soldier is ever left in the field. And
the widows of those lost, if Orthodox Jews, could not
remarry until the fate of their husbands was learned.
In 1996, the Israeli Navy asked the U.S. Navy to join a renewed effort to find the Dakar, and Nauticos was asked to help. Soon after, the Israeli Navy hired Nauticos directly for the $1.6 million project. At the outset, as part of its data collection, Nauticos gathered together Israeli officials -- submarine captains from the Dakar's era, navigators, and other experts -- and asked them to forget what they thought they knew, and instead weigh the probability of various scenarios. "It was more an exercise in psychology," Jourdan explains. Did the crew likely stay on the originally planned course? Could they have taken a side trip? Was there some conflict with the Egyptian military? The group agreed, with a 70 percent probability, that the sub likely continued on course. "Of course, we ended up being 100 percent right," Jourdan says.
Understanding how such puzzle pieces fit together is central to Nauticos' success. And the company's secret weapon is its proprietary navigation reconstruction technology, which Jourdan first started to develop at APL and then refined as a software-based process for the Navy in the early years of Nauticos. Called Renav, the process the company developed uses software to analyze previously collected navigation data: for example, tallying the vessel's last known location and its projected track at the time, as well as factoring in reports of flare sightings, and information from the logs of nearby ships.
The data that's fed into the software program -- which then models errors and uncertainties to come up with a probable search area -- needs to be as accurate as possible. Jourdan and other Nauticos experts are particularly sharp -- and lucky -- at sifting through all the pieces to determine whether eyewitness accounts, for example, might be wrong because of battle confusion. (Such work is often done on land before the expeditions, so Jourdan goes out on few actual expeditions. With the I-52, for example, Jourdan worked on his laptop by the pool on a family vacation in Florida. The Japanese sub was found on the other side of the world, within a half mile of where he said it would be).
Says Crabtree, also a company Renav expert, "We look at what happened, gathering clues and stretching clues. Then you find you need more clues and have to throw the others out. That's the detective analysis. The scientific analysis is the statistics."
In spring 1999, after a couple of weeks at sea and 24-hour watches, Nauticos sonar expert Tom Dettweiler identified the Dakar lying on the bottom of the sea at about 10,000 feet.
Sonar expertise is a second primary factor in Nauticos' successes. "There's a lot of interpretation in sonar; it's not like photography," explains Dettweiler, Nauticos' executive vice president since the late 1980s, and one of the world's top experts in sonar and ocean operations. Among other positions, he has served aboard Cousteau's Calypso.
Sonar analysis has been compared to reading X-rays, he notes. To understand the complexity: While sonar can find something as small as a coffee cup, many "contacts," or nebulous shadows from objects or ocean bottom ridges, also bounce back the system's sound waves. Other debris and old wrecks also litter the floor of traveled bodies of water. (While searching for the Dakar, the Nauticos group stumbled across an ancient Greek vessel with its cargo of clay amphorae still intact, a merchant ship likely dating from 300 B.C. during the reign of Alexander the Great. After taking photos, the crew moved on. But that discovery -- the oldest, deepest shipwreck ever found -- did appear on a map recently published by National Geographic, to Jourdan-the-explorer's delight. "That was pretty neat," he says. He now hopes to find a rich Greek tycoon to fund an effort to recover the ship and display it in an Athens shopping mall.)
To learn what happened in the Dakar's final moments, Nauticos pulled up a piece of the 4-ton sub's sail, or vertical portion, and did an underwater forensic analysis. They determined that the Dakar sank in a diving accident after the torpedo room flooded, among other equipment malfunctions. "That's a fundamental aspect with any sinking or disaster -- usually two or three things go wrong," Jourdan says.
When the Dakar was found, there was a sigh of national relief. In a letter to Nauticos and others on the team, the families of the lost submariners wrote, "For the last 31 years, we've been living our lives in the shadow of the tragedy of Dakar, raising families and growing older under the dark cloud of mystery. How painful it was. By finding Dakar, you accomplished a holy mission that was a dream to us. ... You made this dream come true, you brought them home. Even deep in the sea, still it's home to us. Thank you."
So how does Nauticos hope to solve the Earhart mystery? Again, through the gathering of clues, good business sense, sonar expertise, the science of Renav, and a generally jazzed attitude. The recent ocean expedition, unlike most others, included the Nauticos principals as part of the team. "This one is like Star Trek -- Captain Kirk and Spock and Bones are all going down to the planet," says Jourdan.
While Nauticos wasn't disclosing all its proprietary data, or even naming the actual search area in the days before the launch, the group had narrowed the likely Earhart crash site to within 100 miles west of Howland Island (a bit of land about three times the size of the Washington Mall). The area searched by Nauticos' deep-towed sonar search system, known as NOMAD, was to be about 600 square nautical miles.
The high-tech Nauticos search is based on nearly three decades of research done by Elgen Long, a longtime seaplane radioman, navigator, and pilot. Long was the first person to fly solo around the world over both poles -- in a twin-engine Piper Navajo in the 1970s. Long and his wife, Marie, traveled through the South Pacific gathering charts and documents, and conducting interviews of Coast Guard radio operators and others. The couple wrote a book, Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved (Simon & Schuster, 1999), which chronicles Earhart's final flight and is oft cited by Jourdan.
"Marie and I feel very fortunate that we were able to form an alliance with Nauticos. They are able to do the things we cannot do," Long said in February, before joining the still-under-wraps voyage launched from Hawaii in early March. Long also had logged thousands of hours flying transport and other planes in World War II, passing over Howland Island just a few years after Earhart's disappearance.
When Earhart left Lae, New Guinea, her Electra was nearly 50 percent overloaded, with 1,100 gallons of fuel, according to Long. On the quarter-after-the-hour Earhart transmitted, usually reporting the weather, the plane's altitude, head wind, amount of fuel remaining, and an assumed position based partly on Noonan's celestial navigation. Through a series of misunderstandings, including confusion over the use of Morse Code vs. spoken language, the Itasca crew and Earhart didn't establish two-way communication.
Echoing Nauticos' approach to the Dakar mystery, Jourdan again tapped experts to determine Earhart's probable location when she ran out of fuel and likely tried to ditch the rugged little plane in the ocean. Jourdan brought in Fred Culick, a mechanical engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology, to do a fuel analysis, among others. The group also factored in Earhart's and Noonan's navigational skills and likely errors. (There have been questions in recent years about Earhart's piloting and Noonan's navigational abilities.) A primary clue, however, was radio analysis that allowed Nauticos to narrow the search area, Jourdan says.
About three years ago, Jourdan approached Rockwell Collins, a widely regarded aviation electronics and communications company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At first, Rockwell Collins thought there simply wasn't enough data to determine her plane's position. But Jourdan's enthusiasm was infectious. "Dave is really passionate about what he does," says Tom Vinson, program manager at Rockwell Collins. "He enjoys this, not just as a business. He is going out to have fun."
Working with Long's theories and Jourdan's guidance, a group of company volunteers started putting together the pieces of Earhart's final shortwave, high frequency transmissions. Using propagation models and other technology, they modeled her aircraft transmitter and the Itasca receiver (they found an old working RCA AR-60 at a museum in upstate New York) and then applied computer simulations to calculate the distance between the Coast Guard cutter and the Electra, better narrowing down the search area.
As part of their simulation, they equated the inexact ratings of Earhart's radio signal strength -- as interpreted by Coast Guard radio operators -- with measurable decibels to show her likely location.
The analysts also needed to re-create the last eerie transmissions made by the lost pilot, Jourdan notes. With no actual recordings of Earhart's voice -- just the written logs from the Itasca of Earhart's transmissions -- the radio group asked a female software engineer to read the transcript into a microphone while they generated cockpit noise.
Radio operators aboard the Itasca had reported that Earhart's voice was mostly calm throughout her radio transmissions, until the final ones, when the fuel gauge was dropping low and there was no island in sight. Says Vinson: "In the last transmission, she was breaking into a scream."
Champions aren't those who never fail. They are those who never quit," was the quote for the day on April 21 aboard Nauticos' leased search vessel, the R/V Davidson, as it cruised near Howland Island. The words would prove haunting.
With no sightings of the plane yet, they still had nearly two weeks and a third of the expanded search area to go. Then, the sonar's hydraulic system malfunctioned.
"We had a near disaster," Jourdan later wrote in an e-mail. "At 19:24 (7:24 p.m.) we were tooling along ... with 8,924 meters of cable out. Twenty minutes later, we were just about to call the turn, when [there was] no control over the winch .... Hydraulic fluid was spewing from a broken hose. With no pressure, the cable started to play out and the drum started spinning faster and faster. According to those in the vicinity, it was screaming like crazy."
Within just 30 seconds, the NOMAD's sonar sled settled to the bottom, about 18,000 feet below the water's surface. NOMAD was dragged a bit, and then turned to starboard. "The weight of the cable pulled us backwards at 3 knots," Jourdan wrote.
"I looked at Tom and said, 'We've lost it, haven't we?'" Jourdan said of the sonar search system. Dettweiler didn't comment.
With the ship still dangerously tethered to the multi-ton steel-armored cable, the crew learned that the winch hydraulic motor was destroyed during the melee, and a second motor damaged. They hooked up a spare motor and a team member who had grown up on a Kansas farm started working to temporarily revive the second one. During the night, they brought NOMAD safely on board.
"Almost a million dollars of equipment snatched from the deep!" Jourdan wrote.
Such elation was fleeting. The Nauticos search for Earhart's Electra was over -- for the moment.
"They are coming home," Lynn Jourdan wrote, as the team's hopes of getting needed parts and overhauling the hydraulic system in the remaining two weeks faded and they turned the ship toward Hawaii.
Like Earhart, David Jourdan and his team of pioneers in navigational science will try again. And like her, they will be contacting sponsors and investors to help finance a second attempt to finish a journey they hope will make history. "The disappointment of having to quit when things were going so well hasn't quite sunk in yet," David Jourdan wrote in an April 24 e-mail titled "On the Way Home." "All I can think of is getting home and getting started again for another try."
Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.
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