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Eustace Earhart Discovery Expedition: The Team

Nauticos first learned of the availability of a suitable vessel for an extended deep-sea search expedition in mid December. The research vessel R/V Mermaid Vigilance would be arriving in Honolulu late January. Preparations have been underway for the expedition since the beginning of the year, with the aim of getting underway by the third week in February. This is a very short time to mobilize an expedition, but the opportunity to begin the charter in Hawaii, the nearest U.S. port to our search area, avoiding the cost of moving a vessel from the West Coast or Gulf of Mexico made it worth the effort.

R/V Mermaid Vigilance
R/V Mermaid Vigilance

Vigilance is a Multi Purpose Vessel capable of carrying cargo, handling large equipment, fighting fires, or providing support for any offshore activities. The vessel is 230 feet long and displaces close to 3,000 tons. Sporting a huge aft deck spanning most of its length, Vigilance is an ideal platform for deep ocean equipment. It’s five story tall forward superstructure includes comfortable accommodations and a wrap-around bridge. A huge engine room, kept very clean and tidy, houses twin diesels that propel Vigilance at a steady 9 knots, up to 11 in a pinch. Ship’s electricity is normally handled by a single generator, but four are provided with an emergency backup unit for good measure. The vessel is registered in Singapore, with an international crew from Mexico, Indonesia, and Ukraine. We look forward to sailing with Captain Noe Flores and his shipmates.

Our search and identification system is the Remus 6000 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) fielded by the Oceanographic Systems Lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The thirteen foot long one-ton torpedo shaped vehicle operates without cable or tether, and can dive to 6,000 meter depths (almost 20,000 feet). Its lithium batteries will run for nearly a full day, propelling the vehicle as it follows terrain just above the seafloor and running sensors including a side scan sonar for searching and a still camera for imaging targets. An autonomous navigation system guides the vehicle through its survey or imaging assignment and returns it to the surface at the end of each sortie. A launch and recovery system hauls the vehicle on board, where the mission’s data is downloaded and a fresh battery is installed. Within hours, the AUV is ready for the next sortie. Greg Packard will lead a team of four WHOI engineers to work with Nauticos and the ship’s crew to maintain and operate the Remus.

Remus 6000 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle
Remus 6000 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle

Overall management of the operation will be the responsibility of Nauticos and Operations Manager Spence King. We will define search areas, analyze sonar data, and strive on behalf of Alan Eustace to make sure all operations run smoothly and everyone on board works as a team.

The expedition will be documented by Bill Mills of BMA Production Services, who will serve as our Director of Photography. Bill is a veteran of past expeditions including our 2002 Amelia Earhart search. The SeaWord Foundation will conduct STEM educational outreach activities led by teacher Sallie Smith with support from the entire team. And of course we will have ashore liaison support led by Charlotte Vick. More to come in future posts about this extraordinary team it is my privilege to sail with.

Aviation History Remembered

Captain Long with his Piper Navajo
Captain Long with his Piper Navajo

This December 2016 marked the 45th anniversary of a most remarkable flight and a record-breaking achievement: Elgen Long’s solo flight around the world over the poles.

Elgen began his career in flight while still in his teens as a seaplane radioman and navigator for combat missions during World War II.  Later during his 40-year career as captain in the Flying Tiger Line, he flew many cargo missions in the Arctic, supplying remote Air Force stations.  When he retired from the Flying Tigers, Elgen had a dream –  to fly around the world crossing the equator at the Prime Meridian and over both poles.

The journey would be arduous.  Even after installing four additional fuel tanks in his twin engine Piper Navajo to give the plane a 4,000-mile range, Elgen knew that he would have to make major alterations of his speed and altitude to achieve the long distances required for some of the longer legs of his voyage.  He used his knowledge of celestial navigation extensively throughout the trip with a back-up inertial navigation system designed for 747s installed in his considerably smaller plane.

As he began the round-the-world flight with a leg from San Francisco to Fairbanks, Alaska on November 5th 1971, Elgen experienced his first problem of the month long adventure: severe icing conditions clogged the cockpit heater, and the cabin temperature plummeted. Elgen’s down-filled jumpsuit, gloves and boots prevented him from suffering from anything worse than chattering teeth!

After only five hours sleep, he began the frigid flight to Stockholm, passing directly over the North Pole on November 7th. Because of extremely low temperatures, he chose to make a precautionary fuel stop in Norway, and so when he landed in Sweden after a trip of 3,906 miles he realized that he’d been awake for 34 hours. After a brief rest, it was on to London, where he bought additional long underwear, and took off for Accra, Ghana.  After leaving Accra, Elgen crossed the Prime Meridian at the equator then went on to Recife, Brazil.  The most dangerous and demanding leg of his flight, across Antarctica to McMurdo Sound, began with perfect weather, but it deteriorated when a storm blanketed the continent.  His view of the South Pole was to be nothing but clouds, but Elgen was fortunate to land safely at McMurdo since a blizzard closed the airfield a short time later!

Elgen wears the FAI Gold Air Medal
Elgen wears the FAI Gold Air Medal

The flight to Sydney and then Fiji passed pleasantly and Elgen passed the 180th meridian or antimeridian at the equator. He flew on to Tokyo then to Honolulu and finally headed back to his home. On December 3rd 1971 Captain Elgen Long brought his Piper Navajo to a stop in the rain at the San Francisco International Airport, and a welcoming crowd waved a banner reading, “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.” By completing a 36,000-mile record-breaking flight around both poles, he indeed had flown a very long way.

Elgen Long’s dream flight set three Federation Aeronautique Internationale records and many firsts. His was the first flight around the world with landings on all seven continents, the first solo flight around the world across both poles, the first solo flight across Antarctica, the first flight crossing the equator at both the prime and 180th meridians to name just a few. Elgen was the 13th American awarded the Gold Air Medal. Previous winners of this prestigious award include James Doolittle, Igor Sikorsky and Charles Lindbergh.

Nauticos began working with Elgen Long because he had another dream, to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. His book, Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, is a culmination of 25 years of research and interviews. Elgen believes that the most credible evidence concludes that upon fuel exhaustion, Earhart was forced to ditch her plane into the sea near Howland Island.

Nauticos is poised for the search to make Elgen’s latest dream come true.

Anatomy of a Disaster

Final Flight - Scott Tucker
Final Flight – Scott Tucker

As with most any disaster, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on July 2, 1937 was the outcome of a confluence of events. Amelia knew the flight to Howland Island was her biggest challenge, and she took the circumstances into account in her planning in keeping with her own words of wisdom, “Preparation, I have often said, is rightly two-thirds of any venture.” But ordinary and foreseen circumstances rarely lead to tragedy; in a disaster, it is the improbable that is most likely. In Amelia’s final flight, several unrelated factors conspired with fatigue and stress to overcome all preparation, skill, and experience, and lead to the demise of the famous flyer.

Why was this leg to Howland the most difficult? There are two main reasons, which were exacerbated by a number of complications. First, there is simply the distance, which was at the extreme range of the aircraft, even with extra fuel tanks and stripped of all unnecessary weight. Second, the island is so small – barely three times the size of the Washington, D.C. Mall, and rises only a few feet above sea level. It is also remote. Other than its equally nondescript companion, Baker, there is not another scrap of land within 350 miles, and no major land masses along their path within thousands of miles. A modest error in position causing them to miss the island would leave nothing but a virtual infinity of open ocean ahead.

Three primary unrelated circumstances worked against Amelia, to deadly outcome. First, she faced severe headwinds throughout her flight, which reduced her range. When she reached the vicinity of Howland Island she was low on fuel and had little time left to search for safety. Second, she was unable to establish radio communications, and, more important, was unable to obtain a radio bearing to her landing point. There are many reasons for this – a collection of misunderstandings, poor decisions, and foul ups. Third, Fred was working with the best chart of the day when they embarked on their world flight, but poor mapping of such remote areas led to an error of about six miles in the location of Howland Island. If any one of these particulars were favorable, disaster would probably have been averted.

Adding to the list of challenges were fatigue, limited visual range at low altitude, light winds at the sea surface that reduced visible surf, and a low deck of clouds. In the end, it was all too much to overcome. Amelia and Fred were gone.

Hidden Fliers

Bessie_Coleman,_First_African_American_Pilot_-_GPN-2004-00027Amelia Earhart was a famous pilot in the early days of aviation, but she was not the only one, and was far from the first woman to fly. Bessie Coleman was born January 26, 1892 into a  family of sharecroppers in Texas. Her mother was African American and her father was Native American, and she was the 12th of 13 children. A bright young woman, she attended segregated schools in Texas and Oklahoma before taking an interest in aviation. Hearing stories of the exploits of World War I fliers sparked her imagination, and she set her sights on becoming a pilot. Barred from flight school in the U.S., she spent the next several years learning French and saving money to move to Paris, where gender and racial discrimination were not barriers. In 1922, at the age of thirty, she achieved her dream and became the first black woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.Returning to the U.S., she earned a living performing in air shows, specializing in stunt flying and parachuting. These were the Roaring Twenties, days of barnstorming without safety standards, when pilots vied to perform ever more dangerous stunts. Fliers like Charles Lindbergh cut their teeth on early exhibition teams, where surplus military aircraft and lack of FAA regulations combined to allow “flying circuses” to flourish.
Coleman quote

Coleman was one of those young daredevils who “not only thrilled audiences with her skills as a barnstormer, but also became a role model for women and African Americans. Her very presence in the air threatened prevailing contemporary stereotypes. She also fought segregation when she could by using her influence as a celebrity” – David H. Onkst, Women in History.
Bessie Coleman had ambition, and aimed to start a flying school for African Americans. Sadly, the thirty-four year old pilot was testing a newly purchased plane in 1926 when it unexpectedly went into a spin. She was flung from the cockpit and plummeted to her death.
Coleman has received many honors, including induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Eustace Earhart Discovery Expedition: The Quest

On the morning of July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off in a Lockheed 10 Electra from Lae, New Guinea, heading east, having completed three-fourths of their planned flight around the world.  Their destination was Howland Island, a small U.S. territory 2,300 miles east of New Guinea.  Because of the difficulty of finding such a small target in the middle of the featureless Pacific, the U.S. Coast Guard had stationed the cutter Itasca at the island.  Its radio signals would help guide Earhart and Noonan in for what was to be a refueling stop before the next leg to Honolulu.

Final Flight map

The following morning, as Earhart’s Electra approached Howland Island, the radiomen aboard the Itasca heard her calls for navigational help.  But, except for one brief contact, it was clear she could not hear their replies.  Unable to get a radio bearing, running low on fuel, and relying only on celestial navigation with outdated charts, Earhart and Noonan never arrived at Howland. Despite an intensive air and sea search led by the U.S. Navy and its aircraft carrier Lexington, no trace of the aircraft or its pilot and navigator were ever found.  After 16 days, the Navy gave up the search and declared Earhart and Noonan lost at sea.

Many Americans could not accept the Navy’s conclusion.

In the years since 1937, hundreds of amateur investigators have researched the case in the hope of finding the “true” solution to the mystery.  They have scoured her final radio transmission for clues, sought to unearth suspected government documents, investigated Earhart sightings and aircraft wrecks on islands throughout the Pacific, and written dozens of books advancing a profusion of theories, including the following:

• She was an American spy, captured and executed by the Japanese on the eve of World War II;

• She secretly returned to the U.S. and quietly lived out her life under an assumed name in Teaneck, New Jersey; and

• She landed on an uninhabited island and died there after being overlooked by the Navy.

These are just a few of the theories that have been proposed.  Though none has ever been proven, they have served to keep the mystery alive.  More than seven decades after she vanished, the question of Earhart’s fate continues to intrigue and fascinate people all over the world.

Despite these theories and legends the body of verifiable evidence shows that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crashed at sea after missing tiny Howland Island, where they were planning to refuel.  The information and the technology exist to reconstruct Earhart’s final flight, search the ocean bottom in the area where we believe she came down, find the aircraft, and solve the mystery.

This is our quest.

The Deep-Sea Quest for Amelia Earhart Resumes

In late February a team from Nauticos with stratospheric explorer Alan Eustace and aviation pioneer Elgen Long will depart Honolulu for the vicinity of Howland Island, 1,600 miles to the southwest, to complete the deep sea search for Amelia Earhart’s lost Lockheed Electra. Adding to the work conducted during prior expeditions in 2002 and 2006, the team plans to complete a sonar survey of about 1,800 square miles of seafloor, an area believed to contain the aircraft. The expedition will use autonomous underwater technology to image the ocean floor nearly 18,000 feet below.

The Eustace Earhart Discovery Expedition is an important step in human exploration, expanding the realm of human achievement, funded by an explorer who extends the range of human possibility and in honor of a great explorer lost in those causes. Alan Eustace, with a doctorate in computer science, has led developments in pocket computing and computer architecture, and most recently retired from Google as Director of Knowledge.

Alan Eustace soars to the stratosphere
Alan Eustace soars to the stratosphere

A pilot, skydiver, and adventurer, Alan made history in 2014 with a record breaking near-space dive from the stratosphere at 135,890 feet. Free-falling over 23 miles, he reached a speed of 821 mph (breaking the sound barrier at Mach 1.3) before slowing in the thickening atmosphere and parachuting safely to earth. His spacesuit and support equipment went on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on December 15, 2016.

Besides conducting our own search operations, our expedition will be working with NOAA to support its upcoming exploration of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument as the research vessel Okeanos Explorer maps the deep seafloor near Howland Island in March. An education team on board our vessel will share the excitement of deep sea exploration and the fascination of robotic technology as we sail the central Pacific in our quest.

Stay tuned over the coming days and weeks as we share details of our team, technology, and adventures as we prepare to go to sea.

StratEx at the Smithsonian

The StratEx Spacesuit at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, NASM
The StratEx Spacesuit at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, National Air & Space Museum

On October 24th, 2014, Alan Eustace made history with a record breaking near-space dive from the stratosphere at 135,890 feet. Free-falling over 123,000 feet, he reached a speed of 821 mph (Mach 1.3) before slowing in the thickening atmosphere and parachuting safely to earth. The StratEx spacesuit and Balloon Equipment Module went on permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on December 15, 2016. It is an extraordinary honor for all of us who were directly involved in the project. The exhibit is in an area dedicated to stratospheric exploration, with the space capsules for the Breitling round-the-world mission and the Red Bull Stratosjump nearby. It is also just a couple of hundred feet from the Space Shuttle Discovery! There was a lovely celebration led by General Jack Dailey, Director of the museum, and featuring pilot Alan Eustace and co-founder of Paragon Space Development, Taber MacCallum. Colleagues from World View, Paragon (StratEx lead and launch system), ILC Dover (spacesuit), United Parachute Technologies, Performance Design (parachute system), and Nauticos (recovery team) attended as well as balloonist Julian Nott and Alan’s extended family.

L to R: Jane Poynter, Alan Eustace, Daniel "Blikkies" Blignaut, Taber MacCallum, Dave Jourdan
L to R: Jane Poynter, Alan Eustace, Daniel “Blikkies” Blignaut, Taber MacCallum, Dave Jourdan

“I always wondered: what if you could design a system that would allow humans to explore the stratosphere as easily and safely as they do the ocean?” Alan’s inspiration and technical leadership started the three-year project. He did not seek publicity, but rather strived to  develop a self-contained spacesuit system that allows for manned exploration of the stratosphere above 100,000 feet. Such a system has a wide range of applications in stratospheric science, development of spaceship crew egress and the study of suited aerodynamics above Mach 1.

The team was led by Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter of Paragon, with Flight Director Sebastian Padilla, Launch Director John Strauss, PSA (Pressure Suit Assembly) Team Lead Jared Leidich, and Recovery Team Lead Dave Jourdan (Nauticos). Daniel “Blikkies” Blignaut led the parachute design team, and skydived from an orbiting aircraft to escort Alan to the ground. Dozens of other scientists, engineers, and technicians from around the world helped make the project an unqualified success.

A new book The Wild Black Yonder by StratEx team member Jared Leidich tells the stirring tale of the record-breaking project. It is an amazing story of imagination, exploration, engineering, perseverance, setbacks, successes, and teamwork.

Pearl Harbor LIVE Dive

The Japanese mini submarine HA-19 (similar to the mini sub sunk by the USS Ward), which washed ashore on December 8, 1941. Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.
The Japanese mini submarine HA-19 (similar to the mini sub sunk by the USS Ward), which washed ashore on December 8, 1941. Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

On December 7, 2016, 75 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, join NOAA for a live dive on two Japanese mini submarines, the first of which was sunk by the USS Ward prior to the attack. This will be the first time the public will be able to view live underwater exploration of the submarines in real time.

You can view the dive on our Expedition Portal or at
 on the morning of December 7. Live streaming will start at 6:30 a.m. HST (8:30 a.m. PST, 11:30 a.m. EST.) A team of maritime archaeologists and scientists from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Office of Ocean Exploration and Research will live-stream the dive. A remotely operated vehicle deployed off of the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer will send back images of the wreck site.

Holiday Reading

The Search for the Japanese Fleet — USS Nautilus and the Battle of Midway by David W. Jourdan
The Search for the Japanese Fleet — USS Nautilus and the Battle of Midway by David W. Jourdan

Looking for a holiday gift for someone interested in military history? Wondering how to commemorate Pearl Harbor Day? Making plans to observe the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway next year? Need a good book about a hot day in June to pass a cold winter night? Why not try The Search for the Japanese Fleet?

Available on Amazon or get a signed copy here.

Happy Holidays!

The Wild Black Yonder

wild-black-yonder-coverIn 2014, Alan Eustace rose to a record-breaking height of 26 miles above the earth, lofted by a giant helium balloon and protected from the frigid near vacuum by nothing more than a specially-designed spacesuit. Then he released and plummeted to the ground in a 123,000 foot free fall, landing safely by parachute in the New Mexico desert. Jared Leidich, the man who led the team that designed and built that spacesuit and parachute recounts how a small group of engineers spent three years designing, building, testing, failing and starting over, until they made the system that carried Eustace safely to the edge of the black sky and back. The Wild Black Yonder is an amazing story of imagination, exploration, engineering, perseverance, setbacks, successes, and teamwork. The stakes were high – before Alan, only four other aeronauts had attempted to ascend to the stratosphere and skydive down. Two of them died trying.

Throughout the book, Jared describes the technical challenges, designs, engineering, and problem solving that made the program a success. He also shares his personal highs and lows, many false starts, and internal debates that sometimes spilled into frustration and anger. He admits that at times he felt they “were becoming weathered soldiers in a losing war against disappointment.” The  long hours and the pressure of building a system that would put a friend in utmost danger yet bring him back to safety took a significant toll on his personal life. Yet in the end the honor of success, the reward of working with a great team, and the value of pushing the boundaries of knowledge made it all worthwhile.

Besides being a stirring saga, the book is impressively illustrated with drawings, diagrams, and eye catching photos included with every chapter. The splendor of the desert at dawn contrasted with the beauty of a well made machine is clearly seen in these pages.

Purchase your signed copy here and invite yourself to imagine the future of travel away from the planet – the missions, the craft, and the reasons for going.