District employee Kenton Spading, rehired annuitant, regulatory, believes he and his team could be in the midst of unraveling the decades-old mystery of what happened to famous aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, who both went missing in 1937.
Spading, who began working for the Corps in 1984, is a member of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, whose members are trying to prove the Niku Hypothesis, that Earhart landed on Nikumaroro Island. The theory has been gaining steam over the years with progressively increasing evidence.
“We have not located conclusive proof that she landed on the reef at Nikumaroro,” Spading said. “We are definitely in the hypothesis stage. We do not have enough established facts yet.”
The Niku Hypothesis, at its foundation, is fairly simple. While Earhart was making her historic attempt to be the first woman to fly around the world, she was scheduled to land on Howland Island, but due to well-documented communications issues and fuel concerns, she landed on nearby Nikumaroro Island instead. Nikumaroro, located in the western Pacific Ocean, was named Gardner Island at the time.
“Prior to 1991 I never gave the Earhart mystery much thought,” said Spading. “That year, following the 1991 TIGHAR expedition to Nikumaroro, I was reading the Sunday paper and discovered an article regarding a Minnesota farmer, Veryl Fenalson,
who was a member of the TIGHAR team searching for Earhart. I was fascinated by the story and manner in which scientific principles were being applied to the search.”
Spading called Veryl and found that the TIGHAR team needed members who were computer literate as well as interested in solving historical mysteries.
“As a youth, my father, through the books he read, instilled in me an interest for the unknown and mysteries for our planet,” said Spading. “TIGHAR sent me a team application form. I was then required to take a TIGHAR-led aircraft archaeology class during which we dug up an airplane that crashed in a tidal wetland off Delaware. I got involved in research and the search for the White Bird aircraft in Newfoundland. I was on four expeditions there. I eventually made the short list for the 1997 TIGHAR expedition to Niku, was interviewed and selected.”
According to a TIGHAR brochure, “Earhart and/or Noonan [could have] explored the island and wound up camping and living off the land at the south end, surviving there for some days or even weeks, but eventually dying, probably of thirst.”
In 2001, Spading co-authored the book, “Amelia Earhart’s Shoes,” and played a vital role during the group’s 1997 trip to the island. Spading aided in a search of the lagoon bottom, where Earhart’s plane was thought to have been washed, after making a controlled landing on the outer broad reef shelf at low tide. As the tides got higher, the plane may have eventually floated off the reef into the ocean.
This summer, on the 80th Anniversary of their disappearance, Spading will be part of the team going back to Nikumaroro, looking for more clues to substantiate the group’s disappearance theory.
“I’d like to make an update to the book, adding a new chapter, with any significant discoveries we make after the island search,” said Spading.
From June 21 to July 11, Betchart Expeditions in partnership with TIGHAR researchers are inviting mystery enthusiasts to join the experts on a trip to Nikumaroro. Teams will explore the island, the lagoon and reef edge where it is thought the plane landed and where Earhart and Noonan may have set up a camp. An experienced National Geographic cadaver dog team will also join the search this year for the first time.
For Spading’s next writing adventure, he plans to research and write a book about Henry Bosse, a surveyor and draftsman for the Corps from 1874 until his death in 1903. Bosse’s many photographs of the Mississippi River from St. Anthony Falls to St. Louis, displayed on the seventh floor of the St. Paul headquarters building, are widely considered superb works of art.