It is one of the greatest enduring mysteries in aviation history: the disappearance of Amelia Earhart after she took off from Lae, New Guinea, in a Lockheed 10-E Electra on July 2, 1937.
Earhart was trying to become the first woman to fly around the world. She and a navigator, Fred Noonan, were headed to Howland Island, a tiny coral atoll in the southwestern Pacific, to refuel. But they were never seen again.
For years, many have tried and failed to find the wreckage of their plane. Now, the head of a marine robotics company believes he has done it, although some experts remain deeply skeptical.
Tony Romeo, the chief executive of Deep Sea Vision, says that a sonar image that his company captured during an expedition last year appears to show a plane resting about three miles down on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere within a 100-mile radius of Howland Island. He won’t give the precise location.
He said he believes it’s Earhart’s plane because the image appears to show the two distinctive fin stabilizers on the back of her aircraft and the dimensions are “very close” to those of her sleek twin-engine Lockheed.
He said his 16-member crew found the image in their data on the last day of their expedition after they had scanned 5,200 square miles of the ocean floor between New Guinea and Howland Island.
“We’d gone 100 days without finding anything,” Mr. Romeo said in an interview this week. “We were kind of at each other’s throats. And, you know, there it is. It pops up on the screen. And you know, you realize at that moment, we were the first ones to have seen Amelia’s plane in something like 86 years. It was an incredible moment.”
Archaeologists who have used similar technology to search for underwater wrecks said they were far from persuaded that the image was actually a plane, let alone Earhart’s.
“The image is really exciting in the fact that it obviously shows an aircraft or what looks like an aircraft,” said Megan Lickliter-Mundon, an underwater archaeologist who has searched for sunken airplanes.
But to confirm that it is actually a plane, she said, researchers would have to take additional sonar images from different angles. Then they would have to use a remotely operated vehicle with a video camera to see if the plane has any serial numbers or markings that would identify it as Earhart’s.
After more than 80 years in the ocean, it would be surprising if the plane were as intact as it appears to be in the sonar image, Dr. Lickliter-Mundon said.
“But who knows?” she said. “Nothing is definitive until you have more information and a visual.”
Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., said the image, reported by The Wall Street Journal, could be “noise” in the sonar system or a geological feature on the ocean floor.
“There’s no way you could definitively say that’s even an aircraft,” said Dr. Pietruszka, who has searched for World War II-era planes. “To me, at best, you could say you have a promising target that might be an aircraft, and might be Amelia Earhart’s aircraft, at best.”
Piotr Bojakowski, an assistant professor of nautical archaeology at Texas A&M University, said he was “pretty skeptical” that it was Earhart’s long-lost Lockheed. He said it could be the wreck of a plane from World War II.
“There are a lot of air crashes around all those islands,” Dr. Bojakowski said. “Could it be American? Could it be Japanese? Could it be something else? Right now, all we know is it looks like a plane.”
Mr. Romeo said he planned to mount another expedition sometime in the future to take underwater video of the site, which he believes will confirm that it is Earhart’s plane, hopefully with its registration number, NR16020, still visible on the wing.
“I want the world to see it,” he said.
A former Air Force intelligence officer whose father was an airline pilot, Mr. Romeo, 43, said he has been fascinated with Earhart’s story since boyhood.
A pioneering aviator, she was the first woman to make a solo, nonstop flight across the United States, in 1932. She was also the first woman to complete a nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, also in 1932. She was a writer, speaker and fashion designer.
To start Deep Sea Vision in 2022, Mr. Romeo said, he sold his real estate investments and bought a $9 million underwater drone capable of scanning the ocean floor. He said the business, based in Charleston, S.C., will search for other wrecks under private contract.
Earhart’s disappearance has inspired similar expeditions over the years, as well as outlandish theories that she was captured by Japanese operatives or returned to the United States and lived under a different name.
Susan Butler, an Earhart biographer, said she believed that Earhart and Mr. Noonan ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean off Howland Island.
“The only question is where the plane went down,” she said.
While the search may not be over yet, James Delgado, an underwater archaeologist based in Washington, D.C., said he commended Mr. Romeo for undertaking the expedition.
“I will always be in the corner of anybody that goes out and searches and seeks to find answers,” he said. “At this stage, it’s early. But if it were me, curiosity being what it is, I would want to go back and see what it is with cameras.”