Team to hunt for Amelia Earhart's plane

2012-07-03 11:06

Honolulu - Seeking to chronicle Amelia Earhart's fate 75 years after she disappeared over the Pacific, researchers prepared on Monday to look for wreckage of her airplane near a remote island where they believe the famed US aviator died as a castaway.

Organisers hope the expedition will conclusively solve one of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th century - what became of Earhart after she vanished during an attempt to become the first pilot, man or woman, to circle the globe around the equator.

A recent flurry of clues point to the possibility that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, ended up marooned on the tiny uninhabited island of Nikumaroro, part of the Pacific archipelago Republic of Kiribati.

"The public wants evidence, a smoking gun, that this is the place where Amelia Earhart's journey ended," said Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). "That smoking gun is Earhart's plane."

The group's research team had planned to set off by boat on Monday from Hawaii on a 2 900km voyage to Nikumaroro accompanied by the technicians from a US Navy contractor called Phoenix International who recovered "black-box" flight-data recorders from an Air France crash from the floor of the Atlantic last year.

But the departure was postponed for a day, until Tuesday, because of a delay in the arrival of a Kiribati customs official who is to accompany the expedition, said Stephanie Buttrill, a spokesperson for the group.

Tantalising evidence

The team will spend 10 days at the search site, plus 16 days at sea travelling to and from the island.

Previous missions to Nikumaroro have unearthed tantalising evidence that Earhart was there, including a cosmetic bottle from the 1930s that appeared to be jar of a once-popular brand of anti-freckle cream.

Also found were a clothing zipper from the 1930s, pieces of a woman's compact, a bottle of hand lotion, parts of a woman's shoe and a man's shoe, a bone-handled pocket knife of the type Earhart carried and human bone fragments.

"We've found artifacts of an American woman castaway from the 1930s, but we haven't found anything with her name on it," said Gillespie.

"We've tried to get contact DNA from things that were touched, and it didn't work. The environment was too destructive. The recovered bone samples were too small. The logical thing is the airplane."

Earhart and Noonan were last seen taking off in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra on 2 July 1937, from Papua New Guinea en route to tiny Howland Island, about 4 023km away in the central Pacific. Radio contact with her aircraft was lost hours later after she reported running low on fuel.

Enhanced 1937 photograph

A massive air-and-sea search, the most extensive such US operation at that time, was unsuccessful. Earhart's aircraft was presumed to have gone down, but it has never been known whether she survived, and if so, for how long.

TIGHAR researchers theorise that Earhart and Noonan made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, about 640km southeast of their destination on Howland.

Gillespie believes that within of days of its landing, the aircraft was washed over the island's edge by rising tides and surf, and was pulled down the reef slope into as-yet unexplored depths.

A recently enhanced 1937 photograph, taken three months after Earhart's disappearance by a British officer, shows what is now thought to be a detached landing gear assembly on the island's Western reef.

It is the same location where TIGHAR had hypothesised the aircraft might have landed and will be the geographic starting point in their underwater search.

Using underwater robotic submarines equipped with sonar, researchers will first map the sea floor, then probe the depths for objects that might be pieces of the aircraft.

Taking a risk

If they find something promising, a third, remote-controlled submersible vehicle with camera, lights and a robot arm will attempt to explore the object up close.

But Gillespie cautioned that the conditions for such a search were less than ideal, explaining that the sonar probe works best over a flat, sandy bottom, rather than the craggy, reef slope the team expects to encounter at the site.

After 24 years of working on the Earhart case, Gillespie said he accepts that previous hypotheses have been disproved, and this seemingly promising one could be as well.

"That's scary. What if you look there and you don't find it? It might mean you're wrong. Or after 75 years of dynamic, destructive ocean activity, we could be absolutely right and not find anything," he said.

"It's hard not to see the parallel with Amelia's trip. You prepare the best you can and recognise, well, you're taking a risk. We're out to prove the case if it can be proven."

  • JNaMolefe - 2012-07-03 11:36

    I remembered her true story on the movie, poor lady lost somewhere in Pacific, has crashed into the sea. May God rest her soul.

  • Ryno - 2012-07-03 11:41

    old news that has already aired on nat geographic about 2 - 3 mths ago

      LanfearM - 2012-07-03 13:17

      @ Ryno - not everyone has access to National Geographic you know.

  • LanfearM - 2012-07-03 13:18

    Everyone knows that Amelia Earhart was abducted by aliens and ended up in the Delta quadrant! lol

      sycomachinery - 2012-07-03 17:02

      True and by now she has probably been assimilated by those damn Borg guys and that means they know where she crashed (just before she got abducted hehe) so I'd stay away from that island.

  • douglas.westfall - 2012-07-04 01:32

    Amelia's Lockheed Electra was within 75 miles of her target Howland Island when her radio cut off. Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts said: "Her voice was loud and clear; sounded frantic on her last transmission. Then it cut off." Nikumaroro is 350 miles south-east of Howland and at a right angle to her flight path -- and she didn't have charts for those islands. Airman Richard Beckham flew over Nikumaroro (Gardner) seven days later and said: "We altered course to Gardner Island ... we always went low over the islands at 100 feet ... we couldn't see anyone, and we always scanned the beaches." The US sent nine ships, 66 aircraft, and well over 3,000 sailors and airmen who covered well over 250,000 sq. miles of open sea and every island within a 650 mile radius of Howland. Taken from, The Hunt For Amelia Earhart Douglas Westfall, historic publisher,

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