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After 75 Years, Amelia Earhart’s Plane May Soon Be Found

By Stephen Kaufman | Staff Writer | 20 March 2012
Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan looking at map (AP Images)

Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan pose in May 1937 with a map of the Pacific showing the route of their last flight.

Washington — Will the world soon know for certain what happened to famed 1930s American aviator and women’s rights pioneer Amelia Earhart? A nonprofit foundation specializing in aviation archaeology and historic preservation believes it knows where to find the wreckage of the plane in which she and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared during their 1937 attempt to fly around the Earth at its equator.

“We know where to start looking, and we’re going to go look,” said Richard Gillespie, co-founder and executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).

After 24 years of research, Gillespie says the evidence points to an area off the western coast of Nikumaroro Island in the Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Nearly 75 years after Earhart’s disappearance, the State Department hosted a March 20 event where Gillespie announced a new expedition to the area in July. The State Department is “providing us with a big stage to stand on and say here’s what we’ve learned, here’s what we want to do, and here’s what we plan to do,” Gillespie said.

CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE SOUGHT

In July, TIGHAR hopes to find “identifiable wreckage from the aircraft,” that, combined with already existing evidence, will present a case that will convince the general public, and not just scientific or forensic experts, Gillespie said.

“You need something very simple, very conclusive that you can show the public and show the skeptics and say, ‘Look, here it is’ and an identifiable piece of the aircraft would do that,” he said.

In 1940, when Nikumaroro was a British colonial territory known as Gardner Island, the remains of a human castaway and other artifacts such as parts of a woman’s and a man’s shoe and a box that had contained a navigational sextant were discovered. The British officer who found the objects suspected he had discovered Earhart’s remains, but when the bones were hastily analyzed by a wartime British doctor in Fiji in 1941, they were concluded to have been a man’s.

The remains and the artifacts were ultimately lost, as was most memory of the discovery, but in 1997 TIGHAR uncovered information about what had been examined, including the bone measurements, and gave the information to two independent forensic anthropologists who each used modern equipment to determine they had actually been the remains of a female of Northern European descent who had been about Earhart’s height.

Gillespie saw much more than coincidence. “There was nobody else like that missing out there, and it turns out that the numbers that were on this sextant box indicate that the sextant was the same kind … that Noonan used” for navigation, he said.

Should the remains ever turn up, there are living female Earhart relatives who can be matched through mitochondrial DNA testing to prove they are hers, he said, but unfortunately, no living female relatives of navigator Fred Noonan have been located despite years of extensive genealogical research.

Gillespie said the July expedition will arrive at Nikumaroro and create the first accurate topographical map of the search area’s underwater environment. The map will show the reef’s canyons, overhangs and outcroppings that could affect where a plane’s wreckage could have ultimately sunk.

Using their map, the team will deploy a remotely operated underwater vehicle that can scan areas with high resolution sonar and detect objects not shaped like coral or that should otherwise not be there. When something out of the ordinary is found, the vehicle can then approach the object and take video and still photographs.

Objects of continued interest can then be more closely investigated by another remotely operated vehicle that is equipped to move coral or other objects out of the way, he said.

Gillespie said the current expedition has no plans to recover underwater artifacts, and cautioned that aircraft materials like aluminum that have remained underwater for long periods of time can be vulnerable to extremely rapid corrosion if they are brought to the surface.

A DETERMINATION TO FIND THE TRUTH

Despite the growing amount of evidence accumulated over the years, Gillespie is reluctant to say TIGHAR has definitively discovered Earhart and Noonan’s fate. But he said that when one looks at the documents from the time of the disappearance and the searches that followed, “there was always much more of a mix-up than a mystery.” 

He likened the search to assembling a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were scattered into different archives and records all over the world.

“The answer has been the same for all these years. It’s been right there,” he said, but bad conclusions were drawn by Earhart’s would-be discovers at the time, and “they missed it.”

Just as with Earhart and Noonan’s 1937 quest to fly around the world, there are “no guarantees of success” here either. “But we do our best and we try our best, and we’re very determined, and we keep going, just like Amelia did” during her now legendary and pioneering career, he said.