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Quest to solve Amelia Earhart mystery continues

Wednesday 3 June 2015 | Published in Regional


Nikumaroro – The search for Amelia Earhart’s long lost aircraft will resume this month in the waters off Nikumaroro, an uninhabited South Pacific atoll in the republic of Kiribati, where the legendary pilot might have died as a castaway.

Called Niku VIII, the expedition will be carried out by a 14-person team of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (Tighar), which has long been investigating Earhart’s disappearance.

“The team will fly to Fiji and begin the five-day, 1600km voyage to Nikumaroro on June 8. We anticipate two weeks of search operations – June 13 to June 26 – before sailing back to Fiji,” Ric Gillespie, executive director of Tighar, said in a statement.

Tighar will return to Los Angeles on July 1 – one day before the 78th anniversary of Earhart’s last, fateful flight on July 2, 1937.

The tall, slender, female pilot mysteriously vanished while flying over the Pacific Ocean during a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.

The general consensus has been that the twin-engined Lockheed Electra had run out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Howland Island, Earhart’s target destination.

But Tighar researchers believe Amelia suffered a different fate.

The group is testing the hypothesis that Earhart, and navigator Fred Noonan, made a forced landing on the smooth, flat coral reef at the western end of Nikumaroro, at the time called Gardner Island.

There, they sent radio distress calls for nearly a week before the plane was washed into the ocean. Gillespie believes they might have survived as castaways for weeks.

The hunt for the plane wreckage is supported by new research which suggest that a piece of aircraft debris recovered in 1991 from Nikumaro is, with a high degree of certainty, the first physical evidence of Earhart’s plane.

The 19-inch by 23-inch piece of aluminium was identified as the patch installed to replace a window on Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft during an eight-day stay in Miami, which was the fourth stop on her attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

“The preponderance of the evidence indicates that battered hunk of aluminium is a true Amelia Earhart artifact,” Gillespie told Discovery News.

To search the wreckage Tighar will rely on a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) equipped with high-definition video and scanning sonar equipment.

Operating on the west end of the atoll, the ROV will examine an “anomaly” that emerged from analysis of the sonar imagery captured off Nikumaroro during Tighar’s last expedition in 2012.

A straight, unbroken feature uncannily consistent with the fuselage of a Lockheed Electra, the anomaly rests at a depth of 180 metres at the base of a cliff just offshore where, according to Tighar, the Electra was washed into the ocean.

The same area is shown in a grainy photograph taken by British Colonial Service officer Eric Bevington three months after Amelia’s disappearance.

The picture appears to show the wreckage of one of the aircraft’s main land gear assemblies on the reef edge.

During the two-week search this month, divers will also look for aircraft debris at shallower depths.

Meanwhile, an onshore search team will seek to identify any sign of a possible initial survival campsite established by Earhart and Noonan while the plane was still on the reef.

“The campsite, if there was one, should have been in an area closest to the plane that provided good shade and was reasonably accessible. Useful objects from the plane may have been brought ashore and left behind when Earhart and Noonan moved on after the plane was lost to the sea,” Gillespie said.

He noted that that part of the atoll was never cleared or developed when the island was later inhabited.

“This leaves us with a good chance that objects might have survived undisturbed,” Gillespie said.

His team had previously found a castaway encampment on the south-east end of the atoll in an area called the Seven Site that may have been used by Earhart and Noonan after their plane was washed away.

Gillespie believes Earhart died there, her body largely consumed by the site’s numerous hermit and coconut crabs. All that was left were 13 bones, a few artifacts, and the remains of her cooking fires.

Bits of physical evidence also included a small cosmetic jar appearing to be as one holding Dr Berry’s Freckle Ointment, a concoction once used to fade freckles. Reports say Earhart disliked having freckles.

The Seven Site is where a partial skeleton was found in 1940 but subsequently lost. The bones were reported to belong to an individual “more likely female than male,” “more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander,” and “most likely between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 9 inches in height.”

“Twenty-seven years of research, including ten archaeological expeditions to the island, have produced a preponderance of archival, photographic, analytical, and artifact evidence suggesting that our hypothesis is correct,” Gillespie said.

But he admitted that a “smoking gun” object, if it still exists, may or may not “be discoverable with the assets we can bring to bear.”

“This expedition is nothing more, and nothing less, than an attempt to build on the preponderance of evidence that has already established Nikumaroro as the most likely answer to the Earhart riddle,” Gillespie said.

Preparation for the new expedition comes with good news for Tighar, as a lawsuit linked to the Earhart search was dismissed.

Filed by Timothy Mellon, the son of philanthropist Paul Mellon and a major donor to Tighar’s 2012 expedition, it alleged that Tighar found the Electra wreck in 2010 but hid the discovery to raise money for future expeditions.

“The court firmly dismissed Mellon’s charges. Finally, one of the most bizarre episodes in the Earhart saga appears to have come to an end,” Gillespie said.

The new expedition, Tighar’s eleventh to Nikumaroro, is expected to cost around $500,000. Funding has been raised through charitable contributions from Tighar members, corporations, foundations, and from the general public via Facebook.