HONOLULU: Seeking to chronicle Amelia Earhart’s fate 75 years after she disappeared over the Pacific, researchers on Monday prepared to look for wreckage of her plane 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 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 yesterday, because of a delay in the arrival of a Kiribati customs official who is to accompany the expedition.
Previous missions to Nikumaroro have unearthed tantalising evidence that Earhart was there, including a cosmetic bottle from the 1930s that appeared to be a jar of a once-popular brand of anti-freckle cream. Also found were a clothing zipper from the 30s, 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.
Earhart and Noonan were last seen taking off in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra on July 2, 1937 from Papua New Guinea en route to tiny Howland Island, some 2 500 miles away in the central Pacific. Radio contact with her plane was lost hours later after she reported running low on fuel.
A massive air-and-sea search, the most extensive such US operation at that time, was unsuccessful. Earhart’s plane 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 south-east of their destination on Howland. Gillespie believes that within days of its landing, the plane was washed over the island’s edge by rising tides and surf, and was pulled down the reef slope into as-yet unexplored depths.
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.
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.
After 24 years of working on the Earhart case, Gillespie said he accepts that previous hypotheses have been disproved.
“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.” – Reuters