Seeking to chronicle Amelia Earhart’s fate 75 years after she disappeared over the Pacific, researchers prepared on Tuesday to look for wreckage of her airplane near a remote island where they believe the famed U.S. aviator died as a castaway.
“We think the Earhart plane is there. We’ve got the right people. We have the right technology. We have the right support,” said Richard Gillespie, Executive Director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
Organizers 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.
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 U.S. 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 theorize that Earhart and Noonan made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, about 400 miles (640 km) southeast of their destination on Howland.
Gillespie believes that within of 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.
“The first thing we’re going to do is sail for eight days, 18-hundred miles, to Nikumaroro, an uninhabited coral atol in the Pheonix Group, part of the Republic of Kiribus (Kiribati),” he said.
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 hypothesized the plane 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.
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, and this seemingly promising one could be as well.
“What goes through my mind at a time like this is, is this a dream come true or a case of be careful what you wish for,” he said.