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The final piece of the puzzle?

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June 19th, 2012

It was to be her crowning achievement; a 29,000-mile flight around the world, and the first ever flown by a woman. By early July 1937, Amelia Earhart had completed 22,000 miles of her aeronautical feat, having traversed South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia. On July 2, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan readied themselves for the next leg of the journey, starting from Lae, New Guinea, with a 2,500-mile jump to a speck of land in the vast Pacific called Howland Island. At 10 a.m., the aviatrix and her partner took off in their state-of-the-art, twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10E. Earhart s last known voice transmission came 19 hours into the flight, around the time of her projected approach to Howland Island. We must be on you, but cannot see you, she told the U.S. Navy s Itasca, which was positioned off the coast of Howland. ...[G]as is running low...We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait. So the Itasca s radio operators waited but received no further messages. They never heard from Amelia Earhart again.

Conflicting theories

For three quarters of a century, her final moments have been the stuff of mystery, and the theories surrounding her disappearance range from logical to ludicrous. Some believe Earhart simply ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific. Others suggest that she was actually flying a secret surveillance mission at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt and faked her death as part of the plan. Only recently has evidence come to light that may bring this 75-year-old missing person case to a close. According to one researcher, Earhart landed safely on a small atoll less than an hour s flight from their intended destination. Ric Gillespie, head of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), has been investigating the Earhart case for almost 25 years now. Since 1989, Gillespie, along with a host of experts in anthropology, archaeology, and forensic medicine, have scoured the Pacific island of Nikumaroro, where they believe Earhart and Noonan landed their plane on an exposed reef.

Castaways?

Here, TIGHAR archaeologists have uncovered the remnants of a dozen campfire features surrounded by 1930s artifacts that point to castaway behavior and a woman s presence. Among the items found is the bottom portion of a bottle of Campana Italian Balm (a popular 1930s women s skin softener); the charred fragments of a bottle of St. Joseph Nerve and Bone Family Liniment, which it appears someone used to boil water; an Easy Open bone-handled jack knife with the blades missing (similar to one inventoried on Earhart s Electra); pieces of 1930s rouge makeup; and an empty jar of Dr. C.H. Berry s Freckle Ointment (Earhart was known to have been concerned about her freckles). But perhaps TIGHAR s best piece of evidence is the very thing that brought them to Nikumaroro in the first place a photo taken of the island by a British expeditionary force just three months after Earhart disappeared. When this image came to our attention, recalls Gillespie, we noticed that there was something protruding from the water that shouldn t have been there. We did some pretty high-tech forensic work on the image using our own experts and those of the U.S. State Department s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and found that the object was consistent with the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra in both shape and dimensions. Based on this photo and the strong evidence of a castaway presence on the island, Gillespie has pieced together an account of what he believes happened to Amelia Earhart. Rather than run out of fuel, Earhart spotted Nikumaroro (then Gardner Island) and decided to put the Electra down on the surrounding reef, which Gillespie says would have resembled an empty parking lot at low tide. Once on the ground, Earhart and Noonan spent the day hunting, gathering, and resting, and every evening returned to the plane to transmit distress calls using the Electra s radio set. It appears, based on the turtle and fish bones that we found near the campsites, that the two had no trouble finding food sources for some time, says Gillespie. Furthermore, we know that Earhart was sending radio messages from the plane because we have numerous reports from people across the U.S. who received her transmissions on their shortwave radios. A boy in Wisconsin heard her say that her plane was on a reef southeast of Howland. Several others picked up faint transmissions that included Amelia Earhart calling for help. These messages continued for as long as Earhart had fuel to run the plane s engines and charge the radio s batteries or until the tide ultimately pulled the Electra farther off shore. As to how long Earhart and Noonan lasted, Gillespie says it wasn t longer than three months, which is when the British expeditionary force photographed the island. What s more, the stranded fliers faced a near endless string of deadly scenarios. Confined to an atoll with no fresh water, Earhart and Noonan were in constant danger of dehydration. Even with water, however, a mere cut on a piece of coral would have meant almost certain death from infection. We ll probably never know exactly how they died, notes Gillespie, but it s entirely within our grasp to determine whether they were in fact on this island.

Search for answers

Indeed, on July 2, the anniversary of their disappearance, Gillespie and the TIGHAR team will set out for Nikumaroro in search of Earhart s Electra. Using unmanned submersibles, side scan sonar, and remotely operated vehicles equipped with high-definition cameras, they ll canvas the surrounding waters for any sign of the airplane that last saw the light of day 75 years ago. There are hundreds of our people working on this project, helping to make this happen, Gillespie says. Amelia Earhart was a hero to so many, and her story deserves a definitive ending. I hope that our efforts will give it one. michael.williams@erickson.com

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