Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Amelia Earhart mystery: Is this the year it’s solved?

Crews in mini-subs will search for the wreckage of her Lockheed Electra in September, if a Chester County group can find funding for the next phase of its quest.

Mini-subs (top left) could look for wreckage of Amelia Earhart´s plane in September off a remote Pacific island, Nikumaroro (bottom left), where mysterious bones were found in 1940, three years after her plane vanished. Leading the hunt is Ric Gillespie, shown holding a metal sheet, possibly from her plane, that his wife found on the island.
Mini-subs (top left) could look for wreckage of Amelia Earhart's plane in September off a remote Pacific island, Nikumaroro (bottom left), where mysterious bones were found in 1940, three years after her plane vanished. Leading the hunt is Ric Gillespie, shown holding a metal sheet, possibly from her plane, that his wife found on the island.
Mini-subs (top left) could look for wreckage of Amelia Earhart´s plane in September off a remote Pacific island, Nikumaroro (bottom left), where mysterious bones were found in 1940, three years after her plane vanished. Leading the hunt is Ric Gillespie, shown holding a metal sheet, possibly from her plane, that his wife found on the island. Gallery: Amelia Earhart mystery: New clues, new plans

An “X” doesn’t mark the spot. A bright line on a sonar map does.

That’s where the fuselage of Amelia Earhart’s plane may have come to rest, at the base of an underwater cliff off a remote Pacific atoll, after being wrestled off a reef by the sea.

By mid-October, an expedition with two mini-subs might finally solve the legendary aviator’s 1937 disappearance as she attempted to circle the globe – and some generous soul could get a ringside seat.

If enough funding can be raised by Sept 1.

For three decades, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), now based in Chester County, has been relentlessly collecting evidence that Earhart may have survived as a castaway for weeks on Nikumaroro, one of the Phoenix Islands, near where the International Dateline crosses the equator.

The past year has brought a series of hopes and headaches for TIGHAR and its founder, Ric Gillespie.

In December, after operating TIGHAR from their home in Wilmington, Gillespie and his wife, Patricia Thrasher, moved to Oxford, 15 miles west of Kennett Square.

In June, excitement arose over a new avenue of investigation -- a hunt for old photographs of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra sharp enough to show that a replacement patch for a rear window matches an aluminum panel found by Thrasher on the island in 1991.

“There is a chance that we can come up with a conclusive answer that links it to Earhart,” said Gillespie, who has led 10 expeditions to the island since founding TIGHAR in 1985.

On Friday, a federal court judge in Wyoming dismissed a 2013 lawsuit, filed by $1 million donor Timothy Mellon, that alleged TIGHAR actually located and videotaped Electra wreckage during a 2010 expedition and fraudulently covered it up.

“Plaintiff has no more than theories and opinions that Earhart’s plane, or parts of it, are depicted in the 2010 footage,” District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl ruled. “... No false representations were made.”

“We are completely vindicated,” Gillespie said.

No immediate decision was made to appeal, a Mellon lawyer told the Associated Press.

TIGHAR’s island visit, scheduled for Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, would also include a search for the first campsite Amelia Earhart might have set up after surviving an emergency landing on a reef off a then-uninhabited atoll roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

Gillespie denied it’s a make-or-break year for the Nikumaroro theory.

If $1.2 million isn’t raised by Sept. 1, however, the expedition will get canceled, and a window of opportunity could close – not just for the Earhart search, but for climate change and  zoological research also planned. The University of Hawaii told Gillespie it might have to close the program that promised to provide two three-man mini-subs.

The hope is to at least find debris from the aircraft, theorized to have been dragged by tides and waves off the reef into the depths below.

“We need to find a sponsor,” Gillespie said. “We need to find someone who can help us in a significant way.”

Would the right gift mean a seat in one of the subs?

“Oh yeah, you get a seat in the sub,” Gillespie said. “You can go where no man has gone before.”

An unexpected line on a sonar mapping, not an “X,” marks the most promising spot for the fuselage, at a depth of about 600 feet, Gillespie said. (See image below)

“The plan is to go right to the anomaly,” he said. “You check out the obvious first.”

If needed, searchers are prepared to keep looking for more than a week, scrutinizing a mile of slope down beyond 1,000 feet for wings and things – signs of wreckage.

The sonar clue was pulled from data collected two summers ago during a much-publicized expedition that was featured in a Discovery Channel special.

Limited by a reliance on remote-controlled devices and plagued by equipment problems and a lack of time, the expedition found tantalizing hints – high-definition video of objects resembling a tire, a pulley and a fender – but nothing definitive.

Using a tethered remote-operated vehicle with a camera is “like searching for your lost car keys in the backyard at night with a flashlight while looking through a toilet paper tube,” Gillespie said. Mini-subs hold much more promise.

“There’s no substitute for having eyeballs and brains on the bottom,” he said.

The submersibles even have grappling arms that can nudge, shake, lift and retrieve objects.

TIGHAR’s isn’t the only theory, of course. Officials concluded Earhart was lost at sea. Others have speculated the Japanese captured her, she crashed on New Britain, an island off New Guinea, or she deliberately disappeared and later lived in obscurity in Middlesex County, N.J., housewife. (The real Kansas-born Amelia, who went to high school in Chicago, did have East Coast connections, attending Ogontz School for Young Ladies outside Philadelphia and Columbia University.)   

But an array of evidence – from radio transmissions to artifacts found at or near a castaway’s campsite to a 1937 photograph of a possible wheel assembly sticking out of the water – has been found to support the Nikumaroro hypothesis.

Among the artifacts: a woman's shoe, a sextant box, a zipper piece, a broken pocket knife, a shard of a cosmetics jar, and a chunk of rouge, all consistent with Earhart and her belongings.

The evidence has less to suggest about the fate of Amelia Earhart’s navigator, Fred Noonan.

So, Ric Gillespie is all too familiar with evidence that fits but fails to prove.

No one knows what happened to a set of woman’s bones found on the island in 1940 and taken to Fiji for examination by a British doctor. He thought they belonged to a native male, but later examination by forensic anthropologists concluded they were more likely from a woman of European descent.

Bone fragments found in 2010 raised hopes of DNA confirmation, but labs couldn’t extract enough genetic material.

Finding the skeletal remains of the plane would be a nice alternative.

“The timing is perfect,” Gillespie declared, when announcing the scientific part of the mission. “A major El Niño event is reportedly now developing in the region. We have known targets to investigate that may well be aircraft wreckage. The ship and the subs are in top condition. The historical and ocean science teams are standing by.

“The stars may never align this way again.”

For more about TIGHAR, its evidence and its plans, go to TIGHAR.org.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.

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