Sunday, September 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Earhart still being sought

Chesco group wants funding for sending mini-subs to island in try to solve 1937 mystery.

Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, holds a scrap of wreckage.
Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, holds a scrap of wreckage. JOSEPH KACZMAREK / AP
Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, holds a scrap of wreckage. Gallery: Earhart still being sought
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.

By mid-October, an expedition with two mini-submarines 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.

That is, if enough funding can be raised this month.

For three decades, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, now based in Chester County, has been collecting evidence that Earhart survived as a castaway for weeks on the island of Nikumaroro, roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

On Aug. 30 the group will be hosting a research conference to discuss the latest findings of the Earhart Project at its Oxford headquarters.

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

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

In June, a hunt began for old photographs of Earhart's Lockheed Electra - which might 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.

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

A visit to Nikumaroro, scheduled for Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, would include a search for Earhart's first campsite on the island.

If $1.2 million isn't raised by Sept. 1, the expedition will get canceled, and the University of Hawaii could close the program that promised to provide two three-person mini-subs.

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

Would the right gift mean a seat in a sub?

"Oh, yeah," Gillespie said. "You can go where no man has gone before."

A jagged line on a sonar mapping, based on data collected during a headline-making 2012 expedition, marks the most promising spot for the fuselage, at a depth of about 600 feet, Gillespie said.

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

If needed, searchers could scrutinize the underwater slope for more than a week. The submersibles even have grappling arms that can nudge, lift, and retrieve objects.

An array of evidence backs the Earhart Project's theory, including reports of radio transmissions from Earhart, a doctor's drawings of since-lost human bones, artifacts found at or near a castaway's campsite (including parts of a woman's shoe and a sextant box), and a 1937 photo of a possible wheel assembly sticking out of the water.

"The timing is perfect," Gillespie declared. "The stars may never align this way again."

For more about the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, its evidence, and its various projects and plans, go to TIGHAR.org.


pmucha@phillynews.com

215-854-4342

Peter Mucha PHILLY.COM
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