WASHINGTON, DC – One of the most enduring mysteries of the annals of aviation, is what happened after Miss Earhart last radioed from her Lockheed Model 10E “Electra” that she was unable to locate an airstrip for landing.
The accepted wisdom was that Earhart’s aircraft had simply run out of fuel and crashed into the ocean on July 2, 1937, as she searched for Howland Island.
Howland was the final refuelling stop before flying on to Honolulu and completing the journey by touching down in Oakland, California.
An expedition that will set sail from Hawaii on July 2, which marks the 75th anniversary of the last message by Phoenix International, the US Navy’s primary source of deep ocean search and recovery expertise, will map a former British possession that has been indentified as the most likely crash site.
A team of enthusiasts from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (Tighar) has drawn up the plans for the expedition, which is backed by the US State Department.
It will use high technology, including multi-beam sonar, to inspect a steep and craggy underwater mountainside on the western reef slope of island of Nikumaroro, a former British colony that is today part of the republic of Kiribati.
“Our objective on this expedition is to conduct a thorough search of the area we judge to be most likely to contain wreckage from the Earhart Electra,” said Tighar.
While much of the aircraft is likely to have been lost in the intervening years, researchers believe some key components – such as the Pratt & Whitney engines – could still be where they sank 75 years ago.
“Any man-made objects found will be photographed and their location carefully recorded,” the group said. “No recovery of objects will be attempted unless necessary to confirm identification.#”Should identifiable wreckage from the Electra be discovered it will be documented as thoroughly as possible in situ so that a separate expedition can be equipped with the appropriate means to recover and conserve the materials.”
If the aircraft had sufficient fuel to reach Nikumaroro, which was at the time the uninhabited British possession known as Gardner Island, it could have landed on reef flats before being washed over the ledge.
Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, could have survived on the island for a time, but eventually succumbed to injury or infection, food poisoning or thirst.
The theory is supported by British colonial records in Fiji reporting the discovery of the partial skeleton of a castaway who perished shortly before the island was settled in 1938.
The bones were found in the shade of a tree in a part of the island that fits the description of the encampment that Tighar has been excavating.
The site is dotted with the remains of small fires on which meals of birds, fish, turtle and even rat were cooked.
Previous research trips have turned up parts of aluminium skin from an aircraft, plexiglass from a cockpit, a zip made in Pennsylvania in the mid-1930s, a broken pocket knife of the same brand that was listed in an inventory of Earhart’s aircraft and the remains of a 1930s woman’s compact.
Ric Gillespie, executive director of Tighar, says they still need to find incontrovertible proof that Earhart on Nikumororo – the “smoking gun.”
This expedition apparently offers the best chances of that yet, with new forensic evidence of a photo that may show part of the aircraft on the reef sufficient to convince the US government to support the project.