Published October 15, 2013
| Discovery News
The search for Amelia Earhart's long-lost aircraft will resume next year in the waters off Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati where the legendary pilot may have died as a castaway.
Starting about the middle of August 2014, the 30-day expedition will be carried out by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 76 years ago.
Called Niku VIII, the new expedition is expected to cost as much as $3 million. It will rely on two Hawaiian Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL) manned submersibles, Pisces IV and Pisces V, each carrying a pilot and two TIGHAR observers.
“The plan for Niku VIII is built on the hard data gathered and the hard lessons learned during the previous expeditions carried out in 2010 and 2012,” Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, said in a statement.
Equipped with high definition video, still cameras, mechanical arms and recovery baskets, the subs will search a mile-long underwater area down to a depth of more than 3000 feet.
“Live searching by three people aboard each sub looking at wide vistas illuminated by powerful lights is far superior to searching by looking remotely via the toilet-paper tube view provided by a video camera on an ROV,” Gillespie said.
The tall, slender, blond pilot mysteriously vanished while flying over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.
The general consensus has been that Earhart's twin-engined Lockheed Electra had run out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Howland Island.
But TIGHAR researchers believe Amelia suffered a different fate.
In nine archaeological expeditions to Nikumaroro, Gillespie and his team uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence.
TIGHAR is testing the hypothesis that Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan made an emergency landing on the flat coral reef at the western end of Nikumaroro, some 350 miles southeast of their target destination. There, they survived as castaways "for a matter of weeks, possibly more," said Gillespie.
“She and her navigator Fred Noonan sent radio distress calls from the aircraft for the next five nights before the Electra was washed over the reef edge by rising tides and surf,” Gillespie said.
The best evidence for where the plane went into the water is a grainy photograph of the island's western shoreline taken by British Colonial Service officer Eric Bevington three months after Amelia's disappearance.
“The picture appears to show the wreckage of one of the aircraft’s main land gear assemblies on the reef edge,” Gillespie said.
The hunt for the plane wreckage will begin by checking an "anomaly" revealed by sonar imagery taken in the 2012 expedition. Resting at a depth of about 650 feet, distinctly apart from the debris field of the SS Norwich City, a British steamer that went aground on the island's reef in 1929, the anomaly is a straight, unbroken feature uncannily consistent with the fuselage of a Lockheed Electra.
“We have reason to believe it might be something of interest,” Gillespie told Discovery News.
The expedition will also include an archaeological survey of the onshore area where Earhart and Noonan may have established an initial campsite while the plane was still on the reef. The area to be examined was never cleared or developed when the island was later inhabited.
“The plane parked on the reef in the tropical sun would be unbearably hot during the day. It seems logical that Earhart and Noonan spent the daytime hours at some kind of initial campsite in the shade for those first few days,” Gillespie said.
“They may have brought items ashore that they did not take with them when they moved on after the plane was lost to the sea,” he added.
One of the most interesting finds recovered in a previous expedition is a little glass jar. It was found broken in five pieces at a campsite on Nikumaroro and one of the fragments, showing signs of having been used as a cutting tool, was collected far from the others among some turtle bones.
Parallel research into the artifact, published this month on TIGHAR website, has confirmed it was a container for a 1930s freckle ointment.
“We found mercury in the interior of the jar, not the exterior, and no mercury on nearby glass. Jars in this style were sold as cosmetic creams for the face,” Joe Cerniglia, one of the study authors and the TIGHAR researcher who first spotted the freckle ointment as a possible match, told Discovery News.
“A cosmetic face ointment plus mercury, of the type that was not parted from the glass by decades of outdoor exposure, equal a skin-lightening ointment, plausibly for freckles, to the best of our knowledge,” he added.
While it is well documented that Earhart had freckles and disliked having them, Cerniglia and colleagues found no archival evidence that the known residents of the island were bleaching their skin.
Preparation for the new expedition, which might have the final say on the possibility of finding pieces of the Electra aircraft, comes while TIGHAR is facing a lawsuit linked to the Earhart search.
Filed last June by Timothy Mellon, the son of philanthropist Paul Mellon and a major donor to TIGHAR's 2012 expedition, it alleges that the Delaware aircraft preservationist group found the Electra wreck in 2010 but hid the discovery to raise money for another expedition.
TIGHAR called Mellon's suit “frivolous and vicious,” rejecting all allegations.
“On Sept. 25, the judge threw out two of the four counts in the lawsuit,” Gillespie said. "TIGHAR will need to continue to defend against these baseless charges but we are greatly encouraged that half of Mellon's case has been thrown out.