Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
A little more than a week after the Earhart Project got underway in Nikumaroro, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery’s (TIGHAR) month-long mission searching for the theorized final resting place of the Lockheed Model 10 Electra that Amelia Earhart was attempting to fly around the world, executive director Ric Gillespie has decided to wrap up the mission and head for Honolulu, perhaps a disappointing end to what was expected to be a the hunt of a lifetime.
And yet, it was the hunt of a lifetime. An ambitious search more than 75 years in the making — seventy-five long years since Amelia Earhart´s Model 10 crashed somewhere in the Pacific ocean while flying in to Howland Island for refueling, on her way to making history as the first woman to circumnavigate the world by plane.
Miss Earhart, a true aviation pioneer, was heading in to Howland “on the line 157 337,” a compass heading running through Howland Island. This was the last in-flight message received from her Model 10 Electra, received on July 2, 1937 at 8:43 a.m. by the Coast Guard cutter Itasca.
According to TIGHAR, her line also took her through Nikumaroro, then Gardner Island. This uninhabited island is where TIGHAR believed Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan landed after running out of fuel, and where they died as castaways.
While TIGHAR´s evidence is very intriguing and gives an impressive and believable account of what may have happened to Earhart and her plane, other evidence is out there that sharply contradicts TIGHAR´s evidence.
In the Westfall account, based on an overwhelming wealth of evidence, Earhart´s radio had a transmission range of only about 200 miles, and by the time she had transmitted her last in-flight call to Howland Island, it was perceived that she was within 75 miles of her destination.
If this had been the case, then Earhart would have been more than 300 miles north to northwest of Nikumaroro, making it unlikely for a landing on or near Nikumaroro (Nikumaroro sits about 400 miles southeast of Howland Island).
But despite the trove of evidence explained in Westfall℠s book, a two week search of the area around the Marshall Islands just after Earhart’s disappearance proved futile. Still, the search area was acutely immense (more than 150,000 sq. mi.) and it would have been like searching for a proverbial needle in the haystack.
In speaking with Westfall via email, he told me that “Splash-n-sink, Crash-n-land, or Fly to the Marshalls are about all the core theories there are. I´m more of a Splash-and-float kind of guy.”
And a splashdown and float theory may very well be what truly happened. But even so, Gillespie had followed a trail of evidence that for some reason or another, led him to Nikumaroro, so that is where he went.
The hunt for Earhart has taken Gillespie to the small uninhabited island of Nikumaroro several times, where in past expeditions, he and his colleagues have found evidence of life. Evidence that could easily place Earhart and Noonan there as castaways, and dying there after search and rescue missions failed to find them.
On subsequent trips to the atoll in the Phoenix group of the Republic of Kiribati, the TIGHAR team uncovered more evidence that may have led to the conclusion that Earhart did in fact die as a castaway there.
But perhaps the best evidence was the discovery of bones on the island in 1941 by New Zealand wartime military personnel that visited the island.
Other evidence found on the island were a woman´s makeup compact, parts of a pocket knife, and American bottles that predate WWII. All evidence that someone, perhaps Amelia Earhart, had crashed and survived on the island for at least a small while.
After several missions TIGHAR had no choice but to take the next step in the search for Amelia Earhart: the search for her plane, which to this day, nobody could put an exact position on where it may have went down.
The mission began to take shape earlier this year and immediately received the support of Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, who in March said she would support the US State Department and the Discovery Channel, which would be filming the expedition when it launched in July.
As the project moved ahead, TIGHAR received more good news. Fed Ex, which had also been an avid supported of TIGHAR for 16 years, offered to donate shipping costs and its logistics expertise to aid in the hunt for Earhart´s Model 10 Electra.
In June, FedEx shipped the Bluefin 21 AUV and an ROV more than 22,000 miles to Honolulu, where it was loaded onto the research vessel Ka´imikai-O-Kanaloa to set sail for Nikumaroro on the morning of July 3, 2012, just one day after the 75th anniversary of Earhart´s disappearance.
The Niku VII expedition, part of the Earhart Project, set sail on schedule and headed for the long 8-day journey to the remote Nikumaroro Island to begin the search for Earhart´s lost plane. The team, arriving a day later than scheduled, immediately jumped into action and almost immediately began having technical difficulties.
A stuck AUV here, a jammed AUV there, a busted nose cone, technical malfunctions, and difficult search waters gave the team an extremely hard time. But despite the problems, Gillespie noted that the team got some solid data and was ready to examine it. He also noted that due to the difficulties posed in the dangerous environment, it didn´t make much sense to move forward with the investigation.
In a statement on TIGHAR´s update page, Gillespie said: “But the question of searching for an airplane in this environment is even more basic than “what ledge” or “how far down.” Given what we now know about this place, is it reasonable to think that an airplane which sank here 75 years ago is findable? The environment is incredibly difficult, with nooks and crannies and caves and projections; it would be easy to go over and over and over the same territory for weeks and still not really cover it all. The aircraft could have floated away, as well.”
After discussion and analysis of their results, Mr. Gillespie made the call to end the mission and return home. Departing on July 20, the crew is expected to arrive back at port in Honolulu sometime on or after the 28th.
If the plane is in fact in Nikumaroro, it will likely remain there awaiting to, perhaps, someday be found. And perhaps with a new innovative discovery, the plane may be found yet. But maybe not in Nikumaroro; but maybe so.
Westfall told me that “Ric´s [Gillespie] a believer — he truly believes Earhart is there, which is why he has such a following. I admire that“¦. Still, she’s not there [in Nikumaroro] nor is the Electra. Truly I’d be just as happy if he did find it there — it’s just not going to happen.”