Friday, October 30, 2009

The search for Amelia Earhart flies again

by Katie O'Brien

Oct 29, 2009


Imagine being thrilled to learn that the hardened material in your hands is dried...well, poop.  You might feel differently if the dropping potentially belonged to a famous aviator. 

Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, said he believes his team has unearthed several artifacts belonging to airplane pilot Amelia Earhart, whose plane crashed on July 2, 1937.

The site of Gillespie’s search is Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati.  The atoll in the middle of the South Pacific is 400 miles southeast of Howland Island, Earhart’s intended target for the day on her epic flight around the world.

Gillespie’s Earhart Project, what Gillespie calls the “Holy Grail” of aviation mysteries, is the latest investigation testing the hypothesis that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan landed, and eventually died, on Gardner Island.  The mystery surrounding Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance propagated a gamut of theories, books and now, a newly released blockbuster motion picture, “Amelia.”

“The crash at sea [theory] is nice and clean. A lot of people prefer that to someone desperately trying to survive on a desert island and getting eaten by crabs. But it does appear to us that there is a chapter of Earhart’s story, of her trying to survive that’s, very heroic. If it happened, it really does need to be told…this castaway of Gardner Island’s story,” said Gillespie, a retired crash investigator who lives in Delaware.

When he founded the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery in 1985, he and other members supported the "crash-and-sank" theory. Since November of 1988, the Earhart Project has explored an older U.S. Navy hypothesis that the flight ended on one of the islands of the Phoenix Group. 

The only known piece of Earhart’s Lockheed L-10 Electra, the Lady Lindy, was found in 1937 by Dan W. Stringer, stationed with the Army Air Corp.’s 50th Observation Squadron at Luke Field in Hawaii.

On March 30, 1937, four months prior to Earhart’s planned trip around-the-world, the Electra crashed during take-off, stripping a piece of its landing gear from the plane. The accident delayed her around-the-world trip.

Stringer found the scrap and kept it for years as a private souvenir. Last year, his grandson, Jon Ott of San Jose, Calif. inherited the piece and took it to PBS’s “History Detectives” to test its authenticity. PBS in turn, took the piece to Trevor Harding at the California Polytechnic State University.

Harding used a scanning electron microscope to test the sample’s composition for traces of aluminum alloy 2024, the alloy batch unique to the skin of the Electra model. The sample proved to be authentic. 

Gillespie also has found trace aluminum his team collected over nine expeditions to the Phoenix Group and Gardner islands but his pieces haven't been tested as yet due to a lack of funding, he said. To help raise funds for his next spring 2010 expedition, he is reserving six seats on his boat at a ticket price of $50,000 each.

He said a news team and representatives of the Smithsonian Institution also have asked to join him.

But Gillespie does have a number two option. Chunks of a brown dirt-like substance found on the Gardner atoll during the last expedition are human fecal matter, according to Gillespie.  He said he hopes to test the waste—as well as 20th century makeup and pieces from a compact mirror found at the site against—a DNA sample from a woman related to Earhart.

  Michael Foote, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, said that the conditions on the island raise some questions about the theory of finding human fecal matter from the 1930s.

“Sure, there is such a thing as fossilized dung or fossilized feces. If the environment were dry enough, it could just mummify. It’s conceivable. But the heat, the humidity,” Foote said, “The [Gardner] island is very humid,” Foote said.

Earhart’s crash may have involved a case of unfortunate miscalculation. Her Electra was modified to allow for additional fuel tanks to allow her to navigate the globe. As a result, pieces of navigation devices were removed for weight consideration, according to the American Aviation Historical Society.

Robert Brockmeir, retired United Airlines pilot and president of the society, said that, despite all the conspiracy theories, Occam’s razor applies.

“You take off from Honolulu, 0-6-0, flying northeast. If they’re speaking Spanish, you turn north, if it’s French Canadian, you head south. It’s different when you’re heading for a tiny island in the middle of nowhere,” Brockmeir said.


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