It's one of the most sacred stories in the canon of unsolved American mysteries. In July of 1937, Amelia Earhart was on the tail end of her famous journey around the world. From her starting point in Oakland, California, the famous aviator and her navigator Frederick Noonan flew east over South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia in a bid to circle the globe. With close to 7,000 miles remaining, Earhart's aircraft lost radio contact with the USS Itasca and disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
Where she went has been the subject of speculation and legend ever since. But now investigators with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, a non-profit foundation promoting aviation archaeology and historic aircraft preservation, have evidence that suggests Earhart and Noonan were marooned castaways on a deserted island after their plane crashed. Richard Gillespie, the group's executive director, is leading a new expedition that will try to solve the mystery once and for all.
"Having failed to find the island she was trying to find, she proceeded on the navigational line she said she was following when last heard from by the Coast Guard, [and] landed on the dry reef that surround Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll in the Phoenix group," Gillespie says. Known at the time as Gardner Island, the encircled lagoon is now part of the Republic of Kiribati, but is now uninhabited. It is here where Gillespie's team will search for Earhart's airplane in the deep water surrounding the island.
"The people who later lived there used aircraft aluminum and in some cases plexiglass to make useful objects — fishing lures, combs, decorative objects," Gillespie says. Though he calls such evidence circumstantial, Gillespie believes that the source of the bits and pieces could be Earhart's plane. "There is a pretty good indication that some of the parts washed up."
Another clue that drove Gillespie to push for a search around Nikumaroro is the discovery of a human skeleton on the island three years after the disappearance by a British colonial service officer. The bones were identified as having been a male, and were lost soon after. However, the records of the evaluation of the bones were recently reexamined, and modern forensic efforts assert that the original examiner had erred. "What comes out of the computer is a female of Northern European descent who stood about 5' 8"," Gillespie says. "That's a pretty good description of Earhart."
What really set off the expedition, Gillespie says, was a photograph taken by a British survey team just months after Earhart disappeared. In the picture, an object can be seen jutting up out of the water. "Photo imaging analysts, both with our organization and with the U.S. government, have looked at the photo, and say that this thing sticking up out of the water is very possibly the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra," Gillespie says. The search party will depart from Honolulu tomorrow, 75 years to the day that the U.S. Navy embarked on the original search and rescue mission to try to track down the missing "Queen of the Air."