Will researchers solve the mystery of Amelia Earhart's disappearance? (+video)
A team of researchers hopes to locate Amelia Earhart's plane off the coast of an island called Nikumaroro. Promising pieces of 1930's clothing and cosmetic products have been found there before.
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Flying into the Unknown
Earhart and Noonan were last seen taking off in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra on July 2, 1937, from Papua New Guinea en route to tiny Howland Island, some 2,500 miles away in the central Pacific. Radio contact with her plane was lost hours later after she reported running low on fuel.Skip to next paragraph
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A massive air-and-sea search, the most extensive such U.S. operation at that time, was unsuccessful. Earhart's plane was presumed to have gone down, but it has never been known whether she survived, and if so, for how long.
TIGHAR researchers theorize that Earhart and Noonan made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, about 400 miles southeast of their destination on Howland.
Gillespie believes that within of days of its landing, the plane was washed over the island's edge by rising tides and surf, and was pulled down the reef slope into as-yet unexplored depths.
A recently enhanced 1937 photograph, taken three months after Earhart's disappearance by a British officer, shows what is now thought to be a detached landing gear assembly on the island's Western reef.
It is the same location where TIGHAR had hypothesized the plane might have landed and will be the geographic starting point in their underwater search.
Using underwater robotic submarines equipped with sonar, researchers will first map the sea floor, then probe the depths for objects that might be pieces of the aircraft.
If they find something promising, a third, remote-controlled submersible vehicle with camera, lights and a robot arm will attempt to explore the object up close.
But Gillespie cautioned that the conditions for such a search were less than ideal, explaining that the sonar probe works best over a flat, sandy bottom, rather than the craggy, reef slope the team expects to encounter at the site.
After 24 years of working on the Earhart case, Gillespie said he accepts that previous hypotheses have been disproved, and this seemingly promising one could be as well.
"That's scary. What if you look there and you don't find it? It might mean you're wrong. Or after 75 years of dynamic, destructive ocean activity, we could be absolutely right and not find anything," he said.
"It's hard not to see the parallel with Amelia's trip. You prepare the best you can and recognize, well, you're taking a risk. We're out to prove the case if it can be proven."
(Reporting by Malia Mattoch McManus; Editing by Steve Gorman, Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)