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New search hopes to solve Earhart mystery

  • Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Published Monday, July 2, 2012, at 3:53 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, August 20, 2012, at 2:09 p.m.

Photos

— Famed Kansas aviator Amelia Earhart vanished 75 years ago – July 2, 1937 – and Tuesday, a $2 million expedition headed by a Delaware man leaves Honolulu with high hopes of finally solving the mystery.

Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, was trying to be become the first female pilot to circle the globe when her Lockheed Electra lost radio contact over the Pacific.

Following a clue in an old photograph, searchers will use a high-tech unmanned mini-sub to try to locate what appeared to be landing gear once visible in waters off a remote, now-uninhabited island.

The tantalizing photograph, along with previous evidence, elicited enthusiasm from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, famed explorer Robert Ballard and others earlier this year. The Discovery Channel will be filming the expedition, hoping to record history.

If found, the gear could finally confirm what Ric Gillespie of Wilmington, Del., has been trying to prove for more than two decades: that Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan crashed off Gardner Island, an atoll now known as Nikumaroro, part of the Republic of Kiribati.

Gillespie, as head of TIGHAR – The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery – has organized seven trips that have turned up all sorts of clues, though nothing irrefutable.

Evidence suggests, but does not prove, that Earhart may have survived but later died on the island. A 1937 report by Navy flyers spoke of signs of “recent habitation” on the island.

Salvaged airplane parts have been found there. An American-style woman’s shoe, consistent with ones Earhart wore, was found during a 1991 TIGHAR expedition. Evidence of a campfire was found in 1997, consistent with reports that near the campsite, a bottle, a can and human bones were found. A doctor’s 1941 analysis concluded those since-lost bones were from a man, but an expert told TIGHAR the measurements were more consistent with a woman.

A 2010 expedition found bone fragments, but DNA tests have so far proved inconclusive.

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