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Sonar images raise hopes of locating Amelia Earhart’s plane

  • Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Published Friday, May 31, 2013, at 1:49 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, May 31, 2013, at 2:02 p.m.

Photos

— “It’s exciting. It’s frustrating. It’s maddening,” declares a Delaware group about tantalizing sonar images of what could be Amelia Earhart’s plane.

“It’s the right size, it’s the right shape, and it’s in the right place,” declares the home page of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, which led a $2 million July expedition that raised hopes worldwide that the mystery finally would be solved of what happened to the famous Kansas flier who vanished over the Pacific in 1937 during an attempt to circle the globe.

The immediate result has been “the usual rodeo,” with Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR’s executive director, agreeing to requests from the likes of “The CBS Morning News” and CNN for interviews, he said by phone Friday morning.

“Amelia is just magic,” he said of the Atchison native. “Everybody jumps on it.”

Although he cautions that the sonar imagery is far from proof they’ve found Earhart’s Lockheed Electra, his hopes are high of revisiting the island of Nikumaroro next year, if funding can be raised.

He’s not worried about interlopers horning in, since the island is so remote and TIGHAR has been granted exclusive search and recovery rights by the nation of Kiribati.

Initially, the July expedition, inspired by an old photo of what could have been landing gear sticking out of water off Nikumaroro, did little to inspire hope.

During 10 days near the island — a period fraught with equipment problems — nothing special caught the researchers’ attention as they used sonar and underwater video to search for wreckage.

Before summer’s end, however, a careful review of high-definition video turned up an area with several objects that might be aircraft parts. A tire? A strut? A fender?

The intriguing images, though, raised more questions. Where was the bulk of the wreckage? The engine? The girderlike main beam? Pieces of wings, or the tail section?

The new discovery suggests answers.

In March, a man taking part in a TIGHAR online forum reported noticing an odd feature on a sonar map from the expedition.

It’s simply a long, thin, slanted streak that has a sonar shadow, showing that part of it has some bulk.

“It gives the impression of being an object that struck the slope at the base of the second cliff at a depth of 187 meters (613 feet), then skidded in a southerly direction for about 40 meters (131 feet) before coming to rest,” states part of a long discussion at TIGHAR.org.

The bulky part is about the size of the plane, and the streak behind it could be a trail of wreckage.

The location lines up — literally. The streak, the debris field seen on video, and the supposed landing gear seen in the old photo seem to a form a path of evidence consistent with the theory that the Electra was landed on a sandbar off shore, got swamped by high tides or waves, and left debris as it descended along the island’s underwater shoulders.

Of course, the sonar could have picked up some eccentric formation of rock or coral, or the wreck of some unknown ship, Gillespie points out.

No one will know until another expedition gets a better look.

Next time, he hopes to take two ships — one for the underwater exploration, another to do a longer scouring of the island itself.

Support again from the Discovery Channel is a good start, but with a couple million dollars to raise, TIGHAR is going to need help from generous donors and the public at large, perhaps even through a Kickstarter campaign, Gillespie said.

If the money’s in place by September, next summer could be when the mystery is finally laid to rest.

Otherwise, the summer of 2015 would be the likely target.

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