- As we near the 75th anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, a high-tech search for the lost pilot will begin.
- There is evidence suggesting that Earhart may have survived as a castaway on an island.
- The new search will use deep underwater vehicles to scout for possible remains of Earhart and her plane.
The search for Amelia Earhart will resume this summer in the waters off Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati where the legendary pilot might have died as a castaway.
With support from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US State Department and Discovery Channel which will be documenting the expedition for a television special later this year, the expedition will be carried out by the The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 75 years ago.
The new expedition will use high tech underwater equipment to search for pieces of Earhart's plane.
The tall, slender, blond pilot mysteriously vanished while flying over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937 during a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.
Secretary Clinton met today with historians and scientists from TIGHAR and spoke about why the search for Earhart is still pertinent to Americans. She pointed out that when Earhart went missing, the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression."
"Now Amelia Earhart may have been an unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck, but she embodied the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world," Clinton said.
The general consensus has been that Earhart's twin-engined Lockheed "Electra" had run out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Howland Island.
But according to Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR's executive director, there is an alternative scenario.
"The navigation line Amelia described in her final in-flight radio transmission passed through not only Howland Island, her intended destination, but also Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro," Gillespie said.
The possibility that Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan might have made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro's flat coral reef, some 300 miles southeast of their target destination, is not a new theory.
"This was the oldest Earhart theory," Gillespie said. "This was the theory the Navy came up with in the first days following the flight's disappearance. And they did search the atoll, but only from the air," Gillespie said.
In nine archaeological expeditions to Nikumaroro, Gillespie and his team uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence.
"We found archival records describing the discovering in Nikumaroro in 1940 of the partial skeleton and campsite of what appears to have been a female castaway," he said.
"We identified the place on a remote corner of the atoll that fits the description of where the bones and campsite were found. Archaeological digs there have produced artifacts that speak of an American woman of the 1930s," Gillespie said.
He added that evidence on the island would also suggest that Earhart survived as a castaway "for a matter of weeks, possibly more."
In the forthcoming expedition, Gillespie and his team will be concentrating on Earhart's plane. The underwater search will be carried by Phoenix International, the U.S. Navy's primary deep ocean search and recovery contractor.
On July 2, the 75th anniversary of Earhart's disappearance, the TIGHAR team will sail from Honolulu aboard the University of Hawaii oceanographic research ship R/V Ka Imikai-O-Kanaloa.
"When we get there, in about eight days, we'll survey the general area with multi-beam sonar to create an accurate map of the undersea topography and prioritize the search area," Gillespie told Discovery News.
"Targets will be identified using high resolution, side scan sonar mounted on an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Finally, we will investigate suspicious looking targets using a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) with dual manipulators and color video camera system and lights," Gillespie said.
The search relies on what Gillespie called "the most exciting breakthrough" -- a photograph of the island's western shoreline taken three months after Amelia's disappearance.
"It shows an unexplained object protruding from the water on the fringing reef," Gillespie said.
Forensic imaging analyses of the photo suggest that the shape and dimension of the object are consistent with the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra. Gillespie said they have reason to believe that Earhart's airplane went over the reef edge near the spot where the object appears in the photo.
"Amelia Earhart's legacy still lives today, reminding young people to keep their eyes on the stars," Clinton told reporters.
Gillespie said they hope to solve the long-standing mystery about just what happened to one of the nation's most inspiring heroes.
"We'll do our best to find Amelia. During the painful recovery from the Great Depression, Amelia Earhart inspired America with her courage and determination. America needs Amelia again," Gillespie said