Seventy-five years after Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific, a research team plans to leave on an expedition to solve the mystery over her fate.
The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) is heading to Nikumaroro Island in Kiribati on Tuesday to try to establish whether Earhart survived the apparent crash of her aircraft.
Some researchers believe that her airplane crashed near a remote island in the Pacific and that the famous aviator died as a castaway.
Clues found recently point to the possibility that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, ended up marooned on the tiny uninhabited island of Nikumaroro, part of the archipelago Republic of Kiribati.
“She did not go down at sea. She was on land, and we think we know what land she was on, and where to search in the water for what’s left of the plane,” the group’s head Richard Gillespie told the news network, CNN, on Monday.
Previous missions to Nikumaroro have unearthed tantalising evidence that Earhart was there, including a cosmetic bottle from the 1930s that appeared to be a jar of a once-popular brand of anti-freckle cream.
Also found were a clothing zipper from the 30s, pieces of a woman’s compact, a bottle of hand lotion, parts of a woman’s shoe and a man’s shoe, a bone-handled pocket knife of the type Earhart carried and human bone fragments.
“We’ve found artefacts of an American woman castaway from the 1930s, but we haven’t found anything with her name on it,” said Gillespie. “We’ve tried to get contact DNA from things that were touched, and it didn’t work. The environment was too destructive. The recovered bone samples were too small.”
Because the evidence found cannot be undeniably linked to Earhart, researchers say their aim is to find the wreckage of her plane.
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 hypothesised the plane might have landed and will be the geographic starting point in their underwater search.
The expedition will use state-of-the-art technology, including a multibeam sonar to map the ocean floor and a remote-controlled device similar to one that found the black boxes from the Rio-to-Paris Air France flight that crashed into the South Atlantic in 2009.
A cargo ship carrying the equipment and a crew of about 20 scientists will depart Hawaii to explore over 10 days both the island and an underwater reef slope at its west end.
Earhart, 39, was flying with Noonan during the final stage of an ambitious round-the-world flight along the equator at the time that her plane disappeared.
She would have been the first pilot, man or woman, to circle the globe around the equator.
The holder of several aeronautical records, including the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air, Earhart had set off from New Guinea to refuel at Howland Island for a final long-distance hop to California.
In what turned out to be her final radio message, she declared she was unable to find Howland and that fuel was running low.
Several search-and-rescue missions ordered by then-president Franklin Roosevelt turned up no trace of Earhart or Noonan, who were eventually presumed dead at sea.
Conspiracy theories flourished, including one contending that Earhart was held by Japanese imperial forces as a spy.
Another claimed she completed her flight, but changed her identity and settled in New Jersey.