|the 1940 mystery writer||
Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan
If like me, you're fascinated with old mysteries, then like me you'll delight to know that one of the most puzzling mysteries of the 20th century may soon be solved. On July 2, 1937, renowned fliers Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan took off from Lae, New Guinea, in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10E (shown at left), en route to Howland Island, roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca received several clear voice radio communications from Earhart during their final approach to the island, one of which stated the Electra was running low on fuel. But the plane's state-of-the-art antenna seems to have been damaged, for while the Electra could send messages, the passengers could not hear the cutter's responses. Although the Itasca sent up black smoke to attract the pilots to the little sliver of land housing the runway, they never showed. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were lost at sea.
The battleship USS Colorado and aircraft carrier USS Lexington coordinated a massive search effort among ships of the 14th U.S. Naval District, including the faithful Itasca. On uninhabited Gardner Island, about 350 miles southeast of Howland, a spotter aircraft from the Colorado found the wrecked remains of a tramp steamer, the SS Norwich City, shattered on a coral beach, with clear signs that someone had lived rough for a while. But "repeated circling and zooming" brought forth no survivors.
When no signs clearly those of the Electra nor its crew were found, the official search was abandoned on July 17. Earhart's husband, George P. Putnam of the publishing family, financed a second search immediately afterward, including the area of Gardner Island and its group, the Phoenix Islands, but with similar results. Calculations both modern and historic seem to show the Electra's fuel reserves would not have stretched to Gardner without a significant error in navigation, possible but unlikely from a navigator of Noonan's experience, and the flight path Earhart reported would not have passed near the island.
In 1940 Gerald Gallagher, a British civil servant trying to settle Gardner, reported finding "a skeleton... possibly that of a woman," plus the ashes of a cold campfire, some animal bones, and an empty box that had once held a sextant, an old-fashioned navigational instrument most commonly used aboard ships. The skeleton was sent to Fiji and a year later measurements were taken which at the time seemed to indicate it had been a man, about five feet five inches tall. U.S. authorities weren't notified and the skeleton was lost in the tumultuous years in between, but more recent analyses of the measurements by forensic anthropologists point more toward a "tall white female of northern European ancestry." While such a woman might have been aboard the SS Norwich City, Earhart was known for her height of five feet nine inches and in photos, she's often clearly taller than other women shown.
Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro and part of the Republic of Kiribati, remains the most likely landing spot for the Electra, and historical forensics groups have concentrated their searches on this area. The most active of these, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) headed by Ric Gillespie, has sent nine missions to the area, recovering the heel from a woman's size 9 Cat's Paw shoe (a type worn by Earhart while flying), as well as an aluminum panel and Plexiglas windscreen, both similar to Electra components. The group's efforts in 2007 turned up some brass bearings which could have come from an Electra or a ship or other aircraft, and a zipper pull from a flightsuit or other clothing.
TIGHAR is undertaking another recovery mission to Nikumaroro this July, searching the deeper waters around the island with sonar and other high-tech systems; shallow areas and coral reefs were searched in 2010. Driving the new search is a recently discovered archival photograph, taken about October 1937, three months after the disappearance. It shows Nikumaroro's western shoreline and sticking up out of the water near the reef is an odd-looking object. Detailed photo analysis shows this object to be a similar size and shape to the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra, raising again the possibility that Earhart successfully landed on the reef and at least one crew member made it ashore while the aircraft tumbled from the reef into the onshore waters before being ultimately washed out to sea.
July seems a long time away, and of course the group's results will take even longer to trickle down to those of us waiting breathlessly for news. *sigh* I'll update this post whenever fresh news becomes available.