Finding America’s aviator

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NEW YORK — A group of investigators will search a South Pacific island to try to determine whether famed aviator Amelia Earhart crash-landed and died there.

The expedition of 15 members of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, was set to depart yesterday . The trip will mark the group’s ninth to Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll about 1,800 miles south of Hawaii.

Once at the 2½-mile-long island, the group will spend 17 days searching for human bones, aircraft parts and any other evidence to try to show that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, reached the island on July 2, 1937, crashed on a reef at low tide and made it to shore, where they possibly lived for months as castaways, written off by the world as lost at sea.

The conditions during the search will be punishing, with the explorers forced to contend with dense jungle vegetation, 100-degree heat, sharks that live in a lagoon in the middle of the island and voracious crabs that make it necessary to wear shoes at all times.

“The public wants it solved. That’s why everybody on the street today, 70 years later, knows the name Amelia Earhart,” said Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR founder and executive director. “She is America’s favorite missing person.”

At the time, Earhart, 39, and Mr. Noonan, 44, were nearing the end of a heavily publicized round-the-world flight that began more than a month earlier in Oakland, Calif. On July 2, they left Lae, New Guinea, bound for tiny Howland Island, 2,550 miles to the east, only to vanish as they neared their destination.

A 16-day search by U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships turned up no sign of the fliers or their silver-colored, twin-engine Lockheed Electra. Despite an official finding that they ran out of gas and crashed in the ocean, the case spawned a once-popular claim that the pair were captured and executed as spies on a Japanese-held island.

Mr. Gillespie acknowledges that some critics regard the Nikumaroro castaway theory as far-fetched, but he says there is strong evidence to suggest Earhart and Mr. Noonan reached what was then known as Gardner Island, 350 miles south of Howland, and survived a crash-landing on its wide flat reef.

“Most skeptics are not really familiar with the evidence that we’ve found, and they usually have a vested interest in the other theories” he said.

The evidence includes radio distress signals that may have come from Earhart, bones found at a former campsite in 1940, and pieces of airplane parts that Mr. Gillespie says could have come from Earhart’s plane. One of these is a shard of Plexiglas, the exact thickness and curvature of an Electra window, but with no serial number.

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