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New search begins in Amelia Earhart mystery

A group of investigators hopes that modern technology will help solving a 70-year-old mystery and embarks this week on a new attempt to discover whether famed aviator Amelia Earhart may have crash-landed and died as a castaway on a remote South Pacific island.

The expedition by 15 members of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, known as TIGHAR, will be the group's ninth visit to the atoll known as Nikumaroro, located about 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) south of Hawaii.

They were to fly from Los Angeles to Fiji on Thursday and board a chartered motor sailer for a 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer), five-day trip to the uninhabited, 2 1/2-mile (4-kilometer) -long island near the intersection of the equator and the international dateline.

Once there, the group was to spend 17 days searching for human bones, aircraft parts and any other evidence 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 having been lost at sea.

The conditions during the search will be punishing, with the explorers forced to contend with dense jungle vegetation, 100-degree (40 Celsius) heat, sharks that reside in a lagoon in the middle of the island and voracious crabs that make it necessary to wear shoes at all times.

"People ask why we keep doing this, and the answer is that we're doing this to solve the mystery," TIGHAR founder and executive director Ric Gillespie said in a telephone interview from his home in Wilmington, Delaware.

"The public wants it solved. That's why everybody on the street today, 70 years later, knows the name Amelia Earhart. She is America's favorite missing person."

At the time, Earhart, 39, and Noonan, 44, were nearing the end of a much-publicized round-the-world flight that had begun more than a month earlier in Oakland, California. On July 2, they left Lae, New Guinea, bound for tiny Howland Island, 2,550 miles (4,100 kilometers) 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, 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.

The expedition is funded by US$330,000 (EUR240,000) in public contributions to TIGHAR, a nonprofit charitable group founded in 1985 by Gillespie, an aviation historian, author and aircraft accident investigator. The group has investigated more than three dozen missing historic aircraft cases.

Gillespie acknowledges that some critics regard the Nukumaroro castaway theory as far-fetched, but he says there is strong evidence to suggest Earhart and Noonan reached what was then known as Gardner Island, 350 miles (560 kilometers) 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 - that they crashed at sea or were captured by the Japanese," 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 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.

The bones, found by a British overseer in 1940 and first judged to belong to a mixed-race male, vanished in Fiji during World War II. But a doctor's notes, discovered in London in 1998, were reanalyzed by two American forensic anthropologists, who found the remains were more likely those of a Caucasian female about Earhart's age and height.

"All of this is circumstantial, but it's reason to believe the `smoking gun' is still out there," Gillespie said.