23 Jun 2017

Sniffer dogs join the search for Amelia Earhart

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 1:30 pm on 23 June 2017

It’s 80 years since aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared and another search to work out what happened to her is about to get underway using sniffer dogs.

A Pennsylvania-based group called International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) is focussing on the theory that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan made a crash landing.

Amelia Earhart standing under the nose of her Lockheed Mode 10-E Electra

Amelia Earhart standing under the nose of her Lockheed Mode 10-E Electra. Photo: Wikipedia

They hypothesise that Earhart and Noonan used celestial navigation to land on a small coral atoll about 400 miles south of Howland Island, their original destination, due to depleted fuel supplies.

Ric Gillespie, director of TIGHAR, says they are actually working on one of the first theories about where the plane went down.

"When Earhart tried to find Howland Island the last message heard by the coast guard standing by for her there said she was on a particular navigational line and when she didn’t arrive at Howland Island the Navy thought well, she was following that line she didn’t get to Howland Island but there’s another island on that line at that time it was called Gardner Island perhaps she went there.”

People were also picking up radio distress signals and when direction bearings taken from these pointed to Gardner Island, the US Navy sent a battleship from Hawaii to search.

Furthermore the manufacturer of the plane, Lockheed, said if radio signals were being heard the plane had to be intact.

“If you’re hearing radio calls from this airplane [Lockheed said] it’s not floating around in the water because the radio would be wet and she couldn’t transmit.”

Lockheed also said the plane was on its wheels because the engine had to be able to run to transmit a signal.

But when the Navy arrived planes from the ship flew over the island and found nothing.

Gillespie believed the plane was standing on a reef when it was transmitting and then was washed off.

“They didn’t see a plane so reasoned if the signals were genuine, they had to be from an aeroplane on land.”

The Navy concluded the signals were bogus and proceeded to search in open ocean and concluded Earhart crashed and sank.

Gillespie team has been mounting expeditions to Gardner Island since 1988 – this will be the twelfth.

“We’ve put together a jigsaw puzzle slowly, painstakingly, over these 28 years. What we now need is that final smoking gun piece of evidence.”

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart Photo: Wikicommons

Much evidence has already been gathered, he says.

“We have a tremendous body of evidence; artefacts found on the island. We know that three years after Earhart disappeared the bones of a castaway were found on the island which were thought at the time to possibly be Earhart’s.

"We found the place on the island where that happened, the castaways’ campsite and we’re finding artefacts that speak of an American woman of the 1930s.”

They even found a bone there, the tip of a finger, but it was too small and degraded to get enough DNA to sequence.

Gillespie isn’t particularly optimistic of finding more bones, he thinks it more likely the remains of the plane will be found.

“It’s 80 years ago and those Polynesian rats they chew up bones, that’s what they do. So I’m not convinced that many bones still survive.”

Dramatic discoveries don’t happen in the field - it’s not like Indiana Jones.”

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