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Doubts Cast on Earhart Wreckage Sighting

Earhart
Amelia Earhart at Lae, Papua New Guinea the day before she left on her last flight.

March 3, 2011 —On the day it was announced that the latest DNA tests on a bone fragment thought to be that of Amelia Earhart were “inconclusive,” a group on the South Pacific island of Bougainville has claimed to have discovered her lost aircraft. The Papua New Guinea Post-Courier reported that armed men are guarding a wreck partially covered by a coral reef northwest of Buka Island on the north end of Bougainville. Some people are skeptical of this discovery since established research about Earhart’s last location make it unlikely that her Lockheed 10E Electra is now some 2,000 miles west of her last known position.

The wreck in question is resting in 230 feet of water near Matsungan Island, part of the Bougainville island chain. Residents have known for years that an aircraft wreck existed there and two investigators, David Mona and businessman Cletus Harepa, formed a group that began an expedition to confirm the finding in 2000.

Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared in 1937 during an attempted circumnavigation of the world. More than 70 years later their vanishing has become arguably the last great enduring mystery of aviation. Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) – which has been searching for evidence of their last location for 23 years - doesn’t believe that the group on Bouganville (which TIGHAR has been advising) has discovered the aircraft.

“There is physically no way that Earhart’s airplane could be anywhere near New Guinea,” Gillespie told EAA. “All researchers, regardless of what theory they ascribe to, agree that Earhart was within 200 miles of Howland Island based on the strength of the signals received by the United States Coast Guard. At that moment they (Earhart and Noonan) had no more than four hours of fuel remaining. It’s 2,000 miles from that area back to New Guinea.”

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Noonan departed Lae, New Guinea eastbound, for a 19-hour leg to Howland Island. The proposed crash site claimed by the Bougainville group lies approximately 500 miles east of their departure point directly on the proposed flight path. Noonan used deduced reckoning and celestial navigation to get them to within approximately 200 miles of Howland, where the USCG ship Itasca would provide a radio beacon for Earhart to follow. Communication problems between Earhart and the Itasca denied Earhart the ability to use radio guidance as she approached the approximate location of Howland. Based on reports of the radio communications, most believe Earhart began flying north and south in an effort to find the island until they ran out of fuel.

TIGHAR gave Mona and Harepa an 11-item checklist a few months ago to help them identify the aircraft, and it was reported that eight of the eleven items were checked off. Gillespie said that what information the Bougainville group did share with them was either widely available or didn’t make sense, and they have so far not produced any photographs.

“They told us they found human skulls, which likely could not have survived underwater for that long,” Gillespie said. “So we decided to do our own research and we discovered that during World War II there was a Navy PV-1 Lockheed Ventura that was lost in that same area with similar features to a Electra 10E including having two engines, twin tail…and is really a bigger, faster version of the Electra.”

The discovery has whipped Bougainville into a bit of a frenzy as the island’s Minister for Culture and Tourism Joseph Egilio, in a press conference yesterday, appeared worried that the issue may get out of hand. While he commended the group’s expedition he warned that any wreckage found would be the property of the government.

Bone fragment DNA ‘inconclusive’

Last December EAA reported that TIGHAR was going to test an apparent bone fragment found on the island of Nikumaroro in 2009 for Earhart’s DNA. TIGHAR has been advancing the theory that Earhart and Noonan ditched on this island south of Howland, their intended destination, after running out of fuel. Circumstantial discoveries by TIGHAR and others over the years have pointed to the possibility that they lived as castaways on the island until their likely demise.

Gillespie says that the DNA tests were inconclusive since too much of the bone would be destroyed in a required replication test by an independent lab. Gillespie plans to try again when advances in DNA testing allow for further and more widespread evaluation.

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