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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Still searching for Earhart

Most people have heard of Amelia Earhart, even though she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared into thin air 77 years ago over the South Pacific during an attempt to be the first woman to fly around the world near its equator — a flight of nearly 29,000 miles.

Fewer people have heard of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR — pronounced “tiger”), a nonprofit organization “dedicated to promoting responsible aviation archaeology and historic preservation.”

TIGHAR has been launching expeditions to the islands near where Earhart was last reported since 1989, hoping to find hard evidence of what happened to her and her companion.

The group was founded, and is run by, Richard “Ric” Gillespie, a former aircraft accident investigator who has been fascinated by the Earhart mystery for many years.

Because of his background, he has vowed to incorporate only the most stringently analyzed scientific evidence in his search, discounting the multitude of theories that have surfaced in the popular media in the decades since the flyer’s disappearance.

Earhart and Noonan were last seen in New Guinea, when they took off in her Lockheed Electra twin-engined airplane, bound for tiny Howland Island. They planned to land there, refuel and then go on to Hawaii.

But they never arrived. Earhart was heard by a Coast Guard ship stationed nearby, but could not establish two-way communications. Eventually, her voice faded away.

A search by U.S. Navy vessels, including a battleship and an aircraft carrier, found no trace of her or her aircraft.

Since then, various theories have been advanced, ranging from “capture” by the Japanese to a crash into the sea.

But Gillespie and TIGHAR are proceeding along a different line of inquiry. They believe they have a wide variety of circumstantial evidence that points to an emergency landing on a flat portion of coral reef on Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro.

They think that Earhart and Noonan survived the landing, sent a series of SOS messages on the Electra’s radio until the airplane was swept off the reef by high tides and storms and then died as castaways on the island, which has no source of fresh water.

Their evidence ranges from a partial skeleton found several years later (but subsequently lost) to artifacts such as a sextant case of the type carried by Noonan to a woman’s shoe of the sort worn by Earhart on the flight to a jar of freckle cream to a piece of aircraft aluminum consistent with the Electra’s construction.

There is no single “smoking gun,” however, and that’s what Gillespie and the volunteers of TIGHAR are looking for. Their next move is to go to the island with two manned submersibles capable of surveying the steep cliff that adjoins the flat portion of reef they may have landed on.

If the Electra was swept off, as their theory supposes, there would be some remnants down on that cliff, even after all these years. If they are there, they could be positively identified as coming from Earhart’s aircraft — and the mystery would be solved.

But such an expedition, even when costs are shared with others interested in the basic research possibilities, is enormously expensive.

So TIGHAR is waging a fundraising campaign. I drove down to the New England Air Museum near Bradley International Airport the other day to hear Gillespie give a talk on his work. As he talked, he was backed by a Lockheed Electra very similar to the Model 10E purchased by Earhart and her publisher husband George P. Putnam for the world flight.

Gillespie impressed me, despite the fact that I’ve read just about everything ever written about the Earhart flight, and I decided to contribute to his work.

If you’re interested in doing the same, you can go to: tighar.org and buy a book or simply send in a donation. You’ll get no return on it, of course, except the satisfaction of knowing this group is trying to fill in the blanks on one of the most famous mysteries of history.

And that, I think, is worth a lot.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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