Joint venture to seek Amelia Earhart plane

Mystery: An expedition is confident of finding Amelia Earhart's long-lost plane in a spot more than 3 miles deep in the Pacific Ocean.

November 03, 1999|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

A Maryland undersea exploration company and the NOVA television program hope to solve one of the great mysteries of the century by finding the plane in which Amelia Earhart vanished over the Pacific Ocean 63 years ago.

"We think we have a pretty high probability of success," said David Jourdan, founder and president of Nauticos Corp., which has a track record of locating difficult-to-find wrecks, such as the Dakar, the Israeli submarine that was lost 20 years ago in the Mediterranean. Earhart, a celebrated aviator and icon of the 1930s, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared July 2, 1937, while on an around-the-world flight.

Some believe they ditched their Lockheed Electra airplane off Howland Island after running out of fuel, while others theorize they landed safely on another island where they perished. Her disappearance set off a 10-day search by the U.S. Navy.

Locating the wreck would be considered a monumental historical find, say experts on Earhart and her ill-fated final flight.

"Earhart's disappearance is certainly one of the most popular aviation mysteries in the world. It's not just an American thing. Finding the wreck would be huge -- the holy grail," said Richard E. Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery in Wilmington, Del.

The venture must first raise about $2 million to pay for the expedition, said Stephen Lyons, senior editor for product development for the TV show "NOVA," a production of WGBH in Boston.

NOVA and Nauticos plan presentations to private investors with an interest in aviation, said Lyons.

"We're out to solve a mystery," said Lyons. "It's a great mystery, but one we think can be solved by science."

The TV program and Nauticos have teamed with a retired Navy pilot and author who has spent 25 years researching the plane's disappearance.

The chief question they hope to answer: What went wrong with Earhart's plane? Did it run out of fuel, as many suspect, or did it encounter engine difficulties or other problems?

The group is basing its expedition on research conducted by Elgen M. Long, a World War II pilot who won a Gold Air Medal for a solo around-the-world flight in 1971. He has just published a book, "Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved," in which he concludes that the plane ditched at sea near Howland Island based on a review of fuel consumption of Earhart's plane, her last radio transmissions and newly discovered flight records.

Long, on a book tour, could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Gillespie is among those who doubt the expedition will be successful. He believes navigation records, radio signals and other evidence point strongly to Earhart landing on Gardner Island.

Jourdan declined to discuss details of the area his company plans to search so that they aren't challenged for rights to the wreck. He said the search partners have spent more than $200,000 on preliminary research, including hiring experts on fuel consumption and radio signals.

"We have a pretty serious team put together, which gives us a lot of confidence we can find the remains [of the aircraft]," said Jourdan.

He said the group hopes to begin operations at sea early next year. If the plane is located, he said, it's likely to be in good shape since it is believed to be in water 17,000 feet deep -- more than three miles.

The cold water and scarcity of oxygen at that depth would preserve the metal of the plane. NOVA hopes to parlay the expedition into at least one, if not several science television programs, said Lyons.

Nauticos has negotiated rights to profit from other elements of the find, though Jourdan said details of those arrangements are being kept confidential until the wreck is located.

Lyons said that it's likely that if the wreck were raised, artifacts from it or the entire plane would go on display at a museum. Artifacts from the HMS Titanic that have been raised have been put on display at museums around the country.

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