A group of aviation buffs plans an expedition in the fall to a South Pacific island where they believe the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's plane might be found.
Earhart disappeared 54 years ago while on an around-the-world flight.Gary Quigg, who belongs to the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, found two photos in Purdue University's archives that he believes solve the mystery of the pioneer aviator.
Quigg said the photos show an object resembling an aluminum box that looks like a bookcase used to hold navigation records. He said it appears to be the same bookcase found in 1989 on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the South Pacific.
Quigg, who works for an Indianapolis museum, said the bookcase found on Nikumaroro came from Earhart's plane. Until Quigg, 28, uncovered the photos last month, there was no physical evidence linking the bookcase found on Nikumaroro to Earhart's plane.
Earhart was a women's career counselor at Purdue in 1935. Her husband donated much of her memorabilia to the university.
The photos show Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan standing in front of the open cockpit door of their twin-engine Lockheed 10-E Electra a few days before their July 2, 1937, disappearance.
The object found on Nikumaroro has been identified through its serial number as a navigator's bookcase, and FBI tests dated it to the 1930s.
"That makes me feel good," Quigg said in a recent interview. "I feel like I contributed something."
In September, Quigg hopes to be part of TIGHAR's second expedition to Nikumaroro. A Houston deep-sea exploration and recovery company, Oceaneering International, plans to help the expedition by photographing the ocean bottom around the island.
If the photographs turn up the plane "we would go back a third time to recover it, if possible," said TIGHAR Executive Director Richard E. Gillespie.
Earhart disappeared about 3,000 miles north of New Zealand, somewhere between Lae, New Guinea, and Howland Island.
She had become the first woman to cross the Atlantic alone in 1932 and also the first woman to fly solo across the United States that same year. In January 1935, she became the first woman to fly from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland.
Her disappearance triggered a massive search and has led to speculation ever since. Among the theories was that she was spying on the Japanese for the United States and was captured and died in captivity. Other theorists assume she simply got lost and ran out of fuel over the ocean.
TIGHAR's theory of what happened to Earhart and Noonan goes like this:
Through a navigational error, the pair missed their target of Howland Island and ended up at Nikumaroro, then known as Gardner's Island, 350 miles away. They crash landed on a coral shelf that was exposed because the tide was low, but the plane was probably washed away within a few days when the tide came in.
Meanwhile, Earhart and Noonan set up camp on the island but died, probably from thirst, before rescuers could reach them.
The U.S. Navy dispatched the battleship USS Colorado to the area, but the ship, traveling from Hawaii, took a week to reach the remote island 2,000 miles away.
Lt. John O. Lambrecht, the Colorado's senior aviator, reported seeing signs of recent habitation on the island, but no people.
"What he didn't know, or couldn't know, was that island was uninhabited," said Gillespie. "There should have been no sign of habitation."
Members of a U.S. Coast Guard unit stationed on the island during World War II found a campsite they thought natives who settled there after Earhart's disappearance had built. It included a rain collection device rigged from a tank that could have come from an airplane, a tarp and slabs of coral.
"There is also a story associated with the island," Gillespie said, "of bones being found when natives first got there (in 1938). The bones were the skeleton of a woman and the skull of a man. They also found an American style woman's shoe, size 9 narrow - Earhart's shoe size."