Sunday, June 23, 2013

Some mysteries last for decades

I've felt a strange affinity for Amelia Earhart.

In 1937, the year my parents were born, Earhart took off from Oakland's North Field, just a mile from our house, on her around-the-Equator circumnavigation. All my children attended Amelia Earhart Elementary School, and learned her inspiring story at school assembly.

And more: Earhart herself attended Hyde Park High School in Chicago, where my wife was raised and my eldest daughter was born; the four years I spent in Hyde Park were certainly as formative in my life as Earhart's years were for her.

Earhart, of course, never completed that circumnavigation; her plane lost contact with the various Navy and Coast Guard ships she was communicating with, and was declared lost after a massive search effort.

But nothing definite was ever found, which, as the Christian Science Monitor observes, has left a unresolved mystery:

As the search ground on, a new brand of Earhart fixation began, says Susan Ware, author of "Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism."

“There are really two Amelias, the Amelia of history and the Amelia locked in this mystery of the missing plane,” she says. “Hers is a fascinating story, but it’s one without an ending, and people can’t seem to get over that.”

One of the organizations trying to understand Earhart's final hours and minutes is a group called TIGHAR, which stands for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery.

Around the 50th anniversary of Earhart's loss, TIGHAR began investigating her disappearance; they've been working on the problem for 25 years now, pursuing the Gardner Island theory intensely almost from the start of their work:

The broad, flat expanse of hard coral which surrounds the island’s shore dries at low tide to provide a very attractive surface upon which to make a forced landing. However, a disabled aircraft on that reef-flat would, at high tide, be partially afloat in 3 to 4 feet of water. Over a period of a few days tidal cycles would move the aircraft inexorably toward and ultimately over the edge of the fringing reef. From there it’s a steep plunge to depths of 2 to 4 thousand feet.

This spring, there's been great excitement in this area, as TIGHAR's 7th Nikumaroro expedition appears to have made a major breakthrough: Niku VII Analysis Update

A higher-resolution copy of the image captured from the raw sonar data reveals details that suggest another explanation for the sonar tail. There appears to be a break in the prominent part of the anomaly, corroborated by a break in the shadow. Also, some of the tail is casting a low shadow so it must have some elevation. Something that always strikes us about Electra wrecks or repair shops where Electras are being restored or rebuilt is the incredible amount of “junk” that came out of the airplane. Rather than a ground scar, a more likely hypothesis is that the tail is a debris field of fuselage wreckage, internal components, cables, crushed fuel tanks, etc. strewn behind the eviscerated center section.

There are some wonderful pages at the TIGHAR site; I particularly enjoy reading The Object Formerly Known as Nessie

What we now call The Bevington Object is a tiny feature in one photo among two hundred fifty-three pictures in the collection of a minor British colonial official. Is this incredibly small speck in an impossibly obscure photograph the longsought conclusive proof that the Earhart/Noonan flight ended on Gardner Island? Is there other evidence that supports the idea that an object in that place at that time might be wreckage from the Earhart aircraft? What can experts see in such a tiny picture that allows them to identify it so specifically?

The recent revelations from TIGHAR have brought lots of attention to the group, as well as some controversy: Did team find Amelia Earhart's plane in 2010 but keep it a secret? Millionaire claims wreck hunters hid the discovery of aviator's crash site 'to get more money'

The suit claims the aircraft recovery group intentionally misrepresented the status of its exploration to Mellon last year, telling him a discovery of Earhart's plane was yet possible if he supported the search.

The lawsuit states Mellon contributed stock worth more than $1 million to the 2012 search and accuses the organization of engaging in a pattern of racketeering to defraud him.

There's surely a lot at stake in the resolution of the Earhart mystery, and, although it's sad, it's no surprise that the lawyers have emerged, as they always seem to do when money is involved.

Still, for the time being, the TIGHAR web pages are a delight to read. They are clearly-written, lavishly illustrated, and have all the pulse-pounding excitement of any Dan Brown thriller.

What will their research reveal next? I don't know, but I know I'll be eagerly watching and waiting to see.

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