New Try To Solve Earhart Mystery

Earhart in the Electra cockpit, c. 1936.

What became of Amelia Earhart’s plane when it disappeared over the Pacific 75 years ago has long intrigued aviation fans. On Tuesday, U.S. government officials and a private historical group are expected to announce a new effort to locate the famed aviator’s twin-engine Lockheed.

The effort, projected to kick off in July, will be financed with roughly half a million dollars in private funds, according to people familiar with the details. It will focus on a remote Pacific atoll called Nikumaroro, halfway between Hawaii and Australia, near where the plane carrying Earhart and a companion may have gone down during an attempted around-the-world flight.

A search team will concentrate on the deep waters near Nikumaroro, which was the site of a 2010 search that focused on coral reefs and nearby shallow waters, these people said.

The search will be spearheaded again by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which has championed the theory that the renowned female aviator and Fred Noonan, the other crew member on the July 1937 flight, ended up on or near the west coast of the island, formerly called Gardner Island.

(This story and related background material will be available on The Wall Street Journal website, WSJ.com.)

Aviation experts aren’t unanimous in believing that scenario, and officials from the private recovery team declined to comment about specifically where they intend to look and who is financing the expedition.

A press conference scheduled for Tuesday at the State Department in Washington is expected to reveal many of those specifics. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sent out invitations promising to open “a new chapter in the search” for what remains of the legendary plane.

Since the island is now part of the Republic of Kiribati, State Department officials have helped pave the way for the underwater search.

A State Department spokesman had no immediate comment.

Officials at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum also have been briefed and are providing at least moral support. A museum official on Monday declined to provide details, except to say “we have no formal partnership” with the search but “support any general effort” to finally unravel the mystery.

Underscoring the government’s hopes of uncovering new clues, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was among those invited to attend the announcement.

Continuing fascination with the crash has spawned numerous Web sites, far-out explanations and various conspiracy theories.

Earhart’s plane was on one leg of a record-setting global trip but disappeared before reaching Howland Island, which the U.S. Navy had outfitted with a landing strip, fuel supplies, a radio transmitter and support personnel.

Her final frantic radio transmissions to the crew of a Coast Guard cutter, possibly advising them she and Noonan were lost, added to the mystery.

Earhart became world-famous in the early 1930s, when she set numerous aviation records in a bright red Lockheed Vega she called her “little red bus.” She became a sensation as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, as well as nonstop across the U.S.

When her plane disappeared over the Pacific, the U.S. government spent some $4 million searching an area roughly the size of Texas but found nothing. Other longtime Earhart theorists are convinced that bad weather caused the plane to run out of fuel and forced a ditching in ocean.

The abiding interest in the crash has been fueled partly intriguing but inconclusive results from previous searches. The head of the historic aviation group gained some credibility after searches around Nikumaroro turned up an aluminum panel and a piece of curved glass that might have come from Earhart’s plane. Teams also came upon a heel from a woman’s shoe, which some believe resembled Earhart’s footwear.

In 1940, three years after her disappearance, the historic aircraft group’s website notes, a British official “found a partial skeleton of a castaway on a remote part of the island,” along with evidence of a “campfire, animal bones, a box that had once contained a sextant” and remnants of a man’s and a woman’s shoe. U.S. authorities never were notified so they could test the remains, according to the group.

But some scholars and aviation experts challenge the historic group’s assumption that the crew managed to land on Nikumaroro and survive on the otherwise uninhabited atoll for some time.

-By Andy Pasztor, The Wall Street Journal

(c) 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.