The search for the world’s most famous missing pilot has gotten strange. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (Tighar) has launched several expeditions in recent decades in the South Pacific to locate Amelia Earhart, and just weeks after the organization showed off sonar images from its latest attempt that “could” be the ill-fated aviatrix’s Lockheed Electra 10 under several hundred feet of water, one of its major sponsors filed a lawsuit claiming that the group defrauded him of more than $1 million that he put up to finance the 2012 expedition. He asserts that the group already found Earhart’s Electra on its previous expedition in 2010.
(Was I asleep that year and missed the most important aviation archeology announcement of the last 76 years? No, I had a child born that year, so I’m reasonably certain I was awake.)
While it’s unclear what motives philanthropist Timothy Mellon could ascribe to Tighar’s alleged silence on what would surely be worldwide front-page news, his attorney claims he has seen images from the 2010 expedition that he says show parts of the aircraft’s landing gear on the seabed. He said his client has had those images examined by experts who have reached a “definitive conclusion that it is in fact the wreckage,” and added that Tighar continues to solicit funds under the assertion that it has not found the airplane. While exactly what images Mellon’s attorney is referring to remain a secret, a Tighar spokesman has categorically denied the organization has any definitive knowledge of the elusive aircraft’s resting place, and said that all of its data and research is available on its website.
Tighar has made the search for Earhart’s final resting pace its raison d’etre (along with occasional forays into the Maine woods to hunt for L’Oiseau Blanc–the French airplane that just might have beaten Lindbergh across the Atlantic, if it did indeed crash somewhere in New England), so it is hard to imagine why it would keep a discovery of such magnitude under wraps, unless perhaps it fears the disclosure would curtail the organization’s primary flow of donation funding. Every few years it accumulates enough funds to mount another search (seven so far) of the uninhabited coral atoll named Nikumaroro, where the group believes Earhart landed her twin-engine aircraft in 1937 in desperation, after getting lost during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe.
Sometime later, as the story goes, the airplane was swept off the beach by the tide and into the Pacific, where it sank. An intensive search by the Navy immediately after the disappearance was unsuccessful, but a grainy photo taken by a patrol aircraft near Nikumaroro showed something poking up out of the surf near the beach (a detail that was somehow overlooked until recently). Latter-day theorists have ruled that this “something” was one of the then-upsidedown taildragger’s main landing-gear legs.
Past expeditions to the island have revealed tantalizing clues, including the appropriate-age sole and heel from a woman’s shoe, a fragment of a jar believed to have once held a freckle cream favored by Earhart, a substance identified as likely woman’s cosmetics, and remnants of a possible campsite indicating that someone—perhaps Earhart and/or her navigator, Fred Noonan—might have lived there for a period of time. Yet the conclusive piece of evidence has yet to be found. Back in 1939, an incomplete skeleton was purportedly found on the atoll (which remains infested with large omnivorous land crabs) by visiting islanders. It was packed up and sent to the local British authority. Along the way, the remains were supposedly examined several times by people of various scientific credentials who differed in their assessment of what ethnic group or even gender the bones likely belonged to. Although they took notes of their observations, most inconveniently the box of bones reportedly vanished without reaching its destination in the run-up to World War II.
In the latest sonar video image, something was seen that got the group chirping. “It’s the right size, it’s the right shape and it’s in the right place,” Tighar said on its website. But whether it’s a coral reef, an undocumented sunken vessel or the wreckage of the Lockheed itself remains the focus of another yet-to-be-funded $3 million expedition, which could take place next year. Whether that future expedition positively identifies Nikumaroro as the site of Earhart’s final landing is uncertain, but one thing seems more than likely: Tighar won’t be receiving any of that money from Timothy Mellon.