Aviation Legend

Article excerpt

A race is on to recover Amelia Earhart's plane that crashed in the Central Pacific in 1937. The mystery of what actually happened to Earhart finally may be solved.

What is the truth behind Amelia Earhart's disappearance more than 60 years ago? Was the famed aviatrix captured by the Japanese and executed, or did they release her at the end of the war to a quiet life in New Jersey? Did she safely land on a reef off Gardner Island, where she walked to shore and died of exposure? Or did she just crash into the Pacific deep?

For decades the mystery concerning Earhart's disappearance on her last world flight has dumbfounded researchers and captivated conspiracy theorists, producing books and Hollywood movies that have kept her legend alive. But the truth finally may be known this year -- and it may be shocking to die-hard conspiracy theorists. The government in this case could be right: She indeed may have crashed and perished in shark-infested waters in the Central Pacific. That's the belief of two independent research teams that are in a race to recover her aircraft from the Pacific this year.

Trained aircraft-accident investigator Elgen Long and expert seaman Dana Timmer are hot on the trail of Earhart's downed Lockheed Electra. While they are not working together, they both believe that the conclusions of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy make the most sense. And they are out to prove it.

Earhart's story has fascinated generations of admirers. She was born in Atchison, Kan., on July 24, 1897. She purchased her first airplane in 1922 and that same year broke an American record for women by flying to an altitude of 14,000 feet. In 1932, five years after Charles Lindbergh's famous flight, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. As she continued to set world altitude and speed records, she became a pioneer feminist. The public fell in love with her. Soon her publisher-husband, super promoter George S. Putnam, was running a massive publicity campaign to tout her as the first pilot -- male or female -- to fly around the world.

Earhart's first world trip failed when she crashed in Honolulu. But despite the dangers she returned with a vengeance in a twin-engine Lockheed Model 10E Special Electra. "Please know I am quite aware of the hazards," Earhart wrote Putnam. "I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others."

Earhart took off May 20 from Oakland, Calif., with world-class Pan American navigator Fred Noonan. They flew nearly two-thirds of their trip, or 22,000 miles, before losing radio contact with the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca between New Guinea and Howland Island on July 2, 1937. On that last leg they flew 2,500 miles and were desperately searching for Howland as their fuel ran low.

"We must be on you but cannot see you," Earhart radioed the Itasca, which served as her guard ship to assist with navigation and refueling. "Gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet."

Earhart said she was circling but could not spot the island or smoke signals being sent up from the ship. At 8:43 a.m., nearly 20 hours into her flight, Earhart radioed her final known transmission: "We are on a line of position of 157-337. Will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles. Wait, listening on 6210. We are running north and south."

Itasca repeatedly responded in Morse code, the dots and dashes which Earhart never had bothered to learn. She and Noonan disappeared. President Roosevelt ordered a $4 million U.S. Navy and Coast Guard search that was not called off until July 18.

The 39-year-old trailblazer never was heard from again. But her legend grew because the story never ended -- until, perhaps, now.

Long and his wife, Marie, who helped establish the Western Aerospace Museum in Oakland, Calif. …