Earhart's plane 'found' – with bullion aboard

For 74 years, the fate of Amelia Earhart, the American pilot who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to circumnavigate the globe, has been one of aviation's great mysteries.

Did she run out of fuel and ditch in the sea? Was she eaten by crabs after being cast away on a far-flung island? Was she captured and executed as a spy by the Japanese? Did she return secretly to the US and assume another identity?

All these theories, and more, have been canvassed since the aviation pioneer and her navigator, Fred Noonan, lost radio contact in July 1937. Now locals in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the pair's last stop before they vanished, claim to have found the wreck of Earhart's Lockheed Electra 10-E in 230ft of water, on a reef near Buka island, in the Bougainville region.

A businessman, Cletus Harepa, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation yesterday that he was assembling a team of divers to inspect the coral-encrusted wreck. He said a diver who had already been down had found two skulls in the cockpit – and also three boxes of gold bullion.

The claims were greeted with scepticism – one US expert called them "silly beyond description". But PNG's Post Courier said there were "strong indications" that Earhart's plane – which set off from Lae, on the New Guinea mainland, on a 2,500-mile flight to tiny Howland Island in the central Pacific – was the one found in Bougainville.

"The crash site is in direct alignment with Earhart's flight path out of Lae, past north of Buka Island in a straight north-east direction to Howland," the paper reported.

The first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, 41-year-old Earhart – by then an international celebrity – had completed 22,000 miles of her round-the-world journey when she arrived in Lae. All that remained for the "Queen of the Air", as she was known, was to traverse the Pacific, about 7,000 miles.

Something, though, went badly wrong on that first leg. Earhart radioed a US ship, saying: "We must be on you but cannot see you – but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio." That was the last heard from her and Noonan.

Now Mr Harepa is convinced their final resting place has been found. "Somebody saw it [the wreck] when they were diving for fish... but they didn't know the plane was Amelia's plane until I got my divers to dive 70 to 100 metres down." The discovery of the gold added weight to the theory, he said; according to rumour, female pilots used to smuggle gold out of Lae in the 1930s.

However, an Earhart expert, Ric Gillespie, dismissed the claim as highly improbable, since radio transmissions placed her and Noonan within 200 miles of Howland when they disappeared. Instead, Mr Gillespie, the executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, believes they landed on the remote island of Nikumaroro, where they slowly died from a lack of food and water.

His group found bone fragments on the island, now part of Kiribati, last year. However, scientists at the University of Oklahoma said this week that tests on them had proved inconclusive.

Earhart's disappearance has generated hundreds of articles and scores of books. Mr Gillespie said the PNG claims showed the enduring interest in a woman regarded as a feminist trailblazer. "I suppose it's a tribute to Amelia," he said.

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