Missing pilot Amelia Earhart 'died as Pacific castaway' after 1937 crash, researchers claim

Ric Gillespie of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery uses border collies to sniff out remains of long lost aviatrix and her navigator Fred Noonan on Marshall Islands

Cleve R. Wootson Jr
Monday 10 July 2017 07:52 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Despite recent claims to the contrary, there's no doubt in Ric Gillespie's mind that Amelia Earhart died as a castaway after her plane crashed on a desolate island in the Pacific Ocean in July 1937.

But he realises the rest of the world needs a smoking gun.

Or, perhaps, four barking border collies.

Gillespie's group, (TIGHAR), believes that Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, died as castaways on an empty island in the Pacific Ocean and hoped that the collies' noses would help corroborate this theory.

The dogs - Marcy, Piper, Kayle and Berkeley - have been specially trained to sniff out chemicals left by decaying human remains.

Just last week, the History Channel suggested that Earhart may have been captured by the Japanese after a newly unearthed photograph from the National Archives showed what researchers claim are the pilot and her navigator in Jaluit Harbor in the Marshall Islands after their disappearance.

TIGHAR researchers, on the other hand, continue to believe that Earhart's plane was blown off course by strong Pacific winds. Running out of fuel, Earhart and Noonan landed injured but intact on an empty island 400 miles short of their refuelling stop. British officials discovered a partial human skeleton on the island in 1940 but ultimately (and Gillespie believes erroneously) concluded that it didn't belong to the famed aviator.

On 30 June, the dogs, their handlers and a group of researchers were dropped on that island - once called Gardner Island, since renamed Nikumaroro - as part of an expedition paid for by National Geographic.

The researchers hoped the dogs would lead them to the site where that skeleton was found. With a lot of luck and a little DNA analysis, researchers believed they could unearth a bone and solve an 80-year-old missing-person case.

The collies got part of the way there.

According to National Geographic:

“Within moments of beginning to work the site, Berkeley, a curly red male, lay down at the base of a ren tree, eyes locked on his handler, Lynne Angeloro. The dog was 'alerting,' indicating to Angeloro that he had detected the scent of human remains.

“Next up was Kayle, a fluffy, eager-to-please female. She also alerted on the same spot. The next day Marcy and Piper, two black-and-white collies, were brought to the site. Both dogs alerted.

“The signals were clear: Someone - perhaps Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan - had died beneath the ren tree.”

But TIGHAR researchers discovered no bones there. They've sent soil samples to a lab capable of extracting human DNA but haven't obtained results yet. They concede it's a long shot.

That means Gillespie's theory about Earhart's final days remains just that.

It has some competition. Most people - and the US government, which declared Earhart and Noonan dead after they couldn't be found - believe that Earhart's plane went into the Pacific Ocean and that all that remains of the failed expedition is resting on the seabed.

Others believe Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese, a theory that has recently been revived by the discovery of the newly unearthed photo that purportedly shows Earhart and Noonan alive in the Marshall Islands.

In the photo, according to The Washington Post's Amy B Wang, “a figure with Earhart's haircut and approximate body type sits on the dock, facing away from the camera... Toward the left of the dock is a man they believe is Noonan. On the far right of the photo is a barge with an airplane on it, supposedly Earhart's.”

​Gillespie thinks the claim from the picture showing Jaluit Harbor is rubbish and worries that a lot of people will be misled when it airs on the History Channel.

“This is something that's going to be put out to millions of people,” he told The Post. “I wish the History Channel would just air 'Ancient Aliens.' It would be more credible.”

TIGHAR has looked into those claims and tried to debunk them.

But Gillespie believes “the overwhelming weight of the evidence” paints a narrative of what happened after Earhart and Noonan got lost halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

After her crash-landing, TIGHAR believes, Earhart used the radio from her damaged plane to call for help for nearly a week before the tide pulled the craft into the sea.

“Earhart made a relatively safe landing at Gardner Island and sent radio distress calls for six days,” Gillespie said in a presentation posted on YouTube last year. “There are 47 messages heard by professional radio operators that appear to be credible.”

Three years later, British officials discovered the skeleton on the island and wondered whether it might belong to the famed aviator. Officials shipped the 13 bones to a medical school in Fiji, where they were examined by D.W. Hoodless, a physician.

He concluded that the bones belonged to a short, stocky European man.

But Gillespie's group thinks Hoodless was wrong. After running the bones through a more robust anthropological database in 1998, they determined that the bones could have belonged to a taller-than-average woman of European descent - someone like Earhart.

Over the past three decades, members of TIGHAR have made a dozen expeditions to the island trying to prove their theory.

They've collected piles of evidence showing that a Westerner was possibly marooned on the island in the 1930s: improvised tools, remains of a shoe, aircraft wreckage, bits of makeup. They analyzed remains of food found in a fire and went to extreme lengths to determine what may have become of Earhart's body.

Earhart has been Gillespie's passion for three decades, and he concedes there's an internal tug of war between the scientist who wants objective evidence and the person who thinks he knows the answer.

“When I'm totally scientific, I say all of the available evidence points to this conclusion,” he said. “But after a while, you look at a stack of supposed coincidences a mile high and it's clear... I don't think I'm different from any scientist that's working on a case like this. You maintain your objectivity, but it's hard not to get excited.”

The Washington Post

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