Does a grainy image show what's left of the pioneering pilot's aircraft, or is it just the latest publicity stunt to get in line for research cash?
UNCONFIRMED: An Earhart research group says the image bears many characteristics of Earhart's plane, but others beg to differ.
To the untrained eye, the image just looks like a thin trail of white squares against a backdrop of orange and black. But to the head researcher at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), the picture looks like it could possibly be the remains of one of the most famous airplanes ever flown: Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Model 10 Electra.
MSN News spoke with the researcher behind the discovery as well as another who thinks the discovery is just another publicity stunt.
'The right size, the right shape and in the right place'
Researchers of all kinds have spent years and even decades trying to find the truth about what happened on Earhart's fateful 1937 flight around the world. More than 10 years ago, TIGHAR identified the Western Pacific island of Nikumaroro — particularly a reef just outside the island — as the likely location where she landed. The sonar image in question is described as an "anomaly" resting at the depth of about 600 feet just off Nikumaroro, some 350 miles southeast of Earhart's intended destination of Howland Island.
Piece of Amelia Earhart’s plane possibly spotted via sonar
Speaking to MSN News, TIGHAR executive director Ric Gillespie says the latest discovery came as a surprise after his group had completed an expensive and lengthy exploration of the reef using sonar imaging and underwater vehicles — a mission they originally concluded was a failure.
"We thought we hadn't found anything," Gillespie said. "So we published some of that sonar imagery in the journal that we put out to our members and online, and back in March one of the members of the general public who participates in an online forum saw one of these images and said, 'What's this thing?' And once you look at it, if you know what you're looking for, it hits you upside the head like a 2x4. This could be it! We know it's the right size, the right shape and in the right place to be the wreckage."
Group wants $3 million for further research
Gillespie said he has shown the image to several sonar experts, some of whom have said it likely shows an unusual coral growth, while several others have said the object is certainly man-made. The only way to prove for sure if the image shows Earhart's plane, Gillespie said, is for his group to go back to Nikumaroro for a closer look. Such a trip, however, costs money, lots of money — $3 million specifically, he said. So Gillespie is hoping the news of his group's discovery will prompt donations that will help his non-profit group go back. He said his next step will be to hire independent sonar experts to reexamine all the sonar data collected during the previous trip. After that he hopes to be back at the island by the summer of 2014.
"There is such a hunger in the public for this mystery to be solved," Gillespie said. "She was an inspiration to so many in her lifetime and continues to be today. ... This is detective work. It's Sherlock Holmes stuff."
Expert: Group's discovery just another publicity stunt
Gillespie's research, and particularly his solicitation of donations, isn't universally endorsed by other Earhart researchers. Elgen Long, a former Navy pilot who has set several flight records, has dedicated much of his life to researching Earhart and is the author of "Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved." He tells MSN News that he has known Gillespie for more than 30 years and that he is well known for finding tantalizing — but ultimately fruitless — clues that inspire people to fund more research attempts. He said that anyone who is thinking about donating to Gillespie's cause should think twice.
"This is probably about the eighth or 10th time that (Gillespie) has come back with something he says could be the answer," Long said. "He wants $3 million, I hear. I strongly suggest that anybody who is thinking of donating to first talk to sonar experts that are not affiliated with TIGHAR in any way and see what they say."
As for where he thinks Earhart ended up, Long said the U.S. Navy most likely got it right when they determined she crashed while trying to find Howland Island and her plane is at the bottom of the ocean somewhere.
"I believe the Navy was correct when they estimated she was looking for Howland Island because it was the only airport within a thousand miles, and if she didn't land at an airport it was the end of her trip, the end of her aircraft and the end of her life."
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