Image: Jon Thompson
Jon Thompson is on a mission to find the remains of famed aviator Amelia Earhart's plane. And he's not the only one.
updated 4/11/2012 12:21:22 AM ET 2012-04-11T04:21:22

Jon Thompson has traveled the world collecting art and artifacts for museum exhibits, has seen the remains of the Titanic on the sea floor and has participated in two unsuccessful missions to find Amelia Earhart.

Now 72 and battling prostate cancer, Thompson is convinced he and a team from deep-sea exploration company Nauticos will finally be successful in finding the Kansas-born aviator's plane, which disappeared with Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan in July 1937. He's among the researchers looking for Earhart as the 75th anniversary of her disappearance approaches, and competition between search parties is fierce.

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"Admittedly, it's a needle in a haystack, but with the technology we have employed and the brains we have involved, if we don't find it, no one will," Thompson said.

Theories about what happened to Earhart and Noonan are varied. They disappeared while flying from New Guinea to Howland Island as part of the adventurer's attempt to become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the globe.

This could be the year
Last month, the International Group for Historic Aircraft, headed by longtime Earhart seeker Ric Gillespie, said a U.S. State Department analysis of an image off the remote island of Nikumaroro, in what is now the Pacific nation of Kiribati, looks like it could be aircraft landing gear. Gillespie's team will return in July to renew its search.

A few months later, Thompson will be a sonar operator on a ship headed by David Jourdan, a deep-sea explorer who used high-tech equipment in 1999 to find the Israeli submarine, the Dakar, which went missing in 1968.

"It seems to be the greatest unsolved mystery of the last century," Thompson said.

Thompson and Jourdan are among the many historians and researchers who believe Earhart's plane crashed into the ocean, which they say explains why extensive searches shortly after the disappearance failed to uncover remains or debris.

Image: 1937 photo
TIGHAR via Reuters
A close-up view of what researchers say could be the undercarriage of a Lockheed Electra airplane is pictured at the reef at Nikumaroro in this October 1937 photo.

Gillespie's group believes Earhart and Noonan may have managed to land on a reef abutting the atoll, then known as Gardner Island, and survived for a short time. They surmise the plane was washed off the reef shortly after landing and that the wreckage may be in the deep waters nearby. That is what they will look for during their 10-day expedition in July.

Conspiracy theories that Earhart and Noonan were U.S. government agents captured by the Japanese before the World War II have been largely debunked.

Thompson and his group plan to spend two months searching a 400- to 600-square-mile area within 20 miles of Howland Island. It's the final section of an area where research from three institutions suggests the plane could have crashed. Thompson's two previous missions searched about 2,200 square miles nearby.

Students weigh theories
Before fall, Thompson will complete proton therapy treatment for prostate cancer at Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center. He will also work with students at the University of Texas' Cockrell School of Engineering to analyze two theories about Earhart. One investigates how far the plane would glide before sinking based on ocean drifts and other aspects of crashing on water. The other looks at where the aircraft could have flipped and broken on impact if Earhart were too exhausted and weak to operate the machine.

Image: Flight path
A map shows Amelia Earhart's intended flight path and some of the search areas targeted by Jon Thompson and his colleagues.

Vishnu Jyothindran, a senior studying aerospace engineering who is leading the research, is excited by the uncertainty.

"In class, you expect you'll get a question that you can solve with data in the textbook," he said in a statement. "We don't have that guarantee here, and that's unfortunate, but it's also just reality."

If artifacts are found, Thompson already knows what the exhibit would look like. The artifacts would travel on a three-story barge and dock at dozens of North American cities. It would be called "Patience, Persistence, Passion." Visitors would enter an area that looks like Earhart's childhood home, go through a portion showcasing technology that helped find the crash site, and finally go into a place where the aircraft — or a replica of it — would be displayed.

Human remains and any wood would have disintegrated at 18,000 feet, Thompson said. But Earhart's jewelry, helmet and even her leather jacket could still be found.

"I hope we still find it strapped in the seat belt," he says, grinning.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: New search for Amelia Earhart to launch in July

Explainer: Seven deep mysteries of history

  • Image: Amelia Earhart
    FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    What happened to Amelia Earhart?

    Amelia Earhart raised the spirits of Depression-era America as she soared into the aviation record books with feats of altitude, distance and endurance. The mood took a gloomy turn, however, when she and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during a much-heralded attempt to fly around the world. Their fate remains one of aviation's greatest unsolved mysteries.

    Theories abound: They ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. They were captured by the Japanese and executed. They survived, and Earhart lived out her life as a housewife in New Jersey.

    A prominent theory with tantalizing clues holds that they survived the crash landing and but perished as castaways on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the republic of Kiribati. An expedition to the island in 2010 recovered pieces of a pocket knife and a glass jar that may have belonged to the castaways. If DNA analyses on these and other items match Earhart's, the mystery may finally be resolved.

    Click ahead for six more stories of historical mysteries.

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    Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist, believes the lovers were put to rest in the temple of Taposiris Magna and launched a dig with a Dominican-led team to locate the tomb. "It my opinion, if this tomb is found, it will be one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century because of the love between Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and because of the sad story of their death," he told reporters during a tour of the temple.

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    According to legend, his burial party killed anyone who saw the procession. The slaves and soldiers who attended the funeral were also killed. Horses then trampled evidence of the burial, and a river was diverted to flow over the grave, which is thought to lie somewhere near Genghis Khan's birthplace in Khentii Aimag.

    Expeditions to locate the tomb have been aborted due to concerns that the excavations would disturb the site and destroy the soul that serves as its protector. In 2004, archaeologists uncovered Genghis Khan's palace, shown here, and they suspect the tomb lies nearby.

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    The legend is a harrowing tale of survival: A group of pioneers headed for California in 1846 got stuck on a mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada and resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter. But the claims that they feasted on human flesh may have been exaggerated, based on an analysis of bones found in a hearth along Alder Creek, where at least some of the Donner Party passed the time.

    The analysis shored up accounts that the family dog, Uno, was eaten, as well as a steady supply of cattle, deer and horse. No human bones were found at the site. While cannibalism may have occurred, if it did, the bones were treated in a different way. Perhaps the bones were buried. Or perhaps they were placed on the hearth last and have since eroded, according to project scientist Gwen Robbins, a professor of biological anthropology at Appalachian State University.

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    Legend holds that outlaw Billy the Kid was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881 and buried in Fort Sumner, N.M. A headstone marks his grave, but a controversy has roiled since the 1930s when an Arizona man named John Miller claimed that he was the legendary outlaw. Garrett, he said, shot the wrong man and lied about it. Matters became even more confused a few decades later when a Texan named "Brushy" Bill Roberts came forth and said he was the real Billy the Kid.

    An investigation aims to resolve the case by exhuming the body of Billy the Kid's mother and comparing her mitochondrial DNA to genetic material from the three men. But the investigation is controversial on several fronts. For one, the graves have been moved over the decades and nobody is certain the bodies and headstones match up. In addition, if the real Billy the Kid turns out to be buried in Texas or Arizona, it would kill off a legend that helps draw tourists to the New Mexico gravesite.

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    Czar Nicholas II, left, and the Crown Prince Alexei, are shown cutting wood in this photo, taken at a Siberian prison months before their murder in 1918.


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