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Amelia Earhart's plane? New sonar imagery analysis raises hopes

This is the corrected imagery of the anomaly. The straight line against the sea floor suggests a manmade object, which has similar dimensions to Earhart's plane.
This is the corrected imagery of the anomaly. The straight line against the sea floor suggests a manmade object, which has similar dimensions to Earhart's plane.TIGHAR

By Rossella Lorenzi

Discovery News

A sonar anomaly that researchers suspect might possibly be the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's aircraft is a straight, unbroken feature uncannily consistent with the fuselage of a Lockheed Electra, new analysis of the sonar imagery captured off a remote Pacific island has revealed.

Examined by Oceanic Imaging Consultants, Inc. (OIC) of Honolulu, Hawaii, the new data processing showed that the imagery released last month by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), was incomplete and somewhat misleading because of "ping drops."

Basically, sonar pings that were not continuously recorded by the intake system, due to a number of technical deficiencies, created the illusion of a break in the linear nature of the anomaly.

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“The good news is that, when corrected, the imagery of the anomaly -- although less complete -- looks even more interesting than it did in the initial distorted version,” Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, said in a statement.

“It's looking more and more like it might be the Electra,” he told Discovery News.

Last month TIGHAR, which has long been investigating Earhart's last, fateful flight, released a grainy image of an "anomaly" resting at a depth of about 600 feet in the waters off Nikumaroro island, an uninhabited tropical atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati that was the target of TIGHAR's underwater search in 2012.

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Located distinctly apart from the debris field of the SS Norwich City, a British steamer that went aground on the island's reef in 1929, the anomaly appeared to fit TIGHAR’s theory about where the Electra may have come to rest.

The sonar image is overlayed on Google Earth to give a reference point for where it was taken.
The sonar image is overlayed on Google Earth to give a reference point for where it was taken.TIGHAR

The legendary aviator was piloting this two-engine aircraft when she vanished on July 2, 1937 in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.

A number of artifacts recovered by TIGHAR during 10 expeditions have suggested that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, made a forced landing on the island's smooth, flat coral reef.

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Gillespie and his team believe the two became castaways and eventually died on the island, which is some 350 miles southeast of Earhart's target destination, Howland Island.

The anomaly is made up of two features -- an object that is high enough to be casting a shadow, and a "tail" of what might be either skid marks or scattered debris.

In the corrected sonar imagery, the object that is casting a shadow is estimated to be at least 34 feet long and arrow-straight.

“Long straight lines are rare in nature and especially in coral. The probability that we have a man-made object has gone up significantly,” Gillespie said.

Due to the “ping drops,” the length of the object cannot be precisely determined. According to the OIC scale, the length of the object could be as short as 34 feet long or as long as 39.5 feet.

“In other words, it could be the length of a Lockheed Electra with a slightly crushed nose, or the length of an intact 38.5 feet Lockheed Electra fuselage, or it could be about one foot too long to be an Electra fuselage,” Gillespie said.

Based on the shadow, the OIC’s estimate for the height of the object is 5 feet 5 inches. The report warns that the accuracy of the measurement depends heavily on the surface upon which the shadow is cast.

“If the terrain immediately beyond the object is relatively flat, the estimate should be fairly good. If the terrain is a steep upslope, the measurement will be off,” Gillespie said

“It is worth mentioning, however, that the fuselage diameter of a Lockheed Electra is almost exactly 5 feet 5 inches,” he added.

According to Gillespie, the old and new analysis strongly contradict charges made last week that TIGHAR found the aircraft in 2010 but hid the discovery to raise money for another expedition.

Filed by Timothy Mellon, the son of philanthropist Paul Mellon and a major donor to TIGHAR's search for Amelia, the lawsuit alleges that the Delaware aircraft preservationist group captured underwater images of the Electra in a High Defintion ROV video shot during the 2010 expedition. Clearly showing some rope and a piece of what appears to be wire, the video is available on the TIGHAR YouTube channel.

Tim Stubson, a lawyer representing Mellon, told reporters that his client recruited experts who analyzed the footage and concluded that objects shown in the video are the wreckage.

“The anomaly is in a different place and at a different depth from where Mellon contends that he sees virtually all of the Electra wreckage, plus the remains of both Earhart and Noonan, her banjo – yes, her banjo-- a stamp collection, and rolls of toilet paper,” Gillespie said.

“Mellon's suit is frivolous and vicious. TIGHAR rejects his allegations in the strongest possible terms,” Gillespie said.