On the Trail of Amelia

THIS YEAR MARKS the 60th anniversary of the disappearance of Amelia Earhart in the midst of her much-publicized attempt to fly around the world. Later this month, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) will once again head to a remote island in the Central Pacific that it believes holds the solution to the Earhart mystery; among the 14-person crew will be a farmer from St. Cloud and a travel agency owner from Roseville.

Richard Gillespie, a plane crash investigator by trade, founded TIGHAR in 1985. In 1988, two other members of the fledgling group approached him regarding their theories about the Earhart flight. On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were headed for Howland Island, their mid-Pacific refueling site. According to TIGHAR's research, culled from Navy and Coast Guard documents, Earhart was in all likelihood on track, but miscommunication between her plane and the ship tracking its movements proved fatal.

By calculating the amount of fuel the plane carried, the strength of Earhart's radio signals, and her flight path, Navy officials concluded that she must have landed on or near a group of islands south of her intended destination. One of the likeliest spots in the vicinity was Gardner Island, which has since been renamed Kiribati. Four degrees north of the Equator, Gardner was thick with vegetation, and at the time of the crash, had been uninhabited since 1892.

Navy planes were dispatched to buzz the island in hopes of finding traces. But despite some evidence of human habitation, crew members did not go ashore. "I suspect they thought if the plane had crashed, they'd be able to see it," figures Gillespie. "When no one came out, they left."

Rumors about Earhart's disappearance began to germinate almost immediately. One of the most resilient myths held that she was captured by the Japanese and charged with espionage. There was also talk of a torrid affair between the navigator and the pilot, as well as tales that Noonan was a drunk whose boozing resulted in fatal errors. Gillespie dismisses them all.

In 1938, the British colonized Gardner Island with nearly 100 Gilbertese--natives of another tropical island. Oddly enough, the new inhabitants generated their own independent plane-crash folklore. According to native legend, the first settlers to arrive in '38 found a plane there. The story appears to be substantiated by a Navy pilot who stopped on the island in 1944 or '45 and noticed that one of the villagers was using aircraft control cable as a fishing line leader. Fishermen told him about the plane, and about the bones of a white man and woman reportedly discovered nearby. "Our research, coupled with the stories passed down through Gilbertese generations, made it clear that we needed to go to the island and investigate," says Gillespie.

But one exploratory trip turned into three, due to money constraints and Gardner's hostile terrain. The trips took place in 1989, '91, and '96; and each time a St. Cloud area farmer and aviation buff named Veryl Fenlason was part of the crew. In 1992, Kenton Spading, co-owner of a Roseville travel agency, read a story about Fenlason and TIGHAR in the Pioneer Press and decided to join.

While membership in TIGHAR is open to all, Spading says that certain qualifications have to be met in order to earn a spot on an expedition. "It sounds kind of silly," he demurs, "but you have to be able to do things like get up really early in the morning, wade hip deep in muck, eat your lunch with dirty hands, go to the bathroom outdoors, and work in any kind of climate. It's sort of like boot camp."

Until the TIGHAR team departs February 20, Spading is spending his free time practicing for the expedition--which means testing metal-detecting equipment in area lakes. Spading and his cohorts will use this gear, an electromagnet and a magnetometer, to search the island's lagoon for remains of the plane. Previous trips to Gardner by TIGHAR have uncovered various pieces of airplane metal, but barring a serial number, researchers can't be positive that they come from Earhart's plane. Another promising clue, say Gillespie and Spading, has been the discovery of the remnants of a woman's shoe that appear to be consistent with the size and type of shoe worn by Earhart. Both men profess confidence that the upcoming trip will yield more answers. But Spading is just happy to be along for the trip: "It amazes me that a regular guy, out in the middle of nowhere, can make one phone call and change his life."

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