Earhart search goes high-tech, with Woodinville man's help
The work of a forensic examiner in Woodinville will help guide a $2 million search in the South Pacific this summer for the missing aircraft of Amelia Earhart.
Seattle Times staff reporter
TIGHAR: To learn more about The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, and its search for Amelia Earhart's plane, see www.tighar.org
For 75 years, the mystery has intrigued novices and experts alike: What happened to Amelia Earhart?
A Woodinville man is hopeful his work might help produce an answer.
"This was an important piece of American history," Jeff Glickman said. "She was a true pioneer who had a tremendous amount of courage."
A nonprofit this summer will launch a $2 million, monthlong search for the wreckage of Earhart's plane off a tiny Pacific atoll. The effort is driven largely by what Glickman said he sees in a grainy, black-and-white photo taken a few months after Earhart's disappearance by a British civil-service officer surveying the area for a possible settlement.
If Glickman is correct, the small black object could be the upside-down landing gear of the Lockheed Electra that Earhart was flying when she and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared while nearing the completion of their intended round-the-world flight.
Glickman, 51, is a forensic examiner who uses technical analysis to find hidden truths in photographs or other visual images, usually for clients such as law firms, scientific organizations or commercial customers.
But what's drawing his attention now is the work he's been doing for free for Delaware-based TIGHAR, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which has been pursuing leads in the search for Earhart since the late 1980s.
Though Glickman won't be on the South Pacific trip, the mission is relying on his conclusion that computer-enhanced images of the 1937 photo strongly suggest that objects in the photo include four aircraft parts: a landing-gear wheel, a fender, a gear and strut.
If they were parts of Earhart's plane, the aircraft may have sunk there and may lie on a steep underwater ridge that plunges to 3,000 feet and beyond, Glickman said.
He traveled to Tucson's Pima Air & Space Museum and found that his findings matched the dimensions of a rare vintage Electra housed there.
TIGHAR has released the photo Glickman examined, but is delaying release of the computer-enhanced version until a kickoff event just before the expedition, set to begin in July.
In 1937, Earhart was a celebrated American heroine who five years earlier became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.
On May 20, 1937, she and Noonan departed from Oakland, Calif., on an intended flight to encircle the globe. After more than a month, they had made it most of the way, but disappeared on a 2,500-mile leg that would have taken them from Papua New Guinea to Howland Island, where they were to refuel before heading to Honolulu and then back to Oakland.
Radio-distress calls were heard from the area for several days afterward, but an air-and-sea search failed to locate the fliers or their plane.
The absence of information sparked rumors and speculation — including even that Earhart's trip actually was a spy mission for the U.S. government, and that the government was hushing up what it knew about her fate.
For decades, researchers have been intrigued by the possibility that Earhart and Noonan, unable to find Howland, may have turned south toward a group of small islands, looking for a place to land.
Navy fliers looking for Earhart about a week after her disappearance saw signs of recent habitation on a 4-mile-long uninhabited island today known as Nikumaroro. No aircraft was seen.
In the 1940s, when a small settlement was being established on the island, human remains and a few personal items were found, including a lotion bottle and part of a woman's shoe, along with evidence of campfires — pointing to the likelihood that castaways had been there.
A physician concluded the bones likely came from a middle-aged man of European descent, according to TIGHAR.
Over time, TIGHAR developed a theory of what happened, that Earhart and Noonan landed safely on Nikumaroro's reef and used the aircraft's intact radio to make distress calls for several days. Then, before Navy searchers flew over the area, the plane was washed over the reef and disappeared.
In the 1990s, TIGHAR obtained the 1937 British photograph, but early prints made from the negative were not from the full frame. They primarily show only the island, and on the right side of the frame, the wreckage of a British freighter that went aground in 1929.
Only in recent years, when full-frame prints were made recently from the negative, did the dark object on the waves come into view.
Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR executive director, said the position of the possible aircraft matches the account of a woman from Fiji, who told him in 1999 that as a child, she walked on a Nikumaroro beach with her father, and that he pointed out what he said was wreckage from a plane.
Gillespie, who has had input from Glickman on other aspects of the Earhart case, described Glickman as "very conservative, someone who doesn't jump to conclusions."
Gillespie said he showed the photo to U.S. State Department analysts, and they corroborated Glickman's conclusion.
The summer expedition will map the rugged ocean floor around the search site, and then send unmanned equipment down to inspect whatever is found. If the Earhart plane is there, a later expedition would attempt to recover it.
The area is part of the small Republic of Kiribati, which has the rights to anything salvaged there. If it is the Earhart plane, Gillespie said, he would try to arrange for the artifact to be donated from the people of Kiribati to the U.S., to be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222