Expedition Scours Pacific for Amelia Earhart Wreck

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Earhart's Last Moments

She was looking in the wrong place. The island was six miles (10 kilometers) further east than it appeared on Earhart's charts. The Electra was headed in the wrong direction.

Earhart was communicating via radio with a coast guard cutter, the Itasca, stationed off Howland. The ship's captain was sending signals for Earhart's radio direction finder, but she couldn't find them. As the Electra started running low on fuel, Earhart could see nothing but ocean in every direction.

Twenty hours and 13 minutes after leaving Lae, Earhart sent her final radio message. "We are on a line of position 157/337, will repeat this message, we will repeat this message on 6210 kcs. Wait."

At that point it's believed Earhart's engines started sputtering. In a vast and remote sea, she was forced to attempt a sea landing.

The captain of the Itasca quickly launched a search that would ultimately involve nine naval ships and 66 planes combing this vast sea for more than two weeks.

They found nothing.

Journey to a Watery Grave

The Davidson's journey begins in Hawaii, plowing 2,000 miles (3,220 kilometers) southwest toward Howland. As the ship approaches the island a week later, a powerful sonar unit, called Nomad, is deployed off Davidson's deck.

Nomad is towed just above the sea floor, about four miles (six kilometers) behind the mother ship. The unit beams images back along nearly six miles (ten kilometers) of cable to the Davidson.

The crew believes the discovery of Earhart's ship is now just days or hours away.

"We've always been successful. In every project we've attempted we have found what we were looking for in the deep ocean," said Jourdan.

The search area around Howland is divided into a series of transects on a map, each 50 miles (80 kilometers) long. The Nomad scans each area slowly, moving about two miles (three kilometers) an hour.

"Thats just like walking somewhere," said Rob Vinson, one of the ship's radio engineers. "We're actually just walking along the bottom looking for the airplane."

Early in the search the Davidson hits on its first lead. The Nomad has detected a large debris field about the same size as the Electra.

"This is the best looking target we've had yet," said Jourdan.

The crew huddles in for closer analysis—but their excitement quickly dwindles as they zero in for a second look. The debris rises up about 90 feet (27 meters); the plane was less than 60 feet (18 meters) long. What they are looking at is probably just a big rock.

The crew settles back into the routine of scanning sonar images. They know the plane is out there.

"The deep ocean is a very preserving environment. There are no currents or tides at that depth, and no human interactions that could have degraded what's there," said Jourdan. "Biological remains would have disintegrated quickly, but metals survive. We expect the plane to look pretty much like it did when it went down."

All Hands on Deck

Their continuing search is abruptly interrupted by a minor disaster on ship. A hose bursts in the hydraulic-powered winch that raises and lowers the cable connected to the Nomad; simultaneously the brake mechanism fails.

"A million dollars of equipment suddenly started spiraling into the deep," said Jourdan.

A crewmember jams on the manual break just before all of the cable disappears into the sea. But that introduces a new problem. The miles of cable and the Nomad together weigh about 22,400 pounds (10 tons). The weight is slowly pulling the Davidson backwards.

Pieces of splintered metal in the hydraulic fluid soon cause the back-up motor to fail. The captain has to grapple with the real possibility of cutting the cable and abandoning both the equipment and the search.

Radio engineer Rod Blocksome rebuilds the winch's main engine in a hurry. Once it's cranked up, it handles the strain—to the cheers of the crew. But how long it will hold is anyone's guess. The ship needs to head for home.

"The engine was fixed, but not operational for the long run," said Jourdan.

The goal of discovering Earhart's crash site is delayed, but not abandoned. Nauticos plans to launch another search in Spring, 2004.

"The mystery continues until the plane is found. We will find it. We are closer to it now," said Long. "We'll be back."

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