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Amelia Earhart case leaps to life in diary

A reporter's previously unknown notes turn up on eBay. Group plans to head back to the South Pacific to seek answers.

April 01, 2007|Richard Pyle | Associated Press Writer

It's the coldest of cold cases, but 70 years after Amelia Earhart disappeared, clues are still turning up:

* Notes of a shortwave distress call beginning, "This is Amelia Earhart ... "

* The previously unknown diary of an Associated Press reporter.

* A team that found aircraft parts and a woman's shoe on a remote South Pacific atoll hopes to return this year to find more evidence, perhaps even DNA.

If what's known now had been conveyed to searchers then, might Earhart and her navigator have been rescued? It's one of a thousand questions that keep the case alive.

Trek nears end

For nearly 18 hours, Earhart's twin-engine Lockheed Electra drummed steadily eastward over the Pacific. As sunrise etched a molten strip of light along the horizon, navigator Fred J. Noonan marked the time and calculated the remaining distance to Howland Island.

It was July 2, 1937. The pair were near the end of a 2,550-mile trek from Lae, New Guinea, the longest leg of a "world flight" begun 44 days earlier in Oakland.

At the journey's end in California a few days hence, Earhart would become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the globe.

Noonan, a former Pan American Airways navigator, estimated when the plane would reach an imaginary "line of position" running northwest-southeast through Howland, where they were to rest and refuel for the onward flight to Hawaii.

"Two hundred miles out," Earhart radioed, her "whispery drawl" heard by the Coast Guard cutter Itasca waiting off Howland.

Overnight, Itasca's radio operators had become increasingly exasperated with Earhart, who hadn't acknowledged Itasca's messages or its Morse code homing signal. They decided the glamorous "Lady Lindy" was either arrogant or incompetent.

What nobody knew -- not Earhart, not Itasca -- was that her plane's radio-reception antenna had been ripped away during takeoff from Lae's bumpy dirt runway, where it was later found. The Itasca could hear Earhart, but she was unable to hear anything, voice or code.

Also listening aboard the Itasca was James W. Carey, 23. The University of Hawaii student had been hired by the Associated Press to cover Earhart's Howland stopover.

He also had been keeping a diary, jotting comments about the island's "gooney birds" and noting that Earhart's delayed departure from Lae was affecting the crew's morale. On June 30, he wrote: "They are getting tired of waiting for a 'gooney' dame who doesn't seem to be aware of the annoyance the delays have made."

The diary was unknown to Earhart scholars until September, when a typewritten copy was bought on eBay by a member of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR. The nonprofit organization rejects the official verdict that the fliers were lost at sea, believing instead that they may have crash-landed on an uninhabited atoll called Gardner Island, in the Phoenix Islands 350 miles south of Howland, and lived for a time as castaways.

"Even though the diary doesn't answer the big question, it's an incredible discovery," said TIGHAR executive director Ric Gillespie, who has led eight expeditions to the island since 1989. He plans another in July if his group can raise enough money.

The diary, he said, presents "a firsthand witness about what went on during those desperate hours and days."

'100 miles out'

On July 1, word came that Earhart was finally airborne.

Early on July 2, Carey wrote in his diary: "Up all last night following radio reports -- scanty ... heard voice for first time 2:48 a.m. -- 'sky overcast.' All I heard. At 6:15 a.m. reported '200 miles out.' "

By the time Earhart radioed that she was "100 miles out," a welcoming committee had gone ashore and was "waiting restlessly," Carey wrote.

If Noonan's dead-reckoning did not bring the plane over Howland, Earhart would fly along the 337-157 degree "line of position" until she found it.

"To the north, the first landfall is Siberia," says Gillespie. "So if they didn't find it soon, they'd have turned back south, knowing that even if they missed Howland, there were other islands beyond it -- Baker, McKean and Gardner -- on that same line."

But by now, Earhart would be into her five-hour fuel reserve. And even in daylight, islands can be obscured by clouds and shadows on the water.

At 7:42 a.m., Earhart's voice suddenly came loud and clear: "KHAQQ to Itasca. We must be on you but cannot see you. But gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet."

At 8:55 a.m., Earhart sounded distraught: "We are on line of position 157 dash 337 ... we are now running north and south."

Then the radio went silent.

Believing that Earhart must be out of gas, Itasca's captain, Cmdr. Warner K. Thompson, had already ordered the welcoming committee back to the ship. "Flash news from ship Itasca: 'Amelia down,' " Carey had written in his diary.

But with all frequencies reserved for possible distress calls, Carey's dispatches would have to wait. AP broke the "Earhart missing" story from Honolulu, quoting Coast Guard officials.

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