CHEYENNE, Wyo. >>Experts retained by an aircraft preservation group say underwater video shot in the South Pacific yields no evidence of the wreckage of the missing plane piloted by aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.
Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1932. She was trying to become the first female to circle the globe when she and her navigator disappeared somewhere in the South Pacific in 1937.
The mystery of what happened to Earhart and the twin-engine Lockheed Electra she was piloting holds a continuing fascination for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) of Pennsylvania and its executive director, Richard E. Gillespie.
They’ve staged repeated expeditions to search the waters around the Kiribati atoll of Nikumaroro, about 1,800 miles south of Hawaii.
Wyoming resident Timothy Mellon, son of the late philanthropist Paul Mellon, filed a federal lawsuit against the TIGHAR group and Gillespie last year. Mellon claims they had found the wreckage of Earhart’s plane in 2010 but kept the discovery a secret so it could solicit money from him to continue the search.
Mellon, a resident of Riverside, says he gave the group more than $1 million in 2012 to help pay for another South Pacific search.
U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl of Casper last year dismissed Mellon’s allegations of racketeering and negligence. Skavdahl has set trial for August on Mellon’s remaining claims of fraud and misrepresentation.
At a court hearing last year, lawyer John Masterson representing the defendants told Skavdahl that Mellon’s allegations amounted to a “factual impossibility.”
Masterson said it was absurd for Mellon to argue the group had found Earhart’s plane and kept the search going to fleece donors. An actual discovery could spawn movies, books and other lucrative ventures that would raise far more money than continuing the search, he said.
Expert witnesses for Mellon filed statements in court earlier this year in which they superimposed drawings of objects such as the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra over shapes on the sea floor.
“The objects we have identified in the 2010 video footage are consistent with parts of the Earhart Lockheed Electra Model 10 and, in the absence of an alternative explanation for the source of those objects, we conclude that they are likely to have originated from Earhart’s Electra,” wrote Rhode Island engineer John D. Jarrell, one of the experts who reviewed the video for Mellon.
Expert witnesses for Gillespie and TIGHAR filed statements in court on Tuesday saying they had reviewed both the video and the findings of Mellon’s experts and saw no such thing.
“I regret to have to say that I am entirely unconvinced, and not even mildly suspicious, that the 2010 TIGHAR expedition produced evidence of an aircraft debris field on the reef at Nikumaroro,” stated Les Kaufman, a professor of biology at the Boston University Marine Program who reviewed the materials for Gillespie and TIGHAR.
Gillespie said Wednesday he’s pleased with his experts’ reports. Discussions are underway to see if the lawsuit could be resolved, he said.
Efforts to reach Mellon’s lawyers for comment on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Gillespie said he questioned the approach of Mellon’s experts in overlaying computer-assisted drawings of the airplane parts to try to match shapes in the underwater coral shown on the video.
” ‘Because this thing seems to fit this thing, therefore it must be this thing.’ It’s totally circular reasoning,” Gillespie said. “It’s just astounding to me that anybody with a straight face would offer up something like that in support of Mellon’s allegations. It’s mind-boggling.”
Gillespie said that there’s been no doubt about it when his group has encountered the submerged wreckage of other aircraft.
“The wreckage is just sitting there. It’s totally different from the surrounding environment,” Gillespie said of the other aircraft his group has encountered in its underwater searches.
“There might be some coral growth on it, but generally speaking, coral doesn’t like aluminum,” Gillespie said. “You don’t see a lot of coral growth on aluminum. When we have seen aircraft wreckage underwater, it’s very apparent that’s what it is.”