By Hannah Yang, Post-Bulletin Tom Vinson, of Chatfield, has committed to solving one of the biggest mysteries of the 20th century: What happened to Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan? Vinson returned home last month from an overseas expedition combing the waters of the Pacific Ocean for any trace of Earhart’s plane, the Post-Bulletin reported. Vinson’s search for Earhart started in October 1998, when he received a call at his job with Rockwell International in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Nauticos Corp. had started working the Earhart flight problem and requested help in analyzing her high frequency radio communications.
While the team thought they would be working for three hours at most, the project turned into more than 4,000 hours of engineering. They used a “CSI” engineering approach. The team gathered all the data they could about the flight, then used computer models and field trials to plot her course. “Over time, we found the mystery to be addictive,” Vinson said. “I was not always interested in the mystery, but once I got working with the team, it piqued my interest. I found that like many team sports and big projects, being a part of something that is bigger than yourself is very rewarding.” Rockwell Collins sponsored Vinson’s expeditions and his educational outreach to schools, civic organizations and professional clubs. He helped with more than 175 presentations about the Earhart mystery, and the use of CSI engineering to solve the mystery. For Vinson, the most interesting part of Earhart’s mystery were her last radio transmissions. Despite extensive land and sea searches, the U.S. Navy failed to find one artifact from her plane. Vinson is determined to keep searching. “To be a part of solving the last great mystery of the 20th century is a privilege that I would not have dreamed of doing 18 years ago,” Vinson said. “But now, it’s a quest.” Vinson has participated in three deep water SONAR expeditions in search of Earhart’s plane: one in 2002, another in 2006 and the last just a few months ago aboard the Mermaid Vigilance. The latest expedition was funded by Alan Eustace, best known for being the explorer who successfully completed a free fall from 136,000 feet. At one point, Eustace’s body reached 826 miles per hour as he plummeted toward Earth. He landed safely in a desert near Tucson. On Feb. 12, Vinson joined 20 operations team members and 16 ship crew members in Hawaii to prepare the ship. He and several colleagues spent a week integrating two high frequency radios and antennas for communicating with students back in the United States and with the astronauts in the International Space Station. The ship sailed southwest for 1,600 miles to the remote Howland Island and began the search. At the end of March, the team ceased SONAR operations and headed for the Marshall Islands. Vinson returned home on April 9 after nearly two months at sea. “There is bird life and some flying fish, but for the most part all you see is an expansive, ever-changing, awesome ocean.” After months of searching, the location of Earhart’s plane remained a mystery. The team completed its search of 2,000 square miles considered a high probability area. “That is useful data,” he said. “We will go back to our original analyses with the searched area removed. Further, we have several other investigations to be conducted before we will be ready to draw out the next most likely area to be searched.” There have been dozens of theories regarding Earhart’s disappearance. One is the belief she was captured by the Japanese in the Marshall Islands and executed in Saipan. Another is that Earhart continued to fly south and ran into uninhabited Gardner Island, where she died as a castaway. Yet another theory — the one Vinson and his team operated under — was that after 20 hours of flying over open water, Earhart and Noonan looked for an island to land on, but crashed into the water and sank. For Vinson, Earhart was the quintessential explorer. His personal goal is to see Earhart’s Lockheed L-10E plane hanging next to her Lockheed Vega, the plane she used as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. “Amelia Earhart is a role model for all women,” Vinson said. “She believed that her gender should not be a hindrance in doing what she loved. She promoted aviation and air transportation and envisioned it to be an avenue for women to have more independence and be in careers that had typically been dominated by men. . Amelia is part of our American spirit and experience.” This last expedition didn’t solve the mystery, but the search makes Vinson that much more determined. “The plane is out there,” Vinson said. “Our data and analyses lead us to the same conclusion: she was close, but ran out of time. It’s our time to bring her home where she belongs.”