One of 2010's most intriguing discoveries was evidence bolstering a theory Amelia Earhart died a lonely castaway on a Pacific atoll, and a Chandler pilot was part of the expedition that could rewrite the final chapter of the famed aviator's life.
Karl Kern spent three weeks on a tiny island, sifting through coral to find bones and unearth other clues at a site where previous searches have suggested somebody lived alone on the uninhabited isle about the time of Earhart's 1937 disappearance.
Kern was on an expedition that ended in June, when the mission recovered three potential human bones and parts of a jackknife like one Earhart carried. In the past few days, the search group announced a jar it found might be Dr. Berry's Freckle Cream, a tantalizing find because Earhart had been known to conceal her freckles.
Previously, other parts of a jackknife and woman's compact were found at the same site.
Searchers found evidence of fires, fish and bird bones, along with a group of shells turned upside down as if to collect water on an island that has no fresh water.
Another part of the three-mile long atoll once had a small village where bottles and other modern items remain, but Kern said the search area showed the person who camped there had virtually no manmade possessions.
"One way or another, there was a castaway that died on that island alone," Kern said. "No matter who, it would be interesting to know more about them."
Kern joined the expedition after hearing about the Earhart search that's been conducted for two decades by the Delaware-based The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR. Kern, a 61-year old Ahwatukee Foothills resident and owner of KRN Aviation in Chandler, had never spent much time contemplating Earhart's fate. But he was intrigued and jumped at a chance to put up $50,000 in sponsorship and spend a month on the group's ninth trip to the Nikumaroro atoll.
After a 7,000-mile flight to Samoa and a three-day, 700-mile ship ride to the isle, 22 Americans began the most extensive search to date in a dense tropical forest near the equator. Kern was one of two men who toiled for days in 110-degree heat to clear the brush so the ground could be excavated.
Kern performed some of the most brutal tasks, kept spirits up and is welcome on future voyages, said Richard Gillespie, TIGHAR's executive director.
"Karl was an essential part of this expedition in many ways," Gillespie said.
The crew searched one-meter squares at a time, digging 10 centimeters into coral rubble and sifting the material. It took a team of two a day to get through two square meters, fighting boredom, heat and watching for large coconut crabs with pinchers powerful enough to crack coconuts, Kern said. The atoll is about the worst possible place to look for bones given that it's made of coral rubble.
"When it's all sitting together, everything looks like a bone," Kern said.
One of the bones looks like a finger bone and is being tested in an Oklahoma lab to see if it's human, if DNA can be extracted and if the DNA matches Earhart's relatives. The group is researching whether the freckle cream container was unique to that product, Gillespie said, while asking the public for surviving examples of the jar to compare with.
"We're hoping that will date it to a specific time period when they made that type of pot," Kern said.
Kern said team members were excited because the items likely dated to Earhart's lifetime, and because the atoll was uninhabited at the time she would have been there.
The atoll's remoteness adds to the items' importance, he said, noting the crew saw one satellite pass overhead in three weeks but never saw a ship, contrail or other sign of the outside world.
Kern's experience as a pilot added to his belief Earhart was likely there. He could imagine Earhart's frame of mind while being low on fuel after being in the air 20 hours, when she would have spotted a flat coral reef that stretches three miles. Earhart would have landed on surfaces much rougher than that reef, he said.
"When the tide is gone, it is exposed and it looks just like a runway," Kern said.
Theories abound over Earhart's fate as she departed New Guinea on the final leg of what was to be a trip around the world with navigator Fred Noonan. Some believed the plane crashed in the ocean, but TIGHAR has spent two decades finding out more about the skeleton of a castaway found on Nikumaroro in 1940. At that time, the site showed signs of recent habitation. The atoll is 300 miles southeast of Howland Island, where Earhart was aiming for but never arrived.
The group first visited the atoll in the 1990s after seeing a tank in a 1940 aerial photo, figuring it could have been from Earhart's plane. It wasn't. The group ruled out the island, only to reconsider the site after research suggested a tank could have been placed on the site to provide water for workers who recovered the skeleton and investigated the area in 1940.
TIGHAR's next missions involve searching for the now-lost bones found in 1940, and sending a rover into the 1,200-foot deep water off the atoll to look for the plane. The tide would have swept Earhart's twin-engine Electra in the ocean but probably not far, Gillespie said.
The $4 million, multi-year mission has found a preponderance of evidence but its members are determined to find more conclusive proof, Gillespie said. Participants like Kern join the mission because they like solving mysteries, Gillespie said.
"The other reaction to the expedition is it's absolutely real in the way that very few things are real anymore. It's this sort of 19th Century operation where you're on a boat a long way from anywhere. There's no Internet. And you're on an island that's a three-day ride to the nearest doctor," Gillespie said. "It's breathtakingly beautiful and it will kill you in a second if it gets a chance."
The article was updated to correct the location of Earhart's final take-off point to New Guinea.