Niku VP (WOF--2003)

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Introduction -- the "Wheel of Fortune" Mini-Expedition

In 2000, Nai'a returned to the Phoenix Islands with a biological survey team from the New England Aquarium, headed by Dr. Greg Stone. Walking along the south shore of Tatiman Passage, Greg noticed what appeared to be a metal wheel cemented into the coral of the passage bottom. He assumed it was something TIGHAR was aware of until, en route back to Fiji, he mentioned it to Nai'a's co-owner Rob Barrell, and learned that it was unknown to us. Subsequent correspondence between Greg and Ric Gillespie led to the conclusion that what we came to call the "wheel of fortune" looked a lot like the landing wheel of a Lockheed Electra.

During the same period, TIGHAR's research efforts were enriched by the contributions of Howard Alldred, a New Zealand geologist with deep experience in the dynamics of coral island development. Howard -- who tragically was lost to brain cancer in 2006 -- provided much insight into what likely would have happened to an airplane that broke up on the Nutiran reef, and into the natural history of the island in general. We very much wanted for him to have a first hand look at the island.

Finances did not permit us to launch a full-blown expedition, but Howard's friend, Ken Durey, was willing to take a small team to the island in his 56-foot sloop Mollie at a cost TIGHAR could afford, so on 24 July 2003, Mollie sailed from Pago-Pago with Ken, his wife Louise, their daughter Mollie, and a TIGHAR team made up of Van Hunn, Walt Holm, John Clauss, and Howard Allred. The team arrived at Nikumaroro on 28 July and worked there until 3 August.

The Elusive Wheel of Fortune

Despite repeated sweeps along the Tatiman Passage shore by team members spaced about five meters apart, extending well out into the passage, no trace of the "wheel of fortune" could be found. It was apparent that the island had been struck by a considerable storm out of the west in the time subsequent to Greg Stone's observations, which might have moved the artifact; on the other hand, it is possible that errors crept into the locational data transferred between Greg and Ric. In any event, the wheel remains missing.

Dado Alley

The team also undertook a detailed visual and metal-detection examination of the portion of the colonial village site lying along the Tatiman Passage shore between the erstwhile wireless shack (which had blown down since we recorded it in 1989) and the vicinity of the carpenter's house (also blown away). Their inspection area, mapped using GPS, extended back to the edge of the roads surrounding the parade ground. Quite unexpectedly, they uncovered several rectangular aluminum structures similar to one recovered from the same vicinity in 1989. At the time, we interpreted these as dados -- internal aircraft fittings covering control cables running along the inside of the fusellage where at the edge of the floor; the area came to be known informally as "Dado Alley." Some of the "dados" were in badly deteriorated condition from their intensive contact with decaying coconut debris; they were conserved by being kept wet and well-wrapped, and returned to TIGHAR Central for further conservation and analysis.

Other Work

In addition to the two specific search operations, Howard Alldred made observations on the character of the island's geology and reef features. "Gardner One," a survey marker implanted by the 1985 Australian survey at the internal mouth of Tatiman Passage, was firmly located with GPS coordinates. A tide gauge was installed at the landing channel and tide measurements made routinely throughout the team's time on the island, to inform Bob Brandenburg's efforts to hindcast tidal conditions on the reef in July of 1937.

Team Members

  • Van T. Hunn, Col. USAF (ret), TIGHAR #1459CE, expedition leader
  • Howard Alldred, TIGHAR #2489
  • John Clauss, TIGHAR #0142CE
  • Richard W. Holm, TIGHAR #0980CE