Ric Gillespie holds the piece of aluminum sheeting found on the island of Nikumaroro that researchers hope will match photos of an aluminum patch on Earhart's plane.
RNZAF official photo
This aerial view of a remote island could be one of the last sights Amelia Earhart saw as a pilot when she flew over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937 in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.
Taken 18 months after the legendary aviator's disappearance, the photo shows a patch of the coast of Nikumaroro, an uninhabited tropical atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, which is believed to be Earhart's final resting place by researchers of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
Clearly visible is the wreck of the SS Norwich City, a British steamer which went aground on the island's reef in 1929. To Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, who were running out of gas, that might have been a reassuring view.
"It is possible that the wreck may have caused them to think the island was on shipping lanes," Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.
TIGHAR photo by Jeff Glickman
The aerial image of Nikumaroro is just one of 41 newly found photos of the island.
The pictures have resurfaced from an unlabeled tin canister (shown here) at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, raising hopes for new clues about Earhart's fate.
RNZAF official photo
The box contained five sheets of contact prints -- for a total of 41 photos, complete with negatives -- and a slip of paper with the words "Gardner Island" -- Nikumaroro's previous name.
Taken on Dec. 1, 1938 -- just before the first official habitation of the island in late December 1938 -- the pictures provide excellent views of areas on the island that are of particular interest for the Amelia's search and reveal the little known story of how these images were taken.
In 1938 the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey mapped Gardner Island as part of a plan to evaluate the suitability of British-owned atolls of the South Central Pacific for the construction of airfields.
A 12-man survey team was transported aboard the chartered motor vessel M/V Yanawai; in addition aerial photographs were taken from an aircraft -- Supermarine Walrus I -- carried aboard the cruiser HMS Leander.
RNZAF official photo
On the morning of Dec. 1, 1938, HMS Leander took up a position off the southern end of Nikumaroro where the water is calmest, so that the Walrus could begin its photo mission.
Normally the aircraft was catapulted from the Leander's deck and landed in the ocean to be recovered by crane.
But problems with the catapult mechanism required the Walrus to be lowered in calm waters over the ship's side with the crane and take off from the ocean.
To shoot aerial imaging, the photographer on the Walrus I rode in the compartment behind and below the pilot, shooting through the open windows on each side of the fuselage.
RNZAF official photo
The survey party aboard the M/V Yanawai arrived at Gardner on Nov. 30, 1938 but was unable to find an anchorage. They decided to land supplies on the reef in the lee of SS Norwich City. This aerial photo taken the next day, shows the Yanawai near the wreck. The survey ended on Feb. 2, 1938.
Researchers at TIGHAR have begun the process of examining the images.
"We're seeing many interesting features," Ric Gillespie said., "This new research resource is a time capsule that allows us to explore the island as it was 75 years ago."
RNZAF official photo
When they surveyed the island, the New Zealand Pacific Aviation team did not know it had at least one recent resident. In 1940, the bones of a castaway -- now lost -- were found at a campsite on the island’s remote southeast end.
"At that time the castaway was suspected to be Amelia Earhart. A growing body of archival and physical evidence suggests that suspicion was correct," Gillespie said.
It's extremely unlikely the photos will show the remains of the castaway. However, the high level of detail they offer, as shown in this zoomed image of Norwich City and Yanawai, might reveal signs of human activity as well as possible signs of aircraft wreckage on the reef and beach.
RNZAF official photo
"As with all exploring, it is important to not just look for what we think might be there but to also keep our eye out for the unexpected." Gillespie said.
TIGHAR is now making high resolution copies available so that its researchers across the world can scrutinize the images and contribute to the search.
New forensic imaging techniques might solve the longstanding mystery over the fate of Amelia Earhart, whose plane vanished over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.
At the center of sophisticated imaging techniques are a handful of 1937 pictures of Earhart’s twin-engined Lockheed "Electra." Those were taken in Miami -- the fourth stop on the aviator’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe -- and show a distinctive patch of metal installed to replace a navigational window.
According to researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart 77 years ago, the metal sheeting appears to match a piece of aluminum recovered in 1991 from Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati.
“If the enhancement of the photograph is good enough to establish that the rivet patterns on the repair match those on the piece of aluminum we found on Nikumaroro, then we have an artifact found on Nikumaroro that is conclusively linked to Amelia Earhart,” Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.
The forensic breakthrough would prove that, contrary to what was generally believed, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, did not crash in the Pacific Ocean, running out of fuel somewhere near their target destination of Howland Island.
Instead, they made a forced landing on Nikumaroro' smooth, flat coral reef. The two became castaways and eventually died on the atoll, which is some 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.
Called 2-2-V-1 by TIGHAR researchers, the battered sheet of aluminum has been the subject of intense investigation since its discovery in the vegetation of Nikumaroro.
The 19-inch-wide by 23-inch-long sheet is made of a product introduced by Alcoa Aluminum in 1933 known as “24ST Alclad.”
Although Earhart’s plane was skinned with this material, it wasn’t possible for TIGHAR researchers to fit the 2-2-V-1 sheet anywhere on a Lockheed Electra.
“During our research at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in March, we learned that the artifact doesn't fit anywhere on the original or repaired parts of Earhart's Electra. I thought that was the end of it,” Gillespie said.
The investigation took another twist when TIGHAR researcher Jeffrey Neville, an experienced aircraft mechanic, noted that one part of the aircraft wasn't built or repaired by Lockheed.
“It was the patch that was installed in Miami,” Gillespie said.
Why the navigational window was replaced with a patch remains unknown.
“There is a great deal of information available about what Earhart did during her eight-day stay in Miami, but nowhere is there any mention of replacing the window with a patch -- and yet it clearly happened,” Gillespie said.
This in-flight photo, taken by the captain of a Netherlands East Indies (KNILM) DC-2 airliner that accompanied the Electra for a short time over Java, shows the sheet of metal installed to replace a navigational window.TIGHAR
TIGHAR speculates that the hard landing made by Earhart upon her arrival in Miami on May 23, 1937, may have caused the fuselage to flex enough to crack the window.
“With no time to order a new window to be specially made, they may have decided to just replace it with a simple patch,” Gillespie said.
The possibility that Earhart and Noonan made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro was examined by the Navy in the first days following the flight's disappearance.
“They did search the atoll, but only from the air," Gillespie said.
In 10 archaeological expeditions to Nikumaroro, Gillespie and his team uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence.
“We found archival records describing the discovering on Nikumaroro in 1940 of the partial skeleton and campsite of what appears to have been a female castaway," Gillespie said.
"We identified the place on a remote corner of the atoll that fits the description of where the bones and campsite were found. Archaeological digs there have produced artifacts that speak of an American woman of the 1930s," Gillespie said.
He added that evidence on the island would also suggest that Earhart survived as a castaway "for a matter of weeks, possibly more."
Other clues came from another photograph of Nikumaroro's western shoreline taken three months after Earhart's disappearance. It showed an unexplained object protruding from the water on the fringing reef.
Forensic imaging analyses of the photo suggested that the shape and dimension of the object are consistent with the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra.
An “anomaly” that might possibly be the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's aircraft emerged from analysis of the sonar imagery captured off Nikumaroro during TIGHAR’s last expedition.
According to the researchers, a possible scenario is that the airplane was washed over the reef edge and broke up in the surf, scattering torn aluminum sheets, which was then carried off by ocean forces. Some of the torn aluminium apparently later washed up on the island -- the 2-2-V-1 sheet being one of them.
“At this time, we can’t say the repair of metal sheeting matches the Nikumaroro aluminium. It’s another hypothesis to be tested. We've been disappointed before and we may be disappointed again, but the potential is there for the proof that everyone has been looking for,” Gillespie said.
A new expedition to search for pieces of Earhart's plane is scheduled to take place in mid-September, mid-October. The probe will rely on two manned submersibles, each carrying a pilot, a TIGHAR observer and an ocean scientist.