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.