The photo is, mostly, unremarkable. It shows an airplane looming darkly on a runway at Miami Municipal Airport in the spectral shadows just before dawn — probably a test as the photographer waited for the money shot moments later, when the aircraft would lift off with famed aviator Amelia Earhart at its controls, unknowingly headed to a mysterious appointment with fate.
Yet the picture — shot by a now-forgotten Miami Herald photographer just before Earhart departed the United States on her doomed flight around the world on June 1, 1937 — contains an odd detail visible on none of the other thousands of photos of her plane.
There on the fuselage, about two-thirds of the way from the plane’s nose to its tail, is a rectangular patch that shines a peculiar silver on the aircraft’s dusky skin. Could it be a clue — the clue — to what happened when Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished somewhere over the trackless Pacific Ocean three months later?
Long-time Earhart investigator Ric Gillespie thinks so. He believes that the silvery patch reveals an unrecorded repair performed on Earhart’s plane during her stopover in Miami. And he hopes that modern computer enhancements of that part of the photo will link it to a piece of possible airplane wreckage discovered a quarter century ago on a tiny Pacific island in the area where Earhart disappeared.
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“If we can match a rivet pattern from the repair in the photograph to a rivet pattern on the wreckage, I think it would be beyond dispute that Noonan and Earhart weren’t lost at sea, but made it to the island,” said Gillespie, the executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
That would bring an indisputable forensic conclusion to one of the greatest and most contentious mysteries in aviation history. It would also mean, possibly, that the tale of Amelia Earhart had an even more tragic end than we have thought all these years — that she died not in a single terrifying instant as her plane crashed into the sea, but in a long torturous spiral of starvation, thirst and disease.
Earhart was one of the world’s most famous and admired women when she and Noonan set off from Oakland, California, to fly around the globe. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland. She competed successfully with men in the popular airplane races of the day. And she was a feminist before the word was invented, advocating tirelessly for women to be allowed to pursue careers in aviation or anything else they wanted.
Her aviation career, however, was not without its share of near-misses. On her transatlantic flight, she was trying to land in Paris but got lost and wound up in Ireland instead. Her first try at flying around the world (heading west rather than east) ended abruptly after the first leg when she crashed on takeoff in Hawaii.
Her second attempt, this time east-bound, also had problems right from the start. She landed at the wrong airport in Miami, in what was then known as the 36th Street Airport (now part of Miami International) rather than the bigger Miami Municipal Airport just south of Opa-locka (now a park named for Earhart). Her landing on May 24, 1937 was rough and she stayed in Miami for a week while the plane underwent repairs.
One of them, it appears, was the removal of a specially installed window in the rear of the airplane that navigator Noonan used to take sightings on the sun and stars, the method by which pilots found their way over unmapped oceans, jungles and desert in the days before radar and GPS. The window is clearly visible in photos of Earhart’s plane taken in California at the start of her trip, and even in some Herald photos shot after her arrival in Miami.
But in the photo shot just before her June 1, 1937, takeoff for Puerto Rico, the window is gone, replaced by that odd silvery plate.
“I think the window must have been broken or compromised by the hard landing in Miami,” Gillespie said. “It wasn’t standard equipment and they found out it would take a while to replace it, so they just took it out and patched the fuselage instead.”
From Puerto Rico, Earhart continued through South America, Africa and Asia. Her plane suffered occasional malfuctions, but the biggest problem was confusion over the tangle of different radio frequencies used by different civil and military aviation agencies around the world, which sometimes left Earhart out of touch. On July 2, 1937, as Earhart took off from Lae, New Guinea, and headed for Howland Island nearly 2,600 miles away, her communications suffered a blow. Photos and home movies of the takeoff show that as she taxied down the runway, a radio antenna on the bottom of her plane tore away.
That may be why Earhart was unable to hear Coast Guard crewmen who were trying to make contact with her as she neared Howland Island 19 hours later. “We are circling but cannot see island, cannot hear you,” she radioed as the crewmen listened helplessly. A series of increasingly distressed messages continued for another hour and a quarter before Earhart, in a distraught voice, gave her location: “We are on the line of position 157 dash 337. We are now running north and south.”
The rest was silence.
Some Navy and Coast Guard ships began looking for Earhart right away, but the epicenter of the search, Howland Island, is in the middle of nowhere, 1,700 miles from Hawaii, so it took two weeks for the search to acquire much manpower. Search planes passed over a tiny, apostrophe-shaped patch of coral called Gardner Island, about 400 miles away, and spotted signs of recent habitation. But Navy records showed that tribes of Pacific Islanders had been living there, which seemed to explain that, and the planes moved on. The search continued several weeks, but turned up absolutely nothing.
In the 1960s, journalists began searching for Earhart — but their focus was 2,800 miles west of Howland Island, on Saipan, where U.S. Marines fought a vicious battle against Japanese occupational troops during World War II. In the aftermath of the fighting, it was said, American troops had made a grisly discovery that Washington had covered up: that the Japanese had captured Earhart and Noonan and, believing them spies, either executed them or mistreated them so badly they died in prison.
“There’s probably a dozen books and, who knows, hundreds of magazine and newspaper stories about this,” says Gillespie. “They have different casts of characters but they all follow the same template: Some American enlisted man on Saipan finds something associated with Earhart — a briefcase, a flight log, a photo of her. Or a native shows him a grave and says, ‘White woman buried here.’
“Inevitably, he shows the evidence to an officer, who takes it and swears him to secrecy, and he hears nothing more about the case. Years later, he comes forward, but he handed over the evidence, and he has no receipt and doesn’t remember the officer’s name. And that’s where it ends.”
(The Japanese-capture-and-execution theory is actually a variant on a conspiracy theory that swept America during World War II. In that one, Earhart and Noonan were secret agents assigned by the U.S. government to fake their own disappearance, giving the U.S. Navy an excuse to search the Pacific gathering intelligence about Japanese military activity. There was even a Hollywood movie called Flight for Freedom starring Rosalind Russell as a thinly disguised version of a spy Earhart. Big problem with the theory: Earhart was a fervid pacifist who despised war after working in a military hospital during World War I.)
It wasn’t until the 1980s that modern technology — and perhaps even more importantly, modern fundraising techniques — began making it feasible to mount private searches for Earhart in the area where she disappeared. Using sophisticated underwater radar and deep-sea diving vehicles, groups devoted to the case searched for her plane in the waters around Howland Island, by now deserted. But still no conclusive evidence emerged.
TIGHAR was not one of those groups. Though it was formed in 1985 by aviation fanatics interested in investigating old missing-plane cases and, if possible, recovering the aircraft, Gillespie steered TIGHAR clear of the Earhart mystery. Earhart had run out of gas somewhere on a very large ocean, he figured, and her plane could be anywhere in it, miles under the water.
But in 1988, two of his members came to him with a proposal. What if Earhart didn’t crash into the sea? What if she reached an uninhabited island?
“The key to it is her final message, where she says ‘line of position 157 dash 337,’” Gillespie said. “That’s a line that Noonan calculated from the sunrise, running 337 degrees to the northwest and 157 degrees to the southeast. And if you follow it far enough, there are two deserted islands on it, McKeon Island and Gardner Island.”
It didn’t take long for TIGHAR investigators to find that somebody else had already mentioned the possibility of Earhart landing on Gardner Island. In 1960, a 68-year-old ex-Marine named Floyd Kilts gave an interview to a San Diego newspaper recounting his visit to Gardner Island in 1946, when he was sent there to dismantle a navigational device installed there during World War II.
Kilts said a Micronesian tribesman living on Gardner told him that when the Micronesians moved onto the island in 1938, they found a partial human skeleton, along with a woman’s shoe — a sign that she was a foreigner, since the tribesmen all went barefoot. The remnants of a fire pit nearby contained burned bones of small birds and fish, which suggested the woman had lived there some time.
The bones had been given to a British colonial official, who thought they might be the remains of Earhart. The Micronesian didn’t know what happened after that, and neither did Kilts.
That story sounds straight from the captured-by-the-Japanese template — except in this case, British archives yielded a load of radio traffic about the discovery of the bones and detailed measurements by a British medical examiner. (The bones themselves had disappeared. The British doctor had concluded the bones belonged to a man of mixed Polynesian and European race, though forensic anthropologists who looked at the data in the 1990s thought it more likely they were those of a European woman.)
One other thing TIGHAR’s research turned up: The Navy’s belief that Micronesian tribesmen had recently been living on Gardner Island in 1937 when its pilots flew over it was wrong. The tribesmen arrived for the first time a year later. Those signs of habitation had been left by someone else.
Gillespie and his group made their first expedition to Gardner Island — by now renamed Nikumaroro and part of the Republic of Kiribati — in 1989. It was once again deserted; drought drove the population away in the mid-1960s. Some of their empty buildings, including a general store, survived. Otherwise, not much was found.
A second, better-funded expedition arrived in 1991. The past two years had been hard on the island; a major storm had knocked down what little remained of the Micronesian settlement. But as they poked through the rubble, investigators found a fascinating piece of junk: A scrap of aluminum, 19 inches wide by 23 inches long, with four precisely measured rows of rivet holes. It looked for all the world like the torn outer skin of an airplane.
Over the years, tests have shown that’s exactly what it was. The scrap is made from a substance Alcoa Aluminum called 24ST Alclad, which was used in the manufacture of nearly all American planes manufactured in the 1930s — including Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.
But Gillespie got out well ahead of his forensic evidence in 1992 by holding a Washington, D.C., press conference where he declared that “every possibility has been checked, every alternative eliminated... There is only one possible conclusion: We found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.”
In fact, as other Earhart-investigation groups (there are more of them than Justin Bieber fans clubs, and they can be just as temperamental) quickly pointed out, the rivet patterns on Gillespie’s scrap were very, very different than those on Lockheed’s Electra.
“It was soon apparent that the Earhart mystery was not solved,” Gillespie admitted ruefully.
For years, the metal scrap was like a thorn in TIGHAR’s paw. “We knew it was significant, we knew it was a piece of a plane, but we just couldn’t quite figure out where it fit,” Gillespie said. Three months ago, the group decided to come at the scrap from the opposite direction: If it wasn’t from a Lockheed Electra, then what plane was it from? Gillespie’s investigators spent a day with the reconstruction team in Dayton, Ohio, at the U.S. Air Force Museum, which rebuilds World War II-era planes for a living. The team scoured its vast store of blueprints and technical drawings. It didn’t fit anything.
“That’s when one of our investigators said, look, we know there’s one piece on that plane that wasn’t built or installed by Lockheed — the replacement for that missing window,” Gillespie recalled. “So maybe that’s the match.”
TIGHAR began reviewing its massive archive of photos of Earhart’s plane. But relatively few showed the right side of the aircraft, because photographers usually wanted to get Earhart herself in the shot, and her pilot’s seat was on the left side. Only one shot offered a really good view of the patch: that 1937 photo from the Miami Herald.
“The replacement of that window had to be done in Miami, at a Pan Am facility that was helping Earhart,” Gillespie said. “They may have used different materials than Lockheed ... If we can match that rivet pattern in the photo, I don’t see how anybody can argue against this any more.”
In fact, it seems certain that they will argue. The Earhart bug, when it bites, takes hold like something akin to theology, and supporters of one theory delight in damning others. “I wouldn’t say we’re fighting about anything,” said Elgen Long, an 86-year-old veteran pilot and author of the 1999 book Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, widely regarded as the Bible of what’s known as the “crashed-and-sank” theory, which goes pretty much the way it sounds. “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. But everybody should have some facts to back up those opinions, and Mr. Gillespie, well, he doesn’t.”
Long says Gillespie’s metal scrap is obviously from a PBY seaplane (the “flying boat,” it was often called) like those flown by the U.S. Navy in the first half of the 20th century and is probably a remnant of some other crash that washed up on Gardner Island, unconnected to Earhart. (”Laughable!” retorts Gillespie.)
Equally scathing is Susan Butler, the Lake Wales writer who authored East To The Dawn, the definitive biography of Earhart and the basis for the 2009 Hillary Swank film Amelia. She regards Gillespie as a huckster, constantly devising new Earhart tall tales to raise money for his group.
“He’s very creative,” she said. “he’ll take it to the Nth degree. He can probably even prove it — for six months, or a year.”
Gillespie, accustomed to the criticism (”this is a a field where people have definite views”) shrugs it off.
Gillespies’ theory is that Earhart landed her plane on a coral reef just off Gardner Island that becomes visible at low tide. For a time, she used the plane’s radio to send out distress signals, until rough weather washed the aircraft off the reef into a deep ocean trough below.
More than 100 shortwave radio listeners around the United States — many of them with enhanced antennas intended to pick up distant signals — reported hearing distress calls from a woman identifying herself as Earhart in the days after her disappearance. At the time, they were all dismissed as hoaxes or mistaken identities, but Gillespie believes some of them may have been genuine, the product of a signal leakage known as harmonics that was common on early radio transmitters.
Among the most haunting of the reports came from a St. Petersburg teenager named Betty Klenck, who died just last week at the age of 92. In 1937, she was a kid spending her summer afternoons trolling the shortwave radio her father had rigged with a 60-foot antenna, scribbling down in a notebook song lyrics and bits of news she heard.
Three days after the plane went down, Betty stumbled onto a call from someone who identified herself as Earhart. For three hours, the teenager listened, transfixed and jotting notes all the while, as the woman pleaded for help, comforted an apparently injured Fred Noonan, and sometimes cried. “Oh, if they could hear me,” she moaned in despair at one point.
Betty’s father came home from work about midway through the broadcast and joined her in listening to it. Later he showed her notebook to Coast Guard authorities, who weren’t interested, thinking it the fantasy of a bored teenager. Yet the notebook contains intriguing hints of things Betty couldn’t possibly have known, and which may support the idea that the woman on the radio was Earhart, calling from Gardner Island.
For instance: Earhart’s constant repetition of something that sounded like “New York City.” That wouldn’t have made much sense. But if the words were “Norwich City,” it’s another matter: The S.S. Norwich City was a freighter lost at sea in 1929 that washed up on the reef just off Gardner Island. Bits of the wreckage can still be seen there today. They say it looms darkly in the spectral shadows just before dawn.