A photograph that lay forgotten in Miami Herald archives for three-quarters of a century might have moved investigators a huge step forward in solving one of aviation’s most enduring mysteries — the disappearance of pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared without a trace as she neared the end of a round-the-world flight in 1937.
Using computer enhancement of the photo, snapped moments before Earhart’s plane took off from Miami on her fateful trip, investigators say they have matched a chunk of airplane wreckage found on the Pacific Island of Nikumaroro to a repaired panel on the fuselage of her aircraft.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’ve got a piece of Amelia Earhart’s plane,” said Ric Gillespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has been searching for the aircraft since 1988.
If Gillespie is correct, it would be strong support for his theory that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan weren’t lost at sea but died of starvation and injuries suffered during a crash-landing on a reef just off the shore of the uninhabited Nikumaroro.
That theory is controversial, to put it mildly, in the large community of Earhart-investigation enthusiasts, and some of them were quick to denounce Gillespie’s findings as a phony fundraising ploy.
“It’s absolutely not true,” said Richard LaPook, a former airline pilot and lawyer specializing in aircraft-crash cases who works with the Stratus Project, another group chasing Earhart’s ghost. “He covers up some serious, serious problems with his artifact, and he’s been doing it for 20 years. … This is just one more example of Gillespie stirring the pot to get some more contributions.”
Earhart was one of the most famous women in the world when she set off on her flight around the world from Oakland, California. She left Miami — where she had landed a week earlier for her last stop in the continental United States — on June 1.
On July 2, she lost radio contact and disappeared while trying to land on tiny Howland Island, her scheduled refueling stop 1,700 miles west of Hawaii. She was never seen again, despite a long search by the U.S. Navy and, in later years, privately funded expeditions.
This latest chapter of the search began six months ago, when Gillespie contacted the Herald in search of a photo of her plane, snapped moments before her dawn takeoff in 1937. The photo showed what appeared to be a previously undocumented repair to Earhart’s Lockheed Electra airplane.
A window Earhart had installed at the rear of the plane to aid in celestial navigation — a common practice over trackless areas like oceans, jungles and deserts before the invention of radar and GPS — had disappeared in the photo, replaced by a light-colored aluminum patch. Earhart’s landing in Miami had been rough, requiring some repairs, apparently including the window.
Gillespie thought the repair might be the key to identifying the piece of aluminum wreckage he discovered on Nikumaroro (which, at the time of Earhart’s flight, was known as Gardner Island) in 1999. The scrap, about 18 inches by 23, is definitely from the outer skin of an airplane; it’s made from a type of aluminum called 24ST Alclad, which was used in the manufacture of nearly all aircraft in the 1930s.
But the rivet patterns — four parallel rows, with a fifth row of larger rivets below — didn’t match those of the Lockheed Electra. The patch that replaced Earhart’s window, however, was done not at a Lockheed factory but a Pan American World Airways repair shop at Miami’s old airport. Perhaps, Gillespie thought, a computer-enhanced look at a cleaner version of the Herald photo would match up with his wreckage.
“That’s exactly what happened,” Gillespie told the Herald on Thursday. “We weren’t able to enhance it to the point where we could see individual rivets. But we could definitely see the rows, and they were exactly what’s on our artifact — four rows, plus the larger fifth. It’s a very unusual pattern, unique. It’s like a fingerprint, and just as a fingerprint can link a suspect to a crime scene, this links the artifact to Earhart’s plane.”
Other bits of evidence — some bolstering Gillespie’s theory, some merely clarifying part of the Earhart mystery — have emerged in the past six months:
▪ Another old Herald photo, apparently previously unpublished, narrows down the date of the replacement of the window in Earhart’s plane. The picture, in which Earhart poses beside her plane with her step-daughter-in-law Nilla Putnam, was taken May 29, and the window is clearly visible. That means the window was patched 48 hours or less before her departure.
▪ Gillespie’s staffers, for the first time, were able to inspect the interior of a Lockheed Electra’s fuselage walls. Only a handful of the planes still exist, and they usually have a lavatory installed right at the spot where Earhart put in her window. The lavatory fixtures — a toilet, sink and water tank — make it impossible to get inside the walls.
But TIGHAR found a Lockheed Electra being restored near Wichita, Kansas, in which the owner was taking the lavatory out to create a luggage storage area. “All we had to do was remove some carpeting and some sound-proofing material, and we were able to see the interior,” Gillespie said. “You can see how our artifact would line up perfectly with internal supports if it were installed as a patch.”
▪ A new sonar image shows what Gillespie calls “an anomaly” about 600 feet underwater on the ocean floor at the foot of a cliff on Nikumaroro, at roughly the spot Earhart’s plane would have come to rest if a storm washed it off the island’s reef.
“The experts who’ve looked at it are all over the place,” Gillespie said. “Some say it’s probably an odd formation of coral. Others say it’s definitely man-made. Whatever it is, it is definitely about the size of the fuselage of Earhart’s plane.”
The most important evidence, however, is the linkage of Gillespie’s scrap to Earhart’s plane through study of the photo. And it’s on that point that LaPook and other his other critics insist most adamantly he’s wrong.
They says telltale evidence on Gillespie’s scrap of wreckage prove it wasn’t manufactured until several years after Earhart crashed. The scrap bears a visible stamp of an A and a letter D — probably part of the label 24ST Alclad, the type of aluminum its made from.
But, LaPook says, Alcoa Inc., the company that manufactured the aluminum, didn’t start stamping it with the 24ST Alclad designation until 1941. Before that, it used the abbreviation ALC. “There are hundreds of photos of aluminum pieces stamped ALC,” LaPook said. “It’s just beyond doubt.”
Gillespie shrugs off the objection. “We don’t know that for sure,” he said. “We don’t know what every single Alcoa factory did or when they started doing or when they stopped.” On one point he’s in agreement: TIGHAR is definitely raising money — the group wants $387,000 to take an underwater vessel to Nikumaroro to get a closer look at that anomaly.