New clue to the mystery of Amelia Earhart?

For years, private researchers have looked for clues to the mystery of pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart's disappearance over the Pacific in 1937. Now, one piece of fuselage metal may confirm her last location.

Oskar Garcia/AP
Ric Gillespie (r.), founder of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, watches equipment testing alongside Wolfgang Burnside aboard a ship in Honolulu in 2012. Mr. Gillespie's group believes it may have found a piece of Amelia Earhart's long-lost aircraft.

The hunt for Amelia Earhart's last whereabouts has consumed researchers, authors, filmmakers, and the public's imagination ever since the pioneer aviator vanished over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while attempting to circumnavigate the globe.

Now, a three-square-foot scrap of aluminum debris from Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, may provide an important clue.

At least that's the contention of researchers with The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a private organization that's been on the trail of Earhart for years.

The essence of the group's report this week is that the piece of aluminum was a patch replacing a navigational window. News photos at the time show the shiny patch on the side of Earhart's twin-engine Lockheed Electra, which was installed during an eight-day stopover in Miami.

“The Miami Patch was an expedient field repair," Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News. "Its complex fingerprint of dimensions, proportions, materials and rivet patterns was as unique to Earhart’s Electra as a fingerprint is to an individual."

“This is the first time an artifact found on Nikumaroro has been shown to have a direct link to Amelia Earhart,” Mr. Gillespie said.

Many believe that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, got off course over the vast expanse of the Pacific, ran out of fuel, crashed in the ocean, and sank. This was long before the days of sophisticated radar, GPS, or even reliable long-range radio contact.

Some theorize that she was on a US spy mission and may have been captured by Japanese forces, possibly even surviving World War II.

TIGHAR's contention is that Earhart and Noonan indeed got off course, radioed their low-fuel plight, and landed on the atoll's coral reef. They were able to continue radio transmissions from the downed aircraft for several days until tides and high surf soon washed the aircraft offshore, where it broke into pieces and sunk, leaving the two as castaways.

Gillespie's research leads him to believe that Earhart and Noonan lived for a time on the waterless atoll, relying on rain squalls for drinking water, and catching and cooking small fish, seabirds, turtles, and clams before perishing.

The most tantalizing information supporting TIGHAR's contention may be this description of events from the organization's website:

In 1940, three years after Earhart disappeared, a British Colonial Service officer found the partial skeleton of a castaway on a remote part of the island. A campfire, animal bones, a box that had once contained a sextant, remnants of a man’s shoe and woman’s shoe made him think he may have found Amelia Earhart but, based on measurements, a doctor judged the skeleton to be male and American authorities were never notified.

The bones were subsequently lost, but computerized re-evaluation of the bone measurements by forensic anthropologists suggests that the skeleton was probably that of a white female of northern European descent who stood roughly Earhart’s height.

TIGHAR has found a site on the island that fits the description of where the castaway’s remains were found in 1940. Archaeological excavations in 2001, 2007 and 2010 have found and recovered physical evidence suggesting residence by an American woman of the 1930s including several artifacts of the same type as items known to have been carried by Earhart. TIGHAR research has shown that serial numbers reported to have been on the sextant box found in 1940 are consistent with the make and model of sextant used by Fred Noonan.

The search for more evidence continues with the next expedition for June 2015. Meanwhile, the current focus is on that aluminum patch.

“The many fractures, tears, dents and gouges found on this battered sheet of aluminum may be important clues to the fate and resting place of the Electra,” says Gillespie.

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