Mystery of Amelia Earhart Solved? Fragment From Missing Plane Identified

This four-meter resolution image, collected by Space Imaging's IKONOS satellite on April 16, 2001, shows Nikumaroro Island, an uninhabited Pacific coral atoll, in the Republic of Kiribati, about 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii. Richard Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, believes the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's airplane may be found near the atoll. Reuters

Researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) revealed that a piece from Amelia Earhart's vanished aircraft has been identified in Nikumaroro, an atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati. This is the first time that an artifact from the wreckage has been directly linked to Earhart's last expedition, in which she was attempting to circumnavigate the Earth at the equator, and sheds new light on the 77-year-old aviation mystery.

The 19-inch-wide by 23-inch-long piece, found by researchers in 1991, is strongly believed to be a metal fragment installed on the window of Earhart's Lockheed Electra aircraft during her eight-day stay in Miami, which was her fourth stop on the journey. A photograph on TIGHAR's site from The Miami Herald, dated July 1, 1937, shows the aircraft intact with the metal patch.

Once the patch was identified in the photograph, researchers compared the patch with that of the Lockheed Electra aircraft at Wichita Air Services in Newton, Kansas, according to Discovery News. It matched the plans and the Electra's structure. According to TIGHAR, the patch was a field modification whose "complex fingerprint of dimensions, proportions, materials and rivet patterns was as unique to Earhart's Electra as a fingerprint is to an individual." The sheet's purpose was for the pilot to be able to take in "celestial observations" from thousands of feet in the sky.

The pilot, whose plane seemingly dematerialized on July 2, 1937, has prompted a wide range of conspiracy theories, including the speculation that Earhart assumed a new identity on a remote island in the Pacific. The new discovery debunks the wide belief that Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, didn't actually crash into the Pacific Ocean. TIGHAR suggests the the pair had to make a forced landing on the coral reef of Nikumaroro after running out of fuel roughly 350 miles from their destination, Howland Island.

Evidence from 10 previous expeditions to Nikumaroro led researchers to believe that the two died there as castaways without resources. "Earhart sent radio distress calls for at least five nights before the Electra was washed into the ocean by rising tides and surf," said Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, in an interview with Discovery News.

The fragment could very well be a part of a strange object jutting from the water on a nearby reef, depicted in a photograph taken by a British research team in October 1937, three months after Earhart disappeared. During TIGHAR's last expedition, sonar imagery spotted an object 600 feet off the base of an offshore cliff, where the organization believes the Electra drifted into the ocean. The "anomaly" was analyzed by a sonar data post-processor based in Honolulu, identifying it to be the right size and shape to be part of Earhart's aircraft. The organization believes that the rest of the Electra's remains are buried deep off the west end of the island.

TIGHAR, which has long been investigating Earhart's disappearance, will make another journey to Nikumaroro to further investigate the anomaly using remotely operated vehicle technology. The organization is currently seeking funds to make this journey happen, and to resolve the mysterious surroundings of Amelia Earhart's untimely disappearance.

Updated 3:18 p.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that a Lockheed Electra ran on jet fuel. It has been amended to reflect that a Lockheed Electra runs on fuel.