The disappearance of Amelia Earhart somewhere over the Pacific Ocean back in 1937 created one of the most compelling and enduring mysteries of the 20th century. The pioneering aviator, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, were attempting to fly around the world at the equator when they vanished while searching for a fuel stop on Howland Island. What became of them has been open to speculation for more than 77 years. Now, with the help of a piece of scrap metal, researchers believe they have solved that mystery at last.
Yesterday, The International Group of Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) reported that they had successfully linked a piece of scrap metal discovered on the island of Nikumaroro with Earhart’s plane. The piece of metal in question is 19 inches wide (48.2 cm) and 23 inches (58.4 cm) long, and was installed on her aircraft on a layover in Miami. It was part of a modification to the Lockheed Electra aircraft that would have allowed the pilot to be able to look out her window more easily so that she could navigate by the stars at night.
According to the TIGHAR report, the piece of metal was originally found on Nikumaroro, an island in the Republic of Kiribati, back in 1991. Researchers claim that by studying the part, they have determined that it not only matches the size and shape of the one added to Earhart’s plane, but it made up of the same type of metal, fits consistently with shape of the Electra, and has the same unique rivet pattern as the infield modification. Those variables virtually ensure that it is a part from the missing aircraft.
Historians know that Earhart and Noonan were running low on fuel when they were approaching Howland Island. Somehow, they got off course and could not find the airstrip, but instead were forced to put down on Nikumaroro, which is about 350 miles from their intended destination. It is widely believed that they not only survived the landing, but existed on the island for a time, most likely eventually dying from dehydration. Nikumaroro has very little fresh water, and is said to be a harsh environment with extreme heat, little shelter, and not much to eat.
Examinations of radio records also show that Earhart most likely used the radio on her Electra to try to call for help, but the signals were ignored or not properly heard at all. The aircraft was most likely pulled out to sea by rising tides, which not only hid it from future search teams, but also removed the only resource that Earhart and Noonan would have had at their disposal. TIGHAR researchers believe that the plane is still there, on the west end of the island somewhere.
A few years after she crashed, a British colony was established on Nikumaroro, and existed there into the 1960’s before it was abandoned due to a lack of resources. During that time, colonists discovered human bones on the island, which some now believe may have belong to Earhart or Noonan. The box of a sextant was also found there, and it was consistent with one that Noonan would have used for navigating as well. Over the years, these clues have disappeared however, so it is unlikely that they can be used to further establish a link to the final resting place of the aviator and her navigator.
TIGHAR researchers are hoping to return to Nikumaroro in the future, and search for more clues to the mystery. The group is currently seeking funding to mount another expedition, even though they have visited the island on multiple occasions in the past. Until they discover the Electra itself, there will likely always be some speculation as to the ultimate fate of Earhart. But this latest clue seems to give us the most likely ending to her historic flight.
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