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Aircraft Hunters Think They’ve Found a Scrap of Amelia Earhart’s Plane

This isn’t the first time a seemingly game-changing piece of evidence about Earhart’s disappearance has arisen, however

Did this piece of debris come from Amelia Earhart's plane? Some think so; others disagree. (Photo: TIGHAR)
smithsonian.com

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) claims to have uncovered the first physical evidence of Amelia Earhart's plane, which disappeared in 1937. The evidence in question is a small piece of what appears to be siding from an airplane. According to Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR's founder, the rivet holes on the metal as well as its shape and size matches up with a window patch Earhart had installed on her Lockheed Electra shortly before both she and the plane disappeared.

Gillespie and his wife found the metal during an investigative trip to Nikumaroro Island, a remote atoll about 350 miles south of where Earhart was supposed to land the day she disappeared. After multiple trips to the island and years spent analyzing logs of Earhart's final hours, Gillespie is convinced that Earhart did not crash into the ocean as most believe, but managed an emergency landing at Nikumaroro. There, she spent days, weeks or possibly even months stranded as a castaway, only to eventually succumb to the elements and perhaps be eaten alive by coconut crabs

Gillespie and his wife found the piece of metal siding back in 1991. They spent years investigating various dead ends. The metal fragment wasn't a piece of normal siding; it wasn't from repairs to Earhart's plane. Finally, they have stumbled on what they think is undeniable evidence that the metal did indeed come from Earhart's Lockheed Electra. The Daily Beast reports on why Gillespie is convinced this is the case: 

On Oct. 7, Gillespie visited some vintage aircraft lovers in Newton, Kansas, who were rebuilding an Electra once owned by a Czech shoe company. The piece of metal was held up to the place in the structure where the window had been covered over. The fit was perfect and the rivet holes aligned.

“We’ve got a match,” Gillespie says. “It’s like a fingerprint.”

The next step was to get forensic metallurgists and other experts to study the piece for anything its various scars and general condition might reveal.

Many others, however, are skeptical about this claim. As Dick Knapinsky, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association, told Reuters, "How do you establish that a piece of aluminum belonged to a certain Lockheed Electra unless there's a serial number or something on it?" And as Outside pointed out back in 2012 when "tantalizing new evidence" emerged about Earhart's demise in the form of a 1937 photo that might show Earhart's plane jutting out of the Nikumaroro reef, "This isn’t the first occasion Gillespie has proclaimed that victory is at hand." Indeed, in that story, Gillespie told Outside that "Amelia’s fame is like a faucet I can turn on and off with a press release.” His organization has been at this search for years and, though Gillespie is skilled at exciting the public, he has not yet produced any evidence that's convinced experts that he's solved Earhart's mystery.

TIGHAR plans to return to Nikumaroro in June 2015 to investigate a perplexing shape that turned up on one of the underwater images their remotely operated vehicle took during their last trip to the island. Some generous Earhart fans could even accompany the team on that trip. As Gillespie told Discover, “Funding is being sought, in part, from individuals who will make a substantial contribution in return for a place on the expedition team.”

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