Found? Plane fragment reignites Amelia Earhart mystery

77 years after her mysterious disappearance in the South Pacific, researchers say they’ve found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s plane.

Researchers probing the 1937 disappearance of famed American aviator Amelia Earhart’s plane say they now believe a slab of aluminium found more than two decades ago on an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean had come from her aircraft.

The warped piece of metal was recovered during a 1991 voyage to the island of Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has spent millions of dollars searching for Earhart’s plane in a project that has involved hundreds of people.

“We don’t understand how that patch got busted out of (the plane) and ended up on the island where we found it, but we have the patch, we have a piece of Earhart’s aircraft,” says TIGHAR executive director Ric Gillespie on Oct 29.

Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She was on the last leg of her attempt to circumnavigate the globe, when her plane lost radio contact and vanished in the early hours of July 2, 1937, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean while en route to Howland Island.

Despite a massive search and rescue attempt that cost millions of dollars, no trace of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, or their plane was ever found – that is, until now.

This piece of aluminium (above), which researchers claim comes from Amelia Earhart's plane, may be the key to unlocking the 77-year-old mystery of her disappearance. Below, Earhart posing with the specially customised Lockheed Elektra plane which was meant to have taken her around the world. – Reuters

The announcement that new analysis has determined the piece comes from her lost craft was met with scepticism from some aviation experts, without independent review or a definitive marking such as a serial number.

Pennsylvania-based TIGHAR, which in 2012 made a naval expedition to look for remnants of Earhart’s famed Lockheed Electra on the island, has been trying for years to determine the origin of the piece of metal, found on the island – located about 2,897km southwest of Hawaii.

The piece, which measures about 61cm by 46cm, did not appear to be a standard part of a Lockheed Electra, but TIGHAR researchers recently began to look into the possibility it might have been installed on the plane as a patch after a window was removed, he says.

On Oct 7, a TIGHAR team examined a plane at Wichita Air Services in Newton, Kansas, that was similar to Earhart’s aircraft. Because the plane was being restored, it was possible to look at its interior and see where the sheet of metal recovered in 1991 would have fit, says Gillespie.

Meanwhile, Gillespie’s group plans another expedition to Nikumaroro in 2015.

“There are some in the aviation community and the historical community who are very skeptical of their claims,” says Dick Knapinsky, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association. “How do you establish that a piece of aluminium belonged to a certain Lockheed Electra unless there’s a serial number or something on it?” – Reuters

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