In June 1937, Amelia Earhart departed from Miami, Florida, on her second attempt to circumnavigate the globe along the equator. In a Miami Herald photograph of her twin-engined Lockheed Electra taking off for San Juan, Puerto Rico, on the morning of June 1, a shiny metal patch covers one of the back windows of the plane. By linking that metal patch to a scrap of aluminum found on the remote Pacific atoll of Nikumaroro, researchers have provided a tantalizing new clue in the enduring mystery of Earhart’s disappearance.

After departing from Miami on June 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, completed nearly 22,000 miles of their attempted circumnavigation of the globe, making stops in South America, Africa, India and Lae, New Guinea. On July 2, they took off from Lae for their next target destination, tiny Howland Island in the Pacific. The distance from Lae to Howland Island was about the same as a transcontinental flight across the United States. Somewhere during the journey over the vast Pacific Ocean, the Lockheed Electra plane disappeared. A massive land, air and sea search failed to turn up evidence of Earhart, Noonan or the plane, and their fate remains a subject of endless speculation.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has spent the last 25 years investigating Earhart’s ill-fated final voyage, recently focused its attention on a scrap of aluminum recovered in 1991 from the uninhabited Pacific atoll of Nikumaroro, located some 350 miles southeast of Howland Island. To them, it appeared as if the metal sheet could be the same patch of metal that appears in the Miami Herald photograph of Earhart’s Electra, covering one of the rear navigational windows.

A Miami Herald photo of Earhart's Lockheed Electra with metal plate near tail. (Credit: TIGHAR)
A Miami Herald photo of Earhart's Lockheed Electra with metal plate near tail. (Credit: TIGHAR)

Known as Artifact 2-2-V-1, the metal scrap found on Nikumaroro is 19 inches wide and 23 inches long, and has a distinctive pattern of rivets. To test their hypothesis, TIGHAR researchers traveled to Wichita Air Services in Newton, Kansas to compare the dimensions and features of the sheet of metal to the components of a Lockheed Electra being restored to airworthy condition. They found that the rivets and other features of Artifact 2-2-V-1 appeared to match those of the patch that would have been used to fix Earhart’s plane. In a press release this week, TIGHAR explained: “The patch was an expedient field modification. Its dimensions, proportions, and pattern of rivets were dictated by the hole to be covered and the structure of the aircraft. The patch was as unique to [Earhart’s] particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an individual.”

Earhart and the Lockheed Electra
Earhart and the Lockheed Electra

According to a summary on TIGHAR’s website, the hypothesis of the organization’s long-running Earhart Project is that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, did not—as is commonly believed—crash in the Pacific Ocean when they ran out of fuel somewhere near Howland Island. Instead, they made a forced landing on Nikumaroro, then known as Gardner Island. Earhart (and possibly Noonan) then lived for a time as castaways before eventually dying on the atoll.

The positive identification of Artifact 2-2-V-1 as a fragment of Earhart’s plane would support this hypothesis, as well as the possibility that a sonar anomaly detected at a depth of 600 feet off Nikumaroro during TIGHAR’s last expedition is the rest of Earhart’s plane. Though an ambitious month-long trip to Nikumaroro (with a proposed $2 million budget) that TIGHAR planned for this fall was postponed due to lack of funding, the organization has scheduled a more modest expedition for June 2015 to conduct underwater searches for the aircraft as well as on-land searches for an initial campsite.