MIAMI – The photo is, mostly, unremarkable. It shows an airplane looming darkly on a runway at Miami Municipal Airport in the spectral shadows just before dawn — probably a test as the photographer waited for the money shot moments later, when the aircraft would lift off with famed aviator Amelia Earhart at its controls, headed to a mysterious appointment with fate.
Yet the picture — shot by a Miami Herald photographer just before Earhart departed the United States on her doomed flight around the world on June 1, 1937 — contains an odd detail visible on no other photo of her plane.
There on the fuselage, about two-thirds of the way from the plane’s nose to its tail, is a rectangular patch that shines a peculiar silver on the aircraft’s dusky skin. Could it be a clue — the clue — to what happened when Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished three months later?
Longtime Earhart investigator Ric Gillespie thinks so. He believes that the silvery patch reveals an unrecorded repair performed on Earhart’s plane during her stopover in Miami. And he hopes that modern computer enhancements of that part of the photo will link it to a piece of possible airplane wreckage discovered a quarter century ago on a tiny Pacific island in the area where Earhart disappeared.
“If we can match a rivet pattern from the repair in the photograph to a rivet pattern on the wreckage, I think it would be beyond dispute that Noonan and Earhart weren’t lost at sea, but made it to the island,” said Gillespie, the executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
That would bring an indisputable forensic conclusion to one of the greatest and most contentious mysteries in aviation history.
Earhart was one of the world’s most famous and admired women when she and Noonan set off from Oakland, Calif., to fly around the globe. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland. She was a feminist before the word was invented, advocating tirelessly for women to be allowed to pursue careers in aviation or anything else they wanted.
Her first try at flying around the world — heading west rather than east — ended abruptly when she crashed on takeoff in Hawaii.
Rough landing in Miami
Her second attempt, this time eastbound, also had problems right from the start. She landed at the wrong airport in Miami. Her landing on May 24, 1937, was rough and she stayed in Miami for a week while the plane underwent repairs.
One of them, it appears, was the removal of a specially installed window in the rear of the airplane that navigator Noonan used to take sightings on the sun and stars. The window is clearly visible in photos of Earhart’s plane taken in California at the start of her trip, and in some Herald photos shot after her arrival in Miami.
But in the photo shot just before her takeoff for Puerto Rico, the window is gone, replaced by that silvery plate.
“I think the window must have been broken or compromised by the hard landing in Miami,” Gillespie said. “It wasn’t standard equipment and they found out it would take a while to replace it, so they just took it out and patched the fuselage instead.”
From Puerto Rico, Earhart continued through South America, Africa and Asia. On July 2, 1937, as Earhart took off from Lae, New Guinea, and headed for Howland Island nearly 2,600 miles away, her communications suffered a blow. As she taxied down the runway, a radio antenna on the bottom of her plane tore away.
That may be why Earhart was unable to hear Coast Guard crewmen who were trying to make contact with her as she neared Howland Island 19 hours later. “We are circling but cannot see island, cannot hear you,” she radioed as the crewmen listened helplessly. A series of increasingly distressed messages continued for another hour and a quarter before Earhart, in a distraught voice, gave her location: “We are on the line of position 157 dash 337. … We are now running north and south.”
The rest was silence.
Gardner Island overlooked
Some Navy and Coast Guard ships began looking for Earhart right away, but the epicenter of the search, Howland Island, is in the middle of nowhere, 1,700 miles from Hawaii, so it took two weeks for the search to acquire much manpower. Search planes passed over a tiny patch of coral called Gardner Island, about 400 miles away, and spotted signs of recent habitation. But Navy records showed that tribes of Pacific Islanders had been living there, which seemed to explain that, and the planes moved on.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that modern technology began making it feasible to mount private searches for Earhart in the area where she disappeared. Using sophisticated underwater radar and deep-sea diving vehicles, groups devoted to the case searched for her plane in the waters around Howland Island, by now deserted. But still no conclusive evidence emerged.
But in 1988, two of Gillespie’s members came to him with a proposal. What if Earhart didn’t crash into the sea? What if she reached an uninhabited island?
Gillespie and his group made their first expedition to Gardner Island — by now renamed Nikumaroro and part of the Republic of Kiribati — in 1989. Not much was found. A second, better-funded expedition arrived in 1991. Investigators found a scrap of aluminum, 19 inches wide by 23 inches long, with four precisely measured rows of rivet holes. It looked for all the world like the torn outer skin of an airplane.
Over the years, tests have showed that’s exactly what it was. The scrap is made from a substance Alcoa Aluminum called 24th Alclad, which was used in the manufacture of nearly all American planes manufactured in the 1930s — including Earhart’s Electra.
For years, the metal scrap was like a thorn in TIGHAR’s paw. “We knew it was significant, we knew it was a piece of a plane, but we just couldn’t quite figure out where it fit,” Gillespie said.
TIGHAR began reviewing its massive archive of photos of Earhart’s plane. But relatively few showed the right side of the aircraft, because photographers usually wanted to get Earhart herself in the shot, and her pilot’s seat was on the left side. Only one shot offered a good view of the patch: that 1937 photo from the Herald.
“The replacement of that window had to be done in Miami, at a Pan Am facility that was helping Earhart,” Gillespie said. “They may have used different materials than Lockheed. … If we can match that rivet pattern in the photo, I don’t see how anybody can argue against this anymore.”