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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.”