The disappearance of Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, has become one of the most enduring mysteries of the 20th century. The duo, who were attempting an around the world flight in a Lockheed Electra 10E, disappeared on July 2nd, 1937 in the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island.
To this day, no solid and independently reverified evidence has emerged which can conclusively explain what happened to Earhart, and, as with all mysteries, various conspiracy theories have emerged.
However, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, the organization which has spearheaded the hunt for Earhart's plane, claim they can now with some certain have uncovered a piece of the doomed aircraft.
What Have They Found?
While preparing for her second circumnavigation attempt in 1937, Earhart spent a week in Miami. During this time, a special custom window was removed from her Lockheed Electra and replaced with an aluminum patch - known as the 'Miami Patch.' As this window was of a custom size, so too was the sheet of metal designed to replace it, essentially meaning it had a relatively unique dimensions, proportions and rivet patterns.
Back in 1991, an aluminum fragment washed ashore on Nikumaroro (formerly called Gardner Island) and was cataloged as Artifact 2-2-V-1. At the time it was impossible to ascertain if the panel was the 'Miami Patch.' However, a recently rediscovered Miami Herald photograph from 1937, plus the work of forensic imaging specialists, has lead TIGHAR to essentially confirm Artifact 2-2-V-1 is indeed from Earhart's plane. TIGHAR's Ric Gillespie stated:
The patch was as unique to her particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an individual... This is the first time an artifact found on Nikumaroro has been shown to have a direct link to Amelia Earhart.
This discovery has several major implications. Firstly, it has increased confidence that a sonar anomaly found 200 meters under water near Nikumaroro could be the remains of the Lockheed Electra. TIGHAR plan to investigate the anomaly with a remotely operated vehicle next year.
Secondly, the discovery also adds credence to the Gardner Island hypothesis - one of the main theories which attempts to explain Earhart's disappearance. A brief outline of the theory, plus several other more outlandish ones, can be read below.
Gardner Island/Nikumaroro hypothesis
Perhaps the most prominent hypothesis suggests Earhart and Noonan landed on an extensive reef flat just off shore of Nikumaroro and then made it ashore to the island where they ultimately perished. The plane was expected to have eventually been washed off shore by large storm waves.
The island has been scrutinized through extensive searches and several interesting artifacts have been uncovered. Most notably, in 1940 a British colonial officer and pilot, Gerald Gallagher, found what he claimed was a "skeleton ... possibly that of a woman," under a tree on the island's southeast corner. With the body was an old fashioned sextant box - a sextant being a device used to navigate via celestial bodies. Noonan was an expert in this field and was chosen explicitly for his ability, meaning he was likely to have a sextant.
In 1941, British colonial authorities took possession of the remains and concluded they were from a male about 5 feet 5 inches tall. Soon after this time the remains were misplaced in Fiji and lost. However, in 1998, an analysis of the detailed measurements of the bones by forensic anthropologists suggested the skeleton belonged to a "tall white female of northern European ancestry."
Later expeditions to the island have also uncovered improvised tools, an oddly cut piece of Plexiglass (like that from an Electra), a size 9 Cat's Paw shoe heel dating from the 1930s which resembled footwear worn by Earhart in photos, a zipper bull, and bronze ball bearings.
Unfortunately, none of these artifacts can be conclusively linked to Earhart, Noonan or the Electra, meaning that, although persuasive, the Gardner Island hypothesis remains purely that - a hypothesis.
UPDATE (November 2nd 2016): Recently, TIGHAR have released a statement claiming they have further proof the mysterious skeleton in Amelia Earhart. Although the actual remains have been lost, TIGHAR asked forensic imaging specialist, Jeff Glickman, to study pictures of Earhart and estimate the measurements of her humerus (upper arm bone) and radius (lower arm bone). In a paper titled, Amelia Earhart’s Bones and Shoes? Current Anthropological Perspectives, the team reported:
"The morphology of the recovered bones, insofar as we can tell by applying contemporary forensic methods to measurements taken at the time, appears consistent with a female of Earhart's height and ethnic origin."
Following the discovery, TIGHAR founder, Richard Gillespie, stated:
"The match does not, of course, prove that the castaway was Amelia Earhart, but it is a significant new data point that tips the scales further in that direction."
Ultimately, however, he concludes:
“We found records of bonfires being lit in the area where the bones were found. Based on the fish bones and bird bones found in the area, Earhart survived weeks, maybe even months, in that island. We believe she survived heroically, and alone, for a period of time, in terrible circumstances. History needs to tell her story right."
Of course, although this is exciting news, any findings would have to be independently verified before history can close the Amelia Earhart case for good. However, with the original skeleton missing, and only guesswork, - albeit expert guesswork - filling the void, that might not come for some time.
The Crash and Sink Hypothesis
The most commonly accepted theory states Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel prior to their scheduled arrival on Howland Island and crashed into the sea. Evidence for this theory comes from extensive scrutiny of known radio transmissions, flight lines and fuel analysis.
It is believed Noonan, who was traditionally a naval navigator and who had previously given misgiving about using this methods in an aircraft, misjudged a line of approach for Howland and took the plane off course where it ran out of fuel.
Although this isn't the most exciting hypothesis, it is the most commonly accepted purely for its simplicity, feasibly and likelihood.
The Japanese Hypotheses
There are also several theories which claim the Imperial Japanese army and navy had some kind of role in Earhart's disappearance. Although war was yet to be declared between any of the allies and Japan, 1937 was still a time of heightened tensions.
One theory, popularized by the World War II-era film, Flight for Freedom, claims Earhart was hired by Roosevelt to spy on Japanese naval movements in the Pacific. Another theory claims Earhart and Noonan crash landed on Saipan - an island under Japanese occupation - and were subsequently executed. Evidence for this comes from eyewitness testimony of Saipan natives and Japanese troops, while one book on Earhart, Eyewitness: The Amelia Earhart Incident, includes a letter from the daughter of a Japanese police official who claimed her father was their executioner.
Other evidence comes from former U.S. Marine Robert Wallack, who claims he found Earhart's briefcase in a safe on Saipan, while a US wireless operator also claimed he intercepted Japanese communications concerning the destruction of Earhart's plane.
Another interesting theory suggests Earhart could have worked for the Japanese as a so called 'Tokyo Rose' - Japanese propagandists who communicated to American troops in the Pacific in order to demoralize them. However attempts to recognize her voice in recordings have failed.
She Survived, Moved to New Jersey and Changed Her Name
One of the most bizarre theories suggests she survived her flight, moved to New Jersey, changed her name and remarried. In Amelia Earhart Lives (1970), author Joe Klass claims Earhart became Irene Craigmile Bolam, a New York banker. Naturally, Craigmile Bolam claimed she wasn't Earhart and filed a lawsuit against the book's publisher. Later Bolam's life was researched and any chance she was Earhart was eliminated. Furthermore, Kevin Richlin, a criminal forensic expert, studied photographs of both women and noticed many facial differences between Earhart and Bolam.
Which disappearance theory do you believe?