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, unknowingly headed to a mysterious appointment with fate.
Yet the picture shot by a now-forgotten 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 none of the other thousands of photos of her plane.
There on the fuselage, about two-thirds of the way from the planes nose to its tail, is a rectangular patch that shines a peculiar silver on the aircrafts dusky skin. Could it be a clue the clue to what happened when Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan vanished somewhere over the trackless Pacific Ocean three months later?
Longtime Earhart investigator Ric Gillespie thinks so. He believes that the silvery patch reveals an unrecorded repair performed on Earharts 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 werent 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. It would also mean, possibly, that the tale of Amelia Earhart had an even more tragic end than we have thought all these years that she died not in a single terrifying instant as her plane crashed into the sea, but in a long torturous spiral of starvation, thirst and disease.
Earhart was one of the worlds 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 competed successfully with men in the popular airplane races of the day. And 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 after the first leg when she crashed on takeoff in Hawaii.
Her second attempt, this time east-bound, also had problems right from the start. She landed at the wrong airport in Miami, in what was then known as the 36th Street Airport (now part of Miami International) rather than the bigger Miami Municipal Airport just south of Opa-locka (now a park named for Earhart). 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 method by which pilots found their way over unmapped oceans, jungles and desert in the days before radar and GPS. The window is clearly visible in photos of Earharts plane taken in California at the start of her trip, and even in some Herald photos shot after her arrival in Miami.
But in the photo shot just before her June 1, 1937, takeoff for Puerto Rico, the window is gone, replaced by that odd silvery plate.
I think the window must have been broken or compromised by the hard landing in Miami, Gillespie said. It wasnt 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. Photos and home movies of the takeoff show that 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.
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, apostrophe-shaped 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. The search continued several weeks, but turned up absolutely nothing.
It wasnt until the 1980s that modern technology and perhaps even more importantly, modern fundraising techniques 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.
For years, the metal scrap was like a thorn in TIGHARs paw. We knew it was significant, we knew it was a piece of a plane, but we just couldnt quite figure out where it fit, Gillespie said. Three months ago, the group decided to come at the scrap from the opposite direction: If it wasnt from a Lockheed Electra, then what plane was it from? Gillespies investigators spent a day with the reconstruction team in Dayton, Ohio, at the U.S. Air Force Museum, which rebuilds World War II-era planes for a living. The team scoured its vast store of blueprints and technical drawings. It didnt fit anything.
Thats when one of our investigators said, look, we know theres one piece on that plane that wasnt built or installed by Lockheed the replacement for that missing window, Gillespie recalled. So maybe thats the match.
TIGHAR began reviewing its massive archive of photos of Earharts plane. But relatively few showed the right side of the aircraft, because photographers usually wanted to get Earhart herself in the shot, and her pilots seat was on the left side. Only one shot offered a really good view of the patch: that 1937 photo from the Miami 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 dont see how anybody can argue against this anymore.
Gillespies theory is that Earhart landed her plane on a coral reef just off Gardner Island that becomes visible at low tide. For a time, she used the planes radio to send out distress signals, until rough weather washed the aircraft off the reef into a deep ocean trough below.