A U.S. researcher hoping to solve the mystery of aviator Amelia Earhart's fate said today that satellite pictures may have located the wreckage of an aircraft near the remote Pacific island where he believes she crash-landed 64 years ago.
Satellite images of Nikumaroro Island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati appear to show rusting metal under water just offshore, in an area where native fishermen are said to have once seen the wreckage of an airplane.
"It's the best lead we've ever had," said Richard Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Airplane Recovery, or TIGHAR, which has been searching the tiny coral atoll for evidence of Earhart's fate since 1989.
"I can't sit here and tell you that's the wreckage of Amelia Earhart's airplane. But it's an anomaly that's in the place where an anecdotal account said there's airplane wreckage," he told Reuters in an interview.
Earhart, an aviator of near mythic proportions who was the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean with her navigator Fred Noonan and their Lockheed A-10E Electra aircraft on July 2, 1937, while trying to fly around the world.
Theories of Her Fate Abound
Most researchers believe her plane ran out of gas and crashed into the Pacific near Howard Island, less than an hour after Earhart radioed that they were lost and low on fuel.
But theories about her ultimate fate abound.
Some believe she and Noonan were captured by the Japanese while gathering military intelligence for the United States. A source no less illustrious than the late U.S. Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz has been quoted as saying, just before he died, that Earhart and Noonan went down in the Marshall Islands and were captured by the Japanese.
But Wilmington, Del.-based TIGHAR says there is strong reason to suggest Earhart's plane made it to Nikumaroro, formerly known as Gardner Island, hundreds of miles from its last point of radio contact.
After spending $2 million on five expeditions, the group has uncovered little physical evidence other than a rubber heel, some pieces of aluminum and a forensic report suggesting that bones discovered on the island decades ago and now lost may have belonged to a woman of northern European extraction.
A $400,000 Expedition
Critics says the bones and other paraphernalia belonged to European castaways from a shipwreck that occurred a decade before Earhart's perilous flight.
"In the eyes of reality, there's nothing there. Other people have scoured the island and none of us has ever ever felt that she was there," said retired Air Force Col. Rollin Reineck, a member of the Amelia Earhart Society who believes she was captured by the Japanese in the Marshalls.
Gillespie will lead a sixth, $400,000 expedition to the island on Aug. 24, and hopes to know by the first week in September whether ferrous metal from a 1930s-vintage airplane is responsible for the satellite images. He and his team are due to return to the United States on Sept. 24.
Images taken on April 16 by Lockheed Martin-built Ikonos 2 satellite do not register anything as distinct as the shape of an airplane. But at maximum resolution, TIGHAR researchers noticed two rust-colored computer pixels off the island's shoreline that Gillespie is convinced is metal debris.
While the shipwreck lies just nearby, Gillespie hopes to find the rusting steel engine mounts, landing gear legs and gear rods of a plane like the one flown by Earhart.
"We can certainly tell what kind of airplane it was," he said. "I know the insides of a Lockheed Electra like the back of my hand by now."
The satellite images were taken by Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo., the same company that supplied news outlets with satellite images of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane on a runway in China where it landed after a midair collision with a Chinese fighter in April.