Forensic imaging specialists have found what looks like a wheel and other landing gear off the coast of Nikumaroro Island in the Pacific Ocean, right where analysts and archeologists think Amelia Earhart's plane went down in 1937.
"We don't know whether it's her plane, but what we have is a debris field in a place where there should be a debris field if what we had put together based on the evidence that we had is correct," said Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which led the $2.2 million expedition last month.
During the trip, Gillespie said he was "bummed" because they didn't see much in the coral reef from their standard video camera. The high definition camera footage couldn't be viewed in real time, so they had to process it and send it over to forensic analyst Jeff Glickman before they could get any answers.
"On Tuesday afternoon, he calls me and says, 'You know, there's stuff here. It looks like manmade debris," Gillespie said.
So Gillespie compared the logs to his maps and said, "Whoa. What he's seeing is right where we reasoned things should be."
Based on the last thing Earhart ever said over the radio, she was on a navigational line called 157337, which has two other islands along it other than Howard Island, which was where Earhart was aiming to land. Although the Navy began looking for her along the route initially, the idea was forgotten until two retired Navy officers approached Gillespie in 1988.
Gillespie said he and TIGHAR began looking for Earhart's plane "reluctantly," but this is its 10th expedition to date. Earlier this year, the State Department confirmed analysis of what's become known as the "Bevington Photo," which TIGHAR says depicts landing gear floating off Nikumaroro.
TIGHAR's analyst identified manmade debris that resembled a wheel, a fender and other landing gear, all of which is consistent with what is depicted in the Bevington photo, Gillespie said.
"At first blush here, it appears that in this debris field, it may be a component of that same object we saw in that 1937 photo," he said.
But it's not realistic for researchers to expect to find a whole plane in the waters around Nikumaroro, Gillespie said, because the underwater topography is hostile and plagued by mudslides.
TIGHAR isn't releasing information about exactly where they found debris for security reasons.
In past expeditions, archeologists found and chemically analyzed a few other clues, including freckle cream and hand lotion women in America would have bought in the 1930s that Earhart may have had with her when she disappeared.