Clue In Old Photo Leads To New Search For Amelia Earhart's Plane

Mar 20, 2012
Originally published on March 21, 2012 11:21 am

New analysis of a photo taken in 1937 has led investigators to think it might show a piece of the landing gear from aviator Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra plane, which disappeared in June that year somewhere in the South Pacific.

And at the State Department today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other officials gathered to announce that a privately funded search effort led by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) will be going to the Pacific island nation of Kiribati in July to see if they can find any evidence of the aircraft, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan.

"Amelia Earhart may have been an unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck," Clinton said, "but she embodied the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world."

"I'm thrilled to invite to this room today scientists and engineers, our aviators and our salvagers and everyone who still knows how important it is to dream and to seek," Clinton added, according to a State Department transcript, "because even if you do not find what you seek, there is great honor and possibility in the search itself."

Ric Gillespie, executive director and founder of TIGHAR, told All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block earlier today that "this latest piece of information .... gives us the information we need to do the search we've long wanted to do ... an underwater search for the wreckage of Amelia's plane."

In the photo, he said, "there's something that shouldn't be there... sticking up out of the edge of the water" and it looks to some experts like it might be a piece of her Lockheed Electra. It was taken just months after Earhart disappeared, off a tiny island called Nikumaroro. That's the island where some other evidence — including bone fragments — has been found that leads Gillespie and his colleagues to think they might have the right place.

The search, Gillespie added, will focus on an underwater reef slope.

We'll add the broadcast conversation Melissa had with Gillespie to the top of this post later. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams All Things Considered.

Update at 12:15 p.m. ET, March 21: The Associated Press has now moved copies of the image that has intrigued investigators. We're adding it here, as well as a crop focusing on the object in question. We've also tweaked the post above just a bit, because earlier information indicated the photo had been taken from above the island. Instead, as you can see, it was taken from the water off the island.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. On July 2nd, 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared while flying over the South Pacific. The mystery has gone unsolved for nearly 75 years.

Well, today, there was a high profile endorsement of a new effort to discover what happened. It came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON: Now, Amelia Earhart may have been an unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck, but she embodied the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world.

BLOCK: Secretary Clinton spoke at the State Department to a crowd including members of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR. It's launching that new mission to solve the Earhart mystery this July.

Ric Gillespie is executive director and founder of the group. He joins me here in the studio. Welcome to the program.

RIC GILLESPIE: It's wonderful to be here, Melissa.

BLOCK: Seventy-five years after Amelia Earhart disappeared, why this new mission now? What are you basing this on?

GILLESPIE: We have a new piece of information. There was a photograph taken of the western shore of Nikumaroro.

BLOCK: This is an island in the South Pacific?

GILLESPIE: An island. Nikumaroro is a coral atoll in the republic of Kiribas, very remote, but it's on the line of navigation that Earhart said she was following in her last radio transmission in 1937. So, it turns out there was a photograph taken of the western shoreline of that island just three months after she disappeared. And, in that photograph, there's something that shouldn't be there. There's something sticking up out of the water on the edge of the reef.

We had our own forensic imaging people look at it and what came back was - well, it looks like Lockheed Electra landing gear components.

BLOCK: And the Lockheed Electra was the plane that Earhart was flying that day?

GILLESPIE: Yes, of course. Amelia was flying a Lockheed Electra. So here, we had a report that there may be a piece of her airplane in a photograph taken three months after she disappeared, on the shore of this island. So we asked the State Department to help us with forensic imaging analysis and the opinion of their photographic specialist was the same as ours. That was something of a breakthrough for us. If it is, indeed, a picture of one of her landing gears, it tells us where the airplane went over the edge of the reef and it's right where we thought it should be.

BLOCK: Or at least it was in 1937.

GILLESPIE: In 1937. Yeah.

BLOCK: So now, in 2012, what will you be doing to try to find it?

GILLESPIE: We will be searching the underwater reef slope where we think the wreckage of the airplane ended up. It's a craggy underwater mountainside and, of course, it's a very difficult environment. But if we're right, there should be wreckage there, so we're going with the technology it will take to find such wreckage.

BLOCK: And the funding for this project comes from what?

GILLESPIE: The funding for this project comes from contributions from the general public and from corporations. There is no taxpayer dollars being spent on this. We have the wonderful benefit of an endorsement from the secretary of state, but that's what it is. It's a go get 'em, tiger, and that's wonderful to have, but it's up to us to raise the money.

BLOCK: Mr. Gillespie, what if you come up empty? What if you do this search with all of this underwater technology and find nothing?

GILLESPIE: Oh, Melissa, we've found nothing so many times.

BLOCK: You're used to it by now.

GILLESPIE: And if we find nothing underwater, it doesn't invalidate all of the other things we've found that say, yeah, this is the right place. Sure, we'll be disappointed, but it doesn't change anything. It means we have more searching to do. You never give up.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Gillespie, best of luck. Thanks for coming in.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Ric Gillespie. He's the founder of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR. We were talking about a renewed discovery effort to find out what happened to Amelia Earhart nearly 75 years ago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.