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A small group of wreckage hunters purports to have found a bit of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft. It’s a good story, but critics of the find are more vocal than ever.

A metal sheet, some small bones and an “ointment pot” may be the final artifacts of Amelia Earhart’s failed 1937 journey around the world, if a small group of wreckage hunters to be believed. They could also be the of some other plane, a turtle and trash. 

But the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (Tighar), which first found the warped bit of aluminum on a 1991 trip to the tiny atoll of Nikumaroro, in the Republic of Kiribati, says the 19in-by-23in slab has to be part of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra aircraft, which disappeared while she was flying over the Pacific. 

Tighar’s executive director Ric Gillespie made headlines this week by announcing “new research” into the 1991 fragment that he says answers earlier critics and proves it is from Earhart’s plane. 

The story he proposes is not implausible: the metal’s rivets don’t match with the Electra’s design, but that’s because because it’s actually a patch made to repair the aircraft after a bad landing in Miami, earlier on Earhart’s trip. Gillespie’s team managed to find a Miami Herald photo from 1937 which shows, over the place where a window should be, a particularly shiny piece of metal. In fact, a lab tested the metal back in 1996 and found it to be “essentially the same” 24ST Alclad aluminum that was to cover most aircraft of the 30s, including Earhart’s Electra. Gillespie says that “the patch was as unique to her particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an … [the aluminum] matches that fingerprint in many respects”.

Metal fragment believed to be from Amelia Earhart's plane
The aluminium fragment believed to be from Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.Photograph: Tighar/Reuters


Under Gillespie’s theory, Earhart made it to the island, sent radio signals “for at least five nights before the Electra was washed into the ocean”, and eventually died there.

But Gillsepie’s been here before, and his critics are not quiet, with one saying: “Everybody should have facts to back up [their] opinions, and Mr Gillespie, well, he doesn’t.” (A second, more concisely, says: “He’s very creative.”) After discovering the metal, Gillespie gave a 1992 press conference to say that “every possibility has been checked, every alternative eliminated … We found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.”

Objectors immediately out that he had not checked the fragment’s rivets, which did not match Earhart’s Electra. Now, 22 years later, the photo could indeed explain the discrepancy – but Gillespie still lacks a wreck to compare the pattern to. As a substitute, Gillespie’s team went to a Kansas facility that’s restoring an Electra and claims to have found – by holding the patch up alongside the restored plane – that the rivets seemed consistent with the pattern. No independent researchers have confirmed their findings.

To be , Tighar realizes they know less about the scrap than they’d like: “If the artifact is not the scab patch from NR16020, then it is a random piece of aircraft wreckage from some unknown type involved in an unknown accident that just happens to match the dozens of material and dimensional requirements of the patch.”

Considering the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and the sheer amount of wreckage scattered across it over the past century, this actually seems pretty reasonable, but Tighar doubles down on its implication of certainty: “[That would mean] this incredibly specific, but random, piece of debris just happened to end up on Nikumaroro, the atoll where so much other evidence to Earhart.”

What evidence does Tighar present? In 2011 they tested three bones found near a turtle shell, which could perhaps have been human or that of a turtle. DNA tests were inconclusive. (Gillespie says “the door is still open for it to be a human finger bone.”)

Gillespie the Miami Herald earlier this year that “the key to it is her final message, where she says ‘line of position 157 dash 337’ … That’s a line that Noonan calculated from the sunrise, running 337 degrees to the north-west and 157 degrees to the -east. And if you follow it far enough, there are two deserted islands on it, McKeon Island and Gardner Island.” 

It’s a good story, just like the one ex-marine Floyd Kilts used to tell about how a tribesman told him about a partial human skeleton and a woman’s shoe, which ended up with a British official and disappeared afterward. (Micronesians settled on the island a year after Earhart vanished.) But despite all the story and circumstantial evidence, no expedition in the past 70 years has found the Electra on or near either island.

But Tighar of course thinks it might. It found a “sonar streak” 600ft below the surface “the right size, the right shape … in the right place to be part of the Electra”, which the group has so far had neither the time nor funding to investigate. Gillespie admits it could also be part of a reef, a geological formation or any of things once lodged into the seabed and now drifted away. He intends to explore the site in a 2015 expedition. Whether he turns up with Earhart’s lost Electra or something else entirely, he have a new story.