Newly discovered footage may solve riddle of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance

Julian Ryall
Amelia Earhart, left, and navigator Fred Noonan pose with a map of the Pacific Ocean showing the planned route of their round-the-world flight - AP

Researchers attempting to determine the fate of Amelia Earhart, the pioneering flier who disappeared over the Pacific in 1937, believe that newly discovered footage of her aircraft will help solve one of aviation’s longest-running mysteries. 

After 10 years of negotiations, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has purchased a reel of 16mm film of Ms Earhart’s Electra aircraft being refuelled at an airstrip in Lae, New Guinea, shortly before she took off on the leg of her round-the-world trip that would take her to the Pacific island of Howland. 

The researchers are hoping to be able to enhance the film to a degree at which it is possible to determine the exact shape of the panel and the lines of rivets that were used to attach it to the airframe, and then match it with an artefact discovered in the Pacific in 1991. 

Attempting to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe close to the equator, Ms Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Lae on July 2, 1937, but failed to locate Howland. 

TIGHAR researchers have disputed the commonly held theory that the aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean, suggesting that she would have had sufficient fuel to reach uninhabited Gardner Island, then a British protectorate but now a part of the Republic of Kiribati and known as Nikumaroro. 

This 1937 photo shows Amelia Earhart before takeoff in Miami for her attempted round-the-world flight Credit: AP

A series of expeditions to the island have yielded a number of tantalising clues, including a panel of aircraft aluminium that TIGHAR believes perfectly matches a patch that was used to replace a window in the rear cabin of Ms Earhart’s aircraft. 

Measuring 19 inches by 23 inches, the aluminium is an exact match for the Electra and has a series of five parallel lines of rivet holes. 

Efforts to prove that the patch comes from Ms Earhart’s aircraft have been frustrated by a lack of documented evidence of the repair patch and a no images of sufficiently high resolution to enable a comparison. 

In 2008, the organisation was contacted by a woman who said she had still images and a film showing Ms Earhart and her aircraft in New Guinea. The images were taken by a mining engineer who had been a relative of her husband and she had acquired them as part of a divorce settlement. 

After a decade of negotiations on the price, TIGHAR purchased the footage and stills, which have yielded 24 still images of the rear of the aircraft and show the patch. 

TIGHAR has launched a drive to raise the $2,000 required to have the brittle acetate film scanned at high resolution and rendered into digital format. A forensic analyst will then be able to compare the images with the artefact and, the group hopes, conclusively state whether or not it came from Ms Earhart’s aircraft.