New forensic imaging techniques are being used to solve the mystery of the final resting place of Amelia Earhart, whose plane vanished over the Pacific as she tried to become the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the globe.
Photographic analysts are poring over a high-resolution computer enhancement of a 1937 picture of Earhart's plane to try to establish whether a distinctive area of repaired metal sheeting matches a piece of wreckage recovered from an uninhabited atoll in Micronesia.
A leading Earhart researcher believes that a match of the rivet patterns would provide "conclusive proof" that the aviator was not, as was widely believed, lost at sea, but instead landed on Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro in the archipelago of Kiribati, 3,200 kilometres west of Mexico.
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That forensic breakthrough would in turn indicate that the aviator may have died of starvation, illness or thirst, instead of being killed when her plane crashed into the ocean as she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, desperately searched for land. The picture of Earhart's Electra aircraft was taken on June 1, 1937, as she prepared to take off for Puerto Rico during her second attempt to fly around the world. She had spent eight days in Miami while the plane had repairs and the photograph shows a distinctive shiny rectangular patch towards the back of the plane that clearly stands out from the rest of the fuselage.
Amelia Earhart. Photo / AP
Ric Gillespie, director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, hopes this can now be linked to a sheet of aluminium that his group recovered in 1991 from Gardner Island, which is in the same area of ocean where Earhart disappeared and has been the focus of previous search operations.
"If the enhancement of the photograph is good enough to establish that the rivet patterns on the repair match those on the wreckage, then that is conclusive proof that she ended on the island and was not lost at sea," he said.
The breakthrough would help solve the most disputed mystery in aviation before this year's disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Earhart disappeared in early July 1937 after a radio antenna ripped away from the Electra as she took off from Papua New Guinea, en route to Howland Island south of Hawaii, more than 4,000 kilometres away.
US Coast Guard heard her issue distress messages 19 hours later as he she flew over water, apparently lost and desperately searching for land. Nothing more was heard.
Gardner Island was first the focus of attention in 1960 when an ex-marine told a San Diego newspaper about his trip there with US forces in 1946. A tribesman told him that a skeleton and woman's shoe had been found in 1938.
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