On June 1, 1937, Amelia Earhart lifted off from an airfield in Hialeah, bound on the ambitious round-the-world flight from which she would never return. Scholars and enthusiasts have spent the past seven decades arguing about what happened to the aviation pioneer, and this week one prominent Earhart searcher declared a breakthrough.
The key piece of evidence: a small sheet of metal bolted to Earhart's plane right before she left Miami -- and, the researcher claims, now positively identified on a tiny island in the Pacific.
The researcher at the center of the claim is a controversial figure, Ric Gillespie, who has devoted years to proving his theory: namely, that Earhart crash-landed on a tiny, uninhabited patch of South Pacific sand called Gardner Island and sent out distress calls before weather washed her plane away.
In June, the Miami Herald's Glenn Garvin went deep on Gilbert's pet theory. It boils down to this: In 1991, Gillespie's group -- which had calculated, based on Earhart's last distress call, that her path could have taken her to Gardner Island -- found a small piece of metal on the deserted atoll.
The piece of metal had rows of neat rivets and looked an awful lot like airplane skin. Problem was, it clearly didn't come from Earhart's plane. The rivet pattern was all wrong.
That's where a Miami Herald archive photo came into play. The pic, from Earhart's take-off June 1, 1937, showed a previously forgotten detail: A back window, which had been there when she landed in Miami, had been replaced with a new sheet of aluminum.
Fast-forward to this week's announcement from Gillespie. He says new research using an existing model of Earhart's plane strongly suggests the patch of metal found on Gardner Island was the same used to patch over her window in Miami.
The forensic evidence, Gillepsie's group writes, has led to "increasing confidence that a piece of aluminum aircraft debris found on a remote, uninhabited South Pacific atoll came from Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra."
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Before you declare the Amelia Earhart mystery solved, though, there are some big caveats to this week's news.
The first is that a lot of other Earhart experts think Gillespie is full of it. Take it from Elgen Long, Gillespie's fiercest rival and the chief proponent of an alternate theory that Earhart crashed and sank in the ocean. "Everybody is entitled to their own opinion," he told the Herald earlier this summer. "But everybody should have some facts to back up those opinions, and Mr. Gillespie, well, he doesn't."
The timing of Gillespie's news this week also raised some eyebrows, considering it came with a plea for more funding to mount a new expedition at sea near Garnder Island to look for the underwater wreckage of Earhart's plane. He says his group has noted sonar anomalies 600 feet below the sea and hopes to check it out.