We've Been Looking for Amelia Earhart for 86 Years. A Photo May Have Finally Found Her.

ameila earhart with airplane
New Photo May Be a Clue in Earhart Mysterygetty images - Getty Images
  • A piece of metal debris found in the western Pacific is deemed to be from a World War II plane, not Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.

  • The mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart has made little progress in recent years.

  • A group searching for the plane’s whereabouts believe an underwater photo may offer the next clue worth pursuing.

We may never know what happened to Amelia Earhart, but it seems we’ll always have another clue to investigate. And another theory to debate.

Just as scientists ruled out one long-thought promising piece of metal debris as belonging to the famed pilot’s plane, a group spearheading a search for her downed Lockheed Electra aircraft in the western Pacific surfaced another clue to start investigating.

The search for Amelia Earhart never ends.

The mystery started in July 1937. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were already six weeks and 20,000 miles deep into a trip around the world, but about 1,700 miles southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii, the pair’s planned stop at Howland Island in the Pacific never happened.

The Lockheed Model 10-E Electra missed the mark of the 2.5-square-mile island in the vast ocean. Not only are we not certain why the plane never made it to the island, but we also don’t know where it went instead.

pilot amelia earhart and navigator fred noonan
Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.Bettmann - Getty Images

With little proof ever unearthed to answer either question, that has left a limitless array of theories. As is often the case with these legendary mysteries, the most basic explanation—the Electra crashed into the ocean and sunk after Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel—isn’t the most alluring.

So, we have plenty of other theories, including the one that says Earhart and Noonan landed on the coral reef barrier surrounding Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro Island, about 350 nautical miles southeast of Howland. Distress radio calls from that island shortly following the crash bolster the theory. In fact, some believe giant crabs eventually ate Earhart after she died on the island.

Then, when a piece of metal debris washed up on the island in 1991, it gave rise to the hope that it was a piece of Electra itself. It took roughly 30 years for technology to find a series of hidden letters and numbers etched on the aluminum panel not visible to the naked eye, according to the Daily Mail. While experts hoped to match the markings—letters and numbers “D24,” “XRO” and either “335” or “385”—to the Electra, recent analysis says that the plane piece actually ties to a downed Douglas C-47 World War II aircraft.

Now The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a key organization in the harboring of Earhart ideas, has something else to latch onto: a 2009 photo.

Ric Gillespie, the executive director of TIGHAR, tells the Daily Mail that an underwater photo taken 14 years ago may show the plane’s engine cowling. “The similarity to an engine cowling and prop shaft was not noticed until years later,” he tells the newspaper, “and the exact location was not noted at the time, which meant attempts to relocate the object were unsuccessful.”

The long-held belief in the plane panel wasn’t the only exciting piece of Earhart evidence to ultimately render a less-than-stellar result for those hoping to prove Earhart landed safely on Gardner. Bone fragments found on the island were tested over a decade ago and ultimately didn’t support the theory.

amelia earhart in the cockpit of an airplane
Bettmann - Getty Images

TIGHAR still maintains that the Gardner Island theory is the most accurate. The group cites several nights of distress calls and says Navy searchers saw signs of recent habitation on the island, but didn’t investigate because they believed people lived on the island, when in fact, nobody had since 1892. The group says the rising tides and surf swept the Electra over the reef edge, and it now lies in deep water off the island’s west end.

A murky 2009 photo offers the latest reason for Earhart searchers to hang on to the Gardner Island theory.

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