In 1991 a chunk of metal was discovered that researchers are now saying once belonged to Amelia Earhart’s lost Lockheed Electra plane. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) which has been investigating the Earhart case for decades says that the aluminum sheet in their possession had been installed on the Electra during Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan’s fourth stop along their attempt to navigate around the world.

The aluminum sheet was discovered on Nikumaroro, a scant uninhabited atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati. It is literally too small to see on a map without great magnification but it has long been speculated as a likely crash-site for Earhart and her plane but this is the first piece evidence to definitely link Nikumaroro to the case. The metal patch was official declared a part of the Electra as it matches the dimensions and features of a missing section from the Electra that TIGHAR has been rebuilding. The metal found on Nikumaroro was part of a repair job done to the navigator’s window on Earhart’s stop in Miami.

“The Miami Patch was an expedient field repair,” Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News. “Its complex fingerprint of dimensions, proportions, materials and rivet patterns was as unique to Earhart’s Electra as a fingerprint is to an individual…This is the first time an artifact found on Nikumaroro has been shown to have a direct link to Amelia Earhart.”

Amelia Earhart Theories

Earhart and Noonan disappeared 77 years ago and many theories have been born from it. The most popular and least likely has to do with the Bermuda Triangle and some sort of fantastical encounter closer akin to The X-Files than real life. Others posited, romantically, that Earhart and Noonan had fallen in love and decided to run away together, and they lived out their lives on some small patch of land in the Pacific. Given that World War II was close to beginning, it is possible that in the ensuing chaos Earhart and Noonan could have helped them cover their tracks. Of course, the immediate question would still be, “Why bother?” Other theories involved Earhart having been a spy for FDR; another states a belief that they were killed by Saipan forces, and some posit that she was captured by Nazis.

The most prevalent theories are the ones based closest in reality. The first is the crash and sink theory; the belief is that the Electra ran out of fuel and forced Earhart and Noonan to have either gone down with the plane or parachute out. Either way they were stuck in the middle of the ocean. Radio transmissions and estimated proximity places the Electra as having gone down somewhere near the Howland Island where the seafloor is approximately 18,000 ft. down. Thirty-five years of exhaustive coverage of the area has found little evidence of the Electra or its crew.

The second theory is somewhat similar, only that the aircraft had run out of fuel and crashed near Gardner Island (now called Nikumaroro, where the slant of metal had been found in 1991). Nikumaroro is 350 miles southeast of Howland Island and substantially larger—large enough to be visible from the air and would have been seen as a viable option by Earhart.

This discovery seems to prove that contrary to the most often assumed sea-crash theory, but that Earheart and Noonan made a forced landing on Nikumaroro’s flat coral reef. The pair presumably died on the atoll with no help coming from anyone since their coordinates were unknown. However, despite numerous surveys of the area, no bodies have ever been found. Just salvaged parts.

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