Nobody really knows what happened to Amelia Earhart and her co-pilot Fred Noonan in 1937, when they attempted to circumnavigate the world by plane. We have a pretty good sense that Earhart’s plane disappeared somewhere southwest of Hawaii, but outside of that we don’t know much.
The best working theory is that Earhart and Noonan made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro Atoll (formerly known as Gardner Island) and survived for a little while as castaways. An officer of the British Colonial Service even found partial human remains there (including a woman’s shoe) in 1941, though they were subsequently lost. A large number of artifacts have been found at Nikumaroro in the seven decades since then, most notably an aluminum panel found in 1991, but that’s not the smoking gun you might expect it to be; the S.S. Norwich City had wrecked there in 1929, and survivors made camp while awaiting their rescue. This is why early visitors to the island were not especially surprised to see evidence of recent human habitation, and did not interpret it as evidence that Earhart and/or Noonan had survived.
Earlier this month, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) was able to match the aluminum panel up to the Lockheed Electra, functionally confirming that it came from Amelia Earhart’s plane.
In a research bulletin detailing the painstakingly detailed process used to match up the patch’s rivet pattern, TIGHAR explains why we can be confident about the data:
During Amelia Earhart’s stay in Miami at the beginning of her second world flight attempt, a custom-made, special window on her Lockheed Electra aircraft was removed and replaced with an aluminum patch. The patch was an expedient field modification. Its dimensions, proportions, and pattern of rivets were dictated by the hole to be covered and the structure of the aircraft. The patch was as unique to her particular aircraft as a fingerprint is to an individual. Research has now shown that a section of aircraft aluminum TIGHAR found on Nikumaroro in 1991 matches that fingerprint in many respects.
What’s next? The Holy Grail of Amelia Earhart research is the rest of the partial skeleton from 1941—and there’s a chance that TIGHAR will eventually find it. Whether the remains actually came from Earhart’s skeleton is another matter entirely, of course; while the most recent analysis of the original forensic’s examiners notes suggest that the bones probably belonged to a caucasian woman standing 5’5” to 5’9” (a range that would certainly include Earhart, who was 5’7”), the examiner’s original conclusion was that they belonged to an “elderly Polynesian male” who stood about 5’1” tall. The British Colonial Service officer who discovered the remains also noted that they appeared to date back further than 1937; he may have had the S.S. Norwich City in mind (though it is worth noting that there were no women on board the Norwich City, so any human remains confirmed as belonging to a caucasian woman would almost certainly have to be Earhart’s).
The one thing about which we can be reasonably certain is that the bones did not belong to Noonan, who was 6’1” and had an unmistakably large frame. His remains are presumably still out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. If and when they are, the greatest challenge may be proving that they do not belong to a casualty of the Norwich City wreck—and, considering the amount of time that has passed in the interim, that may prove impossible.