The 1937 disappearance of Amelia Earhart while nearing the end of her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world continues to be one of the most baffling missing person cases in history. Countless clues have been followed without success, numerous regular theories and conspiracy theories continue to pop up, and an occasional plane part, clothing scrap or human remains have been discovered without any leading to the plane, her body or that of her navigator, Fred Noonan. That quest may have finally taken a turn towards possible success recently when researchers used new technology on an old aluminum panel found near where Earhart’s plane possibly went down and discovered what may be hidden letters and numbers that could place the panel on Amelia’s plane … and positively place the plane and the end of the Earhart disappearnce search on the island of Nikumaroro.
“We thought it was a good fit—we were fairly confident we'd be able to see the remnants of marks worn away or paint particles. The first images were really exciting, but we knew we needed to do better to confirm what we thought we saw. We were already in the process of upgrading the neutron imaging facility, so the panel provided the perfect sample to optimize our neutron radiography capabilities."
In a press release, Daniel Beck, an engineering program manager in Penn State University's Radiation Science & Engineering Center (RSEC), explains how he became interested in the Earheart disappearance while working at the home of the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor (BNR) – the oldest operating nuclear reactor in the U.S.. It is not an obvious connection. Beck says he was watching the 2019 National Geographic documentary "Expedition Amelia" with his then 11-year-old son when he learned about the aluminum panel. That small piece of metal was found by longtime Earhart investigator Richard “Ric” Gillespie, the head of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) in 1985 on the Pacific island Nikumaroro – an event which narrowed the group’s focus to that area, even though is around 300 miles from Earhart’s actual destination of Howland Island. In 1940, a skeleton was found on Nikumaroro which could have belonged to Earhart. Unfortunately and mysteriously, the bones were lost over time, but measurements remained and 2018 study found they would have matched Earhart’s height.
“Initially, I was a little skeptical. We’ve had inquiries about these kinds of things before, but we had an extensive call with Ric, who was clear that they’re interested in whatever data we might be able to provide, even if it proves that the patch couldn’t possibly belong to Amelia Earhart’s plane. We agreed to see what we could see.”
Beck had an idea and discussed it with Kenan Ünlü, the director of RSEC and professor of nuclear engineering. After some initial trepidation, Ünlü agreed and Beck contacted Gillespie with a proposal to use neutron radiography to examine the external makeup of the patch (the 19 x 23 inch panel features five parallel lines of rivet holes and is thought to be an exact match of the one attached to the fuselage of Earhart's Lockheed Model 10-E Electra in Miami as part of a patching repair done to the plane) and neutron activation analysis to examine the internal makeup of the metal panel. That research began in January 2021 and Gillespie stated in a 2021 Penn State press release that it seemed to be going slow but well.
“What the Penn State team is learning about this artifact is beyond anything we’ve been able to do in 29 years of research. It’s possible we’ll learn something that actually disqualifies this artifact from being part of Earhart’s plane, but I prefer the knowing! It is so exciting to work with scientists who share our passion for getting to the truth, whatever it is.”
The Penn State team used neutron radiography to irradiate the panel with neutrons which pass through heavier particles and interact with some of nuclei of lighter particles. On the other side, a digital imaging plate captures the contrasts and creates a screen print of the sample's image, often revealing marks invisible to the naked eye. That is exactly what Ünlü’s team found.
"We found what looks like stamped or painted marks that could be from the original manufacturer. D24 and 335, or maybe 385. We don't know what they mean, but they are the first new information from this panel that has been examined by various experts with different scientific techniques for over 30 years."
Is this a “Eureka! Drop the mic! It’s from Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E!” moment? Not yet … but it could be soon. Gillespie took the numbers and letters (you can see them magnified here) to forensic analysts to determine if they had something to do with Earhart’s plane – like a production number. That would confirm or disprove if the panel came from Earhart's Lockheed Elektra plane.
"My mission—the mission of TIGHAR—is to use science to help solve aviation mysteries. Whether this information provides more evidence or disproves that the panel belonged to Earhart's plane, I'll be glad to know."
This is where Penn State’s RSEC team and TIGHAR parted ways. The RSEC neutron imaging facility was happy to help, but it can’t find anything else on the panel, so it moves on to a new mission – using the same neutron radiography and tomography equipment to study and measure the distribution of microplastics in the ocean environment. Sand samples typically show no evidence of microplastics to the naked eye, but when they will aim the beam at at the sand “the microplastics, from a millimeter to a few millimeters in size, light up like Christmas lights."
Meanwhile, Gillespie and his TIGHAR team wait for further research on the mysterious text from the panel before going back to Nikumaroro (called Gardner Island in 1937) to continue to search for Amelia Earhart’s plane and her and Noonan’s remains. Did they really crash just offshore from the uninhabited island, live there for a time catching and eating birds, fish turtles and clams without means to communicate with the people searching for them … eventually dying of starvation or exposure and being eaten by giant crabs?
The greatest missing person case of the 20th century has moved into the 21st century. Will it finally be solved there y invisible text? We await the answer.