The photo is, mostly, unremarkable. It shows an airplane looming darkly on a runway at Miami Municipal Airport in the spectral shadows just before dawn -- probably a test as the photographer waited for the money shot moments later, when the aircraft would lift off with famed aviator Amelia Earhart at its controls, unknowingly headed to a mysterious appointment with fate.
Yet the picture -- shot by a now-forgotten Miami Herald photographer just before Earhart departed the United States on her doomed flight around the world on June 1, 1937 -- contains an odd detail visible on none of the other thousands of photos of her plane.
There on the fuselage, about two-thirds of the way from the plane's nose to its tail, is a rectangular patch that shines a peculiar silver on the aircraft's dusky skin. Could it be a clue -- the clue -- to what happened when Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished somewhere over the trackless Pacific Ocean three months later?
Long-time Earhart investigator Ric Gillespie thinks so. He believes that the silvery patch reveals an unrecorded repair performed on Earhart's plane during her stopover in Miami. And he hopes that modern computer enhancements of that part of the photo will link it to a piece of possible airplane wreckage discovered a quarter century ago on a tiny Pacific island in the area where Earhart disappeared.
"If we can match a rivet pattern from the repair in the photograph to a rivet pattern on the wreckage, I think it would be beyond dispute that Noonan and Earhart weren't lost at sea, but made it to the island," said Gillespie, the executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
That would bring an indisputable forensic conclusion to one of the greatest and most contentious mysteries in aviation history. It would also mean, possibly, that the Earhart's tale had an even more tragic end than we have thought all these years -- that she died not in a single terrifying instant as her plane crashed into the sea, but in a long torturous spiral of starvation, thirst and disease.
Earhart was one of the world's most famous and admired women when she and Noonan set off from Oakland, California, to fly around the globe. She was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and the first person to fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland. She competed successfully with men in the popular airplane races of the day. And she was a feminist before the word was invented, advocating tirelessly for women to be allowed to pursue careers in aviation or anything else they wanted.
Her aviation career, however, was not without its share of near-misses. On her transatlantic flight, she was trying to land in Paris but got lost and wound up in Ireland instead. Her first try at flying around the world (heading west rather than east) ended abruptly after the first leg when she crashed on takeoff in Hawaii.
Her second attempt, this time eastbound, also had problems right from the start. She landed at the wrong airport in Miami, in what was then known as the 36th Street Airport (now part of Miami International) rather than the bigger Miami Municipal Airport just south of Opa-locka (now a park named for Earhart). Her landing on May 24, 1937, was rough and she stayed in Miami for a week while the plane underwent repairs.
One of the repairs, it appears, was the removal of a specially installed window in the rear of the airplane that navigator Noonan used to take sightings on the sun and stars, the method by which pilots found their way over unmapped oceans, jungles and desert in the days before radar and GPS. The window is clearly visible in photos of Earhart's plane taken in California at the start of her trip, and even in some Herald photos shot after her arrival in Miami.
But in the photo shot just before her June 1, 1937, takeoff for Puerto Rico, the window is gone, replaced by that odd silvery plate.
"I think the window must have been broken or compromised by the hard landing in Miami," Gillespie said. "It wasn't standard equipment and they found out it would take a while to replace it, so they just took it out and patched the fuselage instead."
From Puerto Rico, Earhart continued through South America, Africa and Asia. Her plane suffered occasional malfunctions, but the biggest problem was confusion over the tangle of different radio frequencies used by different civil and military aviation agencies around the world, which sometimes left Earhart out of touch. On July 2, 1937, as Earhart took off from Lae, New Guinea, and headed for Howland Island nearly 2,600 miles away, her communications suffered a blow. Photos and home movies of the takeoff show that as she taxied down the runway, a radio antenna on the bottom of her plane tore away.
That may be why Earhart was unable to hear Coast Guard crewmen who were trying to make contact with her as she neared Howland Island 19 hours later. "We are circling but cannot see island, cannot hear you," she radioed as the crewmen listened helplessly. A series of increasingly distressed messages continued for another hour and a quarter before Earhart, in a distraught voice, gave her location: "We are on the line of position 157 dash 337. We are now running north and south."
The rest was silence.
Some Navy and Coast Guard ships began looking for Earhart right away, but the epicenter of the search, Howland Island, is in the middle of nowhere, 1,700 miles from Hawaii, so it took two weeks for the search to acquire much manpower. Search planes passed over a tiny, apostrophe-shaped patch of coral called Gardner Island, about 400 miles away, and spotted signs of recent habitation. But Navy records showed that tribes of Pacific Islanders had been living there, which seemed to explain that, and the planes moved on. The search continued several weeks, but turned up absolutely nothing.
In the 1960s, journalists began searching for Earhart -- but their focus was 2,800 miles west of Howland Island, on Saipan, where U.S. Marines fought a vicious battle against Japanese occupational troops during World War II. In the aftermath of the fighting, it was said, American troops had made a grisly discovery that Washington had covered up: that the Japanese had captured Earhart and Noonan and, believing them spies, either executed them or mistreated them so badly they died in prison.
"There's probably a dozen books and, who knows, hundreds of magazine and newspaper stories about this," says Gillespie. "They have different casts of characters but they all follow the same template: Some American enlisted man on Saipan finds something associated with Earhart -- a briefcase, a flight log, a photo of her. Or a native shows him a grave and says, 'White woman buried here.'
"Inevitably, he shows the evidence to an officer, who takes it and swears him to secrecy, and he hears nothing more about the case. Years later, he comes forward, but he handed over the evidence, and he has no receipt and doesn't remember the officer's name. And that's where it ends."
(The Japanese-capture-and-execution theory is actually a variant on a conspiracy theory that swept America during World War II. In that one, Earhart and Noonan were secret agents assigned by the U.S. government to fake their own disappearance, giving the U.S. Navy an excuse to search the Pacific gathering intelligence about Japanese military activity. There was even a Hollywood movie called Flight for Freedom starring Rosalind Russell as a thinly disguised version of a spy Earhart. Big problem with the theory: Earhart was a fervid pacifist who despised war after working in a military hospital during World War I.)
It wasn't until the 1980s that modern technology -- and perhaps even more importantly, modern fundraising techniques -- began making it feasible to mount private searches for Earhart in the area where she disappeared. Using sophisticated underwater radar and deep-sea diving vehicles, groups devoted to the case searched for her plane in the waters around Howland Island, by now deserted. But still no conclusive evidence emerged.