The Picture The Search Relies On
July 2, 2012 - The search for Amelia Earhart's plane relies on this picture, taken three months after the disappearance of the glamorous aviator on July 2, 1937 (75 years ago today), during a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.
The picture shows the western end of Nikumaroro (formely Gardner Island), an uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, and the wreck of the British freighter SS Norwich City that went aground there in 1929. But on the left side of the frame there is something else: an apparent man-made protruding object that is hard to explain in that spot.
NEWS: The Search For Amelia Earhart’s Plane
Emergency Landing & Castaway Life
Researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which is carrying out the high-tech underwater search, believe that Earhart's twin-engined Lockheed Electra did not crash in the Pacific Ocean, running out of fuel somewhere near her target destination Howland Island, but rather made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro's flat coral reef.
There, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan would have survived as castaways for weeks.
The wallet-sized picture is one of many taken by British Colonial Service officer Eric R. Bevington in October 1937, during an expedition to assess the suitability for future settlement and colonization of Nikumaroro.
The photo itself has an adventurous history; in November 1937 Bevington sent it home to his father in England, along with other prints and notes.
It was a wise decision: in December 1941, Bevington narrowly escaped capture when the Japanese invaded Tarawa, headquarters of the British Gilbert Islands. All of his personal possessions, including the negatives of his photos, were destroyed.
Eric Bevington's Photos
In January 1992, TIGHAR Executive Director Ric Gillespie and his wife, TIGHAR President Pat Thrasher, visited Eric Bevington at his retirement home in England.
Bevington showed them the journal and photos he had sent home to his father in 1937. Pat Thrasher took copy-photos of Bevington’s photographs, 95 in all.
Bevington at home in 1992.
Detail of Main Photo
Upon returning to the U.S., Gillespie made an enlargement of the photo, cropping off the left side of the frame to get a better look at the shipwreck.
The object protruding from the water was effectively lost for 18 years until TIGHAR forensic imaging specialist Jeff Glickman noticed it while reviewing the original copy.
To get a better copy than the 1992 copied image, TIGHAR turned to Oxford University.
Bevington had since died and his papers and photo collection were donated to the Bodelian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at the Rhodes House Library at Oxford.
Technology Improves Research
The new image allowed Glickman to apply processing techniques that further clarified the components of the object.
Image of Landing Gear?
According to Glickman, the object in the Bevington photo could be the upside-down landing gear of Earhart's plane.
“There is an object on the reef, but from the picture we can’t definetly prove what it is. However, one interpretation is consistent with four components that existed on Earhart’s Lockheed Electra Model 10E Special,” Glickman said last month at an Amelia Earhart conference, where he presented his findings.
Landing Gear Parts
Glickman devided the landing gear in four parts -- a floating wheel, the fender, the strut and the worm gear -- and found that they matched the object in the Bevington photo.
“Imagery analysts at the U. S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who examined the photo, agreed with Glickman’s analysis. All the four elements appeared to match the shape and dimensions of the components in the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra,” Gillespie told Discovery News.
Previous expeditions have confirmed that there is nothing remaining in the location on the reef edge where the object appears in the 1937 Bevington photo.
“However, there are grooves in the reef surface where debris could easily have once been caught,” Gillespie said.
The underwater search will begin with a mapping of the general area with multi-beam sonar.
Targets will be identified using high-resolution, side-scan sonar mounted on an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Finally, a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) with powerful lights and high-definition video cameras will be used to investigate the targets.
If the researchers are fortunate enough to find whatever remains of the airplane, they will get imagery and photographs and then prepare a recovery expedition.
"Our hope is that finding identifiable pieces of the plane will help make it possible to do further archaeology on shore to learn more about Amelia's last days," Gillespie said.
PHOTOS: Amelia Earhart