This aerial view of a remote island could be one of the last sights Amelia Earhart saw as a pilot when she flew over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937 in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator.
Taken 18 months after the legendary aviator's disappearance, the photo shows a patch of the coast of Nikumaroro, an uninhabited tropical atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, which is believed to be Earhart's final resting place by researchers of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR).
Clearly visible is the wreck of the SS Norwich City, a British steamer which went aground on the island's reef in 1929. To Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, who were running out of gas, that might have been a reassuring view.
"It is possible that the wreck may have caused them to think the island was on shipping lanes," Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.
The aerial image of Nikumaroro is just one of 41 newly found photos of the island.
The pictures have resurfaced from an unlabeled tin canister (shown here) at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, raising hopes for new clues about Earhart's fate.
The box contained five sheets of contact prints -- for a total of 41 photos, complete with negatives -- and a slip of paper with the words "Gardner Island" -- Nikumaroro's previous name.
Taken on Dec. 1, 1938 -- just before the first official habitation of the island in late December 1938 -- the pictures provide excellent views of areas on the island that are of particular interest for the Amelia's search and reveal the little known story of how these images were taken.
In 1938 the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey mapped Gardner Island as part of a plan to evaluate the suitability of British-owned atolls of the South Central Pacific for the construction of airfields.
A 12-man survey team was transported aboard the chartered motor vessel M/V Yanawai; in addition aerial photographs were taken from an aircraft -- Supermarine Walrus I -- carried aboard the cruiser HMS Leander.
On the morning of Dec. 1, 1938, HMS Leander took up a position off the southern end of Nikumaroro where the water is calmest, so that the Walrus could begin its photo mission.
Normally the aircraft was catapulted from the Leander's deck and landed in the ocean to be recovered by crane.
But problems with the catapult mechanism required the Walrus to be lowered in calm waters over the ship's side with the crane and take off from the ocean.
To shoot aerial imaging, the photographer on the Walrus I rode in the compartment behind and below the pilot, shooting through the open windows on each side of the fuselage.
The survey party aboard the M/V Yanawai arrived at Gardner on Nov. 30, 1938 but was unable to find an anchorage.
They decided to land supplies on the reef in the lee of SS Norwich City.
This aerial photo taken the next day, shows the Yanawai near the wreck. The survey ended on Feb. 2, 1938.
Researchers at TIGHAR have begun the process of examining the images.
"We're seeing many interesting features," Ric Gillespie said., "This new research resource is a time capsule that allows us to explore the island as it was 75 years ago."
When they surveyed the island, the New Zealand Pacific Aviation team did not know it had at least one recent resident. In 1940, the bones of a castaway -- now lost -- were found at a campsite on the island’s remote southeast end.
"At that time the castaway was suspected to be Amelia Earhart. A growing body of archival and physical evidence suggests that suspicion was correct," Gillespie said.
It's extremely unlikely the photos will show the remains of the castaway. However, the high level of detail they offer, as shown in this zoomed image of Norwich City and Yanawai, might reveal signs of human activity as well as possible signs of aircraft wreckage on the reef and beach.
"As with all exploring, it is important to not just look for what we think might be there but to also keep our eye out for the unexpected." Gillespie said.
TIGHAR is now making high resolution copies available so that its researchers across the world can scrutinize the images and contribute to the search.