Amelia Earhart's Plane, Discovered? Researchers are Closer To Solving The 77-Year-Old Mystery

We know how the story goes: While flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937, Amelia Earhart and her plane vanished about 2,000 miles from Hawaii. Her plane was never recovered — until now. Researchers have identified an aluminum fragment of Amelia Earhart's plane, more than two decades after its initial discovery. The small fragment is a major break in the 77-year-old aviation mystery.

Discovery News reports that researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery believe to a "high degree of certainty" the piece of debris belonged to Earhart's ill-fated aircraft. TIGHAR researchers have been investigating Earhart's last aviation journey for years through The Earhart Project, which tests the theory that Earhart and her aviation partner, Fred Noonan, didn't crash into the ocean but landed on Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro and part of the Republic of Kiribati. The researches believe Earhart and Noonan landed safely on the then-uninhabited island's fringing reef and lived as castaways, "relying on rain squalls for drinking water" and living in a "makeshift campsite." They hypothesized that Earhart died on the island, but Noonan's fate is still unknown.

So, what's so special about this piece of aluminum debris? The researchers claim the patch of metal was attached to Earhart's plane during her eight-day layover in Miami — her fourth stop on her journey to travel around the globe. Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News:

The Miami Patch was an expedient field repair. Its complex fingerprint of dimensions, proportions, materials and rivet patterns was as unique to Earhart’s Electra as a fingerprint is to an individual.
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Gillespie added that this is the first piece of debris discovered on Gardner Island, and so it may very well prove the researchers' hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan landed on the remote island.

An official report from TIGHAR detailing the piece of aluminum also shows that it perfectly matches the patch installed on her plane 77 years ago in Miami. From the report:

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. ... 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.

Could this really be a piece from Earhart's plane, 77 years later? Dr. Les Kaufman, a Boston University biology professor and Amelia Earhart expert, told The Huffington Post that is seems "plausible." He added that Gillespie "seems to me to be an honest broker, a knowledgeable enthusiast, and generally cautious in drawing conclusions based upon limited evidence."

As for what's next for the researchers, the team plans on returning to Gardner Island in 2015, according to The Earhart Project website. A 24-day expedition is in the works, which researchers say will provide a "detailed survey of the beachfront and forest area" that may uncover a trace of Earhart's and Noona's campsite.

Images: Getty Images (2), The Earhart Project (2)