New Clue in Amelia Earhart Investigation?

The prevailing theory on Amelia Earhart’s 1937 disappearance holds that she plunged into the vastness of the Pacific. There’s a lot of ocean and not much land in the region where she made her last radio transmission.

A couple of weeks ago we ran a very short AP story about a piece of evidence that's surfaced backing a less popular hypothesis - that the famous aviator landed on an uninhabited Pacific island and spent her final days as a castaway.

I had written about the Earhart disappearance a few years ago and so I started making calls. It turns out intelligence experts from the State Department acknowledge that an old photograph just may show a piece of the plane that Amelia Earhart was flying when she disappeared attempting to circle the globe. 

The most interesting part of the reporting, for me, was an interview with a forensic researcher who’d first noticed something unusual this old photograph. The result was this story, which appeared on today’s front page. Here’s a little clip from the interview with the forensic expert:

Jeff Glickman has a background in computer science and was running his own forensics company called Photek, based in Woodinville, Wash., when he saw something about the investigation on television and volunteered to help. Gillespie was planning a new expedition for 2010 and Glickman wanted to look over all the old photos for any clues.

Because they were so old, the pictures were full of defects, but one of them showed something interesting, Glickman said. The original photo album was stored in an archive at Oxford University, and Glickman asked the university to scan the one and send the highest-resolution version possible.

That clearer version showed something that looked like an object sticking up out of the water. He knew for sure it wasn't a photographic defect, because it was creating a wind shadow, he said, visible as a different wave pattern in the water. He applied techniques for assessing the size of objects based on other visible features in the image, and then concluded that there were tires, something tubular like a strut, and a part called a bull gear, which was used on planes like Earhart's to raise and lower the landing gear.

What Glickman saw was exciting enough that he set off for Pima, Ariz., where an aviation museum kept one of the last planes in existence using the same kind of landing gear as Earhart's. "The shape of the support bracket also matches with the actual landing gear," he said. "So we've got four key components that not only match in terms of appearance but also in terms of size."

An expedition to search for her plane will arrive in July. Maybe nothing will come of this, but it seems worth a shot.