NZ photos may solve Earhart mystery

ASHLEIGH STEWART
Last updated 12:01 24/06/2013
Amelia Earhart

PIONEER: Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to fly solo over the Atlantic.

Crash mystery
Reuters / TIGHAR
MYSTERY: A close-up of what could be wreckage of Earhart's plane on Nikumaroro Island in 1937.
Island
CASTAWAY THEORY: A satellite image of Nikumaroro Island.
Amelia Earhart
RNZAF Official
TREASURE TROVE: Archivist Matthew O'Sullivan has found photos that could show Amelia Earhart ended up a castaway.
Amelia Earhart
RNZAF Official
DISCOVERY: Mr O'Sullivan found the 45 photos in an unlabelled box containing a sheet of paper saying "Gardner Island".

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Photos unearthed by a Christchurch archivist could help finally solve a 75-year-old mystery: What happened to Amelia Earhart?

The photos found by Matthew O'Sullivan, the keeper of photographs at the Air Force Museum in Christchurch, could prove Earhart spent her final days as a castaway on a remote island north of New Zealand, and that she didn't, as some believe, die in a plane crash. 

Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan were last seen taking off in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra on July 2, 1937, from Papua New Guinea en route to tiny Howland Island, some 4000km away in the central Pacific.

Radio contact with her plane was lost after she reported running low on fuel hours later, and the massive sea-and-air search that followed was unsuccessful.

Earhart's plane was presumed to have gone down, but it has never been known whether she survived, and if so, for how long.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (Tighar) has long theorised that after Earhart's plane went off course while en-route to Howland Island, the pair made a safe landing on a reef near Nikumaroro Island in Kiribati, previously Gardner Island, and made it safely to shore, living out the rest of their days as castaways.

O'Sullivan said he was first contacted by Tighar about 10 years ago seeking information on the Pacific Islands and sea-plane landing areas nearby in their ongoing bid to explain Earhart's disappearance.

Another request from the group for photos about a month ago had O'Sullivan thinking about Gardner Island again, and while he was rifling through his collection on an unrelated request, he unearthed photographic gold.

''I was looking through my registry of aerial films and there was this entry saying 'unnamed atoll' and I just thought, 'Well, I'm there having a look, I might as well have a look at this one as well','' he said.

After notifying Tighar of his find, the group responded the next day, telling O'Sullivan he had discovered the ''complete set of aerial obliques taken on December 1, 1938'' by an aircraft taking photos for the New Zealand Pacific Aviation Survey.

They believe the photos, taken two years later, show where Earhart's plane went down. 

A representative from Tighar was now organising a trip to New Zealand with a forensic imaging specialist to conduct further research, O'Sullivan said.

While the find ''wasn't a big deal'' to O'Sullivan, he acknowledged the implications it could have on a mystery that has plagued researchers for over 75 years.

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''I know of their research and I know of the importance of my research but to me it's just another film in the collection ... the subject doesn't matter, it's a museum artefact and they've all got to be cared for the same.''

Previous missions to Nikumaroro have unearthed evidence that Earhart was there, including a cosmetic bottle from the 1930s, clothing remnants and fragments of human bones.

Sightings of the Lockheed Electra have occurred regularly over the decades since, but expeditions to find the lost wreckage have been repeatedly in vain.

- The Press

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