WHAT’S THE STORY?

AN old photograph that has just been unearthed may shed light on one of aviation’s biggest mysteries. Experts have puzzled for 80 years over the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

The speculation could be about to end because of the newly-discovered picture which, it is claimed, shows Earhart died after being taken prisoner by the Japanese.

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Earhart and her navigation partner, Fred Noonan, vanished as they neared the end of an epic trip which, if completed, would have made her the first woman to fly around the world.

Their disappearance over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, sparked the most extensive air and sea search ever undertaken at that time but, despite spending £3 million and searching 250,000 square miles of ocean, nothing was found.

Earhart’s home in Kansas has become a virtual shrine but no-one has ever solved the mysterious disappearance of the woman who did so much to further the cause of female equality in the skies and on the ground.

Earhart once said: “Now, and then, women should do for themselves what men have already done – occasionally what men have not done – thereby establishing themselves as persons, and perhaps encouraging other women toward greater independence of thought and action. Some such consideration was a contributing reason for my wanting to do what I so much wanted to do.”

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?

SCEPTICS, however, dispute whether the documentary which shows the newly-unearthed photograph – entitled Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, it was broadcast in the US last night – actually solves the mystery.

The blurry photo was discovered in the US national archives by retired federal agent Les Kinney who was investigating Earhart’s last flight. Experts say it shows the 40-year-old with Noonan and her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra plane. They say Noonan’s profile matches other pictures of his features and that the torso and cropped hair of the woman corresponds to known measurements of Earhart.

The shadow in the background, it is claimed, is the lost plane.

The picture was taken on Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands, held by the Japanese at the time.

It seems to prove one of the theories behind Earhart’s disappearance which is that she crash landed near or on the Islands, was held by the Japanese and later died as a prisoner-of-war.

There are no records of her as a prisoner but much of the Japanese archive has been lost. Witnesses have said previously that they saw the plane land and the pair taken into custody.

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IS IT CONCLUSIVE PROOF?

ANOTHER theory is that Earhart managed to make it to Nikumaroro island, near Kiribati in the Western Pacific, but died as a castaway.

A make-up box dating from 1930 has been found on the small atoll.“I don’t blame people for wanting to know,” said Dorothy Cochrane, curator of the Aeronautics Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “It is one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century because she was so well known.”

The Smithsonian’s theory is that, in the days before radar, thick cloud hampered Noonan’s attempt to find Howard Island where he and Earhart were due to refuel as they neared the end of their monumental effort.

This theory holds that they crashed into the Pacific after their fuel ran out — but no trace of the fuselage was found despite the extensive search.

“It’s not the exciting theory.

It’s not the attention grabber,” Cochrane said. “I would prefer to think that she had more of a quick exit via a crash in the ocean rather than capture by the Japanese ... but that’s neither here nor there. [That’s just] wishing her a speedy end rather than a nasty one.”

Cochrane added that the newly-found picture was “interesting” but not “definitive”.

HOW FAR DID THEY GET?

NOONAN and Earhart had begun the 29,000 mile journey from Miami on June 1, 1937. By June 29, they had landed in New Guinea with just 7000 miles to go but it had been a difficult trip, with inaccurate maps making navigation tricky.

The next “hop” to Howland Island was the most challenging yet.

At only one-and-a-half miles long and half-a-mile wide it is a tiny speck on the ocean. Every inessential item was removed from the aircraft to give the pair additional fuel, allowing them a slim safety net of 274 extra miles.

A US Coastguard cutter was stationed just off Howland Island as their radio contact, and two other ships were positioned with all their lights blazing to act as markers for the small plane.

However, weather reports proved to be inaccurate and the pair hit cloud soon after taking off at 10am on July 2. Radio transmissions from the plane were interrupted by static and the poor weather made night navigation very difficult. One of the last messages to get through from Earhart reported that fuel was running low. “We must be on you and cannot see you,” she told the Coastguard cutter. Only one more message got through, saying they were “running north and south”.

WHAT DID SHE ACHIEVE?

EARHART was lauded as a hero both before and after her disappearance. Her achievements include breaking the women’s altitude record in 1922 by flying to 14,000ft – just a year after she started flying lessons – and becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1928. She was appointed aviation editor of Cosmopolitan the same year.

Her most notable achievement came in May 1932 when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, achieving the feat in 14 hrs 56 mins. The flight won her the US Distinguished Flying Cross and she said it proved men and women were equal in “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness, and willpower”.

Earhart set many other records and was instrumental in the formation of The Ninety-Nines, an organisation for female pilots.

“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she wrote in a letter to her husband, George Putnam. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”