Over the years, photographs purporting to show Amelia Earhart or her
aircraft after July 2, 1937 have occasionally surfaced and have, invariably,
been disproven. A snapshot of Amelia wearing handcuffs, with a uniformed
Japanese guard in the background, turned out to be a picture of Amelia
in 1935 wearing a favorite metal bracelet with a chauffeur in the background.
Another widely publicized shot of a dejected and haggard Earhart supposedly
in Japanese custody was found to have been taken in Hawaii on March
20, 1937 shortly after the wreck that ended her first world flight attempt.
Similarly, a wartime aerial reconnaissance photo of a Japanese airfield
showed a twin-tailed, twin-engined aircraft prompting one author to
proclaim the airplane was Earhart’s because “The Japanese built
no twin-tailed monoplanes, either before or during World War II.”
Of course, the truth is that several twin-tailed types were in widespread
use by Japanese forces both before and during the war (the Tachikawa
Ki-70, the Kawasaki Ki-56, and the Mitsubishi G3M, to name a few) and
several twin-tailed Lockheeds (including an Electra) were purchased
by Japan during the late 1930s.
Theorists who were already convinced that Earhart had been abducted
by the Japanese found it difficult to evaluate such photos objectively.
Because the photograph presently under investigation by TIGHAR seems to
show a wrecked Lockheed Electra in a tropical setting that could be Nikumaroro,
we have to be especially careful not to fall into the same wishful-thinking
trap. For that reason we have asked an independent forensic imaging expert
– Jeff Glickman of Photek, Inc. – to digitally analyze the photo. We have
also invited input from any interested person, asking only that opinions
be supported with documented fact.
The Electra of Turin
The photo has already
generated controversy reminiscent of that surrounding the fabled Shroud
of Turin. At times, it has seemed to be like a Rorschach inkblot, prompting
widely differing responses from various individuals. Some see an aircraft
on its back. One individual saw a jumble of wreckage from several different
aircraft. Another saw a high winged amphibian such as a Grumman Goose.
There are even people who are quite familiar with the Lockheed 10 who
say that the airplane can not possibly be an Electra. None of these
perceptions, however, has stood up to scientific scrutiny.
After months of analysis and careful interpretation, the photo is looking
more and more like it might be the real thing – a post-loss picture of
NR16020. The implications of that are so profound that the better it looks
the more cautious we get.
You See Is What You Get
This is what we know
from a purely objective analysis of the photo:
- This is the center section of a medium-sized, multi-engined aircraft
of stressed aluminum skin construction.
- The nose section, from the base of the cockpit windshield forward,
is present but has collapsed downward. The base of the windshield centerpost
is present. Several rectangular sections of skin are missing from the
nose section. The windshield, cockpit overhead, and the entire cabin
structure aft of the cockpit are missing.
- The left-hand (port) engine is present. The undamaged two-bladed propeller
appears to be of the variable-pitch or constant-speed type, but is not
full-feathering. Only the forward-most portion of the cowling, the ring
cowl, is present.
- The angle of the port engine, the unbent propeller, and the collapsed
nose section indicate the presence of an extended and intact landing
gear leg under at least the port side and probably also the starboard
side of the center section.
- The right-hand (starboard) engine is missing leaving only the firewall,
the left and right edges of which appear to have been ripped away.
- The leading edge of the starboard inboard wing (between the missing
engine and the nose section) has been split open to reveal the underlying
- The wreckage is surrounded by dense vegetation, some of which has
grown up through the structure. The vegetation gradually increases in
height with distance from the camera. Several mature but distinctly
unhealthy coconut palms are visible in the background.
Make and Model
But what make and
model of airplane is it? All of the visible structure appears to be
consistent with the Lockheed Model 10 Electra and some features, such
as the flared base of the windshield centerpost and the two large lightening
holes behind the inboard leading edge of the wing, are quite distinctive
markers of the type. So far, we have not been able to identify any other
aircraft that fits what we can see in the photo. In the absence of any
other candidate, we have proceeded on the assumption that the airplane
in the photo is what it appears to be – a Lockheed Model 10.
There were a total of 149 Electras built between 1934 and 1941. The
majority, 106, were 10As equipped with the Pratt & Whitney R985
engine of 450 hp. Another 19 were 10Bs equipped with the Wright R975,
also of 450 hp. A very few of the early Electras were equipped with
the larger, heavier P&W R1340 SC1 engine which still delivered only
450 hp. Lockheed at first rejected the engine as too heavy, but Pan
American (a good customer) had a large surplus of these older engines
and insisted that they be used on 8 new Electras they had ordered. These
were designated 10Cs.
In relenting, Lockheed also offered to install a newer, 550 hp version
of the R1340, the S3H1 variant. Known as the 10E, Pan Am bought 3 of
these heavier but more powerful Electras and another 12 were eventually
sold to other customers, one of whom was Amelia Earhart. In 1937 a one-off
modification of the Model 10 was built for the Army Air Corps as a pressurized,
high-altitude research ship. Designated the XC-35, the airplane is currently
in storage at the Smithsonian’s Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland.
For our purposes
in analyzing the wreck photo, the important point is that all Lockheed
Model 10s used Hamilton Standard propellers with a nine-foot diameter.
Therefore, if the airplane in the photo is a Model 10, the propeller
on the port engine is exactly nine feet long, thereby providing a convenient
ruler by which we can measure the diameter of the engine cowling and
determine whether this is a 10A or 10B (diameter of cowling opening
33 inches, exterior cowling diameter 47 inches) or a 10C or 10E (diameter
of cowling opening 37 inches, cowling diameter 53.5 inches). Photek
performed a meticulous measurement of the cowling in the photo and came
up with an cowling opening of 37.1 inches with an error band of ±
.3 inches. The exterior cowling diameter was measured as 54 inches with
an error band of ± 1.34 inches. In other words, the airplane in the
wreck photo appears to be equipped with the P&W R1340 engine and
can not be a 10A or a 10B.
Eight 10Cs and 15 10Es were built. In addition, one 10A and one 10B
were later given the larger engine. (The converted 10A was eventually
rebuilt as an approximation of Earhart’s and flown around the world
in 1997. The converted 10B was ditched off Cape Cod in 1967.) Of the
23 remaining candidates, the disposition of 14 is known. If the logic
is sound, the airplane in the wreck photo must be one of the remaining
nine. Four of the nine were in tropical locations at last report – three
in Central America and one (guess which one) was in the Central Pacific.
We may be able to hone it down further. On the Model 10, each engine’s
oil tank is mounted high on the firewall directly behind the motor.
In the photo we can see where the oil tank for the starboard engine
was once attached. Lockheed specs show that the standard oil tank for
the 10C and 10E was 8.5 gallons but an optional 11 gallon tank could
be ordered. Numerous photos show that Earhart’s airplane was equipped
with the larger tank. The attach points visible in the wreck photo appear
to match the attachments for the large oil tank and are not consistent
with the mounting features of the standard tank. However, we do not
know if any of the other eight unaccounted-for aircraft also carried
the big oil tanks.