Earhart Project Research Bulletin #10
10/10/98
Wreck Photo Update
For background material on this subject see: Is This Earhart’s Electra and The Wreck Photo.


Wrecked aircraft in jungle. Photographs provided by the Royal Australian Air Force Museum at Point Cook, Victoria and technical drawings on file at Smithsonian’s Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, MD have enabled us to eliminate the Tachikawa Ki-54 as a candidate for the aircraft in the Wreck Photo. The Japanese advanced trainer produced from 1940 until 1945 had been considered to be the primary alternative to the Lockheed Model 10 in our efforts to determine whether the severely damaged airplane in the photo might be Earhart’s. Other similar types which have been considered and eliminated have been the Beechcraft Model 18, Grumman “Goose” amphibian, and the Lockheed Model 12.

Electra on Ramp.
Ki54 on Ramp.

Like the aircraft in the Wreck Photo, both the Lockheed 10 (above center) and the Tachikawa Ki-54 above (right) are of stressed aluminum construction and are equipped with two-bladed, variable-pitch (but not full-feathering) propellers. Both have a single prominent windshield centerpost and a nose section featuring four transverse bulkheads covered by aluminum skins oriented fore and aft. Photographs of a Ki-54 fuselage in the collection of the RAAF Museum (left) at Point Cook show that the base of the windshield centerpost joins the fuselage at a sharp right angle.
Windshield of Electra.The base of the Lockheed windshield centerpost was more stylized and had a curved, almost Art Deco, look.

Detail of Wreck Photo.The base of the windshield centerpost of the airplane in the Wreck Photo appears to be more like that of the Lockheed.

Leading edge of inboard wing.Detail of NEAM Electra wing.In the Wreck Photo, the leading edge of the inboard wing section on the starboard (right-hand) side of the airplane seems to have been cut and peeled apart to reveal what appear to be two large lightening holes (holes cut in sheet aluminum to make it lighter).

An examination of Lockheed c/n 1052 at the New England Air Museum confirmed that the structure behind the inboard leading edge of the Electra looks identical to that seen in the Wreck Photo.

The interior structure of the Model 10 wing can be seen in this photo of NR16020 under repair in Burbank following the March 20, 1937 crash in Hawaii. The outboard end of the massive Main Beam (not a true spar) can be seen just above Paul Mantz’s left shoulder. The thin sheet which runs along behind the leading edge can be seen just to the left of AE’s nose. Note also the half-tube corrugations just beneath the upper wing skin. The structure of the Electra wing was very unconventional and immensely strong.

Electra wing cross section.Ki54 wing drawings.

 

Microfilm of technical drawings of the Tachikawa Ki-54 on file at the Garber Facility show that the wing structure of the Japanese aircraft featured a solid spar behind the leading edge of the inboard wing section.

From these data we conclude that the airplane in the wreck photo is not a Ki-54.
Still, there are features in the photo which argue against the aircraft being a Lockheed 10. The four bulkheads in the nose of the airplane in the Wreck Photo appear to be evenly spaced, while the bulkheads in the nose of the Lockheed 10 are not. However, “eyeballing” such proportions without mathematically correcting for the skewed angle of the photo may be deceiving. We also can’t say for sure how the structures in the nose section of the airplane may have been altered by the clearly violent events which produced the wreck. The presence of only the forward portion of the cowling on the port side engine is not consistent with the way the Electra cowlings came off for maintenance. It might, however, be possible for the cowling to have failed in such a way as to leave only the ring cowl in place.
Engine of wreck photo.In the absence of any other viable candidate, the most likely identity of the airplane in the Wreck Photo would seem to be the Lockheed Model 10. All Model 10s had nine foot Hamilton Standard propellers. Measurement of the engine cowling using the prop as a scale shows it to be correct for the large-engined Model 10E. Analysis of the foliage in the background of the Wreck Photo by leading botanists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History confirmed that the photo could have been taken on Nikumaroro. One detail is particularly interesting. The mature coconut palms in the background are very unhealthy and have either suffered an infestation of rhinoceros beetle or prolonged drought. Comparison of early maps and photos of the island with anecdotal accounts by former residents who speak of airplane wreckage in a specific beachfront area show that there was, indeed, a stand of mature coconut palms in that location. Nikumaroro has always been plagued by periodic drought. Interestingly, these same people volunteered the information that “some white men came once in a government boat … to take pictures of the airplane parts.” None of this proves that the Wreck Photo is a picture of NR16020 on Nikumaroro, but so far we have not been able to come up with anything that disqualifies that as a possibility and the alternative explanations we've been able to think of have not held up to scrutiny. As a matter of fact, the more we learn, the better this piece seems to fit the puzzle.
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