When pilot Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 during an attempt to fly around the world, it became one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history and inspired countless conspiracy theories.
The official story of her death is that she lost communication on her way to Howland Island in the Pacific, where she was heading to refuel, ran out of fuel and then crashed into the ocean. However, there was never any evidence, i.e. debris, to support that generally accepted version of events.
This means other theories have long existed in tandem with the official story – and one of them may have just been strengthened by a newly unearthed piece of evidence, which suggests Earhart might not have died in a crash but in Japanese custody instead, the BBC reported.
Some believe a black and white photo found in the vaults of the US National Archives, taken in the 1930s on the then-Japanese Marshall Islands, could depict the legendary pilot. The blurry image shows a group of people standing on a dock and is thought to have been taken by a US spy.
Experts claim the seated figure with their back to the camera, in the middle of the huddle, could be Earhart, while the person on the far left could be Fred Noonan, her navigator on the final flight who also disappeared. Experts also believe the pair's plane can be seen on the far right-hand side of the image.
“When you pull out, and when you see the analysis that’s been done, I think it leaves no doubt to the viewers that that’s Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,” Shawn Henry, the former executive assistant director for the FBI and an NBC News analyst, told NBC News.
An expert in facial recognition, forensic analyst Kent Gibson, also said it was "very likely" to be Earhart and Noonan depicted in the photo. He was speaking to US TV network NBC, which released the photo ahead of a documentary about the pilot to run this weekend, reported The Guardian.
However, not everyone is convinced by the photo. “This is just a picture of a wharf at Jaluit [in the Marshall Islands], with a bunch of people,” said Ric Gillespie, author of Finding Amelia and the executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (Tighar). He added: “It’s just silly. And this is coming from a guy who has spent the last 28 years doing genuine research into the Earhart disappearance and led 11 expeditions into the South Pacific,” The Guardian reported.
He said the appetite for all things Amelia Earhart is such that even something as "ridiculous" as the newly discovered photo is bound to get people talking.
Japanese officials have denied more than once that Earhart and Noonan were ever in the country's custody, although many of their records are known to have been lost. At least one thing's certain – more people are bound to tune in to the new NBC documentary after this.