Amelia Earhart search gets help from State Department's tech tools

The State Department may have provided a high-tech key to solving the mystery of lost aviator Amelia Earhart.

Department photography experts supplied image analysis and enhancement to help identify what might be a piece of her airplane in a photograph taken shortly after she disappeared over the Pacific Ocean 75 years ago.

Ric Gillespie, leader of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, told NPR on March 21 that State’s photo analysis helped to kickstart a new privately-funded effort to find Earhart’s Lockheed Electra plane.

Gillespie said his group had obtained the photograph taken off the coast of Nikumaroro Island, about 1,600 miles southwest of Hawaii, where Earhart’s plane was believed to have disappeared. He said there was a report from a photo specialist that a small piece of the plane was visible in the photograph, apparently lodged on a reef.

“So we asked the State Department to help us with forensic imaging analysis, and the opinion of their photographic specialist was the same as ours,” Gillespie told NPR, according to a report published by KUNC Community Radio for Northern Colorado. “That was something of a breakthrough for us. If it is, indeed, a picture of one of her landing gears, it tells us where the airplane went over the edge of the reef and it's right where we thought it should be.”

In the last century, the State department was directly involved in rescue and recovery efforts to locate Earhart’s plane shortly after she lost radio contact with the Coast Guard in July 1937.

A British survey team took a photo in October 1937 in the area where her plane was believed to have gone down. While the photograph had been examined by research teams many times, investigators took a new look in 2010, and their suspicions were triggered, Gillespie said, according to a report by CNN.

Gillespie’s group had the photo checked in a blind review at the State department, which determined that the photograph included an image of landing gear for a Lockheed Electra, the CNN report said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared with Gillespie and other volunteers this week to launch the privately-funded effort led by Gillespie’s organization to find Earhart’s remains. 

"Amelia Earhart may have been an unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck," Clinton said at the event, according to a transcript, "but she embodied the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world."

State is one of several agencies that are using advanced imaging technologies. In 2010, State and the FBI announced the release of “age-progressed” digitally-enhanced photographs of terrorist suspects on the most wanted list. The Secret Service also uses sophisticated visual forensic technologies.

A State spokesman referred all inquiries about the photo enhancement for the Earhart photo to Gillespie and his organization.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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