WASHINGTON -- The most tantalizing and enduring mystery in aviation history, the fate of the pioneering pilot Amelia Earhart, has yielded one of its central secrets, according to investigators who say they found fragments of her plane on a deserted Pacific island.
Amid the coconut palms of Nikumaroro, an island about halfway between New Guinea and Hawaii, a search party from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery found a sheet of metal that they say is from the plane's fuselage.
In that general region on July 2, 1937, a Coast Guard cutter lost radio contact with Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, who were heading east in a highly publicized attempt to circumnavigate the globe near the Equator.
Metallurgists from the National Transportation Safety Board have examined the piece of metal and found nothing to disprove the group's hypothesis. The board's findings were to be made public today.
"The best that the safety board can say from its examination is that certainly there is nothing to conclude that these pieces of metal could not have come from her airplane," one official said. "We can't rule it in, but we certainly could have ruled it out. We think in general that they have got a pretty strong case."
The non-profit group, headed by Richard Gillespie, executive director, has pursued the theory, based on Earhart's last radio message, that the plane went down at Nikumaroro, not at her intended destination of Howland Island, 350 miles to the north. The metal piece, while not the first corroboration of the theory, is the strongest one to date.
Still unanswered are such crucial questions as why the plane went astray, and whether, as Mr. Gillespie believes possible, Earhart and her navigator survived their landing.
After federal metallurgists examined the evidence this winter, Mr. Gillespie detailed his conclusions in an article published in the April issue of Life magazine, which has just arrived on newsstands.