July 5 (UPI) -- Legendary pilot Amelia Earhart may have survived the 1937 disappearance of her plane, a television documentary says, basing its theory on a recently found photograph.
The photo was discovered in 2012 by Les Kinney, a retired U.S. Treasury agent. It is believed to have been taken by a photographer later executed by the Japanese military, and possibly shows Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan on a dock in the Marshall Islands, Pacific Ocean islands then occupied by Japan. Their plane appears to be aboard a barge towed by a Japanese ship, says documentary producer, Shawn Henry, a former FBI executive assistant director.
If legitimate, the photo indicates that Earhart, a celebrated pilot and record setter, survived her final flight and was captured by the Japanese. Considerable effort by the U.S. Navy and other U.S. agencies was dedicated to finding Earhart, whose exploits were avidly followed by the American public.
"This absolutely changes history. I think we proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she survived her flight and was held prisoner by the Japanese on the island of Saipan, where she eventually died," said Henry, who interviewed experts on the authenticity of the photo and the likelihood it shows the doomed aviator.
The new theory, explained in an upcoming program, is counter to the prevailing belief that Earhart's plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, causing her death.
In the past, those who didn't believe Earhart died in the crash have suggested she and Noonan were executed by the Japanese military, which may have seen them as U.S. spies. Representatives of the Japanese government and military archives have said they have no documents indicating Earhart was ever in Japanese custody.
Despite numerous searches, her body has not been found.
Dorothy Cochrane of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum disagreed with the new theory. Cochrane said she is unaware of any evidence regarding Earhart that that "could be a game changer," she told People magazine. Henry said the new theory opens up additional questions regarding Earhart's disappearance.
"It is not clear why the U.S. might want to cover up what happened to Amelia. If in fact she was spying on the Japanese, the government may not have wanted the American public to know they put 'America's sweetheart' in that situation and she was captured," Henry said.
Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence airs 9 p.m. EDT Sunday on the History Channel.