Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhert went missing in 1937 after running out of fuel. Getty Images

A US high school teacher claims to have solved the mystery of Amelia Earhart's disappearance – that she went down on the Marshall Islands, not Nikumaroro as has been traditionally believed.

Dick Spink, from Washington State, has spent $50,000 (£32,000) searching for Earhart's missing plane on Mili Atoll.

The 53-year-old told National Geographic that his theory is based on eyewitness reports from the time of her doomed attempt to fly around the world in 1937.

"The world needs to know this," he said. "I heard a consistent story from too many people in the Marshalls to dismiss it. They say, 'She landed at Mili. Our uncles and aunts, our parents, and our grandparents know she landed here.'"

In October last year, researchers announced a fragment belonging to Earhart's lost plane had been identified with a high degree of certainty – it was an aluminium patch unique to the pilot's Lockheed Electra.

It was found in Nikumaroro – most people believe Earhart either died on impact or survived the crash to become a castaway.

amelia earhart
Amelia Earhert was declared dead in January 1939, 18 months after she went missing.Getty Images

However, Spink says this is not what happened. Instead, he believes she came down about 800km from her fuel stop at Howland Island. He said he first became interested in her disappearance when he visited the Marshall Islands on a business trip.

"I just assumed everyone believed that she disappeared when she sank in the ocean. [I asked] didn't Amelia Earhart disappear in this part of the world?" A local man answered: 'Yes, she landed on our island, and my uncle watched her for two days'".

After interviewing dozens of locals, he found a stretch of coral shore where fishermen claimed to have seen the plane crash then get taken to a Japanese transport ship.

"So many weird things have happened," Spink said. "I feel like the key to the Earhart mystery has just been handed to me. It's kind of creepy, almost as if Amelia is saying, 'Here, go with this.'"

Not all are convinced by this theory. One retired pilot said she would never have reached the Marshall Islands and could be somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. Another added that she would never have made it that far by cruising.

"There's just no way she made it to the Marshall Islands," pilot Fred Patterson said.

Earhart and co-pilot Fred Noonan disappeared on the early morning of 2 July 1937, while en route to the Nukumanu Islands. The prevailing theory is that Earhart and Noonan's plane crashed after running out of fuel while flying at night, after getting lost after the plane's radio systems failed.