Science

Man makes searching for Amelia Earhart his life's quest

This May 20, 1937 photo, provided by The Paragon Agency, shows aviator Amelia Earhart at the tail of her Electra plane, taken at Burbank Airport in Burbank, Calif. (Albert Bresnik/The Paragon Agency via AP)

This May 20, 1937 photo, provided by The Paragon Agency, shows aviator Amelia Earhart at the tail of her Electra plane, taken at Burbank Airport in Burbank, Calif. (Albert Bresnik/The Paragon Agency via AP)

Ric Gillespie tells a story well. He knows how to get people intrigued and, in some cases, to persuade them to give him money, not unlike the legendary pilot for whom he's spent much of his life searching — Amelia Earhart.

At first, the man who looks a bit like a weather-worn sea captain balks at the oft-repeated notion that his ability to charm, and maybe even his time on stage in high school, helped get him where he is. Then, Gillespie shrugs and capitulates, with a slight smile.

"No apologies for my charisma. I put it, I hope, to very good use," he says, sitting on the back porch of the old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania that is both his home and office of the organization he and his wife, Pat Thrasher, co-founded — The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR.

The group's mission — and his life's goal for more than 25 years — has been to solve the mystery of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, who disappeared in the South Pacific on July 2, 1937, during what was supposed to be a round-the-world flight.

The longstanding official theory is that the plane ran out of gas, crashed and sank into very deep ocean waters somewhere off Howland Island, a tiny speck that the pair missed.

Since 1989, Gillespie and his team have been testing another theory — and they're headed back to the South Pacific this month. They surmise that Earhart made an emergency landing on a flat stretch of coral reef off what was then known as Gardner Island, southwest of Howland. Gillespie and members of TIGHAR have made several treks to the distant atoll, now called Nikumaroro. To do so, and to keep the organization running, they have raised millions of dollars in private funding.

Gillespie and his team left for the island this past week, on a boat from Fiji, and were scheduled to arrive this weekend. Among other things, they want to check an anomaly seen in sonar imaging on an underwater cliff where the reef drops off.

Could it be the fuselage of Earhart's Lockheed Electra 10E airplane? Gillespie makes no promises: "There's no guarantee of success."

He's far from the only person with an idea about Earhart's fate.

An Australian researcher thinks wreckage spotted by members of his country's military years ago deep in the remote mountains of a Papua New Guinea island could be Earhart's. Others are investigating local island lore that Earhart and Noonan crash landed on Mili Atoll, 800 miles northwest of Howland, and were taken prisoner by the Japanese and transported to the island of Saipan, where they died in captivity.

Various teams who believe the crashed-and-sank theory —an explanation supported by curators at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum — have tried to pinpoint the crash location using sophisticated equipment to scan the ocean floor and employing computer models, based on the strength of Earhart's radio transmissions. No one has found a verified plane part or bone fragment.

But Gillespie — whose confident, sometimes brash style has made him a lightning rod among searchers — says he and his team are building their case, slowly but surely.

He has his admirers. In 2012, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recognized Gillespie at a reception honoring Earhart. A photo of them together hangs on his office wall, along with a framed letter in which she said, "This great adventure embodies the very hope, ingenuity and boundless optimism of the American spirit." It's a reference to the expedition that year in which TIGHAR made underwater sonar images that include the one with the anomaly being examined this month.

But others question Gillespie's findings and even his motives.

There was the filing cabinet discovered on Nikumaroro that the team thought came from Earhart's plane but later linked to a military plane. The team also excavated a grave that turned up bones, not of the famous pilot but of a tiny infant.

Over the years, Gillespie and his team have found other items in what they think is an old castaway camp. These, they say, aren't as easily explained — heel fragments from a woman's shoe; a rusted jack knife; fragments of toiletry bottles and a compact and other items that they believe are from the 1930s. Their own expert's high-tech analysis of an object in an old photograph of the island determined it could be Lockheed landing gear jutting from the reef before being washed away, they say.

None of it is definitive proof, they realize.

"We have compiled a preponderance of evidence suggesting — not proving — that our hypothesis is true," says Tom King, an archaeologist and longtime TIGHAR member who has helped lead many of the expeditions.

Critics say items found on the island are more likely remnants of an old Coast Guard station or islanders who settled on Nikumaroro in the years after Earhart's disappearance until the mid-1960s. Some insist that Gillespie has found nothing remotely tied to Earhart.

Then there's Tim Mellon, a one-time supporter but now a critic, who thinks quite the opposite — that Gillespie knows more than he reveals. Two years ago, Mellon, a wealthy donor who joined TIGHAR's 2012 expedition, accused Gillespie in an unsuccessful lawsuit of hiding the fact that he'd found Earhart's plane so Mellon would donate more than $1 million worth of stock to help fund that expedition. A judge rejected Mellon's appeal last month, but he's sticking to his assessment of Gillespie.

"I think his game is basically trying to perpetuate the search," Mellon said in a telephone interview. "It's a business for him, even though he calls it a charity."

Now Mellon has filed a complaint with the IRS, claiming that TIGHAR has no independent oversight on the salary Gillespie draws and, thus, violates nonprofit guidelines. Already, public records show Gillespie has a tax delinquency in the state of Delaware for more than $55,000 — an amount Thrasher says they are working to pay back after getting into debt while paying for a defense in the Mellon lawsuit.

Gillespie, meanwhile, says the complaint to the IRS is unfounded and calls it "the pique of a pissed off millionaire."

Dismissing his critics, he adds, "Amelia inspires passion. I understand that . But my skin got thick a long time ago."

This year, TIGHAR received its largest ever grant — $100,000 for this current expedition — from a "major foundation that wishes to remain anonymous," he says. Over the years, the group has had larger donations from individuals, Mellon included.

"People really want this woman found," Gillespie says.

Robin Jensen, an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah, tries to explain the enduring curiosity.

"It seems very stark and sad and unfair to just be gone. We want something better than that," says Jensen, who studied Earhart when she was at Purdue University, where Earhart was on faculty.

As for Gillespie, his fascination was a while in coming.

The son of a decorated World War II bomber pilot, the 68-year-old says, "There was never any question that I was going to fly."

As soon as he was old enough, he got his pilot's license and worked his way through college by flying charters and ferrying, washing and pumping gas into airplanes at a local airport.

Gillespie graduated from the State University of New York at Oswego with a history degree in 1969, during the Vietnam War. Since he wore contact lenses, he couldn't fly in the military, he says. Instead, he enrolled in an Army officer training program and served with the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas.

In 1971, while attending an air race in New Jersey, he watched from the grandstand as WW II vintage training airplanes collided, killing four of his pilot friends. Witnessing the accident made him ask himself, "What can I do to help?'"

After the Army, he worked for an insurance company that provided coverage for small airplanes and airports — and did accident investigation.

"I loved it, the detective work, connecting the dots, figuring out what really happened," he says.

Personal setbacks followed, including a divorce and bankruptcy.

Then with a $35,000 loan from a former insurance client who ran a small airport in Delaware, Gillespie pursued an idea he'd had for some time. He wanted to start an organization and search for the long missing "White Bird," a biplane flown by French pilots Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, who went down after leaving Paris in May 1927 attempting the first east-to-west transatlantic flight. American Charles Lindbergh made his successful flight in the opposite direction days later.

Gillespie and his new wife, Pat, applied for nonprofit status in 1986 and started TIGHAR.

They headed to Maine to investigate local folklore about a plane that had supposedly crashed in a remote forest on the same day the White Bird disappeared. "Even though we didn't find anything, I was hooked," Gillespie says.

That search led to the repeated question, "When are you going after Amelia?"

It seemed an impossible request.

"People really want this woman found."

- Ric Gillespie

In Earhart's last radio transmission to the USS Itasca, the Coast Guard cutter stationed off Howland to help her and Noonan find the island, she was said to have sounded desperate as she stated that they were flying "on line 157/337," a route that some believe put them northwest of Howland with no other place to land. Low clouds blocked their view and they were running low on fuel, she reported.

Then her transmissions to the ship stopped.

Back then, Gillespie thought the crashed-and-sank explanation seemed plausible enough.

Then a couple of retired military navigators who were TIGHAR members came to see him with another theory. What if the plane had been on that line southwest of Howland — a line that went right by Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro?

As he and his team began investigating, Gillespie became captivated with two factors that, to this day, he sees as indisputable (though others disagree).

The first are the distress calls heard on shortwave radio in the days after Earhart's plane disappeared. Though many have dismissed the radio calls as hoaxes, Gillespie and his team deemed 57 of them "credible." They've compared dates and times of the calls with tidal patterns, since — according to his theory — Earhart and Noonan could only have returned to the plane on the reef at low tide to start the engine and run the radio. Gillespie has been particularly intrigued with hand-written notes of distress calls picked up by shortwave signal by Betty Klenck, then a 15-year-old in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"It reads like a 911 call," says Gillespie, who has put scans of her notebook on TIGHAR's website.

The second indisputable point, Gillespie says, is a purported castaway camp on the island — though others argue that it could have been made by the crew of the SS Norwich City, a ship that ran aground on the island.

There are other puzzle pieces, Gillespie says.

He says his team uncovered a file in England that contained measurements of bones found on Nikumaroro and taken to Fiji years ago. The bones themselves are missing, but an original assessment of them — that they belonged to a short man, perhaps of mixed race — is disputed by modern experts who say they could have belonged to a woman of European descent, Gillespie says.

One of TIGHAR's more controversial finds is a piece of metal, likely from an airplane, that the team found at Nikumaroro in the early 1990s. First, Gillespie theorized that it could be part of Earhart's plane's belly. At a 1992 news conference, he proclaimed that his team had "recovered artifacts that conclusively prove this case." Several experts came forward to dispute that.

Critics also dispute his current claim that the metal fragment could be the patch that covered a window on Earhart's plane. They say a stamp on the metal puts its date of manufacture after 1937, though Gillespie has at least one notable supporter.

"In my opinion, you have a very interesting artifact, and if I had to vote today with all that I know, I would say it is the real thing," wrote Thomas Eagar, a professor of materials engineering and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a letter to Gillespie. Contacted by the AP, Eagar said he stood by that statement.

And so, the search continues.

The TIGHAR team flew to Fiji on June 6 and later boarded a ship for a five-day journey to Nikumaroro. They plan to be on the island two weeks, with one team using unmanned underwater exploration robots to scan the reef cliff, while a land team searches for more clues.

"They may find her on this trip, but I think the odds are huge against it," says Tom Crouch, a senior curator in the aeronautics department at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. He considers Gillespie a friend and thinks he's done good work on the historic aircraft preservation front.

"We've argued about this stuff for 30 years.," Crouch says. "I just don't think he knows where Amelia wound up. That's all.

"But," he adds, "I could be wrong."