Find­ing Earhart is his life’s quest, de­spite doubters

The China Post - - LIFE - BY MARTHA IRVINE

There are many peo­ple with the­o­ries about what hap­pened to avi­a­tor Amelia Earhart. But few stir up more ex­cite­ment — or more ire — than Ric Gille­spie.

The long­stand­ing of­fi­cial the­ory is that the famed pi­lot and her nav­i­ga­tor, Fred Noo­nan, ran out of gas and crashed into deep ocean wa­ters north­west of How­land Is­land, a tiny speck in the South Pa­cific that the pair missed while at­tempt­ing a round-the-world flight in 1937.

Since 1989, Gille­spie and The In­ter­na­tional Group for His­toric Air­craft Re­cov­ery, or TIGHAR, have been testing an­other the­ory — and they’ve headed back to the re­gion 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. And they’ve raised mil­lions in pri­vate funds to fi­nance sev­eral treks to the dis­tant atoll, now called Niku­maroro.

Set to ar­rive this week­end, the TIGHAR team now wants 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 one look­ing for Earhart.

An Aus­tralian re­searcher thinks wreck­age spot­ted by mem­bers of his coun­try’s mil­i­tary years ago on a Pa­pua New Guinea is­land could be hers. Oth­ers are in­ves­ti­gat­ing lo­cal is­land lore that Earhart and Noo­nan crash landed on Mili Atoll, 1,300 kilo­me­ters north­west of How­land, and died in Ja­panese hands.

Var­i­ous teams who be­lieve the crashedand-sank the­ory — an ex­pla­na­tion sup- ported by cu­ra­tors at the Smith­so­nian’s Air and Space Mu­seum — have tried to find the plane us­ing so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment to scan the ocean floor. No one has found a ver­i­fied plane part or bone frag­ment.

But Gille­spie says he and his team are build­ing their case, slowly but surely.

He has his ad­mir­ers. In 2012, then U.S. Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton rec­og­nized Gille­spie at a re­cep­tion hon­or­ing Earhart. In a let­ter to him, she said, “This great adventure em­bod­ies the very hope, in­ge­nu­ity and bound­less op­ti­mism of the Amer­i­can spirit” — a ref­er­ence to the ex­pe­di­tion that year in which TIGHAR col­lected sev­eral un­der­wa­ter sonar images.

But there’ve been dis­ap­point­ments and con­tro­versy, too.

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

May Be ‘the real thing’

One of TIGHAR’s more con­tro­ver­sial finds is a piece of metal, likely from an air­plane, which the team found at Niku­maroro in the early 1990s. Gille­spie’s lat­est the­ory is that it’s a patch that cov­ered a win­dow on Earhart’s plane. Many crit­ics dis­pute that, though Gille­spie has at least one no­table sup­porter — MIT en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor Thomas Ea­gar who thinks it may be “the real thing.”

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 and frag­ments of toi­letries they be­lieve are from the 1930s. Their own ex­pert’s high-tech anal­y­sis of an ob­ject in an old pho­to­graph of the is­land determined that it could be Lock­heed land­ing gear jut­ting from the reef be­fore be­ing washed away, they say.

In Eng­land, the team also found records of hu­man bones found long ago on the is­land. The bones are miss­ing, but Gille­spie says mod­ern-day anal­y­sis of mea­sure­ments in­di­cate they could’ve come from a woman of Euro­pean de­scent.

None of it is de­fin­i­tive proof, he and his team re­al­ize.

“We have com­piled a pre­pon­der­ance of ev­i­dence sug­gest­ing — not prov­ing — that our hy­poth­e­sis is true,” says Tom King, TIGHAR’s lead ar­chae­ol­o­gist.

Some crit­ics in­sist that Gille­spie has found noth­ing re­motely tied to Earhart — and that rem­nants on the is­land are more likely from a for­mer Coast Guard sta­tion or from is­lan­ders who set­tled on Niku­maroro af­ter Earhart’s dis­ap­pear­ance un­til the mid-1960s.

Then there’s Tim Mel­lon, a one-time sup­porter and now critic, who thinks quite the op­po­site — that Gille­spie knows more than he re­veals. Two years ago, Mel­lon ac­cused Gille­spie in an un­suc­cess­ful law­suit of hid­ing the fact that he’d found Earhart’s plane so Mel­lon would do­nate more than US$1 mil­lion in stock to help fund the 2012 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 In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice, claim­ing that TIGHAR is vi­o­lat­ing guide­lines for non­profit groups. Al­ready, public records show Gille­spie has a state tax delin­quency in Delaware for more than US$55,000 — an amount Gille­spie’s wife and TIGHAR co-founder, Pat Thrasher, say they’re work­ing to pay back af­ter get­ting into debt to pay for a de­fense in the Mel­lon law­suit.

Gille­spie, mean­while, says the IRS com­plaint is un­founded — “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.”

And so the 68-year-old pi­lot with a back­ground in air­plane ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues his search.

His in­trigue started with Earhart’s last re­ported “line of po­si­tion,” which even­tu­ally runs past Niku­maroro. It’s con­tin­ued with the pur­ported cast­away camp and short­wave ra­dio dis­tress calls af­ter Earhart’s dis­ap­pear­ance. Many have dis­missed the calls as hoaxes, but he and his team be­lieve dozens are cred­i­ble.

Tom Crouch, a se­nior cu­ra­tor in the aero­nau­tics depart­ment at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum, doesn’t agree.

“We’ve ar­gued about this stuff for 30 years,” says Crouch, who con­sid­ers Gille­spie a friend.

“But,” he adds, “I could be wrong.”


This an­no­tated sonar im­age from the In­ter­na­tional Group for His­toric Air­craft Re­cov­ery shows a coral reef cliff just off the South Pa­cific is­land of Niku­maroro in Kiri­bati and an “anom­aly” that the group plans to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther.

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