LATE ON THE MORNING of July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart climbed into the cockpit of her Lockheed Electra airplane on a small grass runway in Lae, New Guinea. She was 22,000 flight miles into her daring attempt to fly around the world, a journey that had captivated Americans since she lifted off from Miami a month earlier. Now Earhart was facing the most dangerous leg of the trip: a 19-hour, 2,556-mile flight to a tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean known as Howland Island.
Earhart’s celebrity had grown formidable in the decade since her transatlantic flight, the first ever by a female pilot. Among her biggest fans was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; at the president and the first lady’s urging, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Navy bent over backward to assist Earhart’s mission, going so far as to build a runway on Howland that could accommodate Earhart’s plane. The Coast Guard cutter Itasca was dispatched there to help her land. George Putnam, Earhart’s husband and promoter, had cabled to ask whether it would be possible to time the final leg of her journey—chronicled in her breezy, first-person accounts on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune—to coincide with the weekend of July 4th.
The runway at Lae was sweltering, but with the exception of some projected headwinds, the weather report looked good, and Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off as planned. Seventeen hours and 45 minutes later, at 6:15 a.m., the radiomen on the Itasca picked up a weak signal from Earhart’s Electra. Estimating that she was approximately 200 miles from Howland, Earhart asked the Itasca to use her radio signal to take a bearing on her location. The Itasca crew tried, but a communications mix-up had led Earhart to broadcast on a frequency too high for the ship to locate her. More ominously, while the Itasca could hear Earhart’s increasingly worried transmissions, Earhart did not appear to be receiving the ship’s repeated requests for her to change frequencies.
At 6:45 a.m., Earhart was back on the radio, estimating she was now 100 miles from Howland. Again the Itasca crew tried to give her a bearing, to no avail. About an hour later, Earhart’s voice suddenly came through the radio loud and clear. “KHAQQ calling Itasca,” she said. “We must be on you but cannot see you. But gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.” She sounded so close that Leo Bellarts, the Itasca’s chief radioman, ran up on the ship’s deck, expecting to see her approaching. Instead, the sky was empty.
Earhart radioed twice more. Her final message came through at about 8:45 a.m. “KHAQQ to Itasca. We are on the line 157-337. We will repeat message. We will repeat this on 6,210 kilocycles. Wait. We are running on [the] line north and south.” “She was just about ready to break into tears and go into hysterics,” Bellarts recalled years later. “That’s exactly the way I’d describe her voice, now. I’ll never forget it.” Then the radio went silent. Earhart had disappeared.
The author Jane Mendelsohn, whose 1996 novel, I Was Amelia Earhart, became a surprise international best-seller, has opined that Earhart looms so large in American culture and mythology because “she reflects so many of our fantasies. She was romantic and pragmatic, masculine and feminine,” Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Times. But Earhart’s greatest contradiction, Mendelsohn noted, one that has made her a figure of fascination for generations of aviation buffs, would-be explorers, and conspiracy theorists, was that her mysterious disappearance made her at once dead and alive.
In 2010, a forensic-imaging expert named Jeff Glickman was combing through an archive of old photo negatives at his home in Seattle when he came across a picture of Gardner Island, a tiny, uninhabited atoll 350 miles southeast of Earhart’s last known whereabouts. The subject of the photograph, taken in October 1937 by a young British naval cadet named Eric Bevington, was the wreck of the S.S. Norwich City, a British oil-fired steam freighter that had run aground on the reef surrounding the island eight years earlier. Examining the image, Glickman saw something he couldn’t explain.
“You should be able to look at a photograph and understand each and every thing in it,” Glickman told me recently. One by one, Glickman checked off the elements he could unambiguously identify: the wreck of the Norwich City, the waves, the reef, the shoreline, the scratches and dust on the negative. But there was a shape near the edge of the frame that confounded him. At first glance, it looked like nothing more than a smudge, but the longer Glickman looked at it the less sure he became. He called the man who had given him the negative: Ric Gillespie, the executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). As the two men scrutinized the image, they became convinced they had found something of tremendous importance. The object’s contours, Gillespie says, “are of a size and shape that match the main landing gear assembly of a Lockheed Electra.”
The discovery appeared to confirm a theory that Gillespie had been nursing for nearly a quarter of a century: that Earhart and Noonan had not crashed in the ocean near Howland Island, but instead had managed to land on Gardner Island and, lacking food and water, died there. A little over a year later, Gillespie planned a trip to the island of Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati, which has sovereignty over a string of islands including Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro. He had heard that Tarawa was preparing for a visit from Kurt Campbell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and timed his trip to coincide with Campbell’s. “I’ve always been a great enthusiast of the Pacific,” Campbell told me in May. His father had served there in World War II, and, as luck would have it, Campbell had also read Gillespie’s book, Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance. When Gillespie met him and described his recent discovery, Campbell was intrigued. He requested a full briefing back in Washington and, on the strength of Gillespie’s presentation, inquired whether he could do anything to help.
Gillespie asked him whether any experts at the State Department could corroborate his interpretation that the photograph depicted the landing gear of Earhart’s plane. Campbell sent the image to State’s forensic-imaging team. “We didn’t give the team any indication of what this was,” says Campbell. When they came back with the same impression as Gillespie, he thought, “Wow, we’ve really got to give this a shot.”
Gillespie requested a written report, but the team balked—“They’re supposed to be looking for terrorists in training camps and stuff,” he explained. But Campbell put him in touch with corporate sponsors like Lockheed Martin and encouraged Gillespie to launch an expedition in 2012, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance. And Campbell, it turned out, wasn’t the only Earhart buff in Foggy Bottom. On March 20, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood behind a podium in the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room and gave her official blessing to Gillespie and his fellow searchers, who would set out for the South Pacific on July 2 to search for Earhart’s plane in the deep waters off Nikumaroro Island.
Clinton recalled how, as a little girl, she had grown up hearing stories about Earhart from her mother and how the experience had shaped her childhood dreams of one day becoming an astronaut. “Even if you do not find what you seek, there is great honor and possibility in the search itself,” Clinton told Gillespie and his team at the event. “So, like our lost heroine, you will all carry our hopes.”
WHEN I FIRST MET Gillespie at the train station in Wilmington, Delaware, on a rainy morning in May, he was wearing dirty jeans, a faded plaid shirt, and aviator sunglasses that recalled his youthful days as a pilot. Gillespie is 64—with snow-white hair and mustache, ruddy complexion, and bright blue eyes—but he possesses the frenetic energy of a much younger man.
The son of a World War II pilot, Gillespie learned to fly at around the same age he learned to drive. After graduating with a history degree, he served as an officer in the U.S. Army and later found work as an accident investigator and risk manager for the aviation insurance industry. By the mid-’80s, however, everything in Gillespie’s life seemed to be crumbling. His first marriage was falling apart, and he had come to believe that the insurance business was killing the small-airplane industry he loved. Gillespie sparred with his bosses until it seemed prudent to quit before he got fired. Divorced and unemployed, he recalls telling himself: “OK, I did all the stuff I was supposed to, I’m 36 years old, and that didn’t work out all that well. ... [Now] I’m going to do what I want to do.”
The first idea that occurred to Gillespie was buried deep in a desk drawer. Years earlier, his younger brother, Bob, had mailed him an article from Yankee magazine that told the story of two French World War I aces who had disappeared while attempting a nonstop flight from Paris to New York just ten days before Charles Lindbergh successfully made the trip. The article recounted the legend of a hermit in Maine who, while fishing in his canoe on the foggy morning of May 9, 1927—the day the French pilots were expected in New York—heard the sound of an airplane and then a crash in the remote hills near the Canadian border. “The article ended, ‘So someday some hunter may come across a rusted engine in the woods and a famous mystery will be solved,’” Gillespie recalls. “And I was like, What do you mean, ‘Someday some hunter may come across’? You’ve got a map right here! Just go look! This is accident investigation. I know how to do this!”
Gillespie convinced Bob to join him on a trip to Maine to search for the lost airplane. The expedition was a bust, and Bob’s wife forbade him from joining Gillespie on a follow-up trip. By then, however, Gillespie had found a new accomplice: his future wife, Pat. “She was crazy enough to think it was all interesting,” Gillespie recalls. Less than a year later, Ric and Pat were married and had founded TIGHAR.
It seemed inevitable that, sooner or later, Gillespie would begin chasing after the most famous aviation mystery in U.S. history. “With my background in flying, my education in history, and my work in crash investigation,” Gillespie told me, “I felt I may be the only person who could find Amelia Earhart.” His quest began in earnest in 1988, when Gillespie was approached by two retired military aerial navigators, Tom Gannon and Tom Willi, who proposed an elegant navigational solution to the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance.
Earhart’s final radio communications to the Coast Guard cutter Itasca are the subject of intense debate, but there are a few relatively undisputed facts about her last flight. The first is that Earhart was unable to establish two-way radio communication with the Itasca, nor could she successfully use the radio signals from the Coast Guard ship to take a bearing on her destination. This meant that finding tiny Howland Island was the sole responsibility of Fred Noonan. Cloudy conditions during the night portion of Earhart’s flight from Lae made it difficult for Noonan to navigate by the stars. When morning arrived, however, Noonan was able to use the rising sun to calculate “a line of position”—in this case, a northwest-southeast line intersecting with Howland Island—and estimate when they should arrive at the line.
When Earhart radioed the Itasca at 7:42 a.m. and said, “We must be on you but cannot see you,” most analysts interpreted it to mean that Earhart had reached the line she believed should intersect with Howland but couldn’t spot the island, eventually running out of fuel and plunging into the ocean. “The two Toms,” as Gillespie refers to them, posited a different interpretation. When Earhart was approaching the line of position, they reasoned, she had no way of knowing whether she was north or south of her target destination—just that she was somewhere on the line. There is nothing northwest of Howland Island, but, Gillespie points out, to the southeast is a string of other islands. Gillespie reasons that the sensible thing to do would be to find the line, look briefly to the northwest, then head southeast. In a best-case scenario, she would pass over Howland. Otherwise, she had a good chance of passing over other islands—including Nikumaroro, which happens to lie some 350 miles southeast of Howland, on the line of position mentioned by Earhart.
The possibility that Earhart had landed on Nikumaroro had surfaced before, most notably in the story of a retired coastguardsman named Floyd Kilts, who had been stationed on the island at the end of World War II. In 1960, Kilts told The San Diego Union-Tribune that one of the island’s native residents had told him of a mysterious skeleton that had been discovered there not long before. “An Irishman” who was on the island had believed them to be Earhart’s remains and tried to take them to nearby Fiji, but he died during the boat trip; the superstitious natives, Kilts was told, had thrown the bones overboard.
The story was riddled with historical inaccuracies, but Gillespie had reason to believe it contained a measure of truth. For one, while there was no record of an Irishman on Nikumaroro, he discovered that in the late ’30s the island had been settled under the leadership of a British colonial administrator of Irish descent named Gerald Gallagher, whose nickname was “Irish.”
Of particular interest to Gillespie was the large number of distress signals picked up by radio operators on the nights following Earhart’s disappearance. It was popularly assumed at the time that the signals might have been sent by Earhart after crash landing in the Pacific. But Gillespie’s research indicated that, if the plane had been floating in the ocean, water would have quickly rendered the radio inoperable. That meant the Electra could only have sent signals if it were on land.
Indeed, the possibility that Earhart had managed to land on a nearby island was credible enough for the U.S. Navy to send a battleship and three planes to search the string of islands, including Nikumaroro, southeast of Howland, collectively known as the Phoenix Islands. Getting there, however, took about a week—enough time, Gillespie argues, for the aircraft to be swept off the reef on which it had crash landed and sink into the ocean.
BY THE TIME Gillespie made his first visit to Nikumaroro, in 1989, it had been uninhabited for 26 years. The island Gillespie encountered was at once beautiful and forbidding, roughly four miles of tropical lowlands wrapped around a turquoise lagoon. Dense undergrowth had reconquered nearly everything; there was no potable water to be found.
Gillespie and his team walked along the edge of the lagoon, followed by fish and birds unused to human presence. Within hours, they reached an abandoned village on the west side of the island. In the rubble, they discovered a box-like aluminum structure. Closer examination revealed it was a navigator’s bookcase. Gillespie later announced to the press that the bookcase may have come from Earhart’s plane.
Gillespie returned to the island eight times, making new and startling discoveries on each visit. On one early trip, Gillespie and his team of archeologists discovered the remains of a shoe that appeared to match a pair worn by Earhart on her last flight. On another, they uncovered an old campsite with large piles of turtle and fish bones that anthropologists determined to be the handiwork of Westerners. Another visit yielded fragments of a glass bottle; chemical analysis of trace elements on the bottle matched a hand lotion that was popular in the ’30s. By now, Gillespie’s claims were attracting significant media attention. After he reported finding a sheet of aluminum matching Earhart’s Electra on the beach at Nikumaroro in 1992, a United Press International headline blared, “RESEARCHERS NEARLY CERTAIN THAT EARHART’S PLANE FOUND.”
At his house in Wilmington, Gillespie took me to the home office that had expanded to take over his garage. He had filed each of the artifacts in a labeled plastic bag resting inside its own small cabinet drawer. There were fragments of a uniquely shaped jar that appeared to match a product called Dr. C.H. Berry’s Freckle Ointment. “Freckles were very unfashionable,” Gillespie explained. “Earhart had freckles. She was concerned about her freckles. We know that.” There were fragments of a pre–World War II beer bottle that appeared melted and fire-damaged on the bottom but not on the top. “Somebody’s boiling water,” Gillespie surmised. “You collect water but it’s not safe to drink so you boil it. That’s castaway behavior.”
Gillespie’s crowning piece of evidence didn’t arrive until 1997, however, when a World War II buff named Peter McQuarrie e-mailed him to renew his TIGHAR membership. According to Gillespie, McQuarrie sent his credit card information and included a brief postscript: “Oh yeah, Gallagher did find bones on Gardner. File’s on Tarawa. I was just up there.” Kilts’s story, in other words, was true. As archives would reveal, Gerald “Irish” Gallagher had immediately thought of Earhart when he found an incomplete skeleton on Nikumaroro in 1940, and he alerted his superior officers in Fiji. In reply, Gallagher was ordered to send the bones for further examination and to keep his mouth shut.
When the bones reached Fiji, a doctor took measurements and determined that they belonged to a short, stocky man of European or possibly “half-caste” descent. The file was quietly closed and the bones had since been lost; all that remained were the skeleton’s measurements. When Gillespie sent them to two forensic anthropologists, they determined, based on modern skeletal measurement databases, that the bones most likely belonged to a European female of roughly Earhart’s height. Before the discovery, the Nikumaroro theory “was just a very interesting story,” says Gillespie. “I think it was at that moment that I became convinced that we were on the right track.”
OVER THE PAST 75 years, Amelia Earhart has inspired an intense and fractured community of obsessives, whose explanations of her disappearance fall roughly into three camps. The most dramatic of these holds that Earhart was an American spy captured by the Japanese—a theory that enjoyed broad appeal during the first few decades following her final flight but has since fallen out of favor and is now believed only by a small subset of conspiracy theorists. Gillespie is the leading proponent of the second theory—that Earhart managed to land her plane and survive for a time on Nikumaroro Island. The third theory holds that Earhart’s plane simply crashed at sea and sunk somewhere in the vicinity of Howland Island.
Among the adherents of the “crashed-and-sank” hypothesis is David Jourdan, the president of Nauticos, a deep-ocean exploration business, and one of Gillespie’s most prominent skeptics. He has undertaken two expeditions trawling the deep ocean around Howland Island in search of Earhart’s plane, and he hopes to launch a third in 2013.
Jourdan’s track record lends considerable clout to his views. After a career as a naval officer, Jourdan joined the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the early ’80s to work on classified deep-sea technology projects for the Navy, picking up a master’s degree in physics along the way. As the cold war waned, Jourdan established his own company, which went on to discover an ancient Greek merchant vessel, an Israeli submarine that was lost on its maiden voyage, and a Japanese World War II submarine laden with gold. “Not to impugn Ric, but I don’t think he’s found anything on any expedition,” says Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum who is responsible for the museum’s history of women in aviation collections. “Jourdan, on the other hand, has a solid reputation of finding ships and aircraft for the U.S. government.”
Using sophisticated software in combination with an analysis of the reported signal strength of Earhart’s radio communications to the Itasca, Jourdan has zeroed in on a large but not unmanageable area off Howland Island, where the ocean is approximately 18,000 feet deep. “We feel pretty confident that, if we just deliberately and patiently finish the job, we should succeed,” Jourdan explained to me when I visited him this May at his lakeside home in Cape Porpoise, Maine. Jourdan is 57 years old, and his close-cropped hair and graying beard, arched eyebrows, and slightly pointy ears lend him an impish look. When I mentioned Gillespie’s hypothesis, he appeared studiously unbothered, but was happy to explain the many ways in which he believed it to be fundamentally flawed.
First, Jourdan said, there was the issue of fuel. Nikumaroro lies some 350 miles southeast of Howland Island. In order to reach it, Earhart would have had to cover that distance, on top of the nearly 2,556 miles she had already flown from New Guinea in pursuit of Howland. But about an hour before breaking off contact, Earhart had clearly stated that gas was running low. Gillespie argues that Earhart meant she was beginning to burn into her reserve tank, in which case she would have had four or five hours of flying time left. Gillespie’s estimation that Earhart’s plane could have that much fuel left is based on ideal flight conditions, however, and Jourdan reminded me that there are several indications that Earhart’s flight was far from ideal. “One of the major factors is that she was facing severe headwinds,” says Jourdan. “They were 20, 25 miles an hour pretty much the whole way.”
Earhart was also reported to be south of her planned flight path and flying at high altitude quite early in her flight. “What that meant is that there was a storm and she diverted around it,” Jourdan explained—a diversion that forced Earhart to gain altitude quickly and burn extra fuel in the process. An independent fuel analysis of Earhart’s flight that Jourdan commissioned from a mechanical-engineering professor at the California Institute of Technology validated Jourdan’s belief that Earhart ran out of fuel around the time of her last radio transmission.
Jourdan also took issue with Gillespie’s logic at a number of key junctures. First, Earhart told the Itasca she was flying “north and south” along the line—indicating that she was searching for Howland, not flying south for Nikumaroro. Second, all the radio operators recall the increasing panic and distress in Earhart’s voice following her report that she was running low on fuel. Third, if she did change her mind and decide to fly south and crash land on Nikumaroro, why didn’t she radio her intentions? And, finally, when Navy pilots flew over Nikumaroro a week later, why didn’t they see wreckage from the plane or any other evidence that Earhart and Noonan were there? “It just doesn’t add up,” Jourdan concluded. “It’s a pretty fantastic scenario with a lot of ad hoc assumptions to make it work.”
For all the persuasiveness of his hypothesis, Jourdan hasn’t yet found conclusive physical evidence to support it. But as Gillespie’s critics are happy to point out, neither has Gillespie—his history of discovery, upon closer examination, looks more like a history of successfully playing to the public’s fascination with Earhart—and to the short attention span of the modern news cycle.
“Everything that he’s found that he’s gotten publicity for has been disproven,” says the writer Susan Butler, author of the biography East to Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart. “But the finding is always a headline and the disproving is a footnote.” Indeed, a look back at Gillespie’s past discoveries reveals a pattern: New finds are held up to the media as conclusive evidence of Earhart’s presence on Nikumaroro, only to be stashed away when they are called into question or debunked.
For instance, Gillespie spent over a year after his first expedition pursuing the idea that the metal navigator’s bookcase his team found on Nikumaroro had come from Earhart’s plane. Later analysis concluded it was likely from a World War II–era bomber. In a 1992 newsletter, Gillespie announced confidently that a piece of the shoe he had found on Nikumaroro was “identical in all documentable respects to those worn by Earhart on her final flight.” The shoe was later discovered to likely be at least two sizes too big. After finding the scrap of aluminum on the beach, Gillespie announced that “there is only one possible conclusion: We found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.” A team of rival engineers later concluded that the spacing between the rivet holes on the aluminum did not match that of an Electra they examined.
In 2010, Gillespie sent a small bone fragment discovered on Nikumaroro to the University of Oklahoma’s Molecular Anthropology Laboratories for possible DNA extraction, suggesting that it might be a piece of Earhart’s finger—a discovery that sparked an avalanche of news coverage. But Cecil Lewis, the anthropology professor who attempted to recover DNA from the bone fragment, told me he was unable to find evidence of DNA preservation—making the test inconclusive. “For all we know, this is just a turtle bone,” he told the Associated Press in 2010.
In May, the Discovery Channel, which is filming a documentary about Gillespie’s upcoming expedition, circulated a story about Gillespie’s discovery of glass fragments that, “when reassembled, ... make up a nearly complete jar identical in shape to the ones used by Dr. C.H. Berry’s Freckle Ointment.” But, while the shape of the two jars is similar, their coloring is not. Dr. C.H. Berry’s Freckle Ointment apparently came in an opaque, white jar, Gillespie himself told me when we met in Wilmington. The glass fragments he found on Nikumaroro are translucent.
When I presented this pattern of false leads to Gillespie, he took issue with the idea that his evidence had been definitively debunked. Earhart may have worn larger shoes when she flew because your feet swell when you fly and the cabin was cold, he said. The rivets on the scrap of aircraft aluminum may have been spaced differently because it was from a repair to Earhart’s plane. At the end of the day, he told me, it’s up to the public to make up its mind. “Am I someone who manipulates people by holding up evidence that I know is not genuine?” he asked. “Or am I simply taking people on the same ride that I’m on, doing the research and sharing the ups and the downs that go along with it?” Suggestions of the former, he added, are “highly offensive and utterly untrue.”
Gillespie’s defenders, meanwhile, are willing to take his not-so-smoking guns in stride. Kurt Campbell, for his part, is sympathetic to Gillespie’s need to drum up media attention in order to fund his expeditions. “I think in the past he probably got ahead of himself on the shoe and on a few other things, but I admired his determination,” Campbell told me. “He is by nature a showman and an explorer and an enthusiast. But I think a bit of that can be forgiven. He’s a good guy. We need people like him, right? Be gentle on him.”
ALTHOUGH SHE is among the most famous pilots of all time, Earhart was not, in the estimation of her contemporaries and aviation historians, an exceptionally talented one. Her genius, rather, was for self-promotion. She made her living by writing books and giving lectures on behalf of the budding airline industry, often with the aim of convincing housewives to let their husbands fly on business trips. “[Earhart] would say, ‘I make a flight and then I lecture on it,’” Cochrane, of the Air and Space Museum, told me. Other women of her era were likely better pilots, but none were better at selling themselves. “If she’s a pioneer in something,” Gillespie told me near the end of my visit, “she and her husband were pioneers in media manipulation.”
When I spoke with Gillespie’s critics, I was struck by how much their descriptions of him echoed his own description of Earhart. “I think he’s a genius,” Susan Butler told me. “I don’t understand how he does it. I understand why he does it—I think he’s having a wonderful time. He’s getting other people to bankroll a wonderful way of life. Nikumaroro is a gorgeous island. And I think he must also believe it.” Indeed, Gillespie’s search, the way in which his gifted showmanship has overshadowed the dubiousness of his discoveries and long odds of success, may be the most fitting tribute that the world could offer Earhart on the seventy-fifth anniversary of her death.
Perhaps the best explanation for Gillespie’s appeal is that there is a part of each of us who badly wants him to be right. “In mythologizing [Earhart], we’ve created a character who seems incapable of a simple fate,” Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Times in 1996. Gillespie’s Earhart theory, for all its elaborate implausibility, offers something that Jourdan’s doesn’t: the prospect of an unknowable final chapter of Earhart’s life, a permanent question mark that won’t be tarnished by discovery. “It’s the greatest unsolved mystery of the twentieth century,” Cochrane told me. “People want to believe that it has a fantastic and mysterious ending. Not that she just ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea.”
This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.