Do you want to see it?” Ric Gillespie asks, reaching for a black portfolio resting on the floor of his Pennsylvania farmhouse. He extracts a sheet of aluminum, about 18 by 24 inches—bent, dented, scratched and crisscrossed by 103 rivet holes, whose size, position and spacing he has studied for almost 25 years the way assassination buffs pore over the Zapruder film. And with good reason: If he’s right, this is one of the great historical artifacts of the 20th century, a piece of the airplane in which Amelia Earhart made her famous last flight over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937.
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With rulers, photographs and diagrams, he shows where it could have fit on Earhart’s customized Lockheed Electra, over the hole left when she removed a window on the right rear fuselage. “These things don’t just line up by coincidence,” he says. In late October, after seizing a chance to compare his aluminum sheet against an Electra under restoration in Kansas, he announced that the rivet holes and other features were the equivalent of “a fingerprint” establishing that it had come from Earhart’s plane, leading some news organizations to declare the case closed (Discovery News headline: “Amelia Earhart Plane Fragment Identified”). He tells me he’s “98 percent” sure the piece came from Earhart’s plane. He raises that figure to 99 percent after getting a report from a leading metallurgist, Thomas Eagar of MIT, who concluded that “the preponderance of the evidence indicates you have a true Amelia Earhart artifact.” That’s still 1 percent less certain than he was in 1992, when he told Life magazine: “There’s only one possible conclusion: We found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.”
Anyone who thinks his new data will settle the question of what happened to Earhart, though, hasn’t been paying attention for the last 78 years. Other researchers have studied the same rivet holes and radio transcripts and come to radically different conclusions—and they’re not conceding anything.
Ever since Gillespie found this piece of metal in 1991, on the tiny, remote island where he believes Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, crash-landed and died as castaways, he has been the public face of America’s never-ending fascination with Earhart’s fate. Yet it was only in the last few months that he obtained what he considers conclusive evidence that it came from their plane. Rangy and graying, a former pilot and aircraft-accident investigator, he runs, with his wife, an organization called The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. Since 1989 TIGHAR has mounted ten expeditions to the South Pacific, and he is seeking money for an 11th. His fund-raising prowess and mediagenic announcements have made Gillespie an object of envy and occasional vitriol among his fellow Earhart researchers—a group that includes serious historians as well as wild-eyed obsessives, who pile up scraps of evidence into conspiracies reaching right up to the White House.
“It’s nonstop,” marvels Dorothy Cochrane, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, who was recently contacted by a researcher trying to track down a piece of carved driftwood found 70 years ago that he thinks holds a clue to Earhart’s fate. Cochrane understands the interest in her, but had expected it would have died down by, say, the 1997 centennial of her birth. “That’s what drives me crazy,” she says. “Now that she’s long gone, why are people holding onto this?”
In 1937, Earhart was one of the most famous women in the world, a best-selling author, feminist hero and friend of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Born in Atchison, Kansas, to a locally prominent family, Earhart had fallen in love with flying as a young woman, and she became famous in 1928 as the first woman to fly across the Atlantic—as a passenger, an experience she nevertheless turned into a best-selling book. Subsequently she set numerous records as a pilot, flying solo across the Atlantic, nonstop across North America and from Honolulu to Oakland. With the help of her husband, George (G.P.) Putnam, a scion of the publishing family, she made a career of flying, writing and lecturing. Slender, diffident, good-looking in a tousled way, she reminded people of that other famous aviator from the Midwest, Charles Lindbergh. But, says Cochrane, while Lindbergh shrank from fame, Earhart embraced her opportunity to be a role model for women.
Except by 1937, there were fewer and fewer places left that no one had flown between. Earhart was intent on one last spectacular trip, circling the globe around the Equator on a zigzag route that would cover more than 30,000 miles. In a twin-engine Electra stuffed with enough fuel to stay aloft for 20 hours, she set out that March from Oakland and got as far as Honolulu, where the plane was damaged in a botched takeoff attempt. After it was shipped back to California for repairs, she took off again on May 21, heading east this time, taking 40 days and making more than 20 stops (including Miami; San Juan; Natal, Brazil; Dakar; Khartoum; Calcutta; Bangkok; and Darwin, Australia) to reach the airfield at Lae, Papua New Guinea. The next leg, to tiny Howland Island, 2,556 miles away, would be the hardest. She took off at 10 a.m. on July 2, Lae time, planning to land roughly 20 hours later, on the morning of the same date after crossing the International Date Line. Depending on which version you accept, either she was never seen alive again, or died a few years later in captivity, or lived into her late 70s under an assumed identity as a New Jersey housewife.
The world looked very different from inside a cockpit in those days, before radar, GPS or weather satellites. Noonan, a highly regarded pioneer in aerial navigation, had to rely on sun and star “sights” to chart a course. The Electra had a radio direction finder, which could be used to navigate over short distances, but it apparently didn’t work well enough to be helpful. A Coast Guard cutter, the Itasca, was standing by near Howland to guide her in. There was a schedule for Earhart to communicate with the Itasca at specific intervals, but it fell apart, perhaps because the cutter was in an unusual time zone with a half-hour offset. For reasons unknown—Gillespie believes the Electra’s receiving antenna, strung on struts beneath the fuselage, broke during takeoff at Lae—it appears that Earhart never heard the Itasca’s increasingly urgent calls.
But she must have been close. The Itasca’s operators heard her transmissions, growing stronger as she approached Howland Island shortly after sunrise. At one point her signal was so strong the ship’s radio operator ran to the deck to look for her overhead. But he saw only empty sky, and she, it seems, just clouds and empty ocean. Near the end, her voice was becoming strained; she sounded “frantic,” according to the Itasca’s commanding officer. “We must be on you but cannot see you,” she radioed. “Gas is running low.” Her last message reported she was flying on a line “157” (southeast) and “337” (northwest). But she neglected to say in which of those directions she was heading. After that, silence.
So the simplest explanation, and the official version, of her disappearance: Unsure of her location and out of fuel, she crashed and sank in the 18,000-foot-deep waters northwest of Howland Island. The Itasca hurried off to search in that direction; the battleship Colorado, arriving on July 7, would search to the southeast. The aircraft carrier Lexington, based in San Diego, arrived a few days later and stayed in the area until July 18. None of the ships or planes saw so much as an oil slick. “Crashed-and-sank” was the conclusion of Elgen Long, a veteran military and commercial pilot, who with his wife, Marie, spent 25 years researching their book Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved. It remains the simplest explanation, but for that very reason, has attracted derision from those who prefer their history complicated.
Some of the technical points are in dispute. Skeptics point out that the nominal flying time for the Electra on full tanks was 24 hours, not 20. But Earhart had faced head winds of 26.5 miles an hour, roughly twice as strong as forecast. Early in the flight a storm required a fuel-wasting climb to 10,000 feet. In 1999, an analysis by Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Center concluded that her tanks were almost certainly empty as she approached Howland. “She probably should have turned back to Lae at the halfway point,” says David Jourdan, the president of Nauticos, an undersea exploration company, which has sent two expeditions to look for the wreckage. “She knew she was going in,” Long says. “She couldn’t find the island and was running out of fuel. Her voice showed that.”
Others come to different conclusions. Gardner Island (now Nikumaroro, part of the Republic of Kirabati), where Gillespie has been searching, is about 350 nautical miles from Howland—coincidentally, or not, along the “157-337” line Earhart said she was flying—so he has tried to show she had enough fuel to fly at least that far. He also cites dozens of messages, supposedly from Earhart, that were heard around the Pacific and as far away as Florida for five days after she disappeared. (Under certain conditions, shortwave radio waves, reflected by the ionosphere, can “skip” for thousands of miles.) Obviously, if genuine, these would disprove the crashed-and-sank theory. Some clearly were hoaxes, but others are harder to dismiss.
Betty Klenck, a teenager in St. Petersburg, Florida, was cruising the dial on her family’s shortwave set and was startled by a voice saying, “This is Amelia Earhart. Help me!” Sitting alone in her family’s living room, she strained to hear a woman crying, calling for help and arguing with a man who seemed to be delirious. “Waters knee deep!” Betty heard. “Let me out!” As the weak signal faded in and out over three hours, Betty copied what she heard into her notebook. Her father reported it to local Coast Guard officials, who told him everything was under control. Betty held on to the notebook until she showed it to Gillespie in 2000.