August 20th, 2012
03:52 PM ET

Amelia Earhart: The evidence we almost lost

Famous aviator Amelia Earhart seemed to vanish from the sky 75 years ago, but she never disappeared from the American psyche.

Now, the man responsible for leading a 24-year charge to solve one of America’s greatest mysteries explains how an  image that might finally crack the case was almost lost forever.

75 years later, the mystery of Amelia Earhart solved?

The search is on

CNN reported Sunday that a 1937 photo may be key in finding, with certainty, the final resting place of Earhart as well as her navigator Fred Noonan, and their Lockheed Electra plane – which all disappeared famously during a doomed attempt at an around-the-world flight in 1937.

New underwater images taken during an expedition by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery to Nikumaroro Island in the South Pacific last month show a debris field that may contain wreckage of the Lockheed Electra. But the debris field might never have been uncovered without a photo taken just months after Earhart disappeared that TIGHAR researcher's now believe show the upside-down landing gear of a plane protruding from the ocean.

But the 1937 image has a story all its own. And the latest breaks in the investigation were almost as elusive as the mystery of Earhart itself.

“It’s funny, when I was growing up and somebody asked me what do you want to be when you grow up, I didn’t say I wanted be the world’s greatest expert on Amelia Earhart,” Richard Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told CNN by phone from the organization’s Delaware headquarters on Monday.

Gillespie, in fact, was somewhat reluctant to take on the case. But as an aviator and investigator the clues eventually began to persuade him.

“It’s kind of an interesting and somewhat convoluted story,” Gillespie said. “In the very early days of the project in the '80s - '88, '89 - we became aware that the first expedition after she disappeared was a British expedition,” Gillespie said.

That expedition was conducted by  two British Colonial Service Officers, he said.

At that point TIGHAR hadn’t yet the developed a theory of what happened to Earhart and Noonan, but they believed the pair had somehow landed on a hot and inhospitable South Pacific island called Nikumaroro, then-called Gardener Island and had decided to investigate.

Gillespie shared TIGHAR's early attempts at solving the Earhart mystery with a magazine, which ran an article on the topic. The response to the story was one he never expected: One of the original investigators surfaced.

Eric Bevington, one of the officers who first set out to find her in 1937, wrote a letter to the magazine’s editor more than 50 years after the first search for Earhart. He still was alive, living in the South of England, and said he had saved his old documents from the inaugural expedition.

Gillespie and his wife, TIGHAR President Pat Thrasher, decided to visit Bevington in England. In January the couple found themselves in his home, looking at evidence gathered on Gardener’s Island, only three months after Earhart went missing.

“We went over and spent a couple of days and he had a journal he kept on that trip,” Gillespie said. “And he had a photo album.”

Together the group pored over the pages of the album. There were two or three dozen wallet-sized images filled with notation, Gillespie said. Thrasher, also TIGHAR’s photographer, documented the experience taking photos of her own and making copies of the original images.

The big break that almost wasn’t

Gillespie became particularly interested in one of the Bevington photos that showed an image of another wreck on Gardner Island. In 1929, British steamer ship, the S.S. Norwich City, collided with a reef on Gardner, and Gillespie began to suspect Earhart and Noonan might have used the wreckage for shelter.

He was so interested that he blew up an image that had captured it on the right side, and cropped out the left side of the photo entirely.

“For the next 21 years every time I pulled out that book of photos I looked at that photo and I was only looking at the right-hand side. I had cropped out the left and I forgot I had cropped it,” Gillespie said.

In February of 2010, TIGHAR was preparing for an expedition to Gardner’s Island, when the group’s forensic imaging specialist, Jeff Glickman, asked to examine all of the negatives from Gillespie and Thrasher’s 1992 trip to England.

Gillespie said Glickman called him up one day and asked about the Bevington photo: "What’s that thing sticking out the left side of the frame?”

After all those years, Gillespie didn’t remember a left side of the frame existed. A discussion ensued and finally Glickman scanned the original and sent it to Gillespie.

“And it’s plain as the nose on your face,” Gillespie said.

An image of a something protruding from the reef. Something TIGHAR now believes is the wreckage of the Lockheed Electra.

Finding proof

By 2010 TIGHAR had gathered a small mountain of circumstantial evidence to develop a theory about what really happened to Earhart 75 years ago. Enough evidence, Gillespie says, to convince him in his heart that they are on the right track. But not enough he said to produce a “smoking gun.”

In the endless search of historical documents, Gillespie said the group uncovered records that showed a British man named Gerald Gallagher found human bones, a piece of a man’s shoe, a piece of woman’s shoe and a box for a sextant, which is a navigational device, on Gardner Island in 1940. Suspecting it was Earhart, Gillespie said the remains were examined by a British colonial service doctor named David Hoodless who dispelled the theory saying the bones belonged to a stocky male, and the sextant was a mariner’s sextant, not aeronautical.

Gillespie, however, says he found the archived documents of the bones in 1997 in the Republic of Kiribati. Upon more modern analysis, he says the bones found belonged to a white female who stood about 5 foot 7 inches, just like Earhart. The mariner’s sextant he said was well-known to be used as a backup by Noonan.

TIGHAR keeps copies of all of its documents online. The bones, he says, have never been recovered.

Gillespie said TIGHAR also interviewed a woman named Emily Sikuli in 1999 who who now lives in Fiji. Sikuli, he said, claims that she lived on Gardner’s in the 1940s when her father was working there for the British government attempting to colonize the island. Gillespie said she pointed them to the same spot as the protrusion in the Bevington photo and recalls seeing plane wreckage.

Though Gillespie said the story mirrors TIGHAR’s findings, it is hardly proof.

TIGHAR has made nine expeditions to Nikumaroro and found a smattering of circumstantial evidence. The documents, an American-made zipper from before 1937, a handful of jars believed to be from American-made cosmetics in the 1930s.

And now, analysis of a high-def underwater camera of a debris field where the Bevington photo showed potential wreckage in 1937 may have found a fender, a wheel and portions of the strut of an airplane in the depths of the South Pacific.

If the evidence keeps mounting, Gillespie said the next step will be to try and recover the pieces.

“A lot of our researchers have everyday lives that aren’t nearly as much fun as this detective work,” Gillespie said. “and I think we are teaching some important lessons about methodology and how you go about finding what’s true.”

Earhart searches find no obvious signs of her plane

Do clues to Amelia Earhart mystery lurk beneath the sea?

Finding Amelia Earhart: New clues revealed

Will mystery of Amelia Earhart be solved?

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Filed under: Aviation • History
soundoff (150 Responses)
  1. snowdogg

    The images in the still pic look a lot like the "Face on Mars"

    August 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  2. phantomphyler

    not aviator

    August 20, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. kflanigan

    I wonder if they were writing about Mother Teresa if they would say infamous?

    August 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Gary from Canadad

    heh, even I can't spell, darn should be Canada, guess we all make mistakes EH!

    August 20, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. AlLan

    Author: correct your spellchecker entry, it's TIGHAR not THIGAR.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Stan Milborn

    I don't understand why Amelia Earhart is called infamous. Does the writer not know the meaning of the word?

    August 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. mvg

    Elusive, not "illusive." Pored, not "poured." Any editors at home?

    August 20, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • paul613

      I wondered the same thing. It's hard to tell what the writer intended by "And the latest breaks in the investigation were almost as illusive as the mystery of Earhart itself." Mysteries don't elude; answers to mysteries do.

      August 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • KM

      mvg –

      I've come to the conclusion that either there are no more editors or the editors have extremely weak skills.

      August 20, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
  8. If Liberals like Abortion, then abort all liberal children!

    The solution seems pretty obvious.


    August 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Really?

      And that trailer trash troll comment has relevance to this article how?

      August 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • *FACEPALM*

      Troll Sighting

      August 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. USAFrank

    People of the United States of America,
    Do you all know how many ships and aircraft have gone down in the Pacific Ocean in that area,Thousands,Until the come up with Aircraft part ID numbers I will believe it when they say it is the plane.

    August 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • alanjay1

      U mad bro?

      August 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "Right Wing Insanity"

    Infamous huh? What. Did she hook up with DB Cooper or something. Maybe she stole avgas at some airport.
    They write the article ( all 8 hours of it), then clock out and split. No reviews. No spellcheck. Just like the Cat In The Hat, instigate and split.

    August 20, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "Right Wing Insanity"

    CNN: .....explains how an image that might finally crack the case was almost lost forever.
    Jeff: might? MiGhT? MIGHT??? We would like to be conclusive about things we say on this thread. Might? How many times can you shoot a horse, anyways?

    August 20, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Report abuse |
  12. CW


    August 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. banasy©

    Now this is just an idea, but could those items that were found, the zipper and the cosmetic bottles, been left there from the occupation that Emily Sikuli was referring to?
    I know it's a stretch, but...
    Anyway, it's cool.
    A definitive answer would be nice, but it isn't necessary to me; I'm good either way, lol.

    August 20, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "Right Wing Insanity"

    definition of infamous:
    [ in -f uh -m uh s]
    – adjective
    1. having or causing an evil reputation

    August 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jeff Frank (R-Ohio) "Right Wing Insanity"

    They hire temps. Is that it?

    August 20, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
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