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. Skeptic

    They're a bunch of seaweed covered rocks.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bill Duke

    Draw some yellow arrows on a photograph that point to rocks and claim they are aircraft parts. PROFIT!

    August 20, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • gigi

      yup.
      i agree.

      August 20, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • lroy

      I don't know. What TIGER needs to do is go physically go down into the water (in one of those mini submarines) and physically SEE what it is. If it is the plane (or whatever it is), there is zero guarantee it will stay together trying to get on the ship deck. Also I haven't heard or read anything from National Geographic which-in my opinion-HAS to get involved at this point. Finally when we die, only THEN will we know for sure what happened and where.

      August 20, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Good grief!

    "A lot of our researchers have everyday lives that aren’t nearly as much fun as this detective work,” Gillespie said."

    It's so comforting to know that Earhart's death has provided a source of amusement for you.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Madcap

      Get over yourself! At least they are having fun trying to find the answers to her disappearance. What have YOU done with yourself?

      August 20, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  4. G H

    CNN, get your writers a dictionary! Instead of referring to her as "infamous aviator Amelia Earhart" , she was "Famous aviator" or "World Famous aviator..." The word infamous implies guilty of a serious crime.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shayla

      They also used the word "illusive" which is a word, but not the correct word in this sentence. It should read "elusive". I am splitting hairs, but this is CNN, higher standards should apply.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paul

      It also means famous for a bad reason... Nothing wrong with the word choice.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick Richards

      No, it does not mean that, Paul. Someone needs to get you a dictionary, too.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. bobcat (in a hat)©

    Are they really going to keep beating this dead horse od a story ? Wouldn't it bebetter if they wait until they have difinitive proof before that announce these thngs. The speculative nature of these "possible" findings is enough to make one start taking pharmaceuticals. How many times before have we heard I "think" we may have found ?

    August 20, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • SixDegrees

      This group has a long history of this sort of behavior. Go on mission. Make nebulous claims about something you discovered. Ask for more money. Go on mission...

      It'a a cycle they've repeated many times now. Their current "evidence" doesn't look any better than any of their previous bits, and they're really starting to come across like those guys who keep claiming to have found Noah's Ark or Atlantis. At this point, I'd like to see some independent analysts take a look at their photos and see what their opinions are – but I very much doubt that will ever happen.

      August 20, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • lroy

      Yeah, this is not a new concept. There have been others search teams trying to play this Where in the World is Amelia game for many years. Another problem is that she was on government missions (don't forget this was during WW2 even though we weren't in it yet), and that many islands have been (and maybe still are) totally contaminated and hostile and inhabitable due to radiation.

      August 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      Well, they've been at it for 24 years...as long as the donations keep financing it, the search will go on, I suppose.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobcat (in a hat)©

      I just would like to have some solid proof. All this speculation is, well, speculation. I could say I think I might have found the ark of the covenant because I crawled into a cave and saw a rock that's shaped like a cherub. Shoot, that sounds like proof to me. Send me some money.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • jay

      Six Degrees, I think I read in the article their information was on line.

      August 21, 2012 at 1:58 am | Report abuse |
  6. SixDegrees

    I've tried to block that memory out. An hour of my life that I'm never, ever getting back.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Paul

    "Infamous aviator Amelia Earhart"
    Infamous?
    Does the author own a dictionary?
    I'll help him/her out.
    From Webster's:
    Definition of INFAMOUS
    1: having a reputation of the worst kind : notoriously evil
    2: causing or bringing infamy : disgraceful
    3: convicted of an offense bringing infamy

    There is nothing infamous about Amelia Earhart.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Cando

    Its all edited in India these days, just like tech support.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
  9. rationalist

    Infamous? You should be fired.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bobby4231

    Guys this is legit. It wouldn't be on CNN.com if it wasn't legit.

    August 20, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobcat (in a hat)©

      Yes, and the big plus is it's on the internet, ergo it must be true.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Gigi

    "Infamous" aviator? Whoever wrote this should be FIRED immediately! Shame on you!

    August 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick Richards

      Agreed! I'm flabbergasted.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nish

      What's wrong with you? You want someone fired over the use of a petty word. She's infamous because her disappearance caused quite a stir with the public. Now may I propose a compromise to that statement: Go dry hump a cactus.

      August 20, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick in SD

      No, Nish, that's not correct. You can call her tragic last trip "infamous," as in "Amelia Earhart's infamous final flight," but she, herself, was not infamous.

      August 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. banasy©

    Omg!
    That was the funniest thing ever!
    It was worth the lost hour to get many, many more hours of laughing at that debacle!
    And just think if there *had* been something in there...
    Took old Geraldo's ego down a peg or two, though!

    August 20, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jim Busbin

    Why does this article begin by referring to Mrs. Earhart as "Infamous"?

    The journalist should know what :infamous: means!

    Jim Busbin

    August 20, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Caryn Clark-Helmer

    Would the famous (umm, not infamous) pilot have carried cosmetics allegedly found? Interesting that this is part of possible evidence. Who knows?

    August 20, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Rick Richards

    "INFAMOUS aviator Amelia Earhart"??? Really Ms. Zeidler? Are you kidding me? Do you not understand the significance of what this woman accomplished in her short life, and what she means to history? She was considered HEROIC and brave. Why you would choose to identify her with a derogatory word like that is mind boggling.

    August 20, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
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