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. Mr. Bones

    Quick method that might help some of you with your grammar-based rage issues while reading CNN.

    1. Look at the URL (that's the word-thingy up at the top of the screen with a whole lotsa dots n' slashes n' stuff, 'kay?)

    2. Over towards the left (put your hands out in front'a ya, palms down, with your thumbs stickin' out...the one that makes an "L" is your left) of the URL thingy, see if you can find the words ""

    3. If those words are in the thingy (with all the dots n' slashes n' stuff), that means the article you're reading falls under the category of one of CNNs blogs, not its "regular" news stories.

    4. Understand that blogs might contain opinions and even (due to time constraints and the rapid "write it/give it a once-over/hit PUBLISH" nature of most news blogs) might contain a typo or other error.

    5. Let go of your rage and do something fun.

    August 21, 2012 at 10:07 am | Report abuse |
    • JeramieH

      There's understandable typos, and then there's just people being ignorant of basic vocabulary.

      August 21, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  2. latricoteuse

    This is just diverting resources from Area 51 coverage

    August 21, 2012 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  3. publius1788

    Here is the definition of infamous (see below).

    Considering the lead is the most important part of a sentence, I sure hope the writer puts a little more thought into his choice of words.

    in·fa·mous  [in-fuh-muhs]
    1. having an extremely bad reputation: an infamous city.
    2. deserving of or causing an evil reputation; shamefully malign; detestable: an infamous deed.
    3. Law .
    a. deprived of certain rights as a citizen, as a consequence of conviction of certain offenses.
    b. of or pertaining to offenses involving such deprivation.

    August 21, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  4. Doug

    I do wish writers would stop using "infamous" when they mean "famous." "Infamous" is a bad thing, like John Wesley Hardin or Jack The Ripper. "Famous" is a good thing, although for Amelia I wonder if "world renouned" might be even better.

    August 21, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  5. A Friend of Father O'Blivion

    Loving how everyone is flipping out over the misuse of the world infamous.

    August 21, 2012 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Craiger

      It may seem petty to you, but we are forced to go through years of schooling and paying for our own college educations to avoid this. If we allow one writer to get away with this, what does that say about the rest of us.. the dumbing down of America has been and is well under way.

      August 21, 2012 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
    • JBullets

      I didn't get past the first sentence without scrolling to the comments. It's a terrible word choice for any writer, but especially a "professional".

      August 21, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
  6. alamb

    this is total nonsense reporting. Go there and try to retrieve something instead of floating some theory of perhaps or who knows.

    August 21, 2012 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  7. kk

    forget about spelling , lets go get her and her buddy off the island and the 20 kids they probably had waiting to be picked up

    August 21, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  8. Hap Hazzard

    This proves my theory, Amelia Earhart was shot down by yellow arrows!

    August 21, 2012 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
  9. Mary

    The CNN announcer needs to look up the pronunciation of "Kiribati" as she's not even close. The "ti" at the end of the word is pronounced as "s", so it's "Ki – ri – bas".

    August 21, 2012 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  10. Davehuckle

    It is extremely unlikely that anyone would find anything from Amelia Earhart lost flight from 75 years ago in the same place in the ocean that she likely crashed into. Ocean currents would have moved any floating debris from her plane 1000's of miles away by now. This is plain logic and not difficult to see.

    August 21, 2012 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • jaffo

      Uh...actually, the evidence seems to refute your ill-informed contention. Way to be a jerk...

      August 21, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
  11. alex

    This is EXACTLY why you never go on a 3 hour tour!

    August 21, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • tjp44

      hi girlfriend. Are we still on for thought?

      August 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • tjp44

      i meant tonight, lover girl. 🙂

      August 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Yakobi

    I've been listening to the same story from Gillespie for 20 years. He's always convinced the next little bit of evidence is "proof". He's a charlatan whose purpose in life seems to be fundraising for the next expedition.

    August 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • JeramieH

      You do realize that's how research works? For that matter, they've been trying to find a cure for cancer for 30+ years. Does that mean they're all charlatans and we should stop trying?

      August 21, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Voiceinthewind

    Christ this is almost as bad as hearing about the Holocaust every day, they both are becomming more and more myth like each time I read about them. Get over it and get a life already.

    August 21, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bayousara

    Geez, Mitt Romney was hardly the most popular choice from a field of real losers for the Republicans. Now that he reached the top of the list, everyone seems to think he is the greatest Republican who ever ran for the presidency. He is still the same ol Mitt who couldn't win the last time he ran for prez.

    August 21, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
  15. OriginalPhantom

    Do you really think Gillespie is on to something; or, is it more likely that he is only working his financial supporters so he can continue with his hobby. Probably he'll need a couple more millions so he can go back for a closer look at whatever.

    August 21, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
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