KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Last month, aviation detective Ric Gillespie, who has led many expeditions to the Pacific looking for Amelia Earhart’s lost plane, traveled to a different remote location:
He took with him a jagged scrap of aluminum recovered from an island beach 23 years ago. He showed it to employees of an aircraft restoration firm who have been refurbishing a Lockheed Electra, a vintage aircraft very much like what Earhart piloted when she and her navigator disappeared in 1937.
Gillespie wondered: Was this scrap of aluminum once part of Earhart’s plane?
“We all came away thinking it can’t be anything else,” Gillespie said this week.
Baloney, other researchers have said.
Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, went public this week with this latest theory: His scrap of aluminum, recovered on a 1991 expedition, probably had been installed as a patch over a window in Earhart’s plane during a 1937 stop in Miami, Fla.
Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared July 2, 1937, trying to find Howland Island, their scheduled refueling stop, some 1,700 miles west of Hawaii.
Gillespie thinks that the two landed on a reef near Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, and that Earhart spent several days sending distress radio signals before rising tides washed her plane into the sea.
Photos held by the newspaper The Miami Herald, Gillespie said, document that the plane left Miami with a new metal patch, replacing what had been a custom-installed window.
Next year, he said, his team hopes to return to Nikumaroro to investigate a “sonar anomaly” that could represent the fuselage of Earhart’s aircraft submerged below the water’s surface.
Gillespie’s announcement prompted a familiar set of reactions, ranging from genuine interest to outright anger.
Louise Foudray, caretaker of the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kan., cautioned visitors this week that Gillespie’s latest theory remains only that. Several times over the last 20 years, Gillespie’s research has prompted arguments and rebuttals regarding Earhart’s fate.
In a 1992 news conference, Gillespie said that a heel from a woman’s size 9 shoe strongly suggested Earhart had spent time on the island.
The size of a different Earhart shoe, displayed in Atchison, threw doubt on that claim.
“They have been jumping to the conclusion that ‘the plane has been found,’ and we have to set them straight,” Foudray said.
“We just say that they may have found something.”
Others, like Florida researcher Mike Campbell, denounced the latest news as one more example of the wide-eyed treatment Gillespie routinely has received from a media establishment eager to play up his Earhart disappearance scenarios at the expense of others.
“Every time he goes over there, he grabs whatever he can find and then tries to link it up to Earhart,” said Campbell, author of “Amelia Earhart: The Truth At Last.”
Fred Bruns, president of the company Gillespie visited, Wichita Air Services, said he admired the rigorous research methods of Gillespie and his team.
“I was very impressed with the whole scenario,” he said.
Gillespie first visited Nikumaroro in 1988, and his wife discovered the aluminum scrap on a 1991 trip.
“We’ve had had this thing for 23 years,” he said this week.
After he presented the scrap at a 1992 news conference as a piece from Earhart’s plane, two former Lockheed employees insisted that the aluminum could not have come from her plane.
Several months ago, however, Gillespie contacted the Herald about photos of Earhart’s plane taken on her 1937 around-the-world trip. Some photos showed that a window had been patched over. Repairs had been required after Earhart had landed roughly in Miami and this patch, he says, apparently was one of them.
Close examination of one 1937 image revealed unique rivet patterns matching those on the aluminum patch, which had not been installed by Lockheed but by a Miami repair shop, Gillespie said. The pattern, Gillespie added, serves as a fingerprint, linking his scrap to Earhart’s aircraft.
He also had learned of a Lockheed Electra being restored in Kansas. Only a few such airplanes still exist. In early October, Gillespie’s team traveled to Newton.
“We asked if we might be permitted to take some measurements,” said Gillespie. “They were wonderful and allowed us to ‘un-restore’ part of their airplane.
“Once we had access to the underlying structure, we could hold the artifact up to that and see how it lined up with the Electra’s structure.”
It matched, he said.
But if this scrap came from Earhart’s plane, where is the rest of the plane?
Gillespie hopes the answer can be found from a sonar survey of Nikumaroro’s western shoreline conducted during a 2012 expedition.
“There was this huge anomaly, something different than everything else around it,” he said.
The shape measured about 37 feet long.
“That is about the right size to be the fuselage of a Lockheed Electra,” said Gillespie, who said his team studied the sonar results after returning home. “We have to go back.
“ … Maybe the airplane remains far more intact than ever dreamed.”
Gillespie’s theory that Earhart and Noonan died on Nikumaroro endures amid several others. One theory is that Earhart spent World War II in a China prison camp. Another theory holds that she resumed her life under an assumed name in Long Island, N.Y.
Many believe that the Lockheed Electra ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean, killing both occupants.
The TIGHAR website includes links for those who want to contribute to funding the next expedition, which will cost an estimated $367,000.
Gillespie’s fundraising efforts, meanwhile, bother Campbell, who believes that Earhart and Noonan never landed on Nikumaroro but died in Japanese captivity on Saipan after first landing in the Marshall Islands. President Franklin Roosevelt, upon learning of their imprisonment, declined to intervene, he said.
“Today the media establishment is still protecting Roosevelt,” he said. If stories spread of Roosevelt’s refusal to help Earhart, Campbell said, “his legacy would be ashes.”
Another critic, Gary LaPook, a pilot and lawyer specializing in aircraft crash cases, said Gillespie is ignoring that the patch’s variety of aluminum did not begin to be manufactured until World War II.
“I’m a lawyer, and who has the burden of proof here?” LaPook said. “He wants us to accept this piece of evidence, but he needs to authenticate it.”
Foudray, meanwhile, said she is impressed how Gillespie, who delivered a presentation in Atchison summarizing his research a few years ago, has been careful to moderate his claims.
“It was pretty low-key, in contrast to some of the claims over the years,” she said.
“If he does stumble upon something that is proven to be part of her plane, we need to know about it, of course.”
Gillespie, meanwhile, isn’t bothered by those who remain skeptical.
“Anything about Amelia Earhart will always be controversy city.”