- Historic Sites
Seventy-five years ago the "first lady of the air" vanished over the Pacific Ocean attempting to circumnavigate the globe. Today there may be renewed hope of solving the mystery.
Summer 2012 | Volume 62, Issue 2
By the fall of 1988, Gillespie had amassed $250,000 in donations, much of it from participants, to finance the first TIGHAR expedition to the tiny island of Nikumaroro, which he believes is the likeliest site for the lost aviators. Twenty-four years and nine expeditions later, Gillespie is still looking. Funding an active program of exploration is expensive. Some support came from the media over the years. The Discovery Channel is reported to have paid $50,000 in 1997 to make a one-hour documentary about one of the trips to the island. A three-person documentary crew from ABC-TV accompanied another trip. Then there was a splashy article in Life magazine. One trip, which included a contract with a firm that conducted sea-bottom searches, cost $483,000. A week before the scheduled departure, the TIGHAR treasury was still $200,000 short. At the last minute wealthy supporters offered no-interest, unsecured loans to close the gap.
It cost Mike Kammerer, founder of the Independent Television Network, $300,000 to purchase media rights to an expedition planned for the fall of 2001. That August, internet sources indicated that an Australian salvage company planned a trip to the island to search a suspected area before TIGHAR arrived. Outraged, Kammerer announced that he would parachute onto “Niku,” accompanied by a film crew and a former Miss World, who would function as “spokesmodel.” Together, they could respond to questions from the media and defend the island against the interlopers. Commenting on his patron’s scheme, Gillespie remarked: “The phrase ‘loose cannon on a rolling deck’ comes to mind.” Fortunately for all concerned, the Australian expedition was cancelled.
It requires a good deal of hype to keep a project like this alive. That is not a problem for Gillespie, as he demonstrated at a 1992 Washington, D.C., press conference. Referring to a half-dozen assorted objects discovered on the island, he argued that the “proof here is apparent for any rational person who looks at it. Present the same evidence to any dispassionate observer, and they will reach the same conclusion. The case is solved.” Others disagreed. Bill Prymak, President of the Amelia Earhart Society, suggested that Gillespie’s finds amounted to “a garbage bag full of nothing.”
As Ric Gillespie notes, “TIGHAR’s case rests on the artifacts found on Nikumaroro.” So, what have they found? A 1996 TIGHAR report documented just 16 artifacts, of which 12 are bits and pieces of assorted aircraft. Nine of those objects are either anonymous strands of wire, or are clearly from airplanes other than Amelia’s. TIGHAR claimed that three pieces of aluminum might have come from an aircraft like the Electra, or maybe not. In the end, the group’s strongest piece of aircraft evidence is a single oddly shaped section of aluminum skin. “There is only one possible conclusion,” Gillespie announced when he unveiled the bent aluminum at the 1992 news conference, “We have found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.” The organization admits that this piece of aluminum is thinner than that used in the construction of the Electra. A comparison of the rivet pattern and other characteristics, however, led TIGHAR to conclude that it might have been a patch used by Lockheed workmen to repair damage to the underside of the fuselage following the Honolulu accident.
Elgin Long, a veteran aviator and Earhart researcher with years of flying experience in the Pacific, wasn’t buying. When Gillespie asked for his opinion on the object, Long recruited a team of experts on the Lockheed Electra, including engineers and workmen who helped to build Earhart’s airplane and were involved in the repairs. They researched the original records, went over drawings and, with a transparent plastic template in hand, surveyed other surviving Lockheed 10s. “We decided,” Long declared, “the fragment could have come from anywhere … anywhere but Amelia Earhart’s airplane.”
Then there are the bones. TIGHAR researchers discovered that 11 human bones were found on the island in 1940, along with a sextant case and parts of a shoe, all of which were forwarded to administrative headquarters at Fiji. The first medical officer to examine the bones pronounced them to be the remains of a Polynesian male. A physician at a medical school on Fiji decided that they were the remains of a “short, stocky European or even half-caste” male.
The bones and other items have long since disappeared, but some measurements of the remains and the medical reports have been preserved. Employing a modern computer program, two contemporary physical anthropologists report that the measurements are “more likely female than male,” and “more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander.” The scientists freely admit, however, that the measurements were “taken over 55 years ago by a now-deceased individual of unknown expertise, with no description of the methods or assumptions employed.” In the end, they conclude: “It is … impossible to know whether the bones … were in fact those of a white female.”