The words that changed everything came after his wife had wandered off to photograph a collapsed building. Ric Gillespie continued to examine some of the flotsam washed up by the big storm that must have hit Gardner Island since their previous visit two years before.
“You might want to come over and look at this,” his wife, Pat Thrasher, suddenly called out.
Gillespie suspended his hunt for anything new the storm might have delivered, any possible clue that the great aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had ended up here when their plane disappeared in 1937. He went over to his wife, and she pointed to a piece of metal that lay atop some storm-tossed debris.
“It was just sitting there,” Gillespie remembers.
Gillespie is a pilot and the son of a pilot, and he had spent years investigating air mishaps for insurance companies and then air mysteries for the organization he founded, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). He looked at the thin sheet of metal ringed by rivet holes and he knew instantly what it was his wife had chanced upon.
“It looks like piece of an airplane. It’s obviously a piece of an airplane,” Gillespie says.
This particular bit of airplane was vivid with the possibility that it was a significant clue. There was a lone surviving rivet, but there had been lines of them securing the metal to an aircraft, perhaps Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.
After his return to the United States, Gillespie took the discovery to the National Transportation Safety Board lab. The experts there said the material and the riveting was what would have been used in the relevant time period. Gillespie then asked whether such a piece would fit anywhere on a Lockheed Electra like the one Earhart had flown when she made her doomed attempt to circumnavigate the globe. The answer:
But somebody remembered that her airplane had undergone considerable repairs after the mishap in Hawaii that ended her first attempt to fly around the world. Gillespie and his comrades engaged in extended theory and speculation. The structural experts then offered an opinion as to whether this particular piece might have been used to fix the section of the aircraft that had been damaged.
“Another no,” Gillespie recalls.
Gillespie and his organization then took the piece to the U.S. Air Force restoration shop. He asked if would fit anywhere on any of the aircraft that were flown in that part of the world.
“Another no,” Gillespie remembers.
The clue seemed to have led exactly nowhere.
“At that point, I kind of threw up my hands, I didn’t know where this damn thing came from,” Gillespie says. “We’ve got a part for an alien spaceship.”
One of the group’s mechanics then recalled that after having a special window custom-installed in the fuselage, Earhart had arranged for it to be covered over while she was in Miami at the start of her final trip. Gillespie had forensic-imaging experts examine photos taken of the plane and its patched-over window at the Miami airport. It suddenly seemed that the metal might not be from an alien spaceship after all.
“It’s the right dimension, the right rivet pattern,” Gillespie says.
On Oct. 7, Gillespie visited some vintage aircraft lovers in Newton, Kansas, who were rebuilding an Electra once owned by a Czech shoe company. The piece of metal was held up to the place in the structure where the window had been covered over. The fit was perfect and the rivet holes aligned.
“We’ve got a match,” Gillespie says. “It’s like a fingerprint.”
The next step was to get forensic metallurgists and other experts to study the piece for anything its various scars and general condition might reveal.
“We’re treating it like we’ve got a part of Amelia Earhart’s airplane,” Gillespie says. “This is full of clues about what happened.”
He sees all the more reason to continue with plans for their next expedition, in June 2015. They hope to employ a remote device to investigate a sonar anomaly they discovered in 600 feet of water off the western end of the island.
“I love it,” the 67-year-old Gillespie says of the investigation, with its twists and its series of no’s reprieved by a resounding and thrilling yes.
But his excitement is not the intoxication of someone smitten by the romantic musings that swirl around the lost aviator and her legacy. He had, indeed, previously resisted repeated suggestions that he seek to solve the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance.
“I said I didn’t want to hear any theories about Amelia Earhart,” Gillespie says.
Then, in 1988, two members of his organization who had served as military air navigators took what Earhart gave as her heading on her last radio call and extrapolated her course via celestial reckoning such as Noonan would have employed. They concluded that she might have ended up on Gardner Island, a remote and then uninhabited speck bereft of fresh water in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
Gillespie finds true romance in reasoning, and he was intrigued. He became more so after learning that the U.S. Navy had theorized much the same in 1937. A Navy flyover is supposed to have seen signs of habitation on Gardner Island, also known as Nikumaroro, but had found nobody in evidence when finally managing to get there.
When the British subsequently arrived to briefly settle the island, they found human remains and part of a woman’s shoe, as well as a box that had once contained a sextant. The remains were shipped to Fiji just as the war was about to sweep the region. The bones were at first said to be those of a short man and then those of a tallish woman, and then they were lost.
The British had long since quit the island when Gillespie and his wife arrived for the first time. Their excavations on that and subsequent trips uncovered various items suggesting that Earhart and Noonan might have been there, but no definitive evidence.
“Nothing with a name on it yet,” Gillespie says.
The strongest clue is that piece of metal his wife chanced upon 23 years ago. He continues to be enthralled not so much by Earhart as by the process of determining what exactly befell her and her aircraft.
“This is about scientific investigation,” he says. “That’s what I love, connecting the dots, figuring out what happened. Sorting out the evidence.”
He has an immediate answer for those who ask him what is the point of it all.
“This project is a wonderful vehicle for exploring and demonstrating how we go about finding out what is true,” he says. “And everybody needs that.”