Ric Gillespie is a pilot and former aviation insurance investigator who for the last several decades has advocated the theory that Amelia Earhart, on the day she disappeared during her around-the-world journey, crash-landed on a tiny Pacific island called Nikumaroro 350 miles away from her intended target. Gillespie isn’t a quack, but his explanation of Earhart’s disappearance and death (he presumes she died of thirst or hunger after being stranded on the island) is far from universally accepted. He’s collected a number of intriguing artifacts on Nikumaroro, but his finds have never been definitive. When the New Republic profiled Gillespie two years ago, reporter Jesse Zwick wrote that the Earhart-ologist is as much a storytelling dreamer as a researcher:
“If [Earhart]’s a pioneer in something,” Gillespie told me near the end of my visit, “she and her husband were pioneers in media manipulation.”
When I spoke with Gillespie’s critics, I was struck by how much their descriptions of him echoed his own description of Earhart. “I think he’s a genius,” Susan Butler told me…“I understand why he does it—I think he’s having a wonderful time. He’s getting other people to bankroll a wonderful way of life. Nikumaroro is a gorgeous island. And I think he must also believe it.” Indeed, Gillespie’s search, the way in which his gifted showmanship has overshadowed the dubiousness of his discoveries and long odds of success, may be the most fitting tribute that the world could offer Earhart on the seventy-fifth anniversary of her death.
Gillespie and his organization, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), are planning another of their Nikumaroro trips for next year. And, perhaps not coincidentally, they’ve just announced that they “strongly” believe a scrap of metal found on the island—which had previously been shown not to match the material used to make Earhart’s plane—is in fact a makeshift patch that was installed over what had been a window. You can see TIGHAR’s analysis at its website; it’s probably too technical for the layman to make a judgment on, but with the attention that the announcement has gotten via Wired, Discovery News, and other science-y outlets, outside specialists will no doubt weigh in. And either way, Gillespie and his group say their trip next year could uncover the fuselage of Earhart’s plane, which they believe they might have found (via sonar image) under 600 feet of water near the island.
One of TIGHAR’s sponsors, incidentally? FedEx, whose affiliation with Gillespie actually predates Cast Away by four years.