Still Up In the Air

Ric Gillespie with artifacts from a South Pacific atoll. He has searched the island six times already and plans to return to dig again.
Ric Gillespie with artifacts from a South Pacific atoll. He has searched the island six times already and plans to return to dig again. (By Bebeto Matthews -- Associated Press)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007


Ric Gillespie and nine amateur explorers recently sat around a large table in a rented conference room, plotting the next mission in their decades-long search for the remains of the world's most famous female aviator, Amelia Earhart.

Gillespie, who is leading an expedition in a few weeks to a small Pacific island, has already journeyed to the harsh and remote atoll six times in the last 19 years. He has endured seasickness, sunburns, cuts and bruises while sifting through dirt, hacking through thick bush, cutting down trees -- all in pursuit of a piece of evidence that proves Earhart managed to land her twin-engined plane on the island 70 years ago.

Perhaps the world's most dedicated Earhart sleuth, Gillespie is chasing a mystery that has drawn a legion of enthusiasts rivaling those still investigating the John F. Kennedy assassination, the death of Princess Diana and the identity of Jack the Ripper. Earhart, the first woman to pilot solo across the Atlantic, remains a romantic figure in American lore, the subject of scores of books, documentaries and Internet chats.

When she vanished on July 2, 1937, attempting to make more history during her around-the-world flight, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized one of the most exhaustive air and sea rescue operations in naval history. On July 19, after spending millions of dollars and scouring 250,000 square miles of ocean, the government gave up. But the fascination with Earhart's life and disappearance didn't end.

Some conspiracy buffs have dedicated their lives to proving she was captured by the Japanese during an American spy mission. Some even believe she was forced into becoming the infamous Tokyo Rose, a broadcaster who taunted U.S. troops during the war while playing snappy tunes. A few claim she reemerged as a New Jersey housewife after vanishing.

But Gillespie, a former aviation insurance adjuster, is different. No imaginative theories clutter his mind. In fact, he concedes what most authorities believe: Earhart perished in the Pacific. What he doesn't believe is that Earhart ditched her plane into the ocean after getting lost, as Coast Guard and Navy officials and most aviation historians have concluded. Instead, Gillespie is convinced that she and her navigator managed to find a remote Pacific atoll -- the one he keeps re-exploring -- and successfully landed on a reef. That's what he's out to prove.

Gillespie has difficultly explaining why this mystery has consumed so much of his life in the last two decades. He is 59, with a big mop of gray hair, a large gray mustache and a stomach that hangs slightly over his belt. He likes to wear button-down shirts and bluejeans, and has the air of a salesman in college professor clothing.

Although his house is filled with Earhart memorabilia -- including a large sketch of the aviator that looms above his desk -- he says he's not that interested in the life of the iconic pilot. He doesn't even think much of her as an aviator. "Earhart was an average pilot at best who just got tremendous press," he says.

So, why spend the last 20 years digging up an island trying to find the remains of Earhart or her plane? Is it ego, the idea of becoming known as the man who found the world's most celebrated female aviator?

Is it to pay the bills? As director of a nonprofit group dedicated to finding and recovering lost aircraft, he acknowledges that his Earhart Project is a big donation draw.

Or, is Gillespie simply the kind of person drawn to the narrow details of history -- like the Beethoven inquisitors who cared nothing about the composer's music but were desperate to learn the cause of his death?

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