Better Luck Next Time
Ric Gillespie has spent the past three decades looking for what he calls an “any-idiot artifact”: a bombproof discovery that will persuade the world he’s found Earhart’s crash site. Here are TIGHAR’s greatest whiffs.
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On TIGHAR’s first Nikumaroro expedition, in 1989, divers found a 12-volt battery consistent with the kind used in Earhart’s Electra. What Gillespie didn’t know at the time was that during World War II, military aircraft similar to the Electra occasionally visited Nikumaroro, which had been colonized since 1938. The next day, TIGHAR found similar batteries strewn about the island’s old radio station.
In 1991, TIGHAR found the heel of a woman’s shoe, apparently from the 1930s, and claimed it could have belonged to Earhart. The only problem: it was from a size 9, while Earhart wore a size 6.5. An executive with the company that had made the heel later told The New York Times, “It could have been on a man’s shoe.”
Gillespie recovered a scrap of aircraft aluminum on the 1991 expedition and subsequently claimed that an expert at the National Transportation Safety Board had verified it as congruent with the Electra. “There is only one possible conclusion,” he announced. “We found a piece of Amelia Earhart’s aircraft.” Lockheed engineers later decreed that the spacing between rivets didn’t match up with the Electra’s.
During the 1991 expedition, Gillespie found a grave site outside the ruins of a village. Since the grave wasn’t in the village proper, Gillespie deduced that the site might contain the remains of a foreigner. After four days of digging, the team discovered the bones of a baby.
In 1998, a helicopter pilot tipped off Gillespie that he’d moved a Pratt and Whitney engine—the same kind found in Earhart’s Electra—from Nikumaroro to neighboring Kanton Island in the seventies. TIGHAR dispatched a team to Kanton, which, unbeknownst to Gillespie, was by then little more than a landfill. Gillespie and his colleagues sifted through the wreckage for a few hours before giving up.