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Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance

by Ric Gillespie, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 2006, $28.95.

Ric Gillespie has been the most dogged investigator among more than three dozen writers, several of them pilots, who have studied Amelia Earhart’s life and put their theories and conjectures about her final days in print. As the executive director of TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery), Gillespie is firm in his belief that evidence of her demise is waiting to be discovered.

On July 2, 1937, Earhart and Fred Noonan left Lae, New Guinea, for a tiny piece of coral called Howland Island more than 2,500 statute miles away. They never made it. The radio transmissions between their Lockheed Electra and the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, directed to assist Earhart and Noonan, are well known, but no one understands exactly what was happening on board while they searched for their minuscule destination. Although there were sporadic radio communications between the Electra and those sent to refuel it when they reached the island, questions remain: Did the plane run out of gas? If so, did they find another island and land, or did they have to ditch?

Earhart and Noonan have been variously reported as having been on a secret mission for the government, having been captured and executed by the Japanese, or having made a safe landing on an uncharted island where they died. Based on Earhart’s last transmission to Itasca that “We must be on you but cannot see you…gas is running low,” many believe she had no choice but to ditch. If she put the gear down, the Electra probably nose-dived when it hit the water and quickly headed for the bottom. But if she didn’t, the plane might have floated briefly with its nearly empty tanks, and if they were able to get into their small life raft, they might have survived briefly and then drowned.

Gillespie is perhaps best known for his expeditions to a small island named Nikumaroro, formerly known as Gardner Island in the Phoenix group of islands, which was within the fuel range of the Electra if they had decided to follow a “line of position” track toward it. Gillespie and his TIGHAR believers have previously found artifacts in a campsite that might have been left by the two survivors. But he doesn’t discuss these visits in depth in Finding Amelia. He presents a chronologically documented history of her flight and its aftermath as reported in official government records, radio messages and interviews.

A DVD in the back of the book reproduces those official documents as well as the technical analyses that have been conducted by scientists, aviation archeologists and historians. This seems like a valuable addition that publishers might adopt for other research-heavy works.

As seen on his Earhart Project Web site, Gillespie remains firm in his belief that there is enough compelling evidence yet to be found on Nikumaroro or in the surrounding water to make one more attempt to solve the mystery of the disappearance of “Lady Lindy.” He and 14 others plan to set sail from Fiji and begin another painstaking dig during this 70th anniversary year of her disappearance. Only one thing seems certain: Ric Gillespie will not cease trying to solve this captivating mystery.


Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here