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The Obsessed, Feuding Searchers Still Looking for Amelia Earhart

She and her navigator disappeared nearly 80 years ago.

Amelia Earhart, 1936.
Amelia Earhart, 1936. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-hec-40747

It was November 8, 2012, and Timothy Mellon, the son of the late Paul Mellon—once one of the richest men in the world—was ecstatic. The younger Mellon had recently returned from an expedition to the deserted Pacific atoll of Nikumaroro, where some think Amelia Earhart ended up after vanishing in 1937, and his instincts for sleuthing for the truth of the aviator’s disappearance were in overdrive.

Mellon went to Nikumaroro under the aegis of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), a non-profit that has been searching for Earhart for nearly 30 years. He also played a large role in financing the expedition, to the tune of around $1 million. That trip, in the end, didn’t uncover anything definitive, but an earlier TIGHAR expedition, in 2010, had produced an underwater video, which Mellon, then an active participant on TIGHAR’s messaging boards, had spent hours watching. In the course of examining the video, he said that November, he’d spotted something significant in the footage: Earhart’s plane. He could see it all: the tachometer, the altimeter, and a co-pilot’s wheel, among many other things.

Mellon posted about his discovery on a TIGHAR message board, but there was a problem: nobody else could see the plane. So after a couple of weeks, and a lot of rancorous disputes, executive director Richard Gillespie shut down the thread. This should have been the end of the story, but, Gillespie told me last month, it was just the beginning.

“The next thing I know,” Gillespie says, “he sues me.”


These are the basic, knowable facts about Amelia Earhart: On July 2, 1937, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared while flying in a Lockheed Model 10 Electra in the South Pacific. They were aiming for Howland Island, about 2,000 miles away from their next destination, Hawaii, and about 4,500 miles short of their ultimate destination, Oakland, California, which would have completed Earhart’s round-the-world trip. But the two never made it. Earhart’s last radio message said that “we are on the line 157 337”—157 degrees to 337 degrees—and “we are running on line north and south.” Or maybe she said “north to south.” Or “north then south.” Or something else entirely. But then came nothing.

The U.S. Navy looked for a few weeks and came up empty-handed, deciding ultimately that Earhart and Noonan crashed and sank into the Pacific Ocean. But almost immediately, there were whispers of conspiracy. This was in part because of brewing tension in East Asia, where Japan and China had already clashed over Japanese incursions into Manchuria. Within a few months of the disappearance, an Australian tabloid reported what it said was the real reason Earhart vanished: to give the U.S. an excuse to search for Japanese military installations.

Map of Amelia Earhart's 1937 round the world flight plan.
Map of Amelia Earhart’s 1937 round the world flight plan. Hellerick/CC BY-SA 3.0

By the 1970s, there were two prevailing theories: the U.S. Navy’s, which was that the plane crashed and sank, and the more intriguing possibility that Earhart had been captured by the Japanese. By the early 1990s, Gillespie and TIGHAR said they had enough evidence to offer a third theory: that Earhart and Noonan ended up as castaways on Nikumoraro. Today, the three major theories haven’t evolved much—although if you look, there are plenty of supplementary fringe theories from amateur message board detectives. Did she, in fact, crash on New Britain, an island in Papua New Guinea? Or, more improbably, did she survive and live undercover on Long Island under a different name?

We will probably never know. Seventy-nine-year-old mysteries don’t really get solved. They just linger, the perfect breeding ground for even more theories—and, in this case, a lot of animosity.

Take Mike Campbell, who has been writing and researching the Earhart mystery for years now. He’s published a book, Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, and for years has written about the mystery and responded to critics on his blog, earharttruth.wordpress.com.

Campbell thinks that Earhart and Noonan were captured by the Japanese and spent months, if not years, on Saipan—a conclusion he’s reached, he says, despite decades of government “propaganda” suggesting otherwise. And he takes a pugilistic approach to those who disagree, which includes, frequently, the media.

“I don’t mind talking to media who have some basic understanding about the truth in the Earhart disappearance, but few are interested in the truth anymore,” Campbell told me in our first email exchange. “Gillespie has been milking his phony Nikumaroro cash cow for nearly 30 years, and yet there’s still no end in sight to this ridiculous charade. You clearly are uninformed and have been assigned to do a story about TIGHAR’s latest false claim … Perhaps in a year or so President Trump might be interested in disclosing the truth about this longtime cover-up, a true American travesty.”

To hear Campbell tell it, the vast conspiracy behind Earhart’s disappearance includes a wide variety of actors, Gillespie among them. “Of course there’s something else going on,” Campbell wrote at one point. “It’s called “disinformation” and it comes in two main flavors, official and unofficial. How much time do you have to do your story? It’s simply not right, if they’re interested in the truth, to demand a rush job from someone who simply just began.”

Earhart's Lockheed Model 10 Electra, at Oakland, CA, March 20, 1937.
Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra, at Oakland, CA, March 20, 1937. Public Domain

Campbell was right—the Earhart details can get very complicated, very fast. What to make, for example, of claims by American Marines that they saw Earhart’s plane on Saipan, about 2,400 miles northwest of Howland Island? Or the claims of others—some uncovered by Gillespie—who said they saw a plane on Nikumaroro? And what exactly did Earhart mean in her final words over the radio, when she said that she and Noonan were “running on line [north and south]?”

You can spend hours, days, weeks, entire careers shuffling through the details. Gillespie, for one, has file cabinet after file cabinet of newspaper clippings, official documents, and other source materials, taking up a good portion of a room in his Pennsylvania house. Campbell’s book features hundreds of meticulous endnotes after every chapter, each suggesting painstaking due diligence, if not definitive evidence.

But like pretty much any unsolvable mystery, the Earhart question isn’t just about details; it’s a prism that reveals who you really are. To me, the fact that Earhart crashed and sank into the Pacific seems reasonable in an Occam’s Razor kind of way, in that to believe the others would require some effort and imagination. But for Gillespie, who talks frequently and high-mindedly about using real forensic science in the search for the missing aircraft, his approach has centered on creating what he says is an elaborate new academic discipline (or, his critics would say, merely a functioning business). For Campbell, Earhart is the clue to a much larger tale of government cover-ups and conspiracy, a battle against forces that are seen and unseen: the forces hiding the truth.

Among those involved in the cover-up, according to Campbell, is Gillespie, a 69-year-old who has been at this, for better or worse, for around 30 years. It started in 1983, when Gillespie experienced what these days is called a quarter-life crisis. He was 36 then, a married former Army lieutenant who’d spent over a decade rising in the ranks of the aviation insurance industry, investigating accidents and selling policies across the East Coast. His office was on the 17th floor of a building in Center City, Philadelphia. His title was vice president of aviation for an insurance brokerage firm. He was, on paper, successful—where many men of his generation told themselves they should be.

A satellite image of Nukumanu Islands, Papua New Guinea, where Earhart provided her last known position report.
A satellite image of Nukumanu Islands, Papua New Guinea, where Earhart provided her last known position report. NASA/Public Domain

But by 1984, things started to fall apart. He got divorced, which left him more or less broke. Then, after some tension at work, he quit his job. “I did all the stuff I was supposed to do,” Gillespie says. “I got a college degree, I was an Army officer, and it didn’t work out all that well. So, now, I’m going to do what I want to do.”

Gillespie grew up on airplanes thanks to the influence of his father, who was a bomber pilot in World War II. When he joined the Army, he couldn’t fly, owing to less-than-perfect vision, but when he got out he picked up where he left off, spending most of his twenties on airfields. But after he left the brokerage firm, he was for the first time untethered from the world of aviation, and looking for a way back into it. So, in January 1985, with the help of a $35,000 loan and his second wife Pat Thrasher, he founded TIGHAR.

Initially, the group, which Gillespie designed as a member-supported nonprofit, was focused on recovering aircraft that had nothing to do with the Earhart case. Gillespie says he had little interest in the case at the outset, thinking that the best evidence had already been picked over repeatedly through the years. But he changed his mind, he says, with some convincing.

“In ‘88 a couple of our members called up and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a new theory about Amelia Earhart,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to hear any new theories about Amelia Earhart.’ And they said, ‘No, you gotta listen.’ So they came, and they spread their maps out on the kitchen table. And to my surprise they didn’t tell any tales of the South Pacific, about what some Marine was told on Saipan,” Gillespie said. “They talked about navigation.”

The "Earhart Light" beacon on Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean, Earhart's intended destination before her plane disappeared.
The “Earhart Light” beacon on Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean, Earhart’s intended destination before her plane disappeared. Joann94024/CC BY-SA 3.0

Within a few years, Gillespie and his group were making headlines across the country.

“We’re very confident that the Amelia Earhart case is solved,” Gillespie told an “army of reporters” in 1992, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Gillespie said then that he’d found a part of Earhart’s plane, in addition to what looked to be part of Earhart’s shoe (“WE DID IT,” TIGHAR’s newsletter jubilantly reported.) But because the plane part lacked serial numbers or other positively identifying characteristics, it didn’t quite qualify as a smoking gun, or in Gillespie’s words, an “any-idiot artifact—you’re holding on to it and any idiot can see that this is it.” What did he have, then? A piece of metal found on Nikumaroro, which, he says, matches up to the specifications of Earhart’s plane, an opinion shared by a metallurgist from MIT. Gillespie spent the next 24 years collecting more evidence to prove his theory of what he believes happened to Earhart: namely, that she died as a castaway on Nikumaroro, about 372 miles south of Howland Island, where she was headed.

Those decades were punctuated with headline-making news conferences—including one with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—that Gillespie hoped would keep the case in the limelight, while he also continuously raised money to finance expeditions by boat to Nikumaroro.

His latest scoop came last month, when TIGHAR announced a new finding: bones recovered on Nikumaroro were consistent with Earhart’s sex, nationality, and measurements. This announcement was met with headlines across the world. “Amelia Earhart’s last chapter was as a heroic castaway,” CNN’s headline blared, even as critics were again quick to throw cold water on Gillespie’s supposed victory.

President Hoover presenting the National Geographic Society gold medal to Earhart recognition of her non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean
President Hoover presenting the National Geographic Society gold medal to Earhart recognition of her non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-20705

“The point is that he’s got a theory and so he’s got to prove his theory,” Dorothy Cochrane, who curates aircraft at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and has long sparred with Gillespie. “This is the greatest mystery of the 20th century. A legitimate excellent pilot, hero, role model, one of the celebrities of the century. She’s an attention-getter and everyone wants to know what happened to her. It’s a legitimate question and interest. But he’s got absolutely nothing that’s definitive and nothing new.”

Cochrane, like her other colleagues at the Smithsonian, believe that Earhart and her navigator, Noonan, crashed and sank. “The problem with that,” she acknowledges, “is that it’s boring, and it’s unprovable at this point unless someone can find her aircraft on the bottom of the ocean.”

Her explanation for Gillespie’s persistence boils down to money. “He’s used the same quote unquote evidence over and over again,” she says. “He does this on a routine basis whenever he wants to mount another expedition … It’s his business. It’s his livelihood.”

Still, Gillespie is hardly making millions off his obsession. TIGHAR’s latest available tax forms indicate the group took in around $700,000 in the tax year ending in June 2015, with $177,372 of that going to Gillespie—which he says is actually payment for both him and his wife, Pat Thrasher, who each work full-time on the non-profit. His home, which doubles as TIGHAR headquarters, is located on a modest farm in rural Pennsylvania, where Gillespie and Thrasher work from the same home office—making calls, firing off emails, planning a 12th expedition to Nikumaroro, and, incidentally, keeping horses and a few chickens. When I visited last month to talk to Gillespie, I found a hen walking around on the porch.

“It’s vicious,” he said of the squabbling among Earhart researchers, which he compared to disputes among religious factions. “And if you can’t refute the guy who says he’s got the true faith, he must be a con man. You shoot the messenger.”

Richard Gillespie in his home office.
Richard Gillespie in his home office. Erik Shilling

Face to face, Gillespie’s theory of what happened on July 2, 1937, is compelling. Noonan relied on celestial navigation, Gillespie says, but that night the conditions were overcast, making such navigation difficult, if not impossible. This meant that when Noonan and Earhart thought they’d reached Howland Island, they’d actually missed the mark by quite a bit.

“They’ve been in the air at this moment for 19 hours and 12 minutes and sitting between two 550 horsepower engines,” Gillespie says. “They’re deaf. They can’t hear each other. They’re communicating with the little written notes. She makes this radio transmission that says, ‘We must be on you but cannot see you.’”

Going south on a navigational line, he says, they then found Nikumaroro, where they landed on a reef at low tide and tried to send emergency signals to the Navy. At one point, Gillespie produced a presentation to illustrate a complicated theory about when Earhart could be sending emergency signals, which he argued coincided with the tides; if her plane landed at low tide, her radio would have been useless at high tide, when the water would be too high run the plane’s engine and power the radio. Gillespie produced a graph that shows signals that appear to coincide with the tides. After about a week, according to the graph, the signals fade.

Gillespie also walked me through some of the other evidence: a woman who lived on Nikumaroro as a girl, who told them that in the 1940s her father pointed out the wreckage of what he said was a plane. And then there is a mysterious photograph taken by the British three months after Earhart’s disappearance, which a forensics expert said shows an unnatural object consistent with what would be parts of a Lockheed Electra. Gillespie took that photograph to experts at the State Department, where he had developed contacts. “Basically we see what your guy sees,” he says they told them, but refused to give him a written report—to avoid irritating higher-ups, he says.

A 1937 photo taken by the British off Nikumaroro that shows a mysterious object in the center, possibly a part of Earhart's plane.
A 1937 photo taken by the British off Nikumaroro that shows a mysterious object in the center, possibly a part of Earhart’s plane. TIGHAR

Still, in February 2012, Gillespie met with Kurt Campbell, who was then assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “‘Ric, we think you’ve got this nailed,’” Gillespie said Campbell told him, referring in part to the State Department’s analysis of the photo (Campbell did not return a request for comment). “We want to see you get out there and find an airplane this summer.” A month later, in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room at the State Department, Gillespie met with Clinton, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and Bob Ballard, best known for finding the Titanic, to announce the trip.

A few days, after that, Gillespie says, he got an email. The sender was Tim Mellon, the guy who would later take Gillespie to court. Mellon wanted to come along on the expedition, while offering $1 million out of his own pocket to help make it happen.

From left, Tessie Lambourne, Foreign Secretary of the Republic of Kiribati, whose territory includes Nikumaroro; Pat Thrasher; Gillespie; then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Bob Ballard; and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2012.
From left, Tessie Lambourne, Foreign Secretary of the Republic of Kiribati, whose territory includes Nikumaroro; Pat Thrasher; Gillespie; then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Bob Ballard; and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2012. TIGHAR

The trip itself, Gillespie says, was a bit of failure, owing to shoddy equipment and the rush to meet the deadline requested by the State Department people. Mellon, Gillespie says, was “fine” on the trip, only later reviewing the 2010 footage and claiming to uncover things that everyone else had missed.

“Tim says, ‘The airplane’s right there.’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘That’s a part of this and this is a part of this and oh, heck that’s Amelia’s hand. Oh, there’s body parts here.’ I said, ‘Tim, that’s not—that’s coral!’ He said, ‘Nah, nah…’ And this is on an online forum and he’s doing screen captures and circles and arrows and I’m going, ‘Shit,’ and then he decides, oh, there’s her banjo. Banjo? Stamps, toilet paper—it got really crazy. And then he saw Earhart and Noonan’s heads encased in cellophane bags attached to a hose, attached to a nitrogen bottle they used to service the landing gear.

“Mellon,” Gillespie added, “thought they committed suicide and TIGHAR needed to inform the government of Kiribati because it was probably illegal to commit suicide back then.”

Tim Mellon
Tim Mellon L. Rubin

Mellon, who Forbes said in 2014 was worth around $1 billion, is a bit of a recluse, and efforts to reach him for comment on this story were unsuccessful. He emerged at one point during the lawsuit in 2013 to tell the Casper Star-Tribune, in Wyoming, that he was not planning to start a for-profit venture to capitalize on any Earhart findings. But sightings of him online or in the media are pretty scarce. Last year, he released a memoir—apparently self-published—with the title panam.captain: The Intriguing Story of Tim Mellon. “Tim’s story explores the many ways he has been able to turn theoretical opportunity into productive reality,” a description of the book reads. “His memoir puts forth a refreshingly candid look into his family life as well as his business successes.”

Mellon’s lawsuit, filed in June 2013 against Gillespie and TIGHAR, was not one of those successes. The suit made a lot of allegations, but, mainly, it alleged fraud. If Gillespie had a video from 2010 that had already spotted Earhart’s plane, why did he need to spend $1 million of Mellon’s money to go on another expedition? The problem with that, as a judge ruled and an appeals court later upheld, was that Mellon’s interpretation of the video was a matter of opinion, not fact. Even Mellon’s own experts could not definitively say that Earhart’s plane was in the video, a judge noted.

Earhart in the cockpit of an Electra airplane.
Earhart in the cockpit of an Electra airplane. Library of Congress/LC-DIG-ppmsca-31771

The suit’s dismissal felt like an official debunking of yet another Earhart theory—one of dozens if not hundreds, each with their own proponents. Through sheer persistence, Gillespie, in 2016, has become something like the godfather of them all, if simply by default. His research will always have its critics—rival enthusiasts like Campbell, institutional experts like Cochrane, or those who think Gillespie’s only in it for the money, to satisfy the Indiana Jones fantasies of a few wealthy donors. But he remains possibly the only one who keeps throwing significant money at the mystery, even if he still hasn’t definitively proven anything yet. Gillespie is older, and perhaps a bit wiser now, the heady days of announcing to the world that the mystery is over having had something like a chastening effect.

“You don’t connect all the dots,” he says. “Most of the dots can’t be connected. The lesson is that this is how science works. It’s not: have a great idea, go out and find the evidence, and announce your discovery. It’s collect information, develop a hypothesis, test out the hypothesis, find out that you’re wrong, use that information to construct a new hypothesis, find out that that one’s wrong. It’s failure, after failure, after failure, after success. That’s what it’s like. It’s [been] 28 years and we’re not done yet.”