Legendary pilot Amelia Earhart's disappearance is a decades-old mystery. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
As America endured the drab years of the Great Depression, Amelia Earhart's exploits were a bright spot.
She broke gender barriers by completing solo flights most male pilots hadn't accomplished and traveled the country speaking about women's empowerment and the glorious promise of air travel.
Then, she vanished.
Her mysterious disappearance over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 has vexed historians and fueled conspiracy theories for decades. Earhart was declared dead after the U.S. government concluded that she crashed somewhere in the Pacific as she tried to become the first woman to circle the globe, her plane sinking to the seabed.
But an alternate theory of what became of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, has recently resurfaced in the news.
Ric Gillespie, director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), thinks Earhart spent her last days as a castaway on a desolate Pacific island.
Gillespie's group says Earhart's bones may have been discovered on Gardner Island in 1940, three years after he suspected that she crash-landed there.
British officials discovered a partial human skeleton in 1940 and wondered whether it might belong to the famed aviator. So officials shipped the 13 bones to a medical school in Fiji, where they were examined by D.W. Hoodless, a physician.
Hoodless took measurements and concluded that the bones were likely those of a short, stocky European man — not Earhart's.
The bones were then discarded.
But TIGHAR investigators think Hoodless was wrong.
In 1998, the group took the measurements from Hoodless and ran them through a more robust anthropological database. The bones, they determined, could have belonged to a taller-than-average woman of European descent.
Earhart was 5-feet-7, or, by some accounts, 5-feet-8 — several inches taller than average.
Curious to know whether the bones could have been Earhart's, TIGHAR recently asked Jeff Glickman, a forensic examiner, to determine whether the measurements matched the missing aviator's.
Glickman located a photo of Earhart from Lockheed Aircraft Corp. that has her arms mostly exposed. After rotating the photo and removing distortions, Glickman made educated guesses about Earhart's upper arm bone — then concluded that the corresponding bone found on Gardner Island could have been Earhart's.
“Jeff found that Earhart’s humerus to radius ratio was 0.76 — virtually identical to the castaway’s,” according to a TIGHAR statement.
Glickman told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he realizes that there's reason for skepticism. The measurements at the core of his argument come from a doctor's scrawlings from 76 years ago, for example.
But research, he insists, supports the argument that Earhart died on Gardner Island.
“I started out as an outside contractor 25 years ago with a rather neutral opinion about it,” said Glickman, who is now a member of TIGHAR. “Over the years, the body of evidence that was originally quite circumstantial is becoming more compelling.”
The new research provides a counterargument to the widely held belief that Earhart crashed into the Pacific Ocean.
TIGHAR believes Earhart was stranded after crash-landing on Gardner Island and used the radio from her damaged plane to call for help for nearly a week before the tide pulled the craft into the sea.
Gillespie, a pilot and accident investigator, has made 11 expeditions to Gardner Island in the Western Pacific. He's trying to raise money for a 12th to support this theory — and maybe find Earhart's plane.
He about the Gardner Island theory on YouTube last month and “New Research, New Evidence, New Understanding.”
But, he said: “We've been testing this hypothesis for 28 years. . . . This supposed new theory is actually the oldest theory.”
“We found a tremendous amount of support for it,” Gillespie added.
Some of that support comes from Earhart's radio signals seeking help, which investigators say most likely emanated from an area near Gardner Island, Gillespie said.
And a 1937 British expedition exploring the island for settlement snapped a photo of what Gillespie said shows part of the landing gear from Earhart's plane sticking out of a reef.
“On an uninhabited island, there shouldn't be anything sticking up out of the water,” Gillespie said.
Adding to the body of evidence, Gillespie said, the radio in Earhart's plane could not work if it had been in the water as suspected; yet she sent out radio signals for nearly a week after apparently crashing.
“Earhart made a relatively safe landing at Gardner Island and sent radio distress calls for six days,” Gillespie said in the YouTube presentation. “There are 47 messages heard by professional radio operators that appear to be credible.”
In 1928, Earhart became the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic Ocean. Nine years later, she sought to fly around the world. But she encountered trouble somewhere over the Pacific.
Some think Earhart's Lockheed Model 10 Electra ran out of fuel and plummeted into the Pacific. Others say she and navigator Noonan were captured by the Japanese, who thought they were spies.
But Gillespie thinks Earhart and Noonan made it to the ground, injured but intact.
They were looking to refuel at Howland Island, halfway between Hawaii and Australia, but strong winds had thrown them off course, and nighttime navigation was impeded by an overcast sky, Gillespie said.
Gillespie said he thinks that as the plane's fuel tanks emptied, Earhart and Noonan spied a landing spot on Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, about 400 miles south of Howland. The coral atoll has a wide reef that is dry at low tide — a serviceable landing strip.
Gillespie said he thinks the landing was rough but survivable. Earhart had minor injuries; Noonan's were worse, based on Earhart's alleged radio calls, which TIGHAR has studied.
(Gillespie and his wife are the only paid members of the Pennsylvania-based group, although he says TIGHAR has a team of experts and more than 1,000 members.)
And the airplane still had fuel — not enough to get anywhere, but enough to power the plane's battery and work the radio, Gillespie said. He and others at TIGHAR researched how much fuel the plane could carry, then calculated how much the engines had consumed before Earhart's distress calls.
“She's out there calling for help,” Gillespie said, adding that radio operators he talked to — and others written about in published reports — felt certain they were listening to Earhart. “They recognize her voice. There's no doubt in their mind.”
As evidence, Gillespie cites an interview with Betty Klenck, a shortwave radio listener in Florida who claimed to have heard Earhart and was put in contact with TIGHAR.
“What she heard is not just a woman calling for help, there was a man with her and he seemed to be out of his head,” Gillespie said. “And he was grabbing the mic. The whole thing reads like a 911 call.”
The half-hour presentation shows the depth of TIGHAR's research on Earhart's final flight. There are topographical maps of the seabed around Gardner Island, details about the paths of radio signals, even calculations about air speed and fuel burn.
In their expeditions, TIGHAR members think they have found other evidence of Earhart's final days:
According to :
His group has found improvised tools, shoe remains and aircraft wreckage, as well as pieces of a pocketknife, bits of makeup and bone fragments. Mr. Gillespie said that credible radio operators recognized Earhart’s weak voice in a message about six hours after she went missing. She said that she was injured but not as badly as Noonan.
A Texas housewife also heard her pleas on shortwave radio. In Florida a young radio listener grabbed a notebook and began to transcribe a “very confusing” distress call that may have referenced a shipwreck on the island.
TIGHAR posted its conclusions about Earhart's demise .
“Earhart (and possibly Noonan) lived for a time as castaways on the waterless atoll, relying on rain squalls for drinking water,” the site says. “They caught and cooked small fish, seabirds, turtles and clams. Amelia died at a makeshift campsite on the island’s southeast end. Noonan’s fate is unknown.”
Their plane was washed into the Pacific, TIGHAR claims. During a previous expedition, Gillespie says, the group found a piece of what appears to be the Electra.
“Whatever remains of the Electra lies in deep water off the island’s west end,” he said.
Gillespie's Gardner Island theory has its critics, though.
“This group (TIGHAR) comes out every year or two with this info or something like it, show us the proof please!” .
Elgen Long, a Navy combat veteran and an expert on Earhart's disappearance, wrote a book saying her plane crashed into the Pacific and sank.
The metal piece was from a different kind of plane, .
Long criticized Gillespie in 2014, : “You’ll never convince true believers that they aren’t right. You’re just confusing them with facts.”
But Gillespie, who has referred to Long as “the patron saint of ‘crashed and sank,’ ” told The Post that scientific discovery has never been linear.
“This is what science really is like,” he said. “You develop a hypothesis. You see if it’s wrong. It’s failure after failure after success after failure. If you do it right, you do make progress. . . . I am passionate about figuring stuff out. I’m an investigator, a detective at heart.”
This post has been updated.