Ric Gillespie may be closer than anyone ever thought possible to solving one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century.
But he still struggles to understand the complicated woman at the heart of it all.
Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Gillespie — head of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) — in announcing a new expedition to solve the disappearance of famed aviator Amelia Earhart.
A worldwide celebrity and American heroine, Earhart, along with her navigator Fred Noonan, vanished in 1937 as they were trying to fly around the world.
There have been countless theories, but Gillespie and his team of researchers, archaeologists and crash investigators — his own specialty — believe they are close to solving the riddle.
“I’m a horseman, so we’re on the back straight and coming to the wire,” Gillespie reasons.
Even oceanographer Robert Ballard, who discovered the remains of the Titanic in 1985, says TIGHAR’s research looks promising.
In July, Gillespie’s team will set out on a 220-foot research vessel from Honolulu, and head toward the Phoenix Islands in Kiribati.
They believe there’s compelling evidence Earhart may have landed in shallow waters near Nikumarro island, and an analysis of a photo taken in 1937 — showing what could be a piece of mangled landing gear sticking from the surf — could be the best spot to search.
During past searches, they’ve found other clues, including an eye-witness account of someone who saw wreckage as a little girl, bones that seem to be those of a woman castaway, bits of makeup and a camp site littered with the bones of countless birds, turtles and fish.
But the newly enhanced picture may lead them to the remains of the plane.
What they’re looking for is an “any idiot artifact” — the thing you hold up and any idiot will say, ‘mystery solved’.
Gillespie has been chasing Earhart for decades — at first not wanting any part of the search, because so many others had already tried.
But clue by clue, he and his team have built a case.
Around his office in Delaware, there are pictures of Earhart and Noonan that sit near a photo of Gillespie’s granddaughter.
The flyer has become a part of his life.
But he seems surer of the trail they follow than the pilot they’re searching for.
“I have struggled to understand this woman, ” he says. “I still don’t know who she was, but she’s not the Amelia Earhart of legend.
“She’s someone else.”
The adventurer was among the biggest celebrities of her day. And she used that as currency.
During times when Americans had very little, she offered the clouds – an ambitious woman, Gillespie reasons, who mass-marketed the dream of flight.
“I don’t know if I would have liked her very much,” he admits, saying that’s something he’s never come out and said before.
But he knows she did well for aviation.
And he’s found a certain connection, beyond the search.
Earhart knew headlines were the way to move forward onto the next great quest.
Standing with Clinton during the recent announcement – happy to have the attention on a project that demands a lot of money — something came to mind.
“The uncomfortable realization that I do the same thing (as Earhart),” he says. “It gives new perspective on Amelia.”
Though it doesn’t help to know what her last moments were like — some suggesting Noonan could have died during the crash.
If only she made it onto the island, with no antibiotics and in 37 C heat amid coconut crabs and isolation, experts say she could have lasted months. But drinkable water would have been limited and death certain.
Now a man who doesn’t quite understand her may be the one to finally locate her.
But like the aviator, he knows no course is certain until you actually get there.