Finding Earhart is his life’s quest, despite doubters

This annotated sonar image from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery shows a coral reef cliff just off the South Pacific island of Nikumaroro in Kiribati and an "anomaly" that the group plans to investigate further. Ric Gillespie, the group's co-founder, and other TIGHAR team members have made several trips to Nikumaroro in search of any sign of Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan. (TIGHAR via AP)

By Martha Irvine, AP

OXFORD, Pennsylvania — There are many people with theories about what happened to aviator Amelia Earhart. But few stir up more excitement �X or more ire �X than Ric Gillespie.

The longstanding official theory is that the famed pilot and her navigator, Fred Noonan, ran out of gas and crashed into deep ocean waters northwest of Howland Island, a tiny speck in the South Pacific that the pair missed while attempting a round-the-world flight in 1937.

Since 1989, Gillespie and The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, have been testing another theory �X and they’ve headed back to the region this month. They surmise that Earhart made an emergency landing on a flat stretch of coral reef off what was then known as Gardner Island, southwest of Howland. And they’ve raised millions in private funds to finance several treks to the distant atoll, now called Nikumaroro.

Set to arrive this weekend, the TIGHAR team now wants to check an anomaly seen in sonar imaging on an underwater cliff where the reef drops off.

Could it be the fuselage of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E airplane?

Gillespie makes no promises: ��There’s no guarantee of success.��

He’s far from the only one looking for Earhart.

An Australian researcher thinks wreckage spotted by members of his country’s military years ago on a Papua New Guinea island could be hers. Others are investigating local island lore that Earhart and Noonan crash landed on Mili Atoll, 1,300 kilometers northwest of Howland, and died in Japanese hands.

Various teams who believe the crashed-and-sank theory �X an explanation supported by curators at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum �X have tried to find the plane using sophisticated equipment to scan the ocean floor. No one has found a verified plane part or bone fragment.

But Gillespie says he and his team are building their case, slowly but surely.

He has his admirers. In 2012, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recognized Gillespie at a reception honoring Earhart. In a letter to him, she said, ��This great adventure embodies the very hope, ingenuity and boundless optimism of the American spirit�� �X a reference to the expedition that year in which TIGHAR collected several underwater sonar images.

But there’ve been disappointments and controversy, too.

There was the filing cabinet discovered on Nikumaroro that the team thought came from Earhart’s plane but later linked to a military aircraft. The team also excavated a grave that turned up bones, not of the famous pilot but of a tiny infant. May Be ‘the real thing’