Finding Amelia
Photo of Ric


by Mark R. Peattie, Ph.D.
Asia-Pacific Research Center
Stanford University

IDROPt is difficult to write about a legend. Write too richly and you merely add to the fable; write too cynically and you will  be a mere debunker. It is even more difficult when the legend vanishes into oblivion. Yet, in these pages on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, one of America’s most famous aviators, Richard Gillespie has not only avoided these treacherous shoals, but has produced a narrative of epic scale, for he deals with the greatest elements of tragedy: human error and its awesome consequences.
    Of Earhart herself, Gillespie writes with admirable professional detachment. “Earhart’s piloting skills,” he tells us, “were average at best, but good looks, genuine courage, a talent for writing, and her [husband] George Putnam’s genius for promotion and media manipulation … made her one of America’s most famous and admired women.”
    Yet Earhart is not really Gillespie’s focus. Rather, it is the harrowing account, as far as anyone can trace it, of her last flight into the vast oblivion of the Pacific.  In writing it, Ric Gillespie has had to deal with three main challenges. First, that there is no incontrovertible physical evidence as to her fate and what slender artifacts exist can at best provide the stuff of intelligent conjecture. Second,  the most abundant evidence surrounding her disappearance is electronic – the records of radio telephone and telegraph – which have been so voluminous, at times so contradictory, and on occasion, so self-serving by those who sent them, that the totality of their meaning and import have been not been clear until now. Third, much heat but little light has been generated by the unfounded assertions, the irrational theories, and the melodramatic perspectives of several generations of amateur Earhart sleuth/enthusiasts who have had extreme opinions but little fact to buttress them. Like curiosity seekers at a crime scene, they have merely raised the level of confusion.
     Ric Gillespie has brought to his task an array of formidable qualifications to research and write what will probably the most detailed and factual account of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance and the massive and failed attempt to find her that we shall ever have. An experienced general aviation pilot himself, a long-time risk management specialist and aviation accident investigator, and a rigorous and determined researcher, Ric has tracked down numerous leads in government,  business, industry, and aviation circles and has led a number of well conceived and organized search expeditions to the Equator and the possible terminus of Earhart’s flight. Over the decades, his search has involved him in investigations across a small range of artifacts – buttons, shoes, pieces of aluminum – in a painstaking study of radio logs, photographic and cartographic data, and a growing familiarity with such esoterica as tidal research and geomorphology. Where the trail has led to a dead end he has had the courage and good sense to drop it and seek answers elsewhere.  But of all his tasks none has been more important and more challenging than the collection, sorting out and reintegration of the mass of radio communications surrounding the flight and the rescue effort into a comprehensible narrative, an effort that has combined careful and comparative analysis with the sensitivities of a skilled story teller to weave a compelling narrative.
     And what a narrative it is. Like viewers at a rerun of the old newsreel of the presidential motorcade entering Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963, we read with growing dread of the Earhart departure from Lae, New Guinea, for her destination of Howland Island, a fly-speck on the map of the Pacific, knowing that she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, will never arrive. Thanks to Gillespie we also know how multiple were the miscalculations (a number by Earhart herself), the misapprehensions, the faulty equipment, and the faulty information that set her Lockheed Electra on its fatal trajectory and crippled all attempts to guide her to a safe landing. One reflects, too, on the fact that Earhart also was six decades too early for access to a vital electronic system – global positioning – that could have identified for herself and those seeking her where she was in the vastness of the ocean. Throughout the story, the hiss and crackle of empty air waves that mark the futile efforts of Earhart and her would-be rescuers to communicate their locations to each other are a threnody of encroaching disaster. From this account, too, it is obvious, though not clearly stated, that the end of the crew of the Electra must have been quite terrible – death by drowning in the wreckage of a sinking aircraft or slow dehydration and death on the burning shores of a remote and uninhabited atoll hundreds of miles off their original course.
    On other stages and at other times, Ric Gillespie has proposed a detailed and persuasive, if not conclusive explanation of what happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. I do not myself pretend to have strong views about her fate, nor would I argue Gillespie has presented the final solution to the Earhart mystery. Indeed, in these pages, Ric Gillespie himself has not made this claim. He has, instead attempted the most complete and fact-based history of the Earhart puzzle yet written. Brilliantly, he only hints at an explanation for the Earhart enigma here on the book’s last page, a suggestion left hauntingly in the air for us to ponder.
    As an historian, I think I know good history when I read it. By its display of technological expertise, by its careful weighing of complex evidence, by its objectivity, and by its humanity, this is certainly first-rate history.

Mark Peattie
Asia-Pacific Research Center
Stanford University

June 4, 2006

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