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A Theory That Won't Fly? : East Coast experts say they solved the Amelia Earhart mystery. But a West Coast group thinks not.

March 30, 1992|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Richard Gillespie and his East Coast cluster of engineers and archeologists say they have found a patch of aluminum torn from Amelia Earhart's airplane.

Mystery solved. Case closed. Conclusively, finally and overwhelmingly.

Yet Elgen Long and his West Coast clutch of mechanics and metallurgists say Gillespie's artifact is fiction.

Not by any stretch of measurement or the imagination, they claim, could the piece be from Earhart's airplane. The case remains wide open. Absolutely, unanimously and positively.

"Any engineer acquainted with basic aircraft structure . . . could tell you that the Nikumaroro fragment did not come from a Lockheed 10 aircraft," says Long, 65, a 20-year sleuth of the short life, public times and final flight of Earhart.

Spacing between rivets doesn't match. Nor does the distance between horizontal lines of rivets. A vertical line of fasteners that should be on the fragment simply isn't there.

"But for the umpteenth time we have The Final Solution of Amelia Earhart," Long says, sarcastically. "Why isn't anyone listening to us? Because we've only got boring mechanical reasons on our side and they just aren't nice sound bites."

There were sound bites by the thousands and worldwide earlier this month when aviation researcher Gillespie told a mobbed Washington news conference that he had unraveled the 55-year-old enigma of Earhart's end.

What Gillespie didn't announce was that he had asked Long last month to examine the 23-by-19-inch shard recovered in October from Nikumaroro Island in the central Pacific.

Long, a retired airline captain, was briefed by two letters, one with pages stamped Confidential. It described the piece's dimensions, outline, markings and rivet patterns in sufficient detail to build a clear plastic template of the fragment.

Gillespie, executive director of the Delaware-based International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), wrote: " . . . the only match found is to a section on the starboard belly of NR16020 (Earhart's twin-engined Lockheed Electra 10E) between fuselage stations 239 (inches from the nose) and 269 5/8 along the aircraft's center line on keel. . . .

"I look forward to your thoughts on all this."

Long recruited a formidable panel of volunteers: a professor of metals engineering; a structures engineer for Navy patrol aircraft; the owner of two Lockheed 10 airplanes, and the assistant foreman, now retired, of the Lockheed fuselage shop at the time Earhart's plane was built.

The group pored over photographs of the piece. They examined blueprints and engineering orders for repairs to the airplane's underside needed after a takeoff accident ended an earlier Earhart attempt to fly around the world.

And the team visited a 1936 Lockheed 10B at Oakland's Western Aerospace Museum.

The associates placed the template over the starboard belly of the airplane. They slid the piece over all other exterior sections of the airplane. Just in case.

"We decided the fragment could have come from anywhere . . . anywhere but Amelia Earhart's airplane," Long says.

So noted the group's formal report--including a videotape of comparisons to the underside of the museum aircraft--sent to Gillespie in February.

But Gillespie, a 45-year-old former insurance investigator turned aviation archeologist, made no mention of the negative findings during his March 16 news conference at the National Press Club.

Instead, he announced that his own nonprofit group of largely lay historians and aviation detectives had "recovered artifacts that conclusively prove this case."

He displayed the aluminum fragment. Also a Cat's Paw rubber heel that Gillespie said belonged to a woman's shoe. Other beach combings from Nikumaroro--once known as Gardner Island and a British colony--included a portion of a sole presumed to be from the same shoe, a length of copper antenna wire and a bottle cap that might have contained a patent medicine.

Concurrent to his conference, Gillespie wrote an article for Life magazine. The story was accompanied by four paragraphs of rebuttal--added, says a Life editor, at the magazine's insistence--from Frank Schelling, a structures engineer with the Naval Aviation Depot, Alameda, and chairman of Long's committee.

The rest of Gillespie's article, however, left few doubts unsquashed.

He said a metallurgist from the National Transportation Safety Board, the U.S. agency responsible for investigating all aircraft accidents, had told him: "Looks like you've got it nailed."

The metal certainly checked out as .032-inch aircraft aluminum made by Alclad prior to World War II--identical to the skin of Earhart's Lockheed. A rivet attached to the metal was of '30s vintage--and of the type used by Lockheed when building Earhart's plane.

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