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PROFILE : Aviation Buff’s Claim Stirs Controversy Over Earhart : Richard Gillespie recovers and restores aircraft of historic significance. But he is now being called a charlatan.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Gillespie admits he didn’t set out to find Amelia Earhart’s airplane. All he wanted was to take his interest in the discovery and recovery of historic aircraft, to move the whole field out of its “grave-digger-treasure-hunter stage, and develop this fledgling science of aviation archeology as a genuine academic discipline.”

So, eight years ago, Gillespie, a former commercial pilot and aviation insurance investigator, founded a nonprofit organization, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. He and his wife, Pat Thrasher, set up shop in a Wilmington suburb and began, he says, trying to create and professionalize a whole new discipline--that of researching, finding and recovering aircraft of historic significance.

But people kept saying to him: “When are you going to look for Amelia Earhart’s plane?”

Gillespie didn’t consider the Earhart plane itself historically significant, but he knew the legend of the missing aviator, who disappeared somewhere in the Pacific in 1937, had a chokehold on America’s consciousness. When two members of the aircraft recovery group came up with intriguing theories about navigational techniques that Gillespie thought might lead to Earhart, he raised more than $700,000 and mounted two expeditions to a deserted island in the Pacific.

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On March 16 this year, Gillespie stood before an army of reporters in Washington and announced he had found a piece of Earhart’s plane on the atoll of Nikumaroro: “We’re very confident that the Amelia Earhart case is solved,” he said.

Then the you-know-what hit the you-know-what. Gillespie’s find was reported in every paper in America, and he was invited to appear on everything from the “Today” show to Italian TV. He was also accused of shoddy research, of being a self-aggrandizing charlatan and of declaring the Earhart find solely to get publicity for his group.

Gillespie, 44, is still recovering from the avalanche of press attention. In the crumbling ranch house he and Thrasher rent in a middle-class area of Wilmington, boxes filled with faxes and newspaper articles about the find are stashed away in one room while Gillespie, Thrasher and a paid assistant work away in the living room.

“Why bother to speak the truth?” he asked rhetorically, in response to yet another question about the Earhart controversy. “Because we found that the public in general, once they see the evidence, accepts the truth; 99% of the squawks are coming from people who have a financial interest in the (Amelia Earhart) legend.”

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Gillespie’s background didn’t exactly prepare him for this kind of controversy. Born and raised in Upstate New York, he learned to fly at age 16, and helped pay his way through college, where he majored in history, by piloting commercial charters. After a brief stint in the military--where he was not allowed to fly because of his contact lenses--he got a job with a large Philadelphia insurance agency, where he serviced airport accounts and investigated accidents.

Gillespie was always something of an aircraft buff, but it wasn’t until his brother sent him a magazine article about l’Oiseau Blanc (the White Bird), an attempted Paris-to-New York flight months before Charles A. Lindbergh’s famous journey, that he jumped into the aircraft recovery game with both feet. The White Bird had vanished on its flight, and when Gillespie read that it was rumored to have crashed in the Maine wilderness, he suggested to his brother that they spend a weekend in New England looking for it.

Twenty trips later, Gillespie and TIGHAR still haven’t found the White Bird. But that first trip spurred his interest in finding old planes, what he calls “a marriage of my interest in history and airplanes, plus my training as an accident investigator.”

Today, his group has 814 members in 15 countries, with an operating budget of $120,000. In addition to membership fees, money comes from sales of coffee mugs, T-shirts and posters, as well as Gillespie’s lecture fees and writing . Gillespie and Thrasher are paid $30,000 each to run the organization.

The group’s goal, says Gillespie, is not so much solving aviation mysteries as “saving historic aircraft for permanent preservation.”

With that in mind, it has written criteria for historic aircraft preservation and restoration, has sponsored courses in aviation archeology, raised funds for search expeditions, established a computerized data base of historic aircraft, and acted as a general scold.

“Things we’ve had to say have not been popular,” Gillespie says. “Like telling museums that they’re over-restoring their airplanes, or saying to people flying one-of-a-kind airplanes that they shouldn’t be flying, it’s irresponsible to risk a crash. We’re talking about a stewardship responsibility.”

Gillespie defends criticisms about publicity and his methods. “We’re a tiny nonprofit . . . and we have to let the public know what we’re doing,” he says, adding that “you’re taking eight years of an organization that has literally written the book on technique, focused issues, practically invented a whole discipline, trained ourselves and, ultimately, solved the greatest mystery in air history.”

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