January 28, 1991 12:00 PM

For three weeks in 1989, aviation expert Richard Gillespie and his team of 16 sifted sand on a remote South Seas atoll called Nikumaroro, searching for evidence of aviatrix Amelia Earhart’s disappearance during her attempted round-the-world flight in 1937. Among the 19 items collected in the searing 120°F heat, only one—a 14-inch by 9-inch box—would turn out to offer a clue. “It was aluminum.” says Gillespie, 43. “We thought that was interesting, because there wasn’t much aluminum on the island.”

Thanks to that box, Gillespie may have a shot at solving one of aviation’s most enduring mysteries. Earlier this month, his organization, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), reported that FBI tests on the box’s paint indicated it could have come from Earhart’s Lockheed 10-E Electra.

Gillespie was directed to Nikumaroro by two Earhart buffs, Thomas Gannon and Thomas Willi. The pair had studied the techniques of navigating by the sun and stars that Earhart used and became convinced that the 39-year-old flier and her navigator, Fred Noonan, ran out of fuel and crash-landed on the Hat coral reef surrounding Nikumaroro. Gillespie thinks that on the afternoon of July 2, Earhart and Noonan began sending radio distress calls from the reef at two-hour intervals. Ham-radio operators on the West Coast of the United States as well as a British cruiser in the South Seas received the signals, but their source was never determined.

Gillespie has pieced together a hypothetical scenario to support his evidence. “Earhart and her navigator would have set up a camp on the beach and waited for help,” says Gillespie, who further speculates that the plane began shifting off the reef, so Noonan unscrewed the box, which held his navigational books, and brought it ashore. “Normal tide cycles tend to suck things off that reef,” says Gillespie. He believes that the plane is submerged in from 1,000 to 2,000 feet of water off Nikumaroro. A week after Earhart’s aircraft disappeared, a search plane scanned the island from the air. Seeing no plane, it flew on. “There’s no fresh water there,” says Gillespie, who thinks the pair eventually died of thirst.

Gillespie’s vocation was prompted by a lifetime spent around airplanes. Raised in Fulton, N.Y., he was taught to fly at 16 by his father, a World War II pilot. After graduating from the State University of New York at Oswego, Gillespie served in the Army for three years. In 1971 an aviation accident changed his life. As he watched, four of his friends were killed in a six-plane midair collision during an air race in Cape May, N.J. “Airplanes had never done anything bad to me before,” says Gillespie. “Suddenly they were taking people away.”

Gillespie became an aviation accident investigator for an insurance company, but in 1984 changes in the industry and his divorce persuaded him to try something new. He and his brother began investigating unsolved historic crashes. Three months later Gillespie met Patricia Thrasher, a Virginia businesswoman; the two are now married and living in Wilmington. Del., where they founded TIGHAR in 1985. Since then, the 700-member organization has investigated eight missing-plane mysteries and claims to have solved six of them. “Frankly, the romance [of this work] goes away in 20 minutes,” says Gillespie. “For every triumph, there are dozens of crushing disappointments and dead ends.”

Gillespie and Thrasher, 37, are hoping to raise $368,000 for a return to Nikumaroro next fall to search for more conclusive evidence, including Earhart’s plane. “It’s always very tempting to fall in love with a hypothesis. We’ve worked very hard at not being excited.” says an excited Thrasher. “Realistically,” says Gillespie, “my reaction to all this is, ‘Oh, s—-, that thing better be there.’ ”

Susan Reed, Andrea Fine in Wilmington

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