Now, a senior official at the State Department has seen the photo and publicly stated there's a "possibility that this is a strut, a wheel with a surrounding mud flap, of an airplane."
Famed ocean explorer Robert Ballard also saw the image and afterward endorsed a plan to search the surrounding waters for the plane.
So far, Gillespie says, he's raised $1.5 million of the $2 million he needs to search this July. The Discovery Channel will film the expedition.
When Earhart took off for the last time in 1937, she was 40 years old and a celebrity. She had been the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and she was attempting to become the first woman to fly around the globe.
A passion for history
She had started in Oakland, Calif., and headed east. By the time she reached New Guinea, she had completed more than half the journey. The plan was to fly to a tiny South Pacific island called Howland, then on to Hawaii and back to Oakland. She never found Howland Island and search parties never found a trace of her, navigator Fred Noonan, or the Lockheed Electra she flew.
Gillespie, 64, who lives in Wilmington, was a pilot himself and investigated airline accidents for the insurance industry. In the mid-1980s, he decided to combine his investigative skills with a passion for aviation history.
He quit his job and with his wife, Patricia, founded TIGHAR, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, a nonprofit with a budget of about $250,000 a year. His initial interest was investigating the crash of a French plane that the world had thought would beat Charles Lindbergh in crossing the Atlantic.
But a retired military navigator who had become involved with TIGHAR piqued Gillespie's interest in Earhart. If she failed to find Howland Island, the man said, the most likely alternative would be tiny Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island.
The technique her navigator used would have put them on a line that intersected both islands. If she failed to find Howland, the navigator said, she would probably have turned around and followed the same line back the way she had come, eventually crossing Gardner, about 300 miles southwest.
Gardner Island is no place anyone would want to be stranded in 1937. At the time uninhabited, it's about a thousand miles east of New Guinea and even farther southeast of Hawaii. There's no reliable source of fresh water and the temperatures can reach 110 degrees. After Earhart went missing, search parties flew over the island, but no one searched it on foot.
Members of a British expedition arrived a few weeks later and by 1938 they had established a coconut plantation and a Coast Guard station. When Gillespie started researching the island's history, he found that in an issue of the San Diego Tribune from 1960 one member of the early British inhabitants had proposed Gardner as Earhart's final resting place.
The member of the British expedition claimed that a woman's skeleton and shoes had been found on the island. It turned out that the British had found bones and left records of their measurements. An expert at the time determined they had belonged to a male.
Gillespie's group searched for the bones and never found them, but they had the archived measurements sent to a forensic anthropologist who said it was possible they came from a woman. TIGHAR then launched several archaeological expeditions to the island, starting in 1991.
A number of suggestive artifacts surfaced - a part of a woman's compact mirror and cosmetic bottles, including a type of freckle-fading cream popular in the 1930s. In the same area there were contrivances that looked as if they were designed to boil water over a fire.
The problem was that there had been a shipwreck near the island in the late 1920s, which might have left castaways on the island. And while none of them were female, women arrived as the island was settled soon after Earhart's crash.
As part of the investigation, Gillespie and his wife went to England to meet with one of the surviving members of the British group, Eric Bevington. Bevington had snapped pictures around the island just 90 days after Earhart's disappearance. To nonexpert eyes, they showed nothing remarkable, but Gillespie and his wife took copies for their files.
Jeff Glickman has a background in computer science and was running his own forensics company called Photek, based in Woodinville, Wash., when he saw something about the investigation on television and volunteered to help. Gillespie was planning a new expedition for 2010 and Glickman wanted to look over all the old photos for any clues.
Because they were so old, the pictures were full of defects, but one of them showed something interesting, Glickman said. The original photo album was stored in an archive at Oxford University, and Glickman asked the university to scan the one and send the highest-resolution version possible.
That clearer version showed something that looked like an object sticking up out of the water. He knew for sure it wasn't a photographic defect, because it was creating a wind shadow, he said, visible as a different wave pattern in the water. He applied techniques for assessing the size of objects based on other visible features in the image, and then concluded that there were tires, something tubular like a strut, and a part called a bull gear, which was used on planes like Earhart's to raise and lower the landing gear.
What Glickman saw was exciting enough that he set off for Pima, Ariz., where an aviation museum kept one of the last planes in existence using the same kind of landing gear as Earhart's. "The shape of the support bracket also matches with the actual landing gear," he said. "So we've got four key components that not only match in terms of appearance but also in terms of size."
The object was far enough away that it's likely the photographer wouldn't have noticed it, said Glickman. A shipwreck on that same side of the island is the other possible source of the object, but he thinks this particular object is much more likely to have come from a plane.
The landing gear might have ended up out there if Earhart had landed on the coral reef surrounding the island and rising tides eventually washed the plane away, Gillespie said. But the team needed a second opinion and Gillespie decided to draw on a friendship he had forged with an assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific.
The photos eventually got to the Bureau of Intelligence Research. The State Department wouldn't grant an interview to a reporter, but a spokeswoman sent a transcript of a briefing by a senior official from March 19:
One of these pictures has the picture of a wreck on the right . . . and then in the corner on the left - a very small, grainy, black-and-white photo - is something sticking out in the reef area.. . .
And I think there is a possibility that this is a strut, a wheel with a surrounding mud flap, of an airplane that looks quite a bit like the airplane that Amelia Earhart flew, the Electra. And this particular photo was taken about a few months after Amelia Earhart's disappearance.
The next day Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech about the investigation, the July expedition, and Earhart's legacy.
Doubts, but ...
The plan is to use an unmanned submersible craft to comb the area, looking for possible man-made objects, Gillespie said. What team members find will determine whether they make a subsequent mission to try to recover anything.
Experts outside the group wish them luck but aren't holding their breath. So many people have inhabited that island at different times that it's unlikely any of the artifacts found there came from Earhart, said Tom Crouch, an aviation historian with the National Air and Space Museum. He thinks it's much more likely the pilot died by plunging into some part of the vast Pacific Ocean.
But he's excited that Gillespie's investigation is gaining public support. "Earhart's disappearance is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century," he said.
The investigation rekindles the memory of an extraordinary person living in an extraordinary time, he said. "She caught the national imagination during the golden age of celebrity, when aviators were real heroes risking life and limb to do what nobody had ever done before." More than just an aviator, Earhart was a leader in the women's movement, he said, bearing the message that with hard work and persistence, women can do almost anything.
Contact Faye Flam
at 215-854-4977, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @fayeflam on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/evolution.