TIGHAR - The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery
A Critical Analysis of a Non-Profit Organization
TIGHAR - The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery - is a US non-profit group founded in 1985 by Ric Gillespie and his wife, Pat Thrasher. Gillespie has been TIGHAR's only executive director. A former aircraft insurance industry investigator, Gillespie has a bachelor's degree in history, and is a licensed private pilot and former US Army officer, but has no formal training in archaeology, forensic investigation, anthropology, photo analysis, oceanography, remote sensing, electronics, genetics, radio wave propagation, meteorology or any of the other myriad of specialized fields TIGHAR might require. Which does not, however, stop him from making definitive statements on many different subjects.
Over the past 33 years, TIGHAR has undertaken a number of what it usually calls "projects" or "operations." All have been failures, to a greater or lesser degree. Despite its name, TIGHAR has never recovered a single complete aircraft of any type. It has never recovered a single verified piece of a historic aircraft. It now states on its website that is not what it is about - yet the name stands.
Each project has followed the same general format: Latch on to something aviation history-related that has potentially high public interest (and hence fund-raising/marketing value); give it a catchy name, slick logo, etc.; sell various items like T-shirts, coffee mugs and certificates with that name on it to give people a sense of ownership and purpose; attract a few high-dollar sponsors to mount media attention-drawing "expeditions;" spin it out until public interest and/or fund-raising potential wanes. Repeat ... repeat ... repeat again. A few examples:
Project Midnight Ghost
TIGHAR's first effort started in 1984, before the group was incorporated as a non-profit. Project Midnight Ghost aimed to discover what happened to Frenchmen Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli, who took off from an airfield near Paris in May 1927 in the bid to be the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Paris to New York non-stop. They never made it. A few weeks later, American Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, landed in Paris and made aviation history. Searches turned up no trace of the Frenchmen.
In 1980, a magazine article about the flight related folklore from northern Maine about a woodsman hearing an airplane crash in 1927. After 20 searches in the Maine woods for what Gillespie called "history's most important missing airplane," accompanied by many "we've found something significant" announcements which amounted to nothing, in 1992 TIGHAR’s search shifted to Newfoundland, where different folklore holds that an airplane crashed in a pond.
Although TIGHAR said it has "strong" archival and physical evidence (after nine expeditions) that indicates an aircraft crashed somewhere in the area, it has not released specifics. A piece of metal TIGHAR recovered from one of these ponds, which may or may not have been from the French aircraft, was turned over to local authorities. TIGHAR has since lost track of it. The cost of the project as a whole is unknown, due to the way TIGHAR filed its federal tax returns; neither is it known how many thousands of member's dollars TIGHAR has spent on it to date. Gillespie considers this project active, although nothing has happened for years.
The Beast of Bombay Hook
In 1992 TIGHAR partially excavated the wreck of a P-47D Thunderbolt fighter that had crashed after takeoff from what was then Dover Army Air Corps Base, Delaware, in 1944. Although TIGHAR reportedly provided documentation of the excavation to Dover Air Force Base officials so the aircraft could be recovered, nothing further was apparently done and there is nothing publicly available on the Dover AFB Museum (now the Air Mobility Command Museum) website about this effort. It is unknown if what was recovered was even retained; the full cost to TIGHAR members was never released.
The Lady in WaitingIn 1942, a US Army Air Force pilot belly-landed his B-17E bomber in a New Guinea swamp. TIGHAR called it "without doubt, the most significant unrecovered WWII aircraft known to exist" (this verbiage becomes a consistent theme of other projects, and, notably, no other aviation history-related entity generally agrees with Gillespie). TIGHAR self-labeled the bomber the "Lady in Waiting," stating that the title "Swamp Ghost" bestowed on it by other groups was not respectful enough, and surveyed the site in 1986.
Although TIGHAR announced that it would recover and restore the B-17 in cooperation with several other entities, those efforts collapsed for reasons never fully made clear; then Papua New Guinea halted all such activities. The B-17 was illegally recovered by others in 2006, impounded until 2010, and is now being slowly restored at the Pacific Air Museum in Hawaii, with no help from or involvement by TIGHAR. It is unknown how many thousands of dollars, membership and otherwise, TIGHAR spent on this effort.
Persistent rumors said that at the end of World War II, German forces dynamited underground bombproof hangers, full of intact Luftwaffe aircraft, to hide them from the advancing Allies. A "treasure trove" of aviation history, Gillespie wondered? TIGHAR investigated what it called "the most promising rumors" via archival research and on-site inspections. Despite two decades of on-again, off-again searching, TIGHAR found nothing. The project was deactivated in 2008; final costs have never been released publicly.
The Earhart Project
By far TIGHAR's most well-known/publicized and highest-profile effort. Amelia Earhart, the world-famous aviatrix, and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished without a trace in the Pacific Ocean in 1937 while trying to fly around the world. TIGHAR entered the decades-old controversy of what happened to them in 1988 with the launching of the Earhart Project. TIGHAR has conducted 12 expeditions to date to Nikumaroro, a remote island in the central Pacific Ocean, where Gillespie hypothesizes that Earhart and Noonan successfully landed and eventually died.
Nothing definitive has ever been discovered by TIGHAR, despite numerous announcements that some item or another found on Nikumaroro solved the mystery. TIGHAR has, however, discovered and publicized a great deal of hitherto unknown and valuable information about Earhart's final flight.
The Earhart Project has not only been TIGHAR's most well-known effort, it has been its biggest money-maker over the decades. Gillespie once stated that Amelia Earhart was a "faucet of fame" as far as fund-raising goes, that he could turn on or off as new "research" or new "artifacts" or new a "analysis" came to light to generate more publicity and funding for more expeditions to Nikumaroro and other things Earhart-related.
The faucet was apparently turned off by 2016, though - pitches to numerous potential funders failed, and the Nikumaroro IX expedition had to be drastically scaled back and piggybacked onto an already-scheduled trip hosted by another group. Needless to say, Gillespie did not collect his originally planned-for six figures in "operating expenses."
Since 2008 alone, Gillespie has spent more than $4.5 million on trips to Nikumaroro and unknown millions of dollars for the Earhart Project as a whole (cumulative totals have never been released).
The Devastator Project
In 1942, two US Navy TBD-1 Devastator torpedo bombers ditched in the lagoon of Jaluit Atoll in the Pacific Ocean after being hit by antiaircraft fire during a raid on the Japanese-held island. TIGHAR calls the TBD one of the most significant aircraft in the history of naval aviation (sound familiar?), and states that since no example of the Devastator survives in any museum, recovering one would be an extremely valuable undertaking to the aviation historical community (sound familiar?). TIGHAR launched a project in 2004 to survey and/or recover one or both of the wrecks.
In 2006, a joint TIGHAR/US Navy expedition evaluated the aircraft. Despite TIGHAR's statements that the National Museum of Naval Aviation intended to recover at least one of the Devastators in cooperation with TIGHAR, nothing has happened. The museum is apparently no longer interested in these aircraft, or in cooperating with TIGHAR, although Gillespie said in early 2016, "If there are no recent updates you can safely assume that, for the good of the project, we're not at liberty to provide an update." Which makes no sense, and conflicts with what the NMNA has said. TIGHAR has spent at least $207,000 on this project to date; complete costs and member's dollars expended have never been released.
TIGHAR stopped actively soliciting funds for this project in 2016, after a TIGHAR member raised concerns about the ethics of collecting money for something that in all likelihood would never happen, considering that 11 years had passed.
The Maid of Harlech
In 2007, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft was exposed on a beach in Wales, Great Britain, where it had crash landed in 1942. TIGHAR christened it the Maid of Harlech, after a nearby castle, and calls it one of the most significant WWII-related archaeological discoveries in recent history: "Recognizing the Lightning’s historical significance as the oldest surviving Eighth Air Force combat veteran, and its potential as an object of study in corrosion research, TIGHAR has made a commitment to champion the aircraft’s recovery and preservation." Again, does this verbiage sound familiar? And, again, no other aviation-related entity has made a similar determination.
After surveying the wreck, TIGHAR declared its exact location must remain confidential to prevent looting (even though at times it is clearly visible on Google Earth). Although a British TIGHAR member at one point had a government license to recover the aircraft, that has apparently lapsed. A local government entity allocated funds to do some basic conservation activities; TIGHAR has nothing to do with that. As of 2017, there is no projected date for any further activities on the wreck. Exactly how much of member's money TIGHAR has spent is unknown; project costs exceed $6,000 but the exact total is unknown.
TIGHAR stopped actively soliciting funds for this project in 2016, after a TIGHAR member publicly raised concerns about the ethics of collecting money for something that in all likelihood would never happen. Donations are still being accepted through TIGHAR's on-line store, but the link is for a general donation to TIGHAR.To reiterate - every one of these projects has been a failure, to a greater or lesser degree. Specific information on how much money TIGHAR has spent on its many projects is lacking in anything but the broadest of terms - Gillespie seldom releases specific cost breakdowns. There is little transparency regarding the more than $6.34 million spent on projects since 2001 and, hence, no real accountability, both of which are contrary to widely-accepted best practices for running a non-profit.
"Scientific" Research Methods?
Gillespie constantly touts the fact that TIGHAR adheres to "the scientific method" and rigorous analytic and research protocols. True - up to a very limited point. Look at individual examples, however, and it becomes clear that "research" sometimes stops on a particular item or theory when it ceases to support Gillespie's position, or when it can no longer be used as part of a fundraising pitch or to garner media attention. A few examples:
The Radio Calls
Gillespie says one of the cornerstones of TIGHAR's Earhart hypothesis is the radio calls - transmissions allegedly made by Earhart for a number of nights after she and Noonan disappeared. One reason TIGHAR flatly dismisses the "crashed and sank at sea" Earhart theory is because if even one of the post-loss radio calls is genuine, Earhart managed to land her Lockheed Electra aircraft somewhere.
The problem with this blanket assertion is that no one outside of TIGHAR has done an independent analysis of the probability of its being true.
While TIGHAR has issued voluminous "research bulletins" looking at every single alleged transmission, when people with knowledge about 1930s radio and radio wave propagation started asking detailed questions on the TIGHAR internet discussion forums, the TIGHAR member who did the bulk of the analysis retreated into silence. Gillespie has stated that anyone else is free to analyze the information, and that all of TIGHAR's data is available. True enough - but only with regards to TIGHAR's self-aggregated data. More troubling, other Earhart Project information on TIGHAR's website seems to contradict the radio calls scenario, and no attempt is made to reconcile or explain this.
What Gillespie has steadfastly declined to do is submit the "research" to independent experts on TIGHAR's behalf, for a second opinion in order to validate it. Nor has he detailed the exact criteria TIGHAR used to determine which of the alleged transmission were either credible or not credible, or made TIGHAR's expert available to other independent evaluators to assist in the review. All of which flies in the face of the scientific method and calls into question the validity of TIGHAR's conclusions, at least for any trained scientist.
Not explaining how you determine whether something is credible deprives anyone else of making an independent test of the same information, using your criteria, to see if they get the same result. Replicability is one of the hallmarks of scientific research - and Gillespie, for whatever reason, does not want to go there.
The Wreck Photo
In 1989 Gillespie was shown a grainy black-and-white photo of a twin-engined aircraft crashed in a jungle setting and asked in a TIGHAR newsletter article, Is This Earhart's Electra? He investigated the photo off and on for the next 20 years, while issuing numerous "research bulletins" and updates about how the wreck could, or could not, be Earhart's aircraft. In 1998 Gillespie stated the photo could not be of a Japanese Tachikawa Ki-54, a twin-engined aircraft which looks similar to the Electra, after reviewing captured Japanese aircraft plans at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
The subject sparked regular debates on TIGHAR's discussion forums and was frequently discussed as possible proof of TIGHAR's Earhart hypothesis, until 2006, when Gillespie said, "After many years of research and head-scratching, I'm convinced that the Wreck Photo shows a Tachikawa KI-54 'Hickory' advanced trainer. My belief is based upon the visible structural components and especially upon the presence of a small circular inspection plate on the nose."
However, it took Gillespie another three years, until 2009, to come out with a "research bulletin" titled The Wreck Photo Resolved, which laid out his evidence for discounting the photo as being of Earhart's Electra. TIGHAR members were never given an explanation for the lengthy delay in issuing the final bulletin (although at least a final bulletin was issued in this case). No other aviation-related entity has independently evaluated TIGHAR's claims dismissing the wreck photo.
Other "Research" Concerns● One side issue in all of this is what exactly "research" is, and is TIGHAR calling it research when it really isn't? The US government broadly defines research as the accumulation of knowledge. Fair enough. But is repackaging what is already known and freely available to all "research?" Gillespie thinks so. One recent example is his "research bulletin" on The Long Farewell of the Norwich City, a compilation of photos showing the gradual disintegration of a ship that ran aground at Nikumaroro in 1929. The photos are available on the internet. Is stringing them together in one web document a "research bulletin," or simply a way to make something look and sound like more than what it really is? Would it be more accurate to call these "promotional pieces" for TIGHAR's theory?
● Despite Gillespie's insistence that TIGHAR employs scientific methods, and his dismissal of "guesses masquerading as facts," he has repeatedly rebuffed suggestions that TIGHAR needs an overall research plan, a common scientific practice that prioritizes what to expend time and effort on, in order to maximize use of scarce resources. Gillespie seems to prefer to "research" whatever bright shiny thing may be used for fundraising or to spark media interest at any particular time. A few examples: The Patch, the Knob that Wasn't, the Nikumaroro photos found in New Zealand, etc., information on all of which is on TIGHAR's website.
● Gillespie has a consistent, at times unswerving, tendency to attribute almost any artifact found on Nikumaroro to Earhart and Noonan unless exhaustive research proves otherwise. Which he is not always willing to do.● Promised final "research bulletins"/reports on a number of important Earhart topics and/or artifacts have never been completed, which among other things calls into question TIGHAR's tax-exempt status as an educational entity. If it is not completing things that might legitimately be considered educational activities, what is Gillespie spending all his time doing? Just a few examples: The forensic analysis of Betty's Notebook, the final report on the 1937 New Zealand photos of Nikumaroro, the report on how rivet lines were discerned on photos of The Patch (a potentially crucial artifact), many of the other small artifacts found on Nikumaroro, the "putative poop," etc. (Details on all of these are on TIGHAR's website as of this writing).
● To TIGHAR's credit, outside reports that contradict Gillespie's Earhart hypothesis are included on TIGHAR's website, but they are not highlighted in any way - they are simply buried amidst the huge amount (85 as of this writing) of other Earhart Project "research bulletins."● Very disturbing is Gillespie's lack of comment on what will eventually happen to the large amount of valuable Earhart material that TIGHAR has amassed; indications are that he does not care. A genuine researcher or scientist would take steps to ensure that the materials were available to future researchers for generations to come. It would be reasonable to expect details of such a plan on TIGHAR's website. The lack of which, again, seems to indicate that the Earhart mystery has little more than monetary value to Gillespie. ● Gillespie has consistently relied on a handful of people he considers experts over the previous decades to support his contentions. A major qualification seems to be that they are willing to work for free. Which is fine, it saves TIGHAR money from having to hire experts, but it is not fine in that Gillespie has not always released precise details of these expert's methods, equipment, computer analysis software used, how they made the assumptions they used for various analyses, etc. When you don't know exactly how someone did something, you can't try to do the same thing yourself to see if you get the same result. Replicability is a cornerstone of how real scientists do things. That is not always how TIGHAR has operated. ● When the promotion becomes the research, that's another problem at odds with the scientific method. One example is the Miami airport photos and going to Miami when a phone call would have sufficed. In 2014, a TIGHAR member paid an independent researcher to scour the Pan American Airways archives in Miami in hopes of finding more information about repairs Earhart's Electra might have undergone before setting off on its final flight. The researcher found a number of previously unknown photos of the aircraft, including several that highlighted The Patch, a repair to the plane that TIGHAR believes it has found a piece of on Nikumaroro. Gillespie announced that he and a forensic photo analyst would fly to Miami to personally investigate this potentially game-changing piece of evidence. Except - the trip wasn't necessary. The photo turned out to be a scan of an original print, of insufficient resolution to be helpful. The Miami archivists could have told Gillespie it was a scan with a simple phone call. So why were the trip and the fanfare even necessary? No final report on The Patch has been issued by TIGHAR.
● And, finally, no TIGHAR "research bulletin" or "paper" has ever been subjected to any kind of peer review or outside independent review by people qualified to do so to date (December 2017), which Gillespie has publicly stated is a blessing, because it keeps TIGHAR from getting bogged down in what he calls "an academia mindset". People are expected to accept everything in TIGHAR's voluminous materials as true and correct, simply because Gillespie says it is.
Although there are several TIGHAR actions that fall into the "broken promises" category, two recent incidents stand out.
In February 2015, Gillespie announced that a video of the Nikumaroro VIII Earhart Expedition would be produced, and, in a first for TIGHAR, would be done in-house so TIGHAR could keep all of the profits from media rights. Fair enough. Anyone who donated at least $49 to the production through the Your Name Up In Lights campaign would receive a credit at the video's end as a way of thanks. An unknown number of people donated (TIGHAR never released specifics). All well and good.
Except the video never happened, and other than saying in January 2016 it is "indefinitely delayed," Gillespie refuses to discuss it.
Taking money from someone to do something, and then not doing it is, at the very least, unethical by anyone's definition. TIGHAR may, at some point, deliver a video of some kind that has something to do with Nikumaroro VIII, but until then, almost everyone who pledged is simply out that money with no guarantee of when, or if, they will get anything in return.
Gillespie's shutting down all discussion on the topic deprives members of the option to ask for their money back, because no one knows if he will do so. One could argue that no theft has been committed, nor any deception, since "something" may be provided at some point, but the facts remains - TIGHAR made a promise, hasn't delivered, has no schedule to deliver and is keeping the money in the meantime.
A second recent instance of trying to keep the money - and then changing what was promised - is the Literary Guild II and the book that never was.
In 2006 Gillespie wrote and the Naval Institute Press published Finding Amelia, The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance. It laid out in great detail what Gillespie calls his "preponderance of evidence" for how Earhart and Noonan ended up on Nikumaroro. It was partly funded by TIGHAR members through the so-called Literary Guild. For a donation of at least $100, contributors would get a signed copy of the book when it was published. Ninety-three members joined the Literary Guild, and Finding Amelia was published.
Several years later Gillespie announced the follow-on book, Finding Amelia II, to detail developments since the first book. As with Finding Amelia, this book prompted the formation of the Literary Guild II to solicit $100 donations, under the theory that Gillespie could not write and fundraise for operating expenses at the same time.
Except the book never happened. In mid-2015, Gillespie said since there was so much new information developing in so many areas, the book would, instead, become an exhaustive examination of Earhart's Lockheed Electra 10-E Special aircraft. No one who pledged money to the Literary Guild II was asked if they were OK with this radical change in plans.
When a longstanding TIGHAR member did object on the TIGHAR discussion forums, Gillespie at first attempted to shut that person down with denigrating comments. When that didn't work, he tried ignoring the increasingly pointed protests that a book about the aircraft wasn't what had been promised and wasn't what people had pledged money towards. Only when it looked like a public relations disaster was imminent did Gillespie admit that upset TIGHAR members might have a point.
So, unlike with the broken promise of the Nikumaroro VIII video, donors were given a choice: They could wait for the Finding Amelia II book at some unspecified point in the future, accept the "new" book about the Electra instead, or get their money back. An unknown number of members asked for their money back - Gillespie never released specifics.
He has also admitted that pledges for the Literary Guild II for the Electra book have tapered off. Progress on that book seems to have all but stopped; there was not even a tentative publication date listed on TIGHAR's website as of late 2017, although earlier that year Gillespie said he wanted to get it published by Christmas - if he could raise the $50,000 or so he said he needed to finish the writing. No recent information has been released on that fundraising campaign, either.
The original Finding Amelia II book is not even being discussed.
Dorothy Cochrane, aircraft curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, who has long disagreed with Gillespie, puts it succinctly: "The point is that he’s got a theory and so he’s got to prove his theory. He’s used the same quote unquote evidence over and over again. He does this on a routine basis whenever he wants to mount another expedition … It’s his business. It’s his livelihood.”
And it has been a decent livelihood, with a decades-long aura of country gentleman and swashbuckling adventurer about it. Gillespie and Thrasher have lived in four houses since founding TIGHAR: A little house at a Delaware airport, a rental house in a Delaware subdivision, another larger house purchased in the same Wilmington, Delaware suburb - which was partly financed by a TIGHAR member campaign - and then in December 2013 moving to a farm in rural Pennsylvania, making payments to someone Gillespie described as a "TIGHAR benefactor."
TIGHAR members have, indirectly, paid for a portion of all of these houses because Gillespie charges TIGHAR rent to use part of the house as his executive director's office (an average of $25,700 a year over the past five years, at least $230,360 since 2001), which is allowed by the Internal Revenue Service. Throughout this time they have kept several horses, boarding them in Delaware. One of the rationales for Pennsylvania was that it would give Gillespie and Thrasher more time to devote to TIGHAR without the commutes to care for the horses.
The move to the 1860's Pennsylvania farm was announced with much fanfare, with Gillespie touting the many benefits that would accrue to the organization from the "TIGHAR Research & Conference Center on Lochaber Farm, an 11-acre facility in beautiful southeastern Chester County horse country. Still very much a work-in-progress, TIGHAR’s new headquarters has tremendous potential for development as a center for aviation historical research and education." Except:
There has also been occasional discussion on TIGHAR's forums about Gillespie's salary, which is now consistently six figures. Over the past eight years alone, some $1.48 million in TIGHAR donations have been paid directly to Gillespie and Thrasher as salary and benefits.
In 2015 (the most recent tax year available), Gillespie received a salary of $171,297; that same year, TIGHAR posted a net loss of $40,086. Also according to TIGHAR's initial 2015 IRS tax form, Gillespie spent 80 hours a week on TIGHAR business and activities. That is more than 11 hours a day, seven days a week. Readers are left to evaluate the credibility of that statement. It must have given someone pause, because the 2015 form was revised several times - it now shows him devoting only 60 hours a week to TIGHAR.
While the amount of time Gillespie spends on TIGHAR business may be plausible, the way his salary is determined is questionable, at best. According to depositions from a federal fraud lawsuit filed against TIGHAR in 2013, Gillespie said, "we (he and Thrasher) decide what TIGHAR can afford to pay us" by presenting their board of directors with a dollar figure - the board (largely handpicked by Gillespie) merely approves it. This is in sharp contrast to generally-accepted good governance practices for non-profits.
Under Gillespie's leadership, the organization spent more than $4.36 million in the five-year period ending in 2015, for everything from his salary to operating expenses to projects - averaging more than $72,000 per month. Gillespie has consistently stressed that "expeditions are expensive" (I'll grant him that) and almost as often has stated that "securing adequate operating expenses" for TIGHAR is paramount. Which apparently, to him, is very different from the $1.14 million spent over the same time period on his self-determined salary and the rent he charges TIGHAR.
TIGHAR's expenses from 2001-2015 total more than $7.67 million, compared to revenues of just $7.49 million. Gillespie's statement in 2013 that "TIGHAR is one of the most efficient, cost-effective, low-overhead, most bang-for-the-buck nonprofits you'll ever see" must be balanced against the fact that his salary and TIGHAR's rent are more than 26 percent of the organization's total expenses over just the last five years. Although the board suggested to Gillespie in 2015 that more information on how TIGHAR operates and where the money goes needed to be added to the website, two years later, nothing has been done. TIGHAR has never issued an annual report with a financials section either, to my knowledge, another thing non-profits at this kind of spending level typically do.
The multiple expeditions to Nikumaroro have been largely financed by a few high-dollar donors for each one, selling media rights for television specials, and, to a limited extent, by TIGHAR's members. That changed with Nikumaroro IX, as noted above. With repeated funding pitches rejected, it appeared that the Earhart "faucet of fame" had been twisted shut, so Gillespie adopted a new method.
Saying that TIGHAR needed to raise money quickly so it could continue funding the quest for big-dollar expedition funders, Gillespie announced the "$20,000 in a month" campaigns. In September 2016, and again in January 2017, he challenged TIGHAR members to raise $20,000 in 30 days. The membership responded, raising more than $49,353 (Gillespie never released a final total).
Shortly after the January campaign, the Nikumaroro IX expedition was again drastically scaled down. The estimated $250,000 cost was not explained in detail, although it is worth noting that the cheapest berths on the trip organized by another group that was already going to Nikumaroro were $8,995 each and TIGHAR members had raised enough money to send at least five people with the "$20,000 in a month" campaigns. No final accounting for how the money raised in the "$20,000 in a month" campaigns was spent was ever given.
In his only detailed response about the 2017 expedition, after being pointedly asked by a longtime TIGHAR member for specifics, Gillespie said in the discussion forums on March 24, 2017, "Between now and June when the Betchart cruise departs, we need to raise at least $45,000 just to meet TIGHAR's regular operating expenses." Assuming 98 days, Gillespie is stating that for that time period TIGHAR cost almost $460 per day to run. An astonishing amount for a two-person, mom-and-pop, single-issue non-profit.
All of which might lead a reasonable person to conclude that these fund-raising campaigns had little to do with finding Amelia and everything to do with "operating expenses."
What Happens If You Disagree with TIGHAR?
Disagreeing with Gillespie on any topic generally leads to one result: You are silenced by being banned from all TIGHAR discussion forums (or so heavily moderated that you might as well be banned); by having anything you post to TIGHAR's Facebook page deleted, or you are banned outright from posting there as well. Gillespie's blog is similarly off limits.
While Gillespie says its members "are TIGHAR's lifeblood," his public actions and statements make it clear that any member who deviates from the TIGHAR party line can look forward to biting sarcasm, minute criticism, or similar intolerance.
Gillespie seems to believe that there is one right answer to every question, he is a very smart guy (I'll agree with that) and he is able to find that one right answer. Everyone else had better fall in line with his thinking. Members have few avenues for disagreeing. One option for members to voice their questions or concerns would be an annual meeting, which many non-profits have and which is allowed for in TIGHAR's bylaws. Nothing like that has been held in the past two decades - Gillespie says, "The practicalities just don't work for TIGHAR." Since there is no contact information for TIGHAR's board members listed anywhere, that avenue of communication is closed off as well.
Gillespie applies an extremely heavy hand to any member (or Facebook commenter) who questions anything about how he operates, TIGHAR's various projects, his salary and/or lifestyle, his version of the Earhart narrative, etc, which includes belittling in public people who even remotely disagree with him. This includes mass bannings from the discussion forums and converting the formerly free and public forums to paid, members-only forums in which posts have dwindled to almost nothing. In short, anyone who disagrees with Gillespie is wrong, too dumb to understand, deserves no voice, etc.
Gillespie once told me that groups that strongly disagree with TIGHAR, its methods and positions, or him personally, qualify as hate groups and deserve to be silenced. Really?
And despite his self-avowed "thick skin" and stating that he ignores all critics, Gillespie is known to spend considerable time some days perusing websites or discussion forums that disagree with TIGHAR in general and him in particular. Which might cause TIGHAR members to wonder, at his documented salary of almost $55 a hour (in 2015), is that an appropriate use of the time that they are helping to pay for?
Two Bottom Lines
What Happened to Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan?
I don't know where Amelia and Fred are. Neither does TIGHAR. Despite decades of doing what Gillespie calls scientific research, no matter how high a pile of it, or how weighty a self-labeled "preponderance of evidence" he assembles, little of it puts us closer to finally resolving the mystery. That may only happen when TIGHAR's "research" is subjected to outside, third-party review by individuals unaffiliated with TIGHAR who are qualified to do so - something Gillespie is reluctant to pursue.
What About TIGHAR?
Gillespie's assertions are unverified opinions - not science - and are designed to keep the donations coming in. No other simple, reasonable explanation fits the available facts.
Everyone is free to support whichever causes they want to. I am merely suggesting, following their own analysis of all the available facts, that potential donors to TIGHAR be fully aware of its record of repeated failures, broken promises, and hard-to-explain and/or justify expenses.
Full Disclosure - I was a "loyal TIGHAR," as Gillespie calls them, from 1998 - 2016. I joined after finding a 1992 Life magazine with the now-infamous "We've solved the Earhart mystery!" story about Nikumaroro expeditions to date. Throughout my 18-year membership I vigorously participated in the TIGHAR discussion forums (more than 1,050 posts); attended an aviation archaeology field school and an Earhart conference; participated in the Dayton trip and formulation of the report on The Patch; bought many T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, etc.; flew to Wyoming to support TIGHAR against the federal fraud lawsuit filed by millionaire (and former TIGHAR donor) Tim Mellon; and along the way donated in excess of $50,000 to TIGHAR or directly to Gillespie for various trips, research reports, technical analyses, equipment, etc.
I now consider the majority of that money wasted on an operation that has repeatedly failed because of unsupported assumptions; poor planning; inadequate, incomplete and undirected research; and consistently improper execution.
Gillespie is, at the end of the day, an extraordinarily good showman - and that's all.
Monty Fowler, December 2017
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This page was last updated Dec. 25, 2017