"I'm as certain as I can be that we have the answer to the Earhart mystery," said expedition leader Richard E. Gillespie, a former aviation accident investigator. "The only thing I'm not sure of is what's left for us to find."
Gillespie, of Wilmington, said a 16-member search team would set sail from Hawaii on Sept. 30 for Nikumaroro, about 1,820 nautical miles away.
He also said he signed a contract yesterday with an undersea salvage company to search the shark-infested waters around the atoll with sonar and an unmanned submarine equipped with a television camera.
"The only proof that is going to satisfy us and the public is a photograph of the entire aircraft, wherever it may be, and in October we're going back to Nikumaroro to get that photograph," Gillespie said.
A photo specialist said yesterday that the aluminum box found in 1989 "is approximately the right size" to be the map case visible inside Earhart's plane in a fuzzy photograph taken in Australia four days before Earhart vanished.
"But I cannot say there are any features to connect these two," said Gary Houck, a photo analyst for Autometrics Inc. of Alexandria, Va.
Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared on July 2, 1937, after missing Howland Island, a tiny refueling stop in the midst of the Pacific, as they neared the completion of an around-the-world flight.
Earhart most likely ditched her plane at sea and perished soon afterward, according to Dorothy Cochrane, an aeronautics specialist at the National Air and Space Museum.
Gillespie said that Earhart's radioed distress calls indicate that she landed on land, not at sea, and radio stations that took bearings on the weak signals point to Nikumaroro as the most likely landing spot.
Gillespie said he believes that Earhart and Noonan took a wrong turn that carried them away from Howland Island. Before they ran out of fuel, he speculated, Earhart landed their twin-engine Lockheed 10-E Electra on a broad, flat expanse of coral that is exposed at low tide on Nikumaroro, about 350 miles away.
High tides would have floated the plane off the reef until it eventually sank into the ocean, Gillespie said.
A dozen volunteers will also search the 3.5-mile-long island for signs of a camp he believes Earhart and Noonan established after landing.