Earhart searchers set sail, hoping to solve mystery

Amelia Earhart left Los Angeles on March 10, 1937. She and navigator Fred Noonan went missing July 2, 1937.
Amelia Earhart left Los Angeles on March 10, 1937. She and navigator Fred Noonan went missing July 2, 1937. (AP, File)
Posted: July 04, 2012

HONOLULU - A $2.2 million expedition is hoping to solve one of America's most enduring mysteries: What exactly happened to famed aviator Amelia Earhart when she went missing over the South Pacific 75 years ago?

A group of scientists, historians, and salvagers think they have a good idea. They left Honolulu on Tuesday for a remote island in the Pacific nation of Kiribati in hopes of finding wreckage of Earhart's Lockheed Electra plane.

Their working theory is that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed on a reef near the Kiribati atoll of Nikumaroro, then survived a short time.

"Everything has pointed to the airplane having gone over the edge of that reef in a particular spot, and the wreckage ought to be right down there," said Ric Gillespie, founder and executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, the group leading the search.

"We're going to search where it - in quotes - 'should be,' " said Gillespie, who lives in Wilmington. "There's no way to know unless you go and look."

Previous visits to the island have recovered artifacts that could have belonged to Earhart and Noonan. Experts say an October 1937 photo of the shoreline of the island could include a blurry image of the strut and wheel of a Lockheed Electra landing gear.

"That was the icing on the cake," said Gillespie, who said the picture added to 24 years of evidence-gathering used to form the group's working theory.

The photo was enough for the State Department to give encouragement to the privately funded expedition, and enough for the Kiribati government to sign a contract with the group to work together if anything is found, Gillespie said.

A separate group working under a different theory plans its third voyage later this year near Howland Island.

Earhart and Noonan were flying from New Guinea to Howland Island when they went missing July 2, 1937, during Earhart's bid to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Gillespie's group raised enough funds for the nearly monthlong voyage through individual and corporate donors, including funds from the Discovery Channel, which plans to document the trip and air it on cable TV in August. FedEx provided $250,000 worth of free shipping for the underwater science gear, Gillespie said.

Still, the trip is nearly a half-million dollars short, said Patricia Webb, a retired Air Force colonel who helped raise funds for the trip.

The voyagers will use a ship owned by the University of Hawaii, an oceanographic research vessel named Kaimikai-O-Kanaloa, which translates into English as "the Searcher of the Seas of the God Kanaloa."

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