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In South Pacific, search is on (again) for Amelia Earhart's plane

July 03, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson
  • Amelia Earhart waves from her Lockheed Electra before taking off from Los Angeles on March 10, 1937.
Amelia Earhart waves from her Lockheed Electra before taking off from Los… (Associated Press )

When Amelia Earhart vanished 75 years ago, the location of her plane's crash site in the South Pacific became one of the 20th century’s most enduring mysteries.

Now, a group of historians, salvage workers and scientists think they know --  finally -- where to look.

To that end, searchers left Tuesday from Honolulu, bound for the Pacific country of Kiribati. The expedition is a $2.2-million, 10-day operation that researchers hope will yield the wreckage of Earhart's Lockheed Electra, which disappeared during her attempt to be the first pilot to fly around the world at the equator.

The group's theory: Earhart, then 39, and navigator Fred Noonan made an emergency landing on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited coral island nearly 2,000 miles south of Hawaii, briefly surviving before rising tides swept them out to sea.

"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," Ric Gillespie, the founder of the group leading the search, told the Associated Press. "We’re going to search where it -- in quotes -- should be. And maybe it's there, maybe it’s not. And there's no way to know unless you go and look."

The monthlong operation will focus on locating and photographing anything that's left. If team members and their 30,000 pounds of equipment do uncover something, a recovery mission will be launched separately.

Kiribati island residents had reportedly found and used pieces of plane debris, suggesting that the aircraft broke into pieces in the surf, according to the group organizing the search.

A photo of the island shoreline in October 1937, three months after Earhart’s disappearance, shows a blurry image of what could be the strut and wheel of the plane's landing gear.

The photo prompted several public acts of support. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with the team. Several major companies, including FedEx and Discovery, have donated their services. And the country of Kiribati signed a contract to work with the group if anything were to be found, the AP reported.

"That was the icing on the cake," Gillespie told the AP, adding that the picture was the culmination of 24 years of evidence.

Evidence indicates that an American woman was stranded on Nikumaroro in the 1930s, Gillespie said. Previous expeditions found a zipper, a bone-handled pocket knife like one Earhart carried, a 1930s bottle of an anti-freckle cream -- even bone fragments, the Guardian reported.

Nothing has been conclusive enough to end the investigation. The plane would be.

Earhart and Noonan were en route to Howland Island from New Guinea when they disappeared July 2, 1937. A rescue attempt, the most extensive air-and-sea search in naval history, was fruitless.

"I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it," Earhart said before she left.  

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Follow Laura on Twitter. Email: laura.nelson@latimes.com.

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