July 4, 2012 in Nation/World

Sea search on again for Earhart’s plane

New focus is on reef off Pacific island
Laura J. Nelson Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

Ric Gillespie, right, founder of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, watches equipment testing from a ship at port in Honolulu on Sunday.
(Full-size photo)

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 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 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, said. “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 uncover something, a recovery mission will be launched.

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

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 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.

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