Search team sets sail in bid to solve Amelia Earhart mystery

A £1.4m expedition is hoping to finally reveal what happened to 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 and have begun a trek from Honolulu to a remote island in the Pacific nation of Kiribati in a bid to find wreckage of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra plane in nearby waters.

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

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“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, the founder and executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which is leading the search.

“We’re going to search where it “should be”. And maybe it’s there, maybe it’s not. And there’s no way to know unless you go and look.”

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

“That was the icing on the cake,” said Mr Gillespie, who added that the picture backed up 24 years of evidence gathering used to form the group’s working theory.

The photo was enough for the US State Department to hold an event 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, Mr Gillespie said.

But the hunt using nearly 30,000lb of specialised underwater equipment is just a sophisticated way to try to prove a hunch that could be wrong, or not provable if the plane simply floated too far or broke up into tiny pieces.

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 on July 2, 1937, during Earhart’s bid to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Mr Gillespie’s group raised enough funds to embark on the nearly month-long voyage through individual and corporate donors, including funds from Discovery, which plans to document the trip and show it on cable TV.

But the voyage is still nearly half a million dollars short, said fundraiser Patricia Webb, a retired US Air Force colonel.

If the expedition succeeds, it could add to Earhart’s legacy and solve a mystery that has captured widespread attention.

The trip is planned to last about 26 days. The voyagers are using 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”.

Mr Gillespie says the group has as good of a chance as it can expect given its equipment, which includes an unmanned vehicle that looks like a torpedo used for mapping terrain on the ocean floor and a tethered remote-operated vehicle that will be used to take pictures and look at objects identified in the water.

And Earhart’s standing as an American icon – especially to young women – and fascination in her story means it is important to solve the mystery, he said. “That kind of inspiration matters,” Mr Gillespie said. “We want to know what happened to her.”