- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 3, 2012

HONOLULU — A $2.2 million expedition is hoping finally 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, and they traveled from Honolulu to a remote island in the Pacific nation of Kiribati on Tuesday in hopes of finding the wreckage of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 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 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, the 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,” he said. “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 artifacts that could have belonged to Earhart and Noonan, and 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 Mr. 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 U.S. 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 30,000 pounds of specialized underwater equipment, is just a sophisticated way to try to prove a hunch that could be flat wrong, or not provable if the plane simply floated too far or broke up into tiny, undetectable 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 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 monthlong voyage through individual and corporate donors, including funds from Discovery, which plans to document the trip and air it on cable TV in August, plus $750,000 worth of free shipping from FedEx of the underwater science gear, Mr. Gillespie said.

The trip is planned to last roughly 26 days, including 10 days of searching and 16 days traveling between Honolulu and the atoll.

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