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Expedition To Search For Amelia Earhart's Lost Plane


Another mystery that has long eluded many is the case of the missing aviatrix. Amelia Earhart disappeared on this day 75 years ago. She was attempting to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in an airplane when she vanished somewhere in the South Pacific. Her disappearance has stoked speculation ever since.

Soon the mystery may be solved. At least that's what Ric Gillespie hopes. He's executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, and he's been searching for Earhart for 24 years. He's leading an expedition that embarks tomorrow on a trip across the Pacific. And he joined us from the dock alongside his research vehicle in Honolulu.

Good morning.

RIC GILLESPIE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What are you looking for this time?

GILLESPIE: We hope to find the wreckage of her airplane that washed off the edge of the reef where she had landed, and now resides in the deepwater adjacent to the island. We've never been able to raise the money to do the high-tech deepwater search that will do this time.

MONTAGNE: So, you've pinpointed the island that appears to be the actual island that she was stranded on, but you're coming there with new technology that you haven't had before.

GILLESPIE: That's right. First, we will map the underwater topography. Then we use a piece of technology called an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV. This is a - basically an unmanned row robot submarine. It looks like a big torpedo. Then we use our third piece of technology, an ROV, remote operated vehicle. And we fly that down to these targets and examine them with the lights and cameras. So, it's a three step process - you map, search, and identify. And of course, what you hope is that one of the things you identify, or many things that you identify, are pieces of wreckage from the airplane.

MONTAGNE: Is there a key piece of evidence that, you know, made your heart beat faster when you came across it that really seems to link this to Amelia Earhart?

GILLESPIE: I would say that the one that stands out in my mind most, is from 1997. We had heard a rumor that bones had been found on the island, thought to be Amelia Earhart. But it was a rumor that very few people believed. Until in 1997, one of our researchers, quite by accident, stumbled upon the original British file describing that discovery. And that file led us to the more files and other archives. And pretty soon, we had a whole picture of bones of a female castaway on an island just three years after Earhart disappeared.

And when we did then was start looking for the place on the island where these bones had been found. And eventually we found that place and started examining it archaeologically and finding things that yes, indeed, spoke of an American woman of the 1930s - hand lotion and ointments, all American from that period. There's no other explanation for those things being there. So those were dots that connected quite dramatically.

MONTAGNE: Why do you think this mystery still - why do you think this mystery still captures people's imagination so much after 75 years?

GILLESPIE: I think it captures people's imagination because Amelia Earhart still matters to people. She mattered when she was alive because the example that she set inspired people - and especially young women - to do things they wouldn't have dared to do otherwise. And she still does that today. Her mysterious disappearance has helped keep her alive as an icon. And as an icon, she - she still inspires and she still matters.

MONTAGNE: Ric Gillespie is executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. Thank you very much.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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