Explorers believe they found Amelia Earhart’s plane: What happens next?

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TAMPA (WFLA) — A sonar image uncovered by a South Carolina-based exploration team has reignited interest in one of aviation’s greatest mysteries.

Tony Romeo, founder and CEO of Deep Sea Visions, and his brother and project manager Lloyd Romeo recently released the sonar image they captured in the Pacific Ocean that appears to show a plane. They believe that plane belongs to Amelia Earhart and her flight navigator, Fred Noonan.

Back in 1937, Earhart and Noonan left Miami in a Lockheed Electra 10-E plane on a journey that would make Earhart the first woman to fly around the world. But with just 7,000 miles left on the trip, Earhart and Noonan lost radio contact near the Howland Islands, nearly 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Earhart, Noonan, and their plane were never found, despite extensive searching in the area.

That may have changed, if the recent discovery by Deep Sea Visions is what they believe it is.

Romeo and his team, a 16-person crew, say they scanned over 5,200 square miles of ocean floor near Howland Island over a roughly 100-day search to find some trace of Earhart’s plane, a Lockheed 10-E Electra aircraft.

Sonar image side by side with Earhart’s Electra at scale (PRNewsfoto/Deep Sea Vision)
Sonar image side by side with Earhart’s Electra at scale (PRNewsfoto/Deep Sea Vision)

Tony and Lloyd Romeo explained their findings and what happens next to J.B. Biunno at Nexstar’s WFLA on Wednesday.

“This isn’t conclusive yet by any means,” Tony Romeo noted, but explained that the area in which it was found and the shape do seem to indicate it could be Earhart’s. “If it’s not the plane — you know, I’m pragmatic about this, it may not be the plane — but if it’s not, we’re going to continue searching.”

The next step is taking a camera underwater to better examine the unidentified object. If the visuals confirm the explorers’ greatest hopes, Romeo told The Associated Press the goal would be to raise the long-lost Electra.

Raising it could be complicated, depending on the condition of the aircraft. Mark Martin, a retired U.S. Navy submariner, told Biunno that it’s possible the plane — if that is what Deep Sea Vision found — is still fully intact. The Romeo brothers agreed, citing a similar plane crash they researched that remained intact after crashing into a lake.

There are also corrosion concerns. Tony Romeo explained that if the possible plane is brought to the surface, it’d need to be almost immediately put into a bath of water because “it’s going to start eroding, really quickly.” From there, it would need to be restored properly in a lab.

WATCH: Explorers who claim they found Amelia Earhart’s plane join #HeyJB Live to discuss what comes next

He also explained that who the plane belongs to is a complicated matter, but added that they’ve been in contact with Earhart’s family. (You can see the full interview here.)

“We’ve invited them to come along and identify the plane, they’d like to come along, they’re very excited about this,” Romeo said. “There are a lot of steps to get through before we start talking about salvage.”

If the fuzzy sonar images turn out to be the plane, international standards for underwater archaeology would strongly suggest the aircraft remain where it is, said Ole Varmer, a retired attorney with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a senior fellow at The Ocean Foundation.

Nonintrusive research can still be conducted to reveal why the plane possibly crashed, Varmer said.

“You preserve as much of the story as you can,” Varmer told The Associated Press. “It’s not just the wreck. It’s where it is and its context on the seabed. That is part of the story as to how and why it got there. When you salvage it, you’re destroying part of the site, which can provide information.”

Raising the plane and placing it in a museum would likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Varmer said. And while Romeo could conceivably make a salvage claim in the courts, the plane’s owner has the right to deny it.

Earhart bought the Lockheed with money raised, at least in part, by the Purdue Research Foundation, according to a blog post by Purdue University in Indiana. And she planned to return the aircraft to the school.

Romeo said the team believes the plane belongs in the Smithsonian. Acknowledging the “uncharted territory” of potential legal issues, he said his exploration company will “deal with those as they come up.”

When asked what’s next for the Deep Sea Vision team, Romeo said, “stay tuned,” and that he hopes they’ll have an announcement before the end of the year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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