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Re-creator of Earhart world trip takes off

Sixty years after legendary aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared while flying around the world, a Texas businesswoman set out Monday to complete Earhart's journey in an almost identical plane.

Hundreds of schoolchildren and well-wishers waved and cheered as Linda Finch's gleaming 1935 Lockheed Electra 10E lifted off from the same Oakland airfield where Earhart took off 60 years to the day earlier on her first attempt to fly around the world.

The plane, painstakingly restored to resemble Earhart's, slowly circled the airport in the clear blue skies and flew low over the crowd several times before Finch steered the plane south on the short first leg to Burbank, California.

After that, Finch will pilot the Electra across the United States, South America, Africa, Europe and Asia before her scheduled return to Oakland May 22. She will make more than 30 stops during the 30,000-mile trip, which follows a route similar to the one planned for Earhart.

"I'm having a great day. This is wonderfully exciting," said Finch, a 46-year-old from San Antonio.

Finch's daughter Julie Cordero, her grandson Ryan, 2, and her adopted daughter Katie, 2, watched Finch climb into the cockpit and wave to the crowd before taking off. Children held up hand-painted signs saying "Good luck Linda" while some adults showed up in 1930s costume.

Finch's $4.5-million "World Flight 1997" project coincides with the centenary of the birth of Earhart, who became a household name with her daring aviation feats, including becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932 and many other record flights.

Earhart's first around-the-world flight attempt, begun on March 17, 1937, was abandoned after the plane was damaged at the start of the second leg.

On May 20, 1937, Earhart left Oakland again. She and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared on July 2, 1937, on the leg from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean.

No trace of her plane was found despite a long search. What happened to her is an enduring mystery and spawned numerous theories, including one that she was on a U.S. spying mission against the Japanese.

Despite the tragic end of Earhart's flight, Finch said she had no fear about her journey, saying she was taking it one leg at a time. Several different navigators will fly with her on different parts of the journey.

"World Flight will remind the world of Amelia's life and her values, that you do not have to live a small life, that limitations come from within and we alone have the power to release ourselves from the limitations that we set," Finch told the crowd before takeoff.

Scott Knoch, mayor of Atchison, Kansas _ Earhart's birthplace _ named Finch an honorary citizen of Atchison. He gave her a key to the city and a wreath to drop in Earhart's memory near Howland Island, the destination she never reached.

The Electra 10E is one of only two in existence. When Finch bought it, it was in boxes with many parts missing. She and her team worked painstakingly to rebuild it. The Electra, powered by two Pratt & Whitney Wasp engines, the same type used by Earhart, has a maximum speed of about 200 miles per hour.

The "World Flight" project was sponsored by Pratt & Whitney, a subsidiary of United Technologies.

Students and others interested could follow Finch's progress on the Internet (http://www.worldflight.org), where they can read Finch's pilot log messages and send her e-mail.

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