Among the most misunderstood themes surrounding the search for Amelia Earhart is that of the so-called “post-loss” messages that were allegedly received in the days following Amelia’s last official message on July 2 to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. These messages, received both in voice and code by a variety of people, were heard mainly in the central Pacific Ocean area and the West Coast of the United States. Practically since the day of her loss, inquiring minds have asked whether these messages sent by Amelia Earhart, were they the products of the overheated imaginations of earnest ham-radio operators, or were they outright hoaxes?
While working on Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last between June 2007 and April 2010, I looked into this complex issue as best I could – as a most emphatically non-technical expert on the state of 1930s short-wave radio propagation equipment, capabilities and techniques. The result of my ad hoc study was a lengthy, 11,000-plus word chapter, “The Search and the Radio Signals,” that later had to be cut out of the book because the manuscript was too long to present a publisher.
Simply trying to read and understand the technical analysis that’s available is a nightmare for a layman not familiar with the scientific terminology that accompanies such discussions. And though these posts will barely scratch the surface of this almost inscrutable subject and represent only an unschooled layman’s perspective, I feel it’s important to revisit these messages, if only for posterity and the scant few who might be interested.
Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the Itasca radio team during the last flight of Amelia Earhart.
I’ll try to present the most well-known of the post-loss messages, in some sort of timely order, so that readers can become familiar with some of the key people who were involved in this controversy. Later, we’ll consider what several radio experts have to say about the validity of these messages. No true unanimity or even consensus about whether any of the messages was legitimate has ever been reached among Earhart experts, but the sheer volume of these messages demands that they not be forgotten.
Twelve-and-a-half hours after Amelia’s last message to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, a radio operator at Nauru, which had not been asked to assist in the Earhart flight, sent a “wire note” to KPH, an RCA short-wave station in San Francisco, requesting that it be sent to Itasca:
“VOICE HEARD FAIRLY STRONG SIGS STRENGTH TO S3 0843 0854 GMT 48.31 METERS (6210 KHz) SPEECH NOT INTERPRETED OWING BAD MODULATION OR SPEAKER SHOUTING INTO MICROPHONE BUT VOICE SIMILAR TO THAT EMITTED FROM PLANE IN FLIGHT LAST NIGHT WITH EXCEPTION NO HUM ON PLANE IN BACKGROUND.”
Commander Warner K. Thompson, Itasca skipper, included this message in his report without comment, but Almon Gray, a former Navy reserve captain and Pan Am Airways China Clipper flight officer, believed the signals, sent on 6210 kc and received at Nauru at 9:31, 9:43 and 9:54 p.m. July 2 (Howland time), merited “serious consideration,” for several reasons, beginning with the fact that 6210 was the correct frequency for the Earhart plane, and that “it was not a commonly used frequency in that area,” Gray wrote.
The McMenamy and Pierson reports
Just before midnight July 2 (Pacific time), the Associated Press reported that amateur radio operators Walter McMenamy and Carl Pierson, both of Los Angeles, claimed to have heard radio signals on frequencies known to have been used by Amelia:
Walter McMenamy said he picked up weak signals on 6210 kilocycles at 6 P.M. (10 P.M. eastern daylight time) and heard the letters “L-a-t” which he took to mean latitude. The letters were followed by indecipherable figures. The signals continued for some time. Mr. McMenamy expressed belief they came from a portable transmitter. He received other signals from a Coast Guard boat, presumably the cutter Itasca, requesting listeners to “stand by and listen on all frequencies.”
At 8 P.M. (midnight Eastern daylight time), Carl Pierson, chief engineer of the Paterson Radio Corporation, picked up similarly weak signals on 3105 kilocycles, Miss Earhart’s daytime frequency. He said they were erratic and indecipherable.
United Press reported that “the powerful Los Angeles amateur station had been hearing code S O S signals all night. This morning what appeared to be a radioed position of the plane was picked up. ‘It was a 179 and what sounded like 1.6,’ said McMenamy. “If that meant latitude and longitude, we calculate it would be somewhere 300 or 400 miles off the coast of Howland Island.”
McMenamy and Pierson reported hearing more signals on 3105 kc on the morning of July 6 that they believed came from Amelia, but could not make out the indistinct words. The San Francisco Division forwarded McMenamy’s position in its message to Itasca as “QUOTE 179 WITH 1 POINT SIX IN DOUBT UNQUOTE POSITION GIVEN AS QUOTE SOUTHWEST HOWLAND ISLAND.” Since Itasca was erroneously told in an earlier message that the Electa “could probably use its emergency transmitter [in fact, it had no such equipment] on water,” Thompson wrote that “this information could not be ignored” and proceeded to the “westward of the report area and searched 2000 square miles on July 4 without result.”
Both Pierson and McMenamy had met Amelia and monitored her messages during the 1935 flight from Honolulu to Oakland, thus their claims of recognizing her voice carried a degree of credibility. The pair had a new “rig and tower at Santa Paula in Southern California where they thought reception was the best,” wrote Fred Goerner, who interviewed them in the late 1960s.
Unfortunately, McMenamy appears to have fallen victim to the brief notoriety he enjoyed. following his alleged receptions. “Walter McMenamy is a ding-a-ling,” Goerner told Fred Hooven in a 1971 letter. … “McMenamy claims AE flew directly to an island and landed on time. They broadcast from the island for several days, and they were picked up by the U.S. Navy. Noonan, he says, ‘is probably still living.’ He says he saw Noonan in 1949 or 1950. That he had changed his name and was ‘still with Navy intelligence.’ AE, he adds was alive until November 6, 1945, when she was killed in a headon [sic] crash of a pair of Navy planes near Guadalcanal. He said he got his info regarding AE from the FBI.”
The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland Island on July 2, 1937 to help Amelia Earhart find the island and land safely at the airstrip that had been prepared there for her Lockheed Electra 10E.
Karl Pierson was “an entirely different story,” Goerner continued. “A quiet, brilliant former radio engineer, he is now in charge of several research projects at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute at La Jolla, California, and he lives in San Diego. He says he is convinced the messages he and McMenamy received in 1937 in the days following the disappearance actually came from AE. He apologized for McMenamy by saying that McMenamy has ‘gone around the bend.’ Pierson says what puzzles him to this day is the attitude of the Navy toward the messages they received. He says he still feels the Navy did everything it could to discredit the amateur radio operators who reported possible Earhart messages. Pierson adds that he had a very close relationship with AE at the time of her 1935 Honolulu-Oakland flight, and that he monitored her radio transmissions during that entire flight with great success.”
McMenamy and Pierson were soon joined by more amateur operators in the continental United States claiming they heard Amelia’s distress calls on their shortwave radios. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 16-year-old Dana Randolph had designed a new antenna to enhance long-distance reception and was listening during the morning of July 4 when he heard, “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on reef south of the equator. Station KH9QQ.” [sic] The transmission quickly faded, but Randolph and his father were directed to a local Commerce Department radio operator, whose investigation revealed that the reception was made at about 16,000 kc, a harmonic of 3105.
In messages to Itasca about the Rock Springs report, the Coast Guard’s San Francisco Division said “this information may be authentic as signals from midpacific [sic] and orient often heard inland when not audible on coast” and “investigation reveals signals heard near sixteen megacycles thought to be from khaqq.” Earlier on the morning of July 4, Ray Mahoney, of Cincinnati, claimed he heard a message similar to the one reported by Dana Randolph. “The signals were weak,” Mahoney told the Associated Press. “About all I could make out were the call letters of plane and apparently it had hit a reef or was near a reef.” The AP report didn’t specify the frequency of Mahoney’s receptions.
George Angus, a Pan American Airways communications official in Hawaii, was notified about 2 a.m. on July 3 that the Earhart plane was missing, and he immediately set up watches at PAA’s radio stations on Midway Island, Mokapu (Honolulu) and Wake Island on 3105 kc and 6210 kc. Angus also arranged a plan with Honolulu’s two commercial radio stations, KGU and KGMB, whereby they would interrupt regular programming to make special broadcasts to Amelia, asking her to respond if she heard them. Immediately after KGU broke into its programming at July 3 at 10:30 p.m. local time, asking her to respond on 500, 3105 or 6210 kc, Mokapu station KNBF reported “a faint carrier on 3105 kc.” About four hours later, PAA station KNBI Wake Island, heard an “intermittent phone of rather wobbly characteristics” on 3105 kc, and Midway Island’s station KNBH reported hearing a “weak, wobbly signal which sounded like a phone” on 3105.
The following night, Angus was at the Mokapu station when KGMB broke into its programming at 8 p.m. local time, asking Amelia to send four long dashes on 3105. Angus and K.C. Ambler, a PAA communications supervisor, immediately and distinctly heard four long dashes on 3105. After Angus called KGMB and asked them to repeat their request to Amelia, “only two dashes were heard and the second dash trailed off to a weak signal as though the power supply on the transmitter had failed,” Angus wrote in his report. The first four dashes were heard by the San Francisco Coast Guard station, Navy Radio Wailupe, KNBF (Mokapu), KNBH (Midway took bearing of 201, labeled “approximate”), Baker and Howland Islands, and the battleship USS Colorado (BB-45), soon to join the Earhart search. San Francisco heard the dashes on 3105 for the next six hours at twenty minute intervals, along with “unintelligible voice.” During the same time frame, Baker and Howland Islands heard a “weak carrier ‘NRUI [Itasca’s call letters] from KHAQQ.’”
The 281 Message
Early July 5, Itasca was notified by the Hawaiian Section of the latest possible reception from the Earhart plane:
8005 FOLLOWING COPIED NAVY RADIO WAILUPE 1130 TO 1230 GMT QUOTE 281 NORTH HOWLAND CALL KHAQQ BEYOND NORTH DON’T HOLD WITH US MUCH LONGER ABOVE WATER SHUT OFF UNQUOTE KEYED TRANSMISSION EXTREMELY POOR KEYING BEHIND CARRIER FRAGMENTARY PHRASES BUT COPIES BY THREE OPERATORS 0242
This was the notorious “281 message,” a continuing source of speculation among researchers who have assigned a variety of interpretations to the number 281 that differ from that taken by Thompson and the Coast Guard. The message, sent in poorly keyed code on 3105 kc, was heard by three operators at the Navy’s HF/DF station at Wailupe and by the British steamer SS Moorby, 370 miles north of Howland Island, as well as in California by Charles Miguel of Oakland. Miguel reported hearing “281 … north … Howland … Can’t hold out much longer … drifting … above water … motor sinking … on sand bank 225 miles from Howland.”
Thompson believed it “was probably a faked message originating in the Hawaiian Islands,” and labeled the Oakland reception “clearly fraudulent.” The Itasca was 200 miles west of Howland when it was informed of the message, “searching down the 4 authenticated amateur reports,” according to Thompson, who wrote that it contained “useless information but the report required immediate check up.”
The message was immediately interpreted to mean the Electra was “281 miles north of Howland.” Itasca arrived at the position by dusk, and as USS Swan and SS Moorby approached the area later that night, two Itasca lookouts and the officer of the deck saw “a distinct flare to the northward. It came up from and settled down to the horizon,” Thompson wrote. Itasca headed toward the light and called Amelia, asking her to send up another flare. Moorby had not seen the flares, but Swan reported lights and considered them meteors, and Howland Island, 280-miles distant, also reported “flares to the northeast and burned three drums of gasoline.” The “flares” were a meteor shower, Thompson concluded, but commercial radio stations had apparently been monitoring Itasca, resulting in a “deluge of commercial requests.” An irritated Thompson wrote that the “whole incident illustrates the extent to which ITASCA was being monitored by commercial concerns desiring to ‘scoop’ others. There is a need to control such matters and the release of such traffic to the press by commercial stations is a violation of law, it is believed.”
As Itasca steamed northward to investigate the “281 message,” San Francisco Division sent information that “changed the whole search problems and virtually eliminated all intercepted radio traffic ideas (unless the plane was on land),” according to Thompson:
8005 OPINION OF TECHNICAL AIDES HERE THAT EARHART PLANE WILL BE FOUND ON ORIGINAL LINE OF POSITION WHICH INDICATED POSITION THROUGH HOWLAND ISLAND AND PHOENIX GROUP PERIOD RADIO TECHNICIANS FAMILIAR WITH RADIO EQUIPMENT ON PLANE ALL STATE DEFINITELY THAT PLANE RADIO COULD NOT FUNCTION NOW IF IN WATER AND ONLY IF MOTOR FOR POWER PERIOD NO FEARS FELT FOR SAFETY OF PLANE ON WATER PROVIDED TANKS HOLD AS LOCKHEED ENGINEERS CALCULATE 5000 POUNDS POSITIVE BUOYANCY WITH PLANE WEIGHT 800 1525
“Until this time the Itasca had considered plane had emergency radio capable of transmitting on water,” Thompson wrote. Although this message corrected misinformation San Francisco provided Itasca on July 2 about the Electra’s radio capabilities – “plane may attempt to use radio on water as radio supply was battery and antenna could be used on top of wing” – it perpetuated the false idea that the plane might be still afloat after three days in the water.
Fred Goerner reported that Joe Gurr told him the Electra “was absolutely capable of putting out a radio signal whether on the surface of the water, or on a reef or island. He says he installed an emergency battery in the cockpit, and as long as the top of the plane was above water, a signal could be sent through the antenna on the top of the plane. He also says that it was possible that Earhart’s signals might have been heard in the U.S. and not heard by vessels in the immediate Pacific area because of skip characteristics.”
Most others disagree, and insist that once in the water, the Electra would have been incapable of transmitting for a very simple reason: “Seawater would have short-circuited her electrical system,” Paul Rafford Jr. wrote.
Fred Hooven, the brilliant engineer whose inventions included the modern aircraft radio direction finder, a short-range radar set for World War II bombers, and the first successful heart-lung machine, thoroughly analyzed the post-loss transmissions during his longtime collaboration with Fred Goerner. “I have only two points of very minor disagreement with Gurr — one of which concerns the ability to transmit while in the water,” Hooven told Goerner in a 1982 letter. “I have no doubt that some possibility existed of the transmitter operating with the plane in the water but am quite certain that the battery would not have provided the current to operate it for as much as an hour. So that it is impossible to suppose that the signals that were heard over three days could have been transmitted from a floating plane. It is for that reason that I absolutely agree with Lockheed’s verdict that there was no way for the plane to transmit from the water without the opportunity to run an engine to charge the battery.”
The Electra’s potential flotation time is also unclear. San Francisco Division’s statement that “no fears felt for safety of plane on water” on the third day after a possible water landing was clearly erroneous. In 1998, researcher Bill Prymak, a pilot and engineer whose work in the Marshall Islands is presented in Truth at Last, studied the problem, plotting the Electra’s center of gravity from Lockheed documents and blueprints of the plane. Prymak said he “came to the conclusion that within seconds of a no-damage (a miracle in itself) water landing, the nose would immediately tilt down into the water at a 50 degree angle. For the empty cabin tanks to become buoyancy-effective they would have to be totally submerged, at which point the plane might float for a short while, but the cockpit would be nearly submerged even before the wing tank vents began filling with water. . . . There were no radio transmissions from Earhart’s plane if it was in the water.”
Prymak estimates the Electra would be completely submerged within an hour or so. Paul Rafford Jr. agrees, and writes, “had Earhart ditched, the Electra would have sunk shortly thereafter. An Electra that ditched off Cape Cod a few years later sank in a matter of minutes.”
Other alleged messages were reported in the days following Amelia’s loss, some more believable than others, but I have no desire to tax readers further than has already been done. In my next post, we’ll take at more of what Hooven and other radio experts believed about their possible validity.