When Amelia Earhart took off from Lae, New Guinea at 10 a.m. local time on July 2, 1937, the challenge she faced seemed clear-cut. Her stated destination was a landing strip on Howland Island, 2,556 statute miles distant, a speck in the wide Pacific, about 1,900 miles southwest of Honolulu and 200 miles east of the International Dateline. They would be crossing two time zones and the dateline, “flying into yesterday,” so to speak, scheduled to arrive July 2 at Howland several hours before the time they departed Lae on the same date. But though the flight had never before been attempted, Amelia seemingly had every reason to be confident of success.
First, she had the best airborne navigator in the world, Fred Noonan, a veteran of the historic round-trip China Clipper flight between San Francisco and Honolulu in April 1935, who had mapped Pan Am’s clipper routes across the Pacific Ocean, participating in many flights to Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Her Electra was loaded with 1,150 gallons of fuel and had an estimated range of 4,000 miles. Her expected flight time ranged between 20 and 23 hours or so, depending on varying wind effects on the Electra’s average speed. Her radio equipment, though primitive by today’s standards, was the latest three-channel Western Electric equipment of the type then being used by the airlines to provide one channel at 500 kc and the other two at around 3000 and 6000 kc (kilocycles; 3105 and 6210 kc).
But Amelia had a history of being a bit cavalier about radio communications, and for still unknown reasons, she left her trailing antenna at Miami, which severely limited her ability to transmit with any significant power on the all-important 500 kc frequency. This severely limited the range at which the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca could obtain a fix on the Electra as it approached Howland, and was only the beginning of the entire weird chain of events leading to Amelia’s failure to reach Howland.
Much has been written about Amelia’s final flight, and since we have a detailed record of radio receptions and transmissions between Itasca and Earhart (see “Radio Transcripts – Earhart Flight”) before she disappeared, researchers have long sought the answers to the so-called Earhart mystery in the logs and other records. But though the “solution” has never existed in the air, and we already know where she landed and where she died, important clues that suggest what was actually going on during those final hours can indeed be gleaned by the discerning eye.
Amelia’s first intelligible message wasn’t received at Lae until more than four hours after her departure. At 2:18 p.m., Lae radio operator Harry Balfour heard, “HEIGHT 7000 FEET SPEED 140 KNOTS and a remark that sounded like “EVERYTHING OKAY.’” Balfour sent weather reports until 5:20 p.m., but none were acknowledged by Amelia. At 3:19 p.m., she reported, “HEIGHT 10000 FEET POSITION 150.7 east 7.3 south CUMULUS CLOUDS EVERYTHING OKAY.” At 5:18 p.m. (0718 GMT), her position was “4.33 SOUTH 159.7 EAST HEIGHT 8000 FEET OVER CUMULUS CLOUDS WIND 23 KNOTS.” This put the Electra just southwest of the Nukumanu Islands, on track about one-third of the way on course to Howland.
The plane had covered about 846 miles at a ground speed of just 118 miles per hour. At 6 p.m. Lae time, Earhart signed off with Balfour before she attempted to establish contact with Itasca, something that most agree never really happened. She told Balfour she was changing from 6210 to 3105, her nighttime frequency. “She told me that she wished to contact the … Itasca,” Balfour wrote, “so there was nothing we could do about it but pass the last terminal forecast to her and the upper air report from Ocean Island.” Balfour recalled Earhart’s last position as “somewhere in the vicinity of Ocean Island” and that she was “on course for Howland at 12,000 feet.”
In keeping with my previously stated theme of returning to some of the great articles published in Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters from 1989 to 2000, the following analysis, written by Bill for the December 1993 AES Newsletter, is presented. In following posts we will continue to explore the complexities of the Earhart radio conundrum, and will examine the work of a few of the finest analysts to examine this always-perplexing riddle, including Paul Rafford Jr., the former Pan Am radio flight officer, and Almon Gray, the late Navy Reserve captain and PAA China Clipper flight officer.
Today we present Bill Prymak’s informative and amusing 1993 essay to give us a glimpse into the Electra’s cockpit that fateful morning. Instead of setting off his piece with distracting quotation marks throughout, I will simply indent it slightly, and will clearly indicate when today’s segment ends. Now, from the December 1993 AES Newsletter:
Radio Log — EARHART/ITASCA
The following are my thoughts on a subject that has been beaten to death by every researcher — real or armchair, but I’m taking an approach perhaps never looked at–or discussed, so bear with me, and try to follow my reasoning. The radio log is looked at from a new perspective.
Study the FINAL RADIO LOG [see The Itasca Radio Logs]. A third-rate amateur back alley script writer with absolutely no aviation background could not have done a worse job, except for one perfectly executed objective: TRANSMIT SO THAT NOBODY, BUT NOBODY CAN CUT A FIX ON YOU! INDEED, THE TRANSMISSIONS PROVE THIS!
Hundreds have dissected to ad nauseam the words, the time logs, voice pitch, etc., but nobody to my knowledge has ever, as PIC (Pilot In Command) put themselves in her shoes and really chronologically played out the events and thoughts about how a frightened person, ABOUT TO DIE, would, and should have reacted. Am I qualified to make this analysis? You can bet your buppies I am. Twenty-five years ago, as PIC 20 miles off the coast of New England, I suffered a partial engine failure, and, yes, I felt that I could easily die right then and there. So I grabbed my only lifeline — the radio, and “maydayed” on 121.5 and got the Coast Guard. My most vivid memory of the incident was my refusing for even one second to let go (i.e. stop talking) with the voice at the other end of the line. I felt I was going to die without him! I thus regard myself qualified to interpret AE’s feelings during the time period of the ITASCA RADIO LOG.
Keeping the above mental frame of mind that a distressed PIC would have, let’s take a look at the TIME LAPSES BETWEEN HER TRANSMISSIONS: (Earhart’s messages are bolded and set off by quotation marks.)
0345 (Howland Island Time): “BROADCAST ON 3105 KC ON HOUR AND HALF-HOUR – OVERCAST.” (This is radio chatter totally unbecoming a pilot.)
0512: “WANT BEARING ON 3105 KC ON HOUR, WILL WHISTLE IN MICROPHONE.”
ANALYSIS: She needs bearing, she is beginning to feel unsure of her position “Hey, this is getting serious. What the hell am I doing over this uncharted ocean without an absolute, positive fix? Can Fred really find that fly-speck of an island without a radio DF [direction finder] Fix? I better get cranking on that radio. ” And yet, after the above probable mindset, Earhart waits 63 minutes (over one hour), an eternity considering her plight, before she transmits again:
0615: “TAKE BEARING ON 3105 KC” Whistles briefly.
ANALYSIS: Above totally incorrect, inappropriate, and certainly not what a lost (YES, she is lost because she is unsure of where she is!) pilot would be “’working” with what she may possibly feel is her last lifeline before death. I would expect a professional (and by now a very worried) pilot to say something like the following: “EARHART TO ITASCA … EARHART TO ITASCA … I DO NOT READ YOU … GIVING YOU A LONG COUNT … 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 … 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 … ANSWER ON 3105 KC REQUEST BEARING TO YOUR POSITION.”
And the above transmission, or words to that effect, would be repeated over and over again with never more than a minute break in between, and per Paul Mantz’s and Harry Manning’s teachings, she would have thrown in additional chatter to fill in more time to enable Itasca to get a good DF fix on her. She certainly would have asked “What are your local winds and weather? Can you push up some smoke to help us see you? Please respond, we are not hearing you. Our present flight conditions are … ” She does none of the above, and is silent for another 31 minutes before the next recorded message.
0646: “TAKE A BEARING. ABOUT 200 MILES OUT. POSITION DOUBTFUL.”
ANALYSIS: She’s now tired, lost, with gas gauges creeping towards zero, and the above message is so casual and insubstantial that it makes you wonder if she didn’t spend the last 31 minutes manicuring her fingernails! Something is terribly cut of sync.
After the 0646 transmission we have no material or technical reason to suspect any degradation of her transmitting capability, in fact her signals to the ITASCA are getting stronger. So it is with utter disbelief that Earhart waits nearly one full hour before (0742) her next transmission. She’s now been more than 19 hours in a hot, cramped, noisy and smelly cockpit, she has no idea where she is, she hasn’t heard one peep out of the ITASCA, she must be dead tired, totally drained. It would be such a tremendous lift for her if she could hear a friendly and assuring voice from the outside world. And yet for one full hour … she says nothing! I can’t believe it! It would break the droning monotony, plus avail the only opportunity to reach the outside world (AND ULTIMATE SAFETY) if she would pick up the mike and TALK! It doesn’t cost one plug nickel or one drop of gas to talk on the radio, which at this time could be their only hope of avoiding very deadly consequences.
0742: “WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE YOU, GAS RUNNING LOW. UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO. FLYING AT 1000 FEET.”
ANALYSIS: Does this sound like a coerced preplanned program she was obliged to follow, to be broadcast at a certain pre-determined time? Could Paul Rafford be correct in his statements that quite possibly this whole affair was pre-recorded? Note all of her transmissions were deliberately shortened to preclude the ITASCA from taking a DF fix on her. She knew the time required; certainly Fred knew the same time required for ITASCA to take a fix.
0758: “WE ARE CIRCLING BUT CANNOT SEE ISLAND. CANNOT HEAR YOU. GO AHEAD ON 7500 kc WITH LONG COUNT EITHER NOW OR ON HALF HOUR.”
ANALYSIS: This message is totally non-conforming with the life- threatening saga unfolding before Amelia and Fred. They are lost. They are low on fuel. They’re both beat, and probably very frightened. The message from Earhart should have added: “FORGET THE HALF HOUR SCHEDULE: REPLY NOW AND CONTINUE TO REPLY UNTIL WE CONFIRM READING YOU. CAN YOU SEE OR HEAR US? ARE YOU SENDING UP SMOKE? CAN YOU GIVE US ANY CLOUD CLUES IN ANY DIRECTION?” Amelia would have continued transmitting, if only to give ITASCA more time for the DF fix. In her plight, growing more ominous by the minute, it is inconceivable that she did not constantly transmit to increase her chances of establishing a lifeline.
Finally, a small communication breakthrough is achieved. Earhart finally receives a signal but it is inadequate for her to get a direction fix. At 0803 she responds to ITASCA:
0803: “WE RECEIVED YOUR SIGNAL BUT UNABLE TO GET MINIMUM. PLEASE TAKE BEARING ON US AND ANSWER ON 3105.”
This was followed by a series of long dashes to ITASCA but they were unable to get a DF fix. See Captain Almon Gray’s excellent dissertation (elsewhere in this newsletter) for the best answer regarding why AE could not hear ITASCA. Note that there is a total absence of any urgency on the part of Earhart. Considering her situation, she should have been “’glued to her microphone” in a continuous attempt to establish two-way communications with ITASCA.
After the above transmission, strangely there is no further word from Earhart until some 40 minutes later. Forty minutes! That’s an eternity! What the blazes was she doing for 40 minutes, since it must be assumed, considering the strong signals, that any transmitting done by AE would have been received by ITASCA. Was she manicuring Fred’s fingernails? Or was a different, covert plan already put into action?
0844: “WE ARE ON A LINE OF POSITION 157/337. WE WILL REPEAT THIS MESSAGE ON 6210 kc. RUNNING NORTH AND SOUTH.”
At 20 hours and 14 minutes after lifting off from Lae, Amelia Earhart transmitted her last officially acknowledged radio message. Let the [Rollin] Reinecks and other navigation gurus battle over the true meaning of the above words “LINE OF POSITION 157/337.” There seems to be colossal differences over the true meaning of the phrase.
Captain Gray’s analysis of the message received by Nauru (at noon Howland time, as reported by Fred Goerner in the first edition of The Search for Amelia Earhart) is convincing evidence that Earhart did set down on land. There has been much controversy over the Electra’s ultimate time-in-air before fuel exhaustion. Let me set the record straight. This issue was discussed at length with Art Kennedy, who had overhauled her engines prior to the second attempt, and who calibrated her engines with PRATT & WHITNEY factory test equipment.
We carefully went over his test cell engine records, and barring fuel-cell leakage and gross mixture-control mismanagement, she had between 4.5 and 5.5 hours of fuel remaining after her 0844 transmission. This calculation by Kennedy is superior to any Lockheed literature. Therefore, it is my conclusion that she had the range to reach either the Gilbert Islands, or the lower part of the Marshall Islands, notably Mill Atoll, where so many researchers have placed her landing site.
Based on the above it’s tough to convince any serious researcher that she really intended to land at Howland Island. Frankly, I would have trashed as garbage the above RADIO LOG if it had not achieved such notoriety from official government channels. It’s a much censored and doctored script that’s a sad imitation of what should have transpired between two professional entities — Amelia Earhart, the professional pi!ot and the well-trained and disciplined crew of the ITASCA.
1200: Received by Nauru Radio on 6210: “LAND IN SIGHT.”
Captain Gray gives good reason why this message is valid: It should be further noted that her 0844 message has AE going to frequency 6210, same as received by Nauru Radio. (End of Radio Log – Earhart/ITASCA.)
It should be noted that this alleged “LAND IN SIGHT” message has been widely disputed, and many believe it was an aberration or false report of a message received by Nauru radio the previous day. In our next posting, we’ll look at Prymak’s summary and conclusions relative to the above, and consider that it all might mean in terms of trying to divine just what was actually occurring during the final hours of Amelia Earhart’s alleged approach to Howland Island.