Researchers have long puzzled over Amelia Earhart’s incomprehensible radio behavior as she approached Howland Island, or at least appeared to be approaching her officially stated objective on July 2, 1937. Bill Prymak, a veteran pilot with more than 6,500 hours in private aircraft since 1960, studied the messages for years before presenting his conclusions in his December 1993 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter analysis, “Radio Logs — Earhart/ITASCA.”
Prymak was convinced that “a third-rate amateur back alley script writer with absolutely no aviation background would not have done a worse job [operating the radio], except for one perfectly executed objective: transmit so that nobody can cut a fix on you!” Recalling his experience with a partial engine failure off the New England coast in the mid-1970s, Prymak said he could have easily been killed. “So I grabbed my only lifeline — the radio, and ‘Maydayed’ on 121.5 and got the Coast Guard,” he wrote. “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!”
In my previous post we saw the rest of Prymak’s analysis of Amelia’s strange messages and incomprehensible behavior throughout the final hours of her last flight. Today we present Bill’s conclusions about what all this might have really meant.
“Radio Logs – Earhart/Itasca” (Part 2)
A SUMMARY ANALYSIS OF THE ABOVE
1. To answer advocates of “crashed at sea near Howland”:
Assuming leaky tanks and sloppy (read “rich”) mixture settings, and that she did run out of fuel immediately after 0844 HIT (Howland Island Time) transmission; at worst-case altitude of 1,000 feet. At the very first sign of an engine sputter, without any doubt (ask ANY pilot), she would have “MAYDAYED” over the radio, exhorting the ITASCA for help.
No matter what the mission – pleasure, flight, spy mission, overt, covert, you call it – Amelia Earhart suddenly becomes the pilot for none of the above. Instead, she is a frightened human being about to crash and possibly die, and she simply MUST reach out for the only lifeline possible – the radio.
How much time does she have from the first engine sputter to splash-down? Plenty. Twin-engine airplanes don’t have simultaneous engine quit from fuel exhaustion. Pilots who have experienced twin-engine fuel failures have invariably stated that one engine goes first, and the second engine quits several minutes later. The Electra, light on fuel and cabin weight, could easily have stayed aloft on one engine – there would have been plenty of time for a radio MAYDAY. It simply defies all logic that AE would refuse to send a MAYDAY if fuel exhaustion near Howland Island was indeed the case. She certainly had the time and a working radio transmitter.
2. The “LAND IN SIGHT” message comes 3 hours, 16 minutes after the infamous 0844 “LINE OF POSITION” message. (See previous post regarding this alleged message.)
If the Electra was somewhat northwest of Howland Island, this time frame, plus Art Kennedy’s fuel calculations, would put Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands as a most logical candidate for the “Land in sight” observation. Many authors and researchers have narrowed their search to focus on Mill, plus the flood of native witnesses (some even from Saipan) who have corroborated the above. Read Don Wilson’s excellent book Amelia Earhart: Lost Legend, which also supports the above. Didn’t Amelia tell several people before she embarked on the last flight that if she became lost she would head in a westerly direction? (Editor’s note: See previous post for relevant comments on the alleged “Land in Sight” message.)
3. A FEW THORNS AMONGST THE ROSES?
There have been more than a few (some of the armchair variety) critics who have criticized and rebuked Amelia’s flying skills. Let them try flying a heavy, noisy airplane with crude autopilot capabilities for some 10 to 20 hours at a stretch, over vast oceans, hostile unexplored deserts and mountains, through monsoon rains of unimaginable intensities, with virtually no radio navigation aids to help find your way, with no decent charts for visual reference.
Some of these critics can’t even hack a 12-hour flight in luxuriously pampered cushy comfort on a 747! I have nothing but the greatest admiration for Amelia’s skills as a pilot. That has been proven time and time again from Miami to Lae. Piloting skills and radio skills are two distinct and separate endeavors. The former has been aptly demonstrated, but the latter has from time to time come under sharp criticism. From people who knew her personally:
ART KENNEDY: “I think that a lot of the questions about her lack of using the radio correctly is because she would not learn how it worked or how to properly operate it. To me she had no real knowledge of what any radio could do. When Paul (Mantz) tried to teach her she just nodded and said, “#%*$¢! I will just turn the knobs until I get what I want.’” (Editor’s note: Kennedy had much more to say about Amelia, the Electra and what he claimed she told him in Hawaii before and after ground-looped the Electra at Luke Field in March 1937. We’ll be hearing from Kennedy in future posts.)
PAUL RAFFORD JR.: Paul tells the story of how his PAN AM Division Radio Engineer met with AE at Miami to discuss radio and suggested several possible changes to increase safety and better radio capability. To his surprise and chagrin Amelia brushed him off with, “I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am!”
(Itasca Skipper) Commander Warner K. Thompson and others have made depreciating remarks about her radio skills, but evidence has come forth that Fred Noonan did have a 2nd class Radio Operator’s License, certainly enough for slow Morse Code work and adequate communication skills. So somebody indeed was on board who could have managed the radio during the difficult last hours of the flight. (Editor’s note: Amelia had announced before the world flight that she would not communicate in code, but use voice only. Some have claimed that she left her Morse code key behind with the trailing antenna at Miami. The big question is why she took these actions, which appear to be so counterintuitive and destructive to her stated mission’s success.)
4. PUTTING THE RADIO LOG TIME LAPSES IN PROPER PERSPECTIVE:
The vast amount of time between Earhart’s communications to Itasca has always troubled me, and for some it may be difficult to see and comprehend this enormous time gap, so join me in this little exercise: Let us consider RADIO LOG times from 0512 to 0844 (HIT). That represents some three and one-half hours, or 212 minutes. Now take a roll of fax paper 8½” wide by 5-feet long and assign one minute of time to each normal line used for typing. Now insert the 0512 message at the top of the page; it will consume one line (one minute). Then skip 63 lines and insert the next Earhart message at time 0615. Next we skip 31 lines and insert the 0646 message, and so on until the last message 0844 is near the bottom of the 5-foot-long roll of paper. The galactic void between messages is staggering! Something is terribly wrong; these voids must be considered as “windows of opportunity” that any prudent pilot, lost over a vast ocean and in imminent peril of crash-landing into the sea, would certainly take advantage of.
5. PLEASURE FLIGHT? COVERT MISSION? SPY MISSION?
These are the million dollar questions that have plagued us since day ONE. The State Department, the Japanese, or perhaps some obscure WWII veteran will someday surface with the final indisputable truth. The AMELIA EARHART SOCIETY’S efforts hopefully will hasten that day. I don’t drink, but when that day comes, I’ll tag one on BIGTIME! (End of Prymak analysis.)
In future posts we’ll begin presenting and examining the ideas of the elder statesman of Earhart researchers, Paul Rafford Jr., the former Pan Am flight radio officer, who flew with men who knew Fred Noonan and talked to technicians who worked on Earhart’s plane. Rafford’s work is legendary among students and fans of the Earhart case. First, however, I’ll do a recap of my two-hour presentation to the South Sectional Meeting of the Ninety-Nines at Wichita, Kansas on Sept. 27. Please stay tuned.