Rafford’s “Enigma” brings true mystery into focus: What was Earhart really doing in final hours?

Now that my presentation to the Ninety-Nines at their South Central Sectional Meeting in Wichita, Kansas is history, we return to our regular scheduled programming.  Today, as promised, we consider the multiple radio conundrums posed by the final flight of Amelia Earhart, more specifically, the writings of Paul Rafford Jr.

The elder statesman of Earhart research, Paul is alive and well at 95 in Melbourne, Fla., and he remains among the planet’s most knowledgeable on radios and their transmission capabilities during the time of the Amelia’s final flight.  He worked with Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer in 1940, flying with Pan Am until 1946.  He flew with crew members who had flown with Fred Noonan, and talked with technicians who had worked on Earhart’s Electra.  After a promotion with PAA, he continued to fly as a technical consultant before transferring to the U.S. Manned Spaceflight Program in 1963.  During the early space shots he was a Pan Am project engineer in communications services at Patrick Air Force Base, and joined the team that put man on the moon.  He retired from NASA in 1988.

Earhart fans will recall Paul’s name from Vincent V. Loomis’ 1985 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story (Random House), wherein he presented his then-current ideas about the Electra’s radio propagation capabilities and Amelia’s decisions during the final flight.  In 2006, Paul’s own book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, was published by the Paragon Agency, and though it didn’t have commercial success, it is a treasure trove of invaluable information you won’t find anywhere else.

I know of no person more qualified than Mr. Paul Rafford to present to the American public the most probable cause of Earhart’s failure to find her destination island, Bill Prymak wrote in 2006.  “Mr. Rafford is world recognized for his astute radio propagation analysis and is THE man to contact re: radio problems.  We are proud to have him as an AES member and radio consultant.”

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, is among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s.

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, is among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s.

Paul wrote many articles for Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters between 1989 and 2000, and not only about Amelia’s inexplicable radio behavior during the last flight.  He also developed compelling theories about radio deceptions and plane switches, some of the most fascinating possibilities ever advanced to explain what could have happened during those final hours of July 2, 1937, before and after Amelia’s last officially recognized message was heard at 8:44 a.m. Howland Island Time.

Paul wrote two pieces with basically the same title, “The Amelia Earhart Radio Enigma” in 1997, and “The Earhart Radio Enigma,” in 2000, as if to repeat and emphasize the major problems and unanswered questions that still stumped him – and continue to baffle the experts.   We’ll start today with Paul’s 1997 treatment of the Earhart radio enigma, and in coming weeks will explore a host of his analytic and theoretical essays about our favorite missing American aviatrix.  Without further ado, here is Paul’s essay, edited only for style and consistency, written April 10, 1997, which appeared in the AES Newsletters May 1997 edition.  (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)



1) Why did Amelia Earhart have her trailing antenna removed in Miami before starting her second attempt to circle the globe?  During the early days of over-ocean flying, airplanes would reel out a long length of wire called a “trailing antennafor radiotelegraph communication with ships on the international maritime calling and distress frequency, 500 kHz (kilohertz, same as kilocycles).  This was in addition to their regular fixed antenna for communicating with land stations.

Legend has it that both Earhart and Noonan’s code speed was very slow, so she removed the equipment required for contacting ships.  However, the assumption about Noonan’s radio operating abilities is not supported by former crew mates.  On occasion while flying as navigator on Pan Am’s Clippers he would relieve the radio operator for rest periods.  However, by eliminating 500 kHz, Earhart also eliminated the possibility that the Itasca’s direction finder could lead her to Howland.  She didn’t need to know code in order to transmit on 500 for bearings.  Both she and the Itasca had 3105 kHz, and they could have coordinated any bearing procedures by voice.

New evidence indicates the probability that after Earhart arrived at Miami from Burbank during her second attempt to circle the globe, she secretly switched planes.  The second plane came from the factory without a trailing antenna.  But, in order to explain to curious observers why she arrived with the trailing antenna, but left without one, she had it removed right after she arrived.  This would help obscure the fact that she had switched planes. The second plane also came without a direction finding loop.  Earhart could dispense with a trailing antenna but not a loop.  So, just the day before departure Pan Am installed a new one for her. (Editor’s note: In future posts we will look more closely at Paul’s claim of a plane switch in Miami.)

2) Why did Earhart refuse Pan Am’s offer to track her plane across the Pacific if she would install a Pan Am direction-finding frequency?  During Earhart’s eight-day layover at Miami she met with Charlie Winter, Pan Am’s local radio engineer.  During their conversation he pointed out that if she would install a Pan Am frequency in place of the vacant 500 kHz channel, our direction finders could track her whereabouts over the Pacific, the same as we did with our Clippers.

Amelia Earhart at the controls of her Lockheed 10E Electra before taking off from New Guinea, on July 2, 1937. She disappeared the next day. (National Archives)

As Charlie told me later, she immediately rebuffed his suggestion with the comment, I don’t need that!  I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.”  Charlie was flabbergasted.  But the question is, why was Earhart so quick to reject his offer?  Didn’t she want her whereabouts to be known?

3) Why, after seven hours of contact with Lae, did Earhart dismiss Harry Balfour’s offer to continue communicating with her until she could contact the Itasca, waiting at Howland Island?  Seven hours into the flight Earhart advised Harry Balfour that she was leaving 6210 kHz and would try and contact the Itasca on 3105 kHz.  Her signals were still coming in well, so Balfour implored her not to break off contact with him until she had established contact with the ship.  This was normal operating procedure back then.  But, she switched off anyway, and he never again heard her, nor did she ever again have two-way contact with any station.

4) Why did Earhart never engage Itasca in two-way radio contact?  Bill Galten’s logs show that Earhart never directly answered any of his more than 50 calls or ever gave any indication that she was heating the ship except on one occasion.  She would suddenly come on the air without a preliminary call-up, deliver a brief message and go off, all in the space of seven or eight seconds.

5) Why did Earhart never stay on the air for more than a few seconds at a time?  We can only guess, but it would appear, as in the Pan Am direction-finding offer, that she didn’t want her position known.  The bare minimum time for obtaining a bearing with a vintage 1930’s direction finder was about 15 seconds, but it usually took longer.

Radioman 2nd Class Frank Cipriani, manning the Howland direction finder, complained bitterly that Earhart never stayed on the air long enough for him to get a bearing.  She also confused the Itasca crew by never advising what frequency she would be listening to or if they should answer with code or voice.

6) Why did Bill Galten believe that Earhart never intended to land on Howland Island?  Bill left the Coast Guard and came with Pan Am shortly after the Earhart disappearance.  We flew together during World War II. On one occasion while discussing the Earhart mystery he exclaimed to me, “That woman never intended to land on Howland!”  When I asked why, he had two explanations.  First, her radio operating procedures were nothing like that of a lost pilot desperately trying to make a landfall.

Second, Bill claimed that the condition of the Howland runway was unfit for a safe landing.  It was covered with thousands of goony birds that, despite the best efforts of the Itasca’s crew to shoo them away, would not vacate the area.

Many thousands of "Gooney birds" like these pictured on Midway Island posed a real threat to plane landings or takeoffs on Howland, another factor that led many to believe that Amelia Earhart never intended to land there.

Many thousands of gooney birds like these pictured on Midway Island posed a real threat to plane landings or takeoffs on Howland, another factor that led many to believe that Amelia Earhart never intended to land there.

7) Why did Earhart ask for 7500 kHz from the Itasca when 7500 could not be used with airborne direction finders?  While Earhart was supposedly approaching Howland, she requested, Go ahead on 7500 kilocycles.”  She had asked for it earlier so she could use it for radio bearings.  Although the Itasca’s crew knew that she would not be able to get a bearing, they had no choice but to transmit long Morse code dashes for her.  Five minutes later she replied, “We received your signal but unable to get minimum (a bearing).

Fred Noonan, Pan Am’s ex-chief navigator, would very well know she couldn’t get one on that frequency.  Instead of asking for 7500, Earhart should have listened for 500 kHz.  The ship was transmitting for her on this frequency almost constantly.  Her direction finder had been calibrated to this frequency range before she left Miami.  Later, Harry Balfour checked it at Lae with a nearby station operating on 500.

When Earhart declared, “We read your signal but unable get minimum,” it was the only time she admitted hearing the ship.  She would also conclude that the ship was hearing her signals because they had turned on 7500 kHz at her request.  At this point she should have been ecstatic!  Lost and out of communication, she at long last had radio contact.  Even though the crew could use only telegraph on 7500, they could at least have sent very slowly and advised her to listen on 3105 for communication and 500 for direction finding.  But did Earhart cling to this one chance for survival?  No!  She went off the air for 40 minutes and when she returned it was only to declare that she was flying up and down a line of position and would switch to 6210 kHz.  The Itasca never heard her again.

8) What actually happened during Earhart’s last flight?  This is a complex question and we can only propose a scenario based on what facts we know, plus some educated conjectures.  War clouds were fast gathering in the mid-1930s. In Europe the Axis powers were getting ready to invade their neighbors and Japan was about to invade China. America was just recovering from the Great Depression and money for defense was scarce. Also, the isolationists were very powerful and opposed any foreign entanglements.” 

To astute observers of international politics, it was obvious that we were rapidly approaching a world war for which we were woefully unprepared.  For example, the location of many Pacific islands on maritime charts had not been checked since the early 19th century whaling ships had stumbled across them.  Their positions could be no more accurate than the ship’s chronometers that may not have been checked against time standards for weeks or more.

And so it was that the powers-that-be in government came up with a plan.  Amelia Earhart was getting ready to circle the globe on a flight that would carry her over the mid-Pacific islands in question.  Why not have her disappear during it?  The American public would demand that the government find their heroine at any cost.  A vast search would ensue.  Ostensibly, it would be for humanitarian purposes, but meanwhile our fleet would be quietly updating its century old charts while reconnoitering the area.  With war clouds looming, our charts had to be accurate.  As an example of the problem, during the search one particular island in the Phoenix group was found 60 miles away from its plotted position.

The centerpiece of the plan would be the action around Howland Island after Earhart supposedly went down.  But, after signing off with Harry Balfour, instead of Howland, Earhart would head for the British controlled Gilbert Islands, and land on a predetermined beach.  After the Navy finished its survey, the flyers could be rescued.  But tragically, rescue never came.  Did Earhart overfly the Gilberts and land in the Marshalls?  I leave the answer to other investigators.

The wording of all of Earhart’s transmissions was such that they could have been recorded weeks beforehand for later broadcast by a clandestine radio station somewhere in the vicinity of Howland.  Coast Guard logs show that just before Earhart’s flight, the Itasca dropped off men and supplies at Howland and then proceeded to Baker Island, which along with Howland, was part of the inter-island weather gathering network operating on 7500 kHz.

At Baker, the ship dropped off four new colonists and their gear.  They would secretly set up a radio station to transmit the Earhart recordings on 3105 kHz.  (Editor’s note: Baker Island is an uninhabited atoll located just north of the equator in the central Pacific about 1,920 miles southwest of Honolulu, and lies almost halfway between Hawaii and Australia.   Its nearest neighbor is Howland Island, 42 miles to the north-northwest; both have been territories of the United States since 1857.  Baker Island was the site of a U.S.  LORAN [Long Range Navigation] radio station in operation from September 1944 to July 1946.  The station unit number was 91 and the radio call sign was NRN-1.)

Baker Island

Baker Island, 42 miles south-southeast of Howland, where Paul Rafford Jr. suggests four unnamed Coast Guardsmen sent pre-recorded radio messages to Itasca as part of the Earhart radio deception on July 2, 1937.

After word was received that Earhart had left Lae, the plan would go into action.  When Earhart was supposedly approaching Howland, the Baker operator would commence sending the recordings at hourly intervals until sunrise.  After that they would be sent more frequently, consistent with Earhart’s supposed flight activities when in the vicinity of Howland.  The transmitter power was adjustable so the operator could simulate her calls at various distances out from Howland.

The transmissions were kept very brief so Cipriani could never get a bearing.  Had he been able to do so, he would have noticed that the signals were coming from the south southeast, instead of west. Although he was unable to get a bearing at the time, days later he heard a strong, nearby station send a long dash on 3105 kHz.  This time he got a bearing.  It fell on a line of position running north-northwest by south-southeast through Howland.  Baker is south-southeast.

For several nights after Earhart’s disappearance, numerous, unidentified signals were heard on her frequencies. Some were obvious hoaxes.  However, there is no evidence to indicate that she ever again came on the air liveafter discontinuing contact with Balfour.

9) Why was an official Earhart accident investigation report never issued?  Today, any aircraft crash or disappearance would get a far better accident report than Earhart’s did.  The only official report we have from the government was that issued by the Navy.  But, it is simply a description of the search, and not an accident report.

In a letter to Fred Goerner dated April, 1962, Leo Bellarts, former chief radio operator on the Itasca, commented about the lack of an investigation.  Honestly, I thought there was going to be an investigation of the flight and that is the reason that I have kept certain logs and papers concerning the flight.” 

By contrast, the Hawaii Clipper that disappeared between Guam and Manila just a year later under very similar circumstances, was the subject of an intensive investigation.  Perhaps the powers-that-be at the time didn’t want the public to know just what happened to Earhart.  (End of Paul Rafford’s “Earhart Radio Enigma.”)

Among the most vexing questions about the Earhart flight, of course, the one whose correct answer  might help unravel the whole impossibly complicated ball of wax, is WHY didn’t Amelia want anyone to get a fix on her position?  We can assume that the Japanese were quite interested in her flight, for obvious reasons, and would have been listening to her transmissions from several of their radio stations in the central Pacific area, including Jaluit, where a powerful transmitter was operational.  It seems quite clear by now that Amelia was up to something besides trying to locate Howland Island.

I’ve often said that the Earhartmysterycan never be solved in the air, that the real answers are kept where our government buries its deepest secrets.  But we’ve learned plenty since Fred Goerner started banging on doors, and now, for the most part, it’s mainly the many nagging details that continue to evade us.  Readers should understand that this editor is not fully endorsing the entire range of Paul Rafford’s ideas, but  presenting them for your consideration.

In coming posts we’ll delve further into Rafford’s theory that Amelia Earhart was engaged in a deliberate, well-planned radio deception during her last flight, as well as several other aspects of the flight that might shed light on the real mystery of the Earhart disappearance – not what happened to her on Saipan, but what was she doing during the final hours of the flight, and most importantly, why did she land at Mili Atoll?

5 responses

  1. Interesting theory, but just that, a theory. I can not believe that Fred Noonan, an experienced navigator well before signing on with Amelia, would have gotten lost. I also do not believe that he would have been drunk, nor have taken anything alcoholic on that flight. Yes, he did enjoy a drink as many folks do, but his record with PanAm China Clipper certainly should speak loudly for him. Had there been “land in sight” it would seem highly likely that he would have known exactly where they were located. Another theory of the many that will likely never be solved.


    1. Robert Lichtenberger | Reply

      Fred most likely knew where they were following his “sun shots” that morning, because the realized that flying a 157 337 LOP would take the Electra right to the Phoenix Group.


      1. David Billings sent me a nice 10-page summary of TIGHAR’s erroneous claims since it began its Nikumaroro boondoggles in 1989. David concludes with this: “The TIGHAR Hypothesis started as an assumption, with no evidence. It continues as an assumption followed by another assumption, with yet more assumptions within assumptions spreading out all over the place and yet this is called Scientific Methodology? TIGHAR is a House of Cards which eventually will collapse, for it has no factual standing TIGHAR will collapse because the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln’s words, will catch up with it.”


  2. Fascinating details – the more I read, the more baffled I am that her disappearance and specifically this last leg of her flight has not been a major topic of research for decades. I agree with Mike, the silence and disinterest from the US government and investigative journalists is deafening.


  3. If her intent was to land at Howland, yet the only way she would be allowed to fly in that area at all was to do something else for military first, such as take photos of islands and debrief before they decided she could continue on the path, if at all – might she have changed her mind and turned towards Howland anyway – disobeying all orders – would that fill a gap in the story?


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