A close look at Paul Rafford’s “Earhart Deception”

Today we continue our examination of Paul Rafford Jr.’s writings about what might have  have transpired during the last hours of Amelia Earhart’s alleged approachto Howland Island, as well as other intriguing and controversial ideas he advanced over the years following his retirement from the NASA’s Manned Space Program in 1988.  (Boldface emphasis mine throughout; italics Rafford’s.)

On Dec. 7, 1991 Paul Rafford was putting the finishing touches on his new piece, “The Amelia Earhart Radio Deception,” which appeared in the March 1992 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter.  “The theory presented herein represents a major digression from the commonly held belief that Earhart was in the vicinity of Howland Island when her voice was last heard on the air, he wrote.  “It proposes that the radio calls intercepted by the Itasca were actually recorded by Earhart before she left the United States, to be played back at the appropriate time later on by another airplane.

Fifteen years later, Paul presented his evolved theory of an Earhart radio deception as an entire chapter, or “Section 7,” as he called it, in his 2006 book Amelia Earhart’s Radio.  That’s our focus for this post — Section 7, edited only for style and consistency, with a few photos added for your reading enjoyment.

“The Earhart Radio Deception”

The Earhart deception was designed to convince the world that she and Noonan were unable to locate Howland either visually or by radio; Itasca Radioman Bill Galten was not convinced. In 1942, after he came to work for Pan Am, he expressed his professional opinion to me, “Paul, that woman never intended to land on Howland!”

She had failed to answer any of his more than fifty calls or even tell him what frequency she was listening to. But to make sure, he called her on all his frequencies.  Her method of operating was to suddenly come on the air without a call-up, deliver a brief message and be off, all within a few seconds.  In fact, she was so brief that the Howland direction finder never had a chance to get a bearing.  Also, every one of her transmissions was such that it could have been recorded well beforehand by a sound-alike actress.  Even the Navy’s official report states, “Communication was never really established.”

Itasca heard approximately nine radio transmissions on 3105 kHz.  They were divided into two groups separated by an hour.  Messages in the first group, transmitted around sunrise or earlier, were weak or almost inaudible.  The second group were loud and clear as though the plane was nearby.  Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts later declared he felt that if he stepped out on deck he would hear the Electra’s engines. 

Paul Rafford Jr., now 95, the elder statesman of Earhart researchers. As a Pan Am radio flight officer from 1940 to 1946, Rafford is uniquely qualified as an expert in Earhart-era radio capabilities.

Paul Rafford Jr., 95, the elder statesman of Earhart researchers. As a Pan Am radio flight officer from 1940 to 1946, Rafford flew with many people who knew Fred Noonan, Amelia’s navigator during her last flight, and he is uniquely qualified as an expert in Earhart-era radio operational capabilities.

The above suggests that the two groups were transmitted from different locations.  The first group could have been sent from Canton Island where the Navy had set up a station the month before.  The second group could have been sent from a nearby ship or Baker Island.  The system worked well and the deception was not detected aboard Itasca or by later investigators.  However, there is an important clue that indicates the transmissions were not “live.”

Listeners noted that there was a change in the voice pitch between the earlier transmissions and the final transmissions.  Those near Howland were higher pitched.  They presumed Earhart was getting desperate.  But the recording and playback machines of the mid-1930’s did not have the stability of modern equipment.  As a result, the Howland area recordings were inadvertently played back at a higher speed than those from Canton. This made the diction sound more hurried.  But listeners passed it off as simply proving that Earhart was becoming increasingly nervous at not finding Howland.

In addition to her unorthodox operating procedures, Earhart’s sound-alike asked for 7500 kHz. to use with her direction finder.  But this frequency cannot be used with airborne direction finders.  When she failed to get bearings she should have switched to 500 kHz, where Itasca was already sending for her.  After 45 minutes of silence, during which Itasca called her frequently, she finally came back on the air.

However, it was only to announce that she was on the line of position 157-337 and would switch to 6210 kHz.  Itasca never heard her again and the search began. Here are two possible scenarios to explain why Earhart never reached Howland.

Scenario No. 1

Earhart and Noonan were following their announced flight plan from Lae to Howland when he became incapacitated. In her ignorance about radio and navigation, she was unable to get in contact with Itasca or take bearings on the ship. Finally, she simply ran out of gas and fell in the ocean.

The flaw with this scenario is that it doesn’t jibe with published accounts of Earhart’s radio expertise. For example, in Last Flight she describes flying along the routes of the Federal Airways System.  She had no trouble communicating with the government radio stations and tuning in their navigation aids.

Scenario No. 2

We’ll never know when Earhart lost faith in Noonan’s navigation but the first indication was during their arrival over Africa after crossing the South Atlantic.  She failed to follow his instructions and ended up landing at St. Louis, 168 miles north of Dakar.

After leaving Lae, she could have navigated visually by using the islands below as check points.  But her Nukumanu Islands sighting is the only position report to be found in the records. After over flying them at sunset, she signed off on 6210 kHz. with Harry Balfour at Lae, and Alan Vagg at nearby Bulolo.  Then, she could have turned toward Nauru, 525 miles east-northeast.  She had received a message the day before that it’s giant lights, used for mining guano at night, would be turned on for her.  Later, listeners on the island heard her say on 3105 kHz. that she had their lights in sight.

Had she been following a direct Lae-to-Howland track, she would have been far too south to see them.  There were only four airfields in that part of the Pacific that could have accommodated Earhart’s plane.  They were 1) Lae 2) Howland 3) Rabaul on New Britain and 4) Roi Namur in the Marshalls.  But Roi Namur was the only one Earhart could reach without Noonan’s help.

After passing Nauru, Earhart could have headed for Jaluit in the Japanese-occupied Marshalls. She could have picked up its high-powered broadcast station and homed in on it after sunrise.  Noonan should have known about the station because Pan Am on Wake Island used it to calibrate their own direction finder.  Then, after overheading the station she could use a bearing from it to find the only land-plane airport in the Marshalls, Roi Namur.  But would she have been so eager to land there had she known the Japanese were about to go to war with China?

 Ten points to the Earhart Radio Deception:  

– She was quick to reject Pan Am’s offer to track her across the Pacific with its direction finding network.

– She told Harry Balfour that neither she nor Noonan knew morse code.

– She signed off with Harry Balfour at sunset on July 2nd, even though he offered to stay in contact with her until she had established communication with Itasca.

– She never replied to any of Itasca’s numerous calls, done so on all of its frequencies.

– She never announced to the Itasca what frequency she was listening to.

– She never called up the Itasca before she transmitted a message.

– She never stayed on the air long enough for the Howland direction finder to try and get a bearing; never more than seven or eight seconds.

– She requested 7500 kHz from Itasca for bearings, even though her direction finder had been calibrated in the 500 to 600 kHz band.

– She never attempted contact with Itasca after she tuned in on 7500.

– She made no further attempt to contact Itasca, or ask the ship for another direction finding frequency.

Another look at the original flight plan that targeted Howland Island, the "line of position" of 157-337 Amelia reported in her final message, and the close proximity of Baker Island, just southeast of Howland, as well as the Phoenix Group, farther to the southeast. which includes Canton Island, as well as Nikumaroro, formely known as Gardner Island, of popular renown.

Another look at the original flight plan that targeted Howland Island, the “line of position” of 157-337 Amelia reported in her final message, and the close proximity of Baker Island, just southeast of Howland, as well as the Phoenix Group, farther to the southeast. which includes Canton Island, as well as Nikumaroro, formerly known as Gardner Island, of popular renown.

Although we have no absolute proof that the flyers were Earhart and Noonan, thru the years investigators have turned up undeniable evidence that two Caucasians did land in the Marshalls before World War II.

One theory is that Earhart was supposed to secretly land on Canton and wait to be picked up.  In early June, the U.S. Navy had hosted a solar eclipse expedition on Canton and left behind a radio station and personnel.  They could have taken care of the flyers until the Navy was ready to find them. Under the guise of looking for Earhart, our Navy would have an excuse to make a survey of the mid-Pacific islands in preparation for World War II.  Believe it or not, their navigators were working with outdated charts based on early 19th century whaling ship reports. When the survey was finished, she and Noonan could be found.

But suppose she had panicked at the idea of flying nearly 3,000 miles while depending on Noonan’s navigation?  She had already missed Dakar by ignoring his order to change course.  Lacking faith in his navigation, there was only one landing field in the mid-Pacific that she could reach by herself using her radio direction finder – Roi Namur.  But, it was in the Japanese held Marshalls.  After passing abeam Nauru, she could reach it by tuning in the Jabor broadcasting station on Jaluit that operated from early morning until late at night.  In fact, the Pan Am direction finder at Wake used it to calibrate their own direction finder.  After over-heading Jabor, she could follow a bearing from the station to reach Roi Namur.

The flyers had passed Nauru before midnight and Jabor was only 420 miles farther.  With sunset still hours away, they would have to slow to their minimum air speed and circle until daylight.  But fate intervened and they never landed at Roi Namur.

After delivering my Earhart speech at a Christmas gathering, a man came up to me and introduced himself. During the 1990’s he had been an Air Force civilian worker on Kwajalein. His work was at Roi Namur so he commuted daily by air. One noon he was walking about the island when he met a friendly old Marshallese who spoke good English. He had come back to visit his boyhood home.  My friend asked him if he had ever seen any white people on Roi before World War II. To his surprise the old man said, “Yes!” and related his story.  When he was a young boy he had seen two white people being loaded aboard an airplane and flown away.

One of the facts that tends to support Scenario No. 2 was the comment made by Secretary of the Interior Henry Morgenthau, Jr. to his colleagues that slipped out from under the veil of government secrecy: “She disobeyed all orders!”  Morgenthau was recorded as saying in a telephone conversation.  What orders could a private civilian have disobeyed that would upset a cabinet officer?

 Two men who knew plenty more than they ever revealed about the fate of Amelia Earhart: Secretary of the Interior Henry Mogenthau, Jr. (left) and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1934. Neither man ever revealed his knowledge or was called to account for his role in the Earhart disappearance, her death on Saipan or the subsequent cover-up that continues to this day.

Two men who knew far more than they ever revealed about the fate of Amelia Earhart: Secretary of the Interior Henry Morgenthau, Jr. (left) and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1934.  Neither was ever called to account for his role in the Earhart disappearance, her death on Saipan or the subsequent cover-up that continues to this day.

With regard to landing on Howland, Itasca Chief Radio Officer Leo Bellarts remarked to Fred Goerner that although Earhart might get down OK, he didn’t see how she could ever take off through the thousands of nesting gooney birds. Yau Fai Lum wrote me that even dynamite failed to scatter them.  He had gone aboard Itasca to get “a home cooked meal” when he heard a terrific boom! Looking back at the island he saw a mass of gooney birds suddenly become airborne.  “They fluttered around for ten or fifteen seconds before settling down again,” Yau wrote.  Air Corps Lt. Daniel Cooper advised his headquarters of the bird problem several days before Earhart’s arrival. But it had already been noted several months before during the airfield’s construction.  Why did the “powers-that-be” not seem to be concerned about it?

Nevertheless, two airplanes actually did land on Howland, both during World War II.  The first, based at nearby Baker, had engine trouble and was forced to use the Howland runways.  The second carried a repair crew. Both planes eventually returned to Baker.

The Search

Here is the situation that emerges as we put the pieces together.  First, Earhart was not on an espionage mission per se.  There were government facilities, including ships, planes and professionals, who were much better equipped for spying than private individuals.  However, we did need a good look at the Central Pacific before the outbreak of World War II.  Like the Axis Powers in Europe, the Japanese were planning a war to conquer and dominate the Far East.

America was ill-prepared for a war in the Pacific.  During the Earhart search our fleet was still operating with charts prepared by whaling captains a century before.  We needed to get ready for war – and soon!  Looking for America’s sweetheart would be an excellent excuse to bring those charts up to date, much quicker than depending upon individual ships and reconnaissance planes.

However, the Administration was faced with a problem.  Not only were we just emerging from the Great Depression while still dealing with its problems, but to many isolationists Europe and its war clouds were a ten-day ocean trip away. Japan was even further.  A popular song of the era expressed the feelings of many, “Oh the weather outside is frightful.  But here inside it’s delightful.  Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”

Also, George Washington’s comment in his farewell address was widely quoted: “Beware of foreign entanglements!”  Privately, our government realized the need to be prepared to go to war in the Pacific. But although we couldn’t openly send a fleet to survey the area without raising extreme objections, we could send a fleet to look for Earhart.  Even the isolationists would cry, Go find our Amelia!  Meanwhile, under the pretense of looking for Earhart our Navy would update its charts and exercise the otherwise depression idled Pacific fleet.  (End of “The Earhart Radio Deception” chapter.)

In his 1991 article I cited at the beginning of this post, presented in a question-and-answer format with Bill Prymak, Paul goes into far more detail in describing the covert operation he envisioned, as well as the logistics he believes were employed to facilitate it.  Again, he begins by  stating he believes Amelia never intended to land on Howland Island, citing Itasca Radioman Bill Galten’s well-known statement to him that Amelia”never intended to land on Howland.”

Pointing to the widely accepted idea that two-way communication between Amelia and Itasca was never established, Paul suggested that “all of the transmissions received by the ship could have been recorded weeks beforehand for playback by another plane.  It could just as well have been a [Consolidated] PBY Catalina [flying boat] flying out of Canton Island.”

In my next post, we’ll delve further into Paul’s Earhart radio deception theory, as well as take a look at his unique and equally intriguing suggestion that the Earhart Electra was switched for another plane prior to their June 2, 1937 Miami takeoff.  Much more to come.


5 responses

  1. Mike,
    Thank you for presented your points. Some comments from me if you are not against it.
    I do believe that AE and FN really tried to reach Howland. This opinion is based on the existing factual proofs and documentation, the number of involved people and the amount of applied efforts. This documentation includes a correspondence (and in that time it was a private and in fact confidential correspondence not intended for publication – like AE’s exchange with FDR). Also there was an evidence from involved people in different positions and of different ranks (including the US Navy, the Coast Guard), etc. etc. etc.
    All that data certainly and strongly suggest that AE and FN really prepared to fly to Howland, and then to Hawaii. The amount of factual preparations on the Howland island and around it, with all those services, resources and personnel involved, strongly suggest the same.

    I am also quite skeptical about the idea to judge about the possible intentions of AE and FN and their professional competence exclusively on their radio exchange. Such judgment is a-priori based on the assumption that the “Radio-Means-Everything-For-Such-Flight!” – that is absolutely correct today, but was definitely not correct for AE’s time and for fliers of that generation.

    For today’s pilots it is very obvious that the radio communications and the related skills are most important factors on which the outcome of the flight depend a lot. Any other attitude seems just unthinkable today. And what modern people tends to forget here is, that for mid-1930s it all was simply not so yet.
    AE and FN belonged to different, older generation of pilots and navigators. They started to fly yet before the era of radio navigation and they didn’t rely on it so totally as the later professionals did and do. It was habitual for them to get where they needed using other, more traditional methods (like dead reckoning and astro-navigation).
    It was a normal way how she (and many pilots of her generation) did such things previously, and successfully, many times before. They certainly considered the radio as a potentially useful, but still an “auxiliary” thing.

    To accept the idea that “they never planned to reach Howland” means to accept the idea that everything, including the private and confidential correspondence, all kinds of preparations on and around Howland with a lot of people and organizations involved, etc. etc. etc. was just staged as a “cover operation” of a sort. Meanwhile hundreds of other people, in different places and on different levels, somehow secretly prepared some other parts of the operation. And no peep about all this never floated up for 77 years, not a bit of any factual proof and confirmation…

    This sounds to me as a classic “conspiracy theory”, and a “conspiracy of hundreds” – something that I can’t believe. As you remember it was one of the reasons why we rejected other, even more radical conspiracy theories.

    I’m also skeptical about the ideas that proposes some “secret mission” like to be lost in the Japanese-controlled area to allow the US Navy to overfly it. There is no any confirmations of this in the contemporary documentation and correspondence (not intended for publication by then). It seems certain to me that all those ideas were inspired by the 1943 Hollywood movie “Flight for Freedom”. But it was just a wartime propaganda movie (although a good one) not an evidence.

    I know you are disagree with me over this, and don’t pretend to reconvene you. Actually we argued over this a lot of times and do know our positions well. The only reason why I posted this text here is that since you presented this theory publicly on the internet, it seems reasonable to me to present right here some opposing points – and just let the people to judge if they will want. Please feel free do delete my comments if you consider them inappropriate.

    Kind regards – Alex Mandel


    1. Thanks for your message, Alex, and yes, we certainly do disagree on this one. Nothing in AE’s actions indicated that she was trying to reach Howland, and just because we have no “documentation” to prove some kind of “conspiracy” existed does not mean that she didn’t have her own secret agenda. It’s the only thing that makes sense. And where was Noonan during all this, the great navigator who could find any needle in a haystack? Nowhere to be found or heard from, that’s where. You base your opinion on pure faith, and that’s not nearly enough.


      1. Hi Mike, thank you for your comments. I think i presented my points above in a way detailed enough so I’ll better not start to argue again and repeat myself. All the factual and logical reasons why I am sure that AE and FN really tried to reach Howland are presented, and if you think it all is just a “pure faith” then yes, we just have to agree to disagree over this aspect of the story. That is OK to me. Have a good day.


      2. Alex,
        I want to be clear about this. Nobody cares what I think. I’m just a journalist who’s been focused on this story for 26 years, not a radio expert or a pilot. I try not to make flat statements about what I think happened, but present the cogent theories and writings of acknowledged experts on issues relating to the Earhart case, such as Paul Rafford’s radio theories. Nowhere in this post or previous ones do I state what I think happened, because we simply don’t know. As I wrote in the conclusion of my last post, “Readers should understand that this editor is not fully endorsing the entire range of Paul Rafford’s ideas, but presenting them for your consideration.”

        That being said, I always tended to believe that Amelia was trying to reach Howland and that she landed at Mili for some other reason. That belief has shifted just a bit, but it’s still only an opinion. We can both hope some new evidence will be found that will either validate or dash that opinion. Have a good day yourself.


  2. What if you are both absolutely right. Arguments only occur when there are lies – and there are plenty, right? So many, how would anyone unravel it. Since everyone has a piece and stop calling it a “fight” for truth, it will open up. Because truth is never a fight. It is the universal solvent. So, here’s an idea. Presented for consideration. Don’t beat me up for this, ok?

    Imagine that A’s intent was to make Howland, hell or high water but had to agree w military in that last stretch of dangerous territory. Say there were radio commands to land elsewhere for debrief and further instructions before allowing her to continue on, based upon locations of Japanese monitoring of the area. Say there was another U.S. command center in the area monitoring movements as well. Possibly, with another flier. Military choreography, if you will.

    What if – (understanding of her nature), she said enough of this, I’m close enough – decided to chance it, and go back to her own plan. No conspiracy at all. Just a turn of events that threw the rest off, and in the confusion, events happened. Fred may not even have been aware – what if he was incapacitated in some way?
    And some trying to fit it all under one heading of “conspiracy”, or, “mystery”, “pilot error”, “find the bones” and “send money so we can take another cruise”. When it may have been way simpler than that.

    (wrote another similar comment but dang if I can find it, sorry here it is again in a bit more detail. Thank you for understanding.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: