“The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change”: Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga

In his introduction to Paul Rafford Jr.’s  “The Case for the Amelia Earhart Miami Plane Change,” in the November 1997 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, Bill Prymak quoted an unnamed, recently deceased “old-time researcher’s poignant reflection on the problems the Earhart case posed for inquiring minds.

“Fail to look under every rock, and you’ll never solve this bloody Earhart mystery,” Prymak began. “And so, patiently, deliberately, methodically, PAUL RAFFORD has plunged into this tangled, labyrinthine morass of inaccurate data, misleading information, speculation, ill-based rumors, all in an attempt to bring some sense to AE’s disappearance. The deep-six theory is too simplistic, leaving too many questions unanswered. In the following three articles, Paul explores some new (provocative?) territory.

In Paul’s revised 2008 edition of his book. Amelia Earhart’s Radio: Why She Disappeared, Paul reprised his April 5, 1997 piece, The Case for the Amelia Earhart Miami Plane Change” and rewrote it in a more reader-friendly style. Following is my best attempt to combine the best elements of both pieces, which is then following Bill Prymak’s analysis.

“THE CASE FOR THE AMELIA EARHART MIAMI PLANE CHANGE”
by Paul Rafford Jr. (Extracted from Amelia Earhart’s Radio and Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, November 1997)

4th stop, Miami: 23 May to 1 June

A photo taken upon her arrival in Miami, shows the direction finding loop still installed and the short factory version of the fixed antenna in place. In 1940, John Ray was the flight instructor while I was the radio operator aboard Pan Am’s instrument training plane. Flying out of LaGuardia, we trained pilots in instrument approaches and letdowns. He told me that while moonlighting with his aviation radio service business in Miami, he had been contracted to remove Earhart’s trailing antenna. 

The shiny patch covering the spot where the aft window used to be, which is said to have appeared after repairs were made in Miami in late May-early June 1937, is the same sheet of aluminum that Ric Gillespie now claims he found on Nikumaroro in 1991.

The shiny patch covering the spot where the aft window used to be, which is said to have appeared after repairs were allegedly made in Miami on May 30 or May 31, 1937, according the information published in the Oct. 30, 2014 Miami Herald. This patch is the same sheet of aluminum that TIGHAR’s Ric Gillespie has claimed he found on Nikumaroro in 1991.

In January 1990, I wrote and asked him to confirm what he had told me 50 years before. He immediately telephoned and repeated everything he had originally claimed: soon after her arrival in Miami, he had removed her trailing antenna. Seemingly unrelated at the time, Dick Merrill and Jack Lambie made the first round-trip commercial flight from New York to London and back from May 8 to May 14 in 1937 with a Lockheed Electra 10E. They flew over newsreels of the Hindenburg disaster of May 6th, and returned with photographs of the coronation of King George VI of May 12th.

It was declared the first commercial crossing of the Atlantic, and the two men won several awards including the Harmon Trophy because of the feat. To make the flight, the windows of the aircraft had been removed and the plane was modified to carry 1,200 gallons of fuel. The fixed antenna was mounted as far forward as possible to create the best transmission, but no trailing antenna nor D/F loop were installed.

Merrill and Lambie then flew the Daily Express to Miami for the May 24 reception to be greeted by the Mayor plus 10,000 fans, and received silver trophies for their acheivement. Earhart, Noonan, and Putnam met them at the event. In April 1992, I had a long telephone conversation with Bob Thibert after I heard that he had worked on Earhart’s plane during her layover in Miami. I had known Bob in the 1970s. when we both worked for Pan Am. He claimed that the morning before Earhart’s departure, Len Michaelfelder, his boss, handed him a new radio loop and told him to install and calibrate it on the Electra, post-haste. However, newsreels of the Electra taken just after it arrived in Miami from Burbank show a loop already mounted on it.

Thibert was quite surprised when I told him that pictures of the Electra taken during its arrival at Miami clearly show that it already had a direction finding loop. So I asked him if he had seen any evidence that one might have been previously installed on the roof, such as filled-in bolt holes. He claimed he hadn’t. Later in the 1990s, I talked with both John Ray and Bob Thibert. To my surprise, neither of them knew that the other had worked on Earhart’s plane.

An early photo of the Daily Express, the only which had been flown to Miami on May 24, 1937 by Dick Merrill and Jack Lambie following the first round-trip commercial flight from New York to London. I can't find a photo of the starboard side of the Daily Express, but it left rear rudder clearly lacks the dark signature of the Earhart Electra.

An early photo of the Daily Express, which was flown to Miami on May 24, 1937 by Dick Merrill and Jack Lambie following their first round-trip commercial flight from New York to London. I can’t find a photo of the starboard side of the Daily Express, but its left rear rudder clearly lacks the dark signature  that marked the Earhart Electra throughout its world flight. 

The previous day, at Earhart’s request, Michaelfelder had modified the fixed antenna specifically to maximize transmissions on 6210 kHz. Although it was reported that he lengthened the antenna, he actually had shortened the antenna wire and moved the mast back several feet, bringing the lead-in down the right side of the fuselage. This arrangement was supposed to maximize transmission on 6210 kHz. Although never revealed publicly, Earhart switched airplanes after arriving in Miami. In 1940, John Ray told me how he had been called out to remove her trailing antenna shortly after she arrived from Burbank. Although John was an instrument flight instructor for Pan Am, he was also moonlighting an aeronautical radio service business.

Meanwhile, the sister ship to Earhart’s Electra, the Daily Express, had just arrived in Miami after a well-publicized round trip between New York and London. The two airplanes were secretly swapped and the Daily Express was turned over to Pan Am’s mechanics. They then prepared it for the world flight, never suspecting they were not working on Earhart’s original Electra. The Daily Express, however, had no trailing antenna. When queried, Earhart explained to the press corps that she had the antenna removed to save weight and the bother of reeling it out and in. But she did need a direction finding loop and this is how Bob Thibert found himself installing one the day before her departure. Later, the calibration curve he left in the cockpit would be Harry Balfour’s prime reference when he checked the loop at Lae.

During Earhart’s visit with Pan Am officials in Miami, she had a discussion with Charlie Winter, our local radio engineer. During World War II, he gave me the details. Now that she had dispensed with the trailing antenna, he suggested they replace the 500 kHz crystal and coils in her #3 transmitting channel with a Pan Am direction-finding frequency. This would allow our long distance direction finders to follow her progress across the Pacific.

To his surprise, she immediately cut him off with, “I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.” Period. End discussion. Charlie was flabbergasted! He couldn’t believe she would turn down such an offer without further consideration.  Looking back, perhaps we can come up with at least one explanation as to why Amelia was so opposed to Charlie’s suggestion. Could it be that she didn’t want her whereabouts known while crossing the Pacific? In order to explain just what did happen during Earhart’s Miami transit I propose the following scenario. 

There was more than one Electra involved when Earhart departed on her second attempt to circle the globe. After the original plane was rebuilt, she flew it to Miami. There, John Ray removed the trailing antenna. She then flew it to an unknown destination, dropped it off, and returned to Miami in plane #2 [the Daily Express].  Jim Donahue [author of The Earhart Disappearance: The British Connection (1987)] claimed that Earhart left Miami in the Electra at least once during her layover.

However, some modifications were needed. Radio antenna-wise, the Daily Express was a bare bones model 10E. It carried no d/f loop or trailing antenna and its fixed antenna was the standard, short factory model. Legend has it that Earhart couldn’t be bothered with the problems involved with carrying a trailing antenna. However, I believe the reason she had her trailing antenna removed from plane #1 was because plane #2 [the Daily Express] would be delivered without one.

Removing it from plane #1 after her arrival in Miami would explain to the press and close observers why she had one when she arrived but not when she left Miami. She had to cover up the fact that she had switched planes. This is also why John Ray was contracted to remove the trailing antenna on #1, but Pan Am mechanics worked on the Daily Express. Had any of the three mechanics worked on both planes they would have immediately recognized the difference.

Amelia with Nilla Putnam, her step daughter in law, is said to be from May 29, 1937, in Miami. The second window is clearly visible to their right, and means it must have been covered over between then and June 1.

Amelia with Nilla Putnam, her step daughter-in-law, reportedly taken May 29, 1937, in Miami. The second window is clearly visible to their right, and means it must have been covered over between then and June 1, unless the original Electra was switched with the Daily Express. This photo was published in the October 30, 2014 Miami Herald Internet edition.

Although Earhart could dispense with the trailing antenna, she did need a loop and a more efficient fixed antenna. This is where Pan Am came into the picture. Radio mechanic Lynn Michaelfeller would lengthen the fixed antenna and Bob Thiebert would install a loop.

I made two telephone calls to Thiebert in April, 1992. We had both worked at Miami in 1970, when he was Superintendent of Pan Am’s radio/electronic overhaul shops and I was in charge of communications for Central America. … He said the job was top priority as the plane was leaving the first thing the following morning. He had to install a loop on it posthaste.

He went into detail about how he had worked alone doing both the metal and electrical work. I asked Bob the obvious question: during the installation had he seen any evidence of where previous loops might have been mounted? He said, “No,” and was quite surprised when I told him that at one time or another there had been at least two other loops mounted on Earhart’s plane. Bob had found only virgin skin where loops are mounted. He was also quite surprised when I told him that John Ray had removed the trailing antenna after the plane moved in Miami. He didn’t know John Ray, or know that anyone else but Pan Am mechanics had worked on the plane.

Although I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, the aforementioned TIGHAR Tracks article [Page 16 of the September 1995 issue of TIGHAR Tracks shows pictures of Earhart’s Electra parked at Burbank, Calif., and then taking off from Miami at the start of her round-the-world flight.] lends additional credence to the Miami plane change theory. In the last paragraph of page 16 the author claims: “The most apparent change made to NR16020 during the eight day stay in Florida was the replacement of the starboard rear window with a patch of aluminum skin. Again, legend has often described this feature as a removable hatch but the photographic record indicates otherwise. The opening first appears in 1937, and is present as a window in every known shot of the airplane’s starboard side until Miami, when it becomes shiny metal which grows gradually duller in photos taken at progressive stops in the world flight.”

The author implies that the starboard rear window was replaced by a patch of aluminum in Miami. However, I suggest that the plane is actually #2 [Daily Express], and the rear window was modified before the plane left Burbank. (Editor’s note: See photo of Amelia with Nilla Putnam, above.)

The Daily Express was preferable to Earhart’s original Electra for a round-the-world flight because it had approximately 100 gallons greater fuel capacity and hadn’t been through a bad crackup. Meanwhile, stripped of its trailing antenna and repainted, plane #1 would no longer be recognized as having belonged to Earhart. However, there was a discrepancy between the length of the fixed antennas on the two airplanes. Plane #1 arrived in Miami with the short, factory version. Its mast was mounted about midway between nose and tail. By contrast, the mast on the Daily Express was mounted over the cockpit in order to provide the maximum length of antenna wire possible. However, in order to make room for the new loop, it was necessary to move the mast several feet back toward the tail. The end result was that the length of the fixed antenna on plane #2 was longer than the factory version, but shorter than the original Daily Express version.

The crashed Electa at Luke Field. Hawaii, March 26, 1937. The standard Bendix d/f loop is clearly visible atop the Electra. This rules out any possibility that Hooven's Radio Compass was installed at Miami in the original Earhart Electra.

The crashed Electa at Luke Field. Hawaii, March 26, 1937. The standard Bendix direction-finder loop is clearly visible atop the Electra. This shows that Fred Hooven’s Radio Compass had been removed from Earhart’s Electra  before the first world flight attempt. 

However, even though the longer fixed antenna of plane #2 would put out a better radio signal than #1, the radiated power was only 5 watts on 6210 kHz. and one-half watt on 3105 kHz. Thiebert’s work was documented by the New York Times.

We can only guess why Earhart would secretly swap planes and do it in Miami instead of Burbank. Was it done at Miami because it would be easier to cover up? What was different about the Daily Express that switching it for the original Electra  was so important? Did the powers-that-be feel it was better to switch to a new plane rather than risk flying the original, patched-up airframe around the world? Or, as proponents of the conspiracy theory would be quick to claim, was the Daily Express equipped with special aerial reconnaissance equipment?

As Professor Francis Holbrook wrote me some years ago in connection with the Earhart mystery, “Once you have answered one question about it you discover you’d raised ten more.

(End of Paul Rafford’s “The Case for the Amelia Earhart Miami Plane Change.”)

Undated photo of Amelia next to left read rudder and its characteristic "dark signature," as Bill Prymak described it. Prymak dispayed five separate photos of the Electra at various stages of the world flight, all with the dark signature in the left rear rudder.

Amelia next to left rear rudder and its characteristic “dark signature,” as Bill Prymak described it. In his November 1998 AES Newsletter story, Prymak dispayed five separate photos of the Electra at various stages of the world flight, all with the dark signature in the left rear rudder.  Photo taken March 4, 1937, according to Purdue University Archives.

“Did Amelia Earhart Really Change Airplanes?”
By: Bill Prymak, AES Newsletter, November 1998

Several serious researchers over the years have bandied about the possibility that AE, for some secretive covert reason, switched planes “somewhere along the route.” Strong anecdotal evidence backs these folks, but I have recently come across another way to identify her airplane as it flew some 22,000 miles from Oakland to Lae, New Guinea. I call it a “signature.”

Aluminum aircraft skin production in the mid-1930s was a new, burgeoning science, and the process produced various different tones and shades, even from sheet-to-sheet off the same lot. So, each tone or shade becomes a unique signature, and if we study the rear half of the left vertical rudder below the horizontal stabilizer as illustrated on the blow-up below you will find that the same dark shade consistently repeats itself on every photo I have ever seen as the plane wends its way around the world.

I have only included in this NEWSLETTER five photos showing this unique signature, and I would certainly like to expand my file on this issue. If anybody out there has a photo of AE’s airplane with the above signature clearly shown, please send a clear copy to me. It’ll be deeply appreciated. (End of Prymak analysis.)

The quality of the photos of the Electra displayed in the photocopy and electronic copy of Bill’s article isn’t good enough to reproduce here, but at the bottom of the piece are five photos of the Electra and its dark signature, reportedly taken during the world flight. Three locations are identified:  Caripito, Venezuela; Karachi, Pakistan; and Lae, New Guinea. It seems inarguable that this is the same Electra that left Burbank, Calif.

Although Prymak’s “dark signature” appears to be the key to dismissing Rafford’s plane change theory, nagging questions remain. Why did Bob Thibert recall seeing only “virgin skin” on the Electra’s roof where two other devices, the Hooven Radio Compass, a domed direction finder, and the Bendix Radio Direction Finder, with its unmistakable, disctinctive loop? How can this be a case of old age or faded memory, when Bob Thibert was simply confirming an incident he told Paul Rafford about more than 5o years previously? Could Thibert have actually installed a new d/f loop in the Daily Express, which then left Miami for parts unknown, instead of carrying Earhart and Noonan on to the next leg of their doomed world flight?

What is known about the fate of the Daily Express? Precious little is available on the Internet, but two sources agree that the plane wound up in Russia.  Paragon Agency Publisher Doug Westfall, who published Rafford’s Amelia Earhart’s Radio, writing on the Verkhoyansk, Siberia Trip Advisor, reported, “It was sold the the USSR in 1938, disassembled and reassembled, being used in WWII. It was last seen crashed on the tundra near Verkhoyansk about 10 years ago.”

The  TIGHAR site, when not promoting Ric Gillespie’s erroneous Nikumaroro “hypothesis,” is often an excellent source of Earhart-related material, and in its Earhart Project Research Bulletin,Detective Story,” of  July 12, 2007, we find:  “After its epic transatlantic flight, the Daily Express was sold to the Soviet Union and used in the search the lost transpolar aviator Sigismund Levinevski. The airplane’s ultimate fate is unknown.”

Once again, the reader should understand that I’m neither promoting nor dismissing Paul Rafford Jr.’s theory, but am presenting it for your information and entertainment.  In the big picture, it makes no difference whether Amelia and Fred landed at Mili Atoll in the Daily Express or the original Earhart Electra. 

One problem I have with Rafford’s proposed scenario, besides Prymak’s dark signature that appears to preclude its possibility, is that when Paul wrote that the “two airplanes were secretly swapped and the Daily Express was turned over to Pan Am’s mechanics” who then “prepared it for the world flight, never suspecting they were not working on Earhart’s original Electra,” he doesn’t tell us where, when or how the Daily Express was painted with “NR 16020” on and under the wings and tail. This operation would have been necessary if the Pan Am mechanics working on the Daily Express “never suspected” it wasn’t the Earhart bird.

In a recent email, Paul Rafford’s daughter, Lynn, told me her father still believes in the “possibility of a plane switch at Miami, but does not really know what could have happened to the plane that was switched out.”  For now, that’s where we’ll have to leave it. 

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3 responses

  1. I would doubt that this occurred ( the airplane change ) due to the complexity of the plumbing of the extra fuel tanks in the fuselage. One would have to research as to whether Lockheed installed the extra tanks. If so, were Lockheed Reps ( mechanics ) present at Miami? It would appear to be a major undertaking.

    I doubt Amelia would have trusted local mechanics at Miami to execute the transfer of the tanks, valves, plumbing, etc. Just my views.

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  2. Do you have a photo of Earhart landing at Miami that shows the left side”
    Also, the photo of Earhart with Nilli Putman, the Lockheed is a Model 12 Junior. Why is she standing in front of a Lockheed 12? (Or was the photo taken somewhere else?)

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    1. In response to your questions: 1) Not that I’m aware of, but in Part I of the three-part Fred Goerner series, “In Search of Amelia Earhart,” published Sept. 19, 2016 on this blog, you can see the left side of the Electra as it takes off from Lae, New Guinea. Other photos have been published of the plane along the route to Lae, which you should be able to locate via google searches. I can’t publish images in the comments section.
      2) I know only what Rafford offers in his cutline of that photo.

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