Fred Noonan’s drinking: In search of the true story

In my last post we briefly looked at the mostly forgotten, sketchy biography of the multi-talented mariner and aviator Fred Noonan up until the time of Amelia Earhart’s March 20, 1937 Luke Field, Hawaii crash on takeoff on the second leg of her first world-flight attempt.  Noonan’s fateful decision to stay with Amelia as her sole navigator throughout her next world flight attempt came after her first choice, Harry Manning, quickly withdrew from the team following the near-disastrous Luke Field debacle.  The unfortunate mishap, which could have been much worse in terms of injuries or loss of life, did little to bolster Amelia’s reputation as a pilot, despite the official verdict that the ground loop was an unavoidable accident.

Fifty-two years later, Fred Goerner told a Pennsylvania television executive, “It is not correct to blame a tire blowout for the [Luke Field] incident.  Harry Manning was in the right hand co-pilot’s seat on the attempted Honolulu takeoff.  Manning wrote to me and then told me in tape recordings that the crash was the result of Earhart’s jockeying the throttles on takeoff as she was having trouble controlling the takeoff.  The blown tire was a result rather than a cause.  Manning said, ‘One second I was looking at the hangars, the next second the water. I was ready to die. It was phenomenal that none of us was injured.  She simply lost it.  That’s all.  I decided then and there that was it for me.  I’d been ready to leave anyway because of [George Palmer] Putnam.

The seriously damaged Electra 10E after Amelia's Luke Field, Hawaii ground loop on March 20, 1937. Amelia and Fred can be seen standing next to the pilot's side of plane.

The seriously damaged Electra after Amelia’s Luke Field, Hawaii ground loop on March 20, 1937.  Amelia and Fred can be seen standing on the wing on the pilot’s side of the plane.

Manning was likely referring to the publisher’s micro-management of his famous wife’s publicity campaign for the world flight, and his tyrannical insistence that the spotlight remain focused only on Amelia, as if she were the only person in the Electra.  Putnam imposed the same conditions on Noonan, but Fred needed the flight so badly, and so filled with promise did the great opportunity appear that he readily accepted the overbearing Putnam’s demands without complaint.

But as we continue our focus on Fred Noonan, we won’t further analyze Amelia’s questionable performance at Luke Field or second guess the decision that cost Noonan his life.  Fairly or not, Noonan will always be remembered as the problem drinker who Amelia Earhart trusted with her own life, if he’s remembered at all.  By hearing from those who knew Noonan or were close to those who did, and from others who have carefully studied the matter, perhaps we can get a better answer to the questions that will probably never be completely put to rest: Was Noonan an alcoholic, and if so, how bad was his drinking?  Most importantly, did Noonan’s drinking have any negative effects on the final, ill-fated flight that terminated at Mili Atoll? 

We began with the late Almon Gray, a Navy Reserve captain and Pan American Airways China Clipper flight officer, who flew with Noonan in the 1930s and later brilliantly analyzed Earhart’s radio problems.  “Fred obviously was sober at 8 a.m. [July 2],” Gray wrote of his former colleague, “and with all the rush of getting ready to take off he would not have had an opportunity to get drunk before 10 a.m. without someone of the Airways staff knowing about it.  I am very confident that Fred was sober and in all respects capable of performing his duties on the Lae-Howland flight.” 

Another man who knew Noonan well, at least on the professional level, was Captain Marius Lodeesen, the legendary Pan American Airlines pilot and former naval aviatorIn Captain Lodi Speaking: Saying Goodbye to an Era (Paladwr Press, 2004, the second edition of his 1984 book), Lodeesen briefly addressed Noonan’s drinking.  Recalling his first meeting with Noonan at Alameda Airport in Oakland, Calif., as the Dutch immigrant began his adventure of Pan American’s Pacific Service in 1933, Lodeesen described him as tall and slender and looking a little like movie star James Stewart,and said he and Noonan operated on the same UHF band.

Undated photo of Capt. Marius Lodeesen, longtime Pan American Airlines pilot and former naval aviator. Lodeesen said Noonan wasn't an alcoholic when he met him in 1933, bu that later "his drinking did become an issue."

Undated photo of Capt. Marius Lodeesen, longtime Pan American Airlines pilot and former naval aviator. Lodeesen said Noonan wasn’t an alcoholic when he met him in 1933, but that later “his drinking did become an issue.”

Much has been made of Noonan’s drinking,” Lodeesen wrote.  “He has been accused of being an alcoholic. He wasn’t one, at least not then.”  Later in his page-long narrative, however, the Flying Dutchman, as Lodeesen was known, wrote that his drinking did become an issue and concluded that Noonan was of a gentle nature and addicted to drink, implying though not actually stating that Noonan found himself out of a job as a result.

TIGHAR’s Ric Gillespie, well known as “an internationally recognized authority on the Earhart disappearance whose writings have appeared in the Naval Institute’s Proceedingsand Naval Historyand in LIFE Magazine,” according to his profile, has blamed Fred Goerner for fueling the public’s perception of Noonan as a drunk.  The stories about Noonan’s drinking seem to have begun in 1966 with the publication of The Search for Amelia Earhart by Frederick Goerner and are totally without documentary support, Gillespie declaims on his TIGHAR site. It is one of the tragedies of the Earhart Legend that an aviation pioneer whose contributions to modern air travel are considerably greater than Earhart’s, is primarily remembered as Amelia Earhart’s drunken navigator.

But what precisely is this “documentary support” Gillespie says is so lacking in Noonan’s case?  Is this just another of his weasel phrases, such as “consistent with,” which we’ve seen can apply to virtually anything that “might have come” or “could have come” from the Earhart plane or even Amelia or Fred themselves, too-clever-by-half dodges that provide convenient escape hatches should the thrust of his latest contention prove to be false, as is virtually always the case?

In fact, Goerner wrote little about Noonan’s drinking.  I may have missed something in my quick review of  Goerner’s 1966 bestseller, but I found only two relevant passages.  On page 30 of the first edition of Search we find this:

“Fred Noonan was a talented and handsome man.  Only one major flaw disturbed the image.  He could drink a bottle of whiskey in the afternoon, and get through the better part of another in the evening. ‘Boozer,’ ‘drunk,’ ‘lush’ – are hard words, and none of them fit Fred.  He was hooked on liquor, yet somehow he always managed to function.  He fought his adversary with courage and conviction, but sometimes he lost, and those defeats were costly.  One of them caused Pan American to let him go.”

Goerner didn’t elaborate on the defeat that caused Pan American to let him go.  His only other reference to Noonan and booze came on page 33, where he wrote that after Noonan and Mary B. Martinelli were married in Yuma, Arizona, in late March 1937,their car smashed head-on into another automobile on a highway near Fresno. The investigating police officer cited Fred for driving in the wrong lane. A notation at the bottom of the traffic ticker said:No injuries. Driver had been drinking.’”  We’re left to wonder why Noonan wasn’t arrested if he caused such a potentially deadly accident while drinking, but this is all Goerner wrote.

In this undated photo from the mid-196s, Fred Goerner holds forth from his perch at KCBS Radio, San Francisco, at the height of his glory as the author of The Search for Amelia Earhart.

In this undated photo from the mid-1960s, Fred Goerner holds forth from his catbird seat at KCBS Radio, San Francisco, at the height of his popularity as the author of The Search for Amelia Earhart.

Scottish researcher Jackie Ferrari, about as close to a Noonan biographer as this observer knows, claims Noonan was “let go” at Pan Am in late 1936 as a result of his heavy drinking, although no official announcement was made.  “He simply disappeared from the payroll,” Ferrari writes, so that the image-conscious PAA would “not lose face by admitting they had employed Fred when he was in this state.”

Noonan’s life had come undone, Ferrari wrote in her Jackie Ferrari’s Blog on Fred J Noonan, and he was “almost suicidal, according to his friend Marius Lodeesen.  There are others who say that something had gone wrong in his life.  His marriage was finished and his career effectively ended.  Noonan remarried shortly before leaving for the world flight with Earhart, and the timing of the incredible opportunity seemingly could not have been more fortuitous for the 44-year-old navigator.

In her blog post, titled, The Cincinnati Division, Ferrari, who also owns the Fred Noonan Society Yahoo! discussion group, was adamant about why Noonan lost his job at Pan AmFred Noonan was let go at the end of 1936 for drinking, she wrote. He was in the words of a fellow crew member sent to the Cincinnati Division. I am assured by a former PAA navigator that that was the euphemism for getting the boot.  What is my evidence for this and how credible it that evidence?

In the archives of PAA, in Miami, Ferrari continued, there exists a series of transcribed interviews between John Leslie, a former PAA executive and several crew from the pioneering days of the Clippers.  Two of that crew flew with Fred.  They are Victor Wright and Harry Canaday.  Both, but particularly Wright tell in no uncertain terms what happened. Ferrari goes on:

Fred developed a severe drink problem after Acapulco where the Clipper stopped during its transfer across country from Miami to Alameda.  He suddenly found fame according to Wright and it went to his head. Before this he had been “rock steady” with no sign of a “crackup.”  He “did a beautiful piece of work.” Then in Acapulco everyone was shaking his hand.  Overnight he became a celebrity, invited to all the parties where he regaled the company with seafaring tales. H e was very much in demand and the partying habit continued in Honolulu, Wake, Guam and Manila.  

One day he had to be sought out by Wright, who had to get into some “interesting situations and proceeded to sober him up before his flight.  This resulted in a fall in the bathtub which knocked out his front teeth [in Honolulu]. Canada navigated on the way back.  One might say that this was normal behavior for the aviators of the time.  Maybe for some, but not for PAA.  Andre Priester, Pan Am’s chief engineer, was known to instantly dismiss anyone under the influence of alcohol.  It is a measure of the esteem in which Fred was held that he was tolerated for almost two years.

Wright says that the “Old Mancovered up for Fred.  Was that Ed Musick?  Or Priester?  Or Juan Trippe, Pan Am’s president?  They knew he did a faultless job and he was indispensable for the proving flights.  But by the time regular passenger carrying service was set up and other navigators were trained his value waned and he became a liability.  The company carried very high class personages from heads of state to movie stars.

It simply would not do for them to see the plane’s navigator carried aboard comatose.  He had to go. But according to Wright, PAA could not lose face by admitting they had employed Fred when he was in this state.  They had too much to lose so he simply disappeared from the payroll.  That is why there is no official record of him having been dismissed.

For more of Ferrari on Noonan, please click here.

Batavia, Java, June 24 -- Amelia Earhart flew today from nearby Bandoeng to Sourabaya, Java en route to Kupang, Timor Island, on her flight around the world. She planned to remain at Sourabaya, about 250 miles from Bandoeng, until tomorrow. The flight ended a three-day rest.

Batavia, Java, June 24 (News wire caption) — Amelia Earhart flew today from nearby Bandoeng to Sourabaya, Java en route to Kupang, Timor Island, on her flight around the world. She planned to remain at Sourabaya, about 250 miles from Bandoeng, until tomorrow. The flight ended a three-day rest.

Earhart biographer Mary Lovell, whose 1989 book, The Sound of Wings, is among the better-known accounts of Amelia’s incredible life, flatly disagreed with Ferrari’s contentions, at least in the 1989 edition of her book.  Lovell wrote that Noonan was not dismissed from Pan Am because of his drinking, but “because as a navigator and not a pilot, he could go no further in the company ranks.  He had recently married and felt that his navigator’s salary was insufficient for his new needs; he was then 44 years old and wanted to make a new start.”  Lovell based this statement on a 1988 interview she had with Elgen and Marie Long.

Later in her book, Lovell wrote,The stories of his heavy drinking seem too widely based to have no foundation; his contemporaries in the aircraft scene in California allknew about this problem of Noonan’s. . . . Noonan was a heavy drinker not an alcoholic but it is ironic that Amelia should once again place her trust, and the success of her flight, in the hands of a man with a reputation as a drinker. I always wonder how those untrained in clinical diagnosis of alcoholism and far removed in time and place from the subject under discussion can so blithely pass judgment on the status of another individual’s drinking habits.

 A great deal of emphasis has been placed on reports of Fred Noonan getting drunk on the night of their arrival at Lae [June 29] after an argument with Amelia, Lovell also wrote in The Sound of Wings, citing Ann H. Pellegreno’s 1971 book World Flight as her source.  “These reports vary in description and reliable witnesses who were present that night do agree that he got ‘very drunk’ but only after Amelia and Noonan had already taken the decision not to fly on the following day.”  In fact, they didn’t fly until the third day, July 2, after Noonan’s June 29 bender.

Next, Lovell again turned to her 1988 interview with Elgen and Marie Long, who tell us the following about Noonan’s drinking at Lae: 

The argument that caused Noonan to get drunk was over nothing very much.  AE had been invited to a dinner party.  Noonan was not personally invited though I think this was merely an oversight.  Anyway he came down to the bar of the Cecil Hotel to find Eric Chaters [sic] and Jim Collopy all smartened up and ready to go for drinks.  When asked if he was going Fred said, No, but AE is . . .  ” leaving no doubt that he was disgruntled, and when asked what he’d have to drink he saidwhiskey. The other guys were all drinking beer but he stayed on whiskey and got very drunk.  Next day AE watched him like a hawk to make sure he didn’t drink again.

Twenty years later, in Lovell’s 2009 St. Martin’s Press reprint edition of The Sound of Wings, in a new entry, she quotes Noonan’s boss during his days with Pan Am’s transpacific operations, Clarence L. Shildhauer:  

Noonan developed a bad habit of going on a bender and getting lost among Manila’s whorehouses. Before takeoff he’d have to be hunted down and ”poured” aboard the airplane. . . . Noonan was given several warnings about his behavior because, as [his boss] reasonably pointed out, ”it would not inspire confidence among the customers if they were to see the navigator being carried aboard in Manila.”

Noonan did not wait to be fired, however; he resigned, Lovell concluded in her 2009 edition, which, at the end, is really not much different frombeing let go without the attendant publicity, fuss and paperwork, is it?

Perhaps the last photo taken before the flyers’ July 2 takeoff from Lae, New Guinea. Mr. F.C. Jacobs of the New Guinea Gold Mining Company stands between Amelia and Fred. Note that Fred looks chipper and ready to go, not hung over from a night of drinking, as has been alleged.

This is often said to be the last photo taken before the flyers’ July 2 takeoff from Lae, New Guinea. Mr. F.C. Jacobs of the New Guinea Gold Mining Company stands between Amelia and Fred. Note that Fred looks chipper and ready to go, not hung over from a night of drinking, as has been alleged.

Photos taken just before takeoff at Lae, New Guinea’s primitive airstrip reveal what appears to be a fit and sober Noonan.  In a 1985 letter to Fred Goerner, Bob Iredale, a Vacuum Oil Company representative at Lae, offered eyewitness evidence that Noonan was not drunk or hung over on the morning of July 2, an allegation that still lingers.  During the fliers’ first night at Lae, Iredale invited Noonan, who was staying with him and fellow Vacuum employee Frank Howard in a large bungalow known as Voco House, to join them in their customary evening drink.  I’ve been 3 parts around the world without a drink and now we are here for a couple of days, Iredale recalled Noonan saying. “I’ll have one. Have you a Vat 69.”

The next morning, Noonan “confessed to Amelia” that he “had a bit of a head and her comment was, ‘Naughty boy, Freddie,’” Iredale wrote.  “That was the only drink session we had and to suggest he was inebriated before they took off is mischievous nonsense.  I can assure you or anyone he had no drink for at least 24 hours before taking off.”

But Lae radio operator Harry Balfour’s 1970 letter to former Itasca Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts, who led the cutter’s 1937 radio crew in its desperate attempts to establish contact with Amelia, tells a different story.  “Noonan did not arrive back in Lae until the morning of the takeoff,” Balfour wrote, “and he could not have done any flight planning and also he had been up in the hills at Bulolo – all the time hitting the bottle and she also knew that I had a navigator’s ticket.  Balfour’s claim that hewas asked if I would have liked to go along with her [Amelia] and that was the night before the takeoff — though he didn’t specify by name who made the strange request — may indicate a tendency to exaggerate. 

Alan Vagg, the radio operator at Bulolo, which was 40 miles from Lae, in an interview in Tokyo sometime before publication of the Joe Klaas’ infamous 1970 tome, Amelia Earhart Lives, told Joe Gervais a story that seemed to support Balfour’s contentions that Noonan was busy getting drunk on the evening of July 1.  According to Klaas, Vagg told Gervais that Noonan and Jim Collopy, district superintendent of the Australian civil aviation agency in New Guinea, had “hit it off from the first meeting [June 29]  and while there had one hell of a good time” while the fliers awaited their last takeoff.

“At 7:30 A.M. on the day of their takeoff from Lae, Jim and Fred had just returned to the local hotel after being out all night living it up,” Vagg told Gervais.  “At 8:15 Amelia Earhart arrived at the hotel and knocked on Fred’s door.  Jim answered because Fred was asleep.”  Thus, according to Vagg as told to Joe Gervais, “Noonan had an absolute maximum of forty-five minutes to sleep off a night-long fling.”

Van Campen Heilner, a friend of G.P. Putnam and a member of the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, is also a footnote in the Amelia Earhart saga. According to Heilner, G.P. Putnam told him that in a June 26, 1937 phone conversation from Bandoeng, Indonesia, Amelia began with the remark, “He’s hitting the bottle again and I don’t even know where he’s getting it!”

Van Campen Heilner, a friend of G.P. Putnam and a member of the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, is also a footnote in the Amelia Earhart saga. According to Heilner, G.P. Putnam told him that in a June 26, 1937 phone conversation from Bandoeng, Indonesia, Amelia began with the remark, “He’s hitting the bottle again and I don’t even know where he’s getting it!”

Vincent V. Loomis, in his 1985 book Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, is among those who reported Amelia’s alleged statement to Putnam in a June 26 phone conversation from Bandoeng, Indonesia, as told by Putnam to his friend Van Campen Heilner.  According to Heilner, Amelia began the conversation with the remark, “He’s hitting the bottle again and I don’t even know where he’s getting it!” Loomis also echoed Harry Balfour’s questionable story of Noonan’s reckless behavior on the eve of the final flight:

On the evening of July 1, the night before the takeoff from Lae, the two fliers were to retire early, but Fred decided to spend the time drinking with his friends.  The next morning, July 2, Fred made it back to his hotel room only 45 minutes before Amelia came pounding on his door to announce they would take off in a couple of hours.  According to his drinking cronies of the previous night, Fred had complained of the strenuous pace set for him by Amelia, and found that as good a reason as any for seeking the comforts of the bottle.

So who are we to believe, Balfour via his letter to Chief Leo Bellarts and Vagg via Joe Gervais, or our own eyes, as we consider the photo, as well as a 37-second YouTube video of Amelia and Fred boarding the Electra on July 2, taken just before the pair left Lae, with Noonan appearing especially chipper and well?

It need not come to that.  Balfour’s recollection of Noonan’s whereabouts on the evening of July 1 simply cannot be trusted or verified, and is directly contradicted by more than one source.  At the request of William Miller, U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce, Eric Chater, general manager of Guinea Airways at Lae, wrote a July 25, 1937 letter detailing events as he recalled them during the American fliers’ stay at Lae.

At 10.20 p.m. [July 1] a message was heard from all Australian coastal stations requesting all shipping to keep silence for a period of ten minutes during the transmission of the Adelaide time signal which was being awaited by Miss Earhart, Chater wrote.  “Complete silence prevailed during this period and a perfect time signal was received by Captain Noonan, and the machine chronometer was found to be three seconds slow.”

It was difficult for Noonan to be in two places at the same time, in the radio shack at Lae and at the same time at Bulolo which is 40 miles away from Lae, there were no roads so the only way in and out was by air,” researcher Gary LaPook wrote in an April 24, 2012 message to the Earhart Yahoo! Online discussion group. Did they fly at night through the mountains in New Guinea in 1937?

“On the night before their departure,” LaPook continued, “Collopy is quoted by [Ann] Pellegreno at page 194 [of her 1971 book, World Flight].  ‘Both were in bed early that night.’  At page 192 [Elgen] Long [author of Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved] also states that after the time check they returned to their hotel and were in bed by 11:00 p.m.,  July 1. ‘The clerk knocked on their doors at 5:30 Friday morning, July 2,’ Long wrote.  ‘Collopy was having morning tea with Fred when Amelia came down.’”

Finally, in a taped 1988 interview with Fred Goerner at his home in Australia and reported in Dave Horner’s 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma, Vagg said neither Noonan nor Amelia visited Bulolo while they were at Lae. “While at Lae,” Horner wrote, “Amelia stayed with the family of Eric Chater, general manager of Guinea Airways at Lase,  while Noonan stayed at the hotel there, Voco House, with Iredale and Frank Howard of Vacuum Oil Company.

I hope the preceding is enough to satisfy the curiosity of those who might have wondered, from time to time, what Fred Noonan was really up to in the days and hours before the final flight.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Fred Noonan was a drunk who was guilty of irresponsible, even fatally bad judgment on the eve of the most important flight of his life, or whether he behaved as any other responsible professional would have done when facing such a daunting challenge, regardless of his drinking history.

I have no doubt, based on the personal accounts and other evidence we’ve just seen, that Noonan was sober, alert and fit when the Electra left Lae at 10 a.m., July 2, just as I’m certain that he would never have consciously put Amelia at risk.  Of course, those who disagree are free to do so, and it certainly won’t be the last time in the Earhart saga that compelling evidence and common sense came out on the short end.  


24 responses

  1. Dear Mike,
    Thank you for posting your article. A few comments that doesn’t really dispute or challenge anything in your text, just a technical remark about one thing that you mentioned.
    Harry Manning wrote to Fred Goerner that “the crash was the result of Earhart’s jockeying the throttles on takeoff as she was having trouble controlling the takeoff”. Captain Manning was a deservedly recognized and qualified marine navigator but it doesn’t seem that he was an equally qualified pilot, at least for a multi-engine plane. His career as a pilot was not very long and not very successful. . He was licensed in 1930 and flew occasionally in a small planes. On July 24, 1938 he was flying his Fairchild monoplane on a flight returning from Long Island. In his approach to Roosevelt Field at 700 feet his aircraft entered a spin and fell to the ground, critically injuring him.

    So I would doubt that he as a pilot could provide an accurate and credible expertise about what happened during that couple of seconds while the control over the Electra was lost.

    Moreover, I would doubt that his estimation of what happened during that groundloop was surely objective and unbiased.

    During the preparations for the World Flight, AE’s friend and colleague Jackie Cochran expressed some doubts about Captain Manning’s capabilities about the aviation navigation. He was certainly a high-class professional in the naval (sea-going) one, but that was quite different from the aerial navigation technique. So she (Jackie C.) suggested to AE to fly him for a test in the nighttime to some point in the air and then ask him to find a way back home.

    AE followed this advice and did – and Manning couldn’t. The episode is described (particularly) in the Doris Rich’s book.

    That was exactly a moment after which it was decided to have another navigator aboard (FN), and it seems a valid version to me that it was actually that episode after which Captain Manning’s decision to remove himself became just a question of time: and the Hawaii groundloop accident just provided a convenient opportunity for this step. Captain Manning’s remarks about AE since then were quite bitter and critical, and IMHO it strengthens the probability that his account about that accident was also not unbiased. A wounded ego of a professional may be a powerful thing sometimes and can influence the attitudes strongly.


  2. Ronald Jackson reports in his book ‘China Clipper’ that Noonan’s navigation could by off by 200 miles according to other people working for Pam Am.


    1. Lots of dialogue here! Let’s see, where to begin ?

      – Harry Manning’s statements about Earhart’s throttle jockeying.
      1. Most likely a visual observation only. An innuendo that she had her hands full at the time on a short airstrip with a full load of gas….. He didn’t have a multi-engine rating ( I believe), so we’re not talking about an experts’s critique. He backed out and lived. Was the statement spontaneous, or was it an opinion generated by a reporter, or within a circle of friends.

      – Now, Noonan’s alleged “Drinking Problem”:

      2. Was he not unemployed when Earhart selected him as a Navigator? So….new job…new employer…..Nationally if not Internationally Renowned Aviator who is that employer. Opportunity for recognition, paid speaking tours, and a chance to start that NAVIGATION SCHOOL that he intended to do when the Circumnavigation was successfully completed. Oh, and a new Bride….. A chance at a totally second Fresh Start.

      – So, I would say that Fred was on his good if not great behavior, except perhaps for one or two day layovers, which would be pure speculation on my part. And, it would have been observed and rported all along the route, starting from Miami.

      Finally, Ronald Jackson’s Statement:

      3. The source of his statement is critical. Is it a statement that is thoroughly documented? First person, in-depth interviews? Written and signed correspondence? Who, by name stated it? Under what circumstances?

      If undocumented, then it just makes for high drama in his book.

      EX: For all we know, “if” Fred was 200 miles off course, was the Clipper flying in a severe crosswind, driving rain, little or no ability to take a fix, relying only on the rudimentary RDF capabilities of the 30’s? Or was it a dusk takeoff in cloudless skies, visibility unlimited, flying through a brilliant, star and moon illuminated night ?

      Conditions could have determined it, if the event occurred at all.


  3. Dear Mike: Something else that can be mentioned is not only the photo of Noonan looking chipper, but also the video shot of him and Amelia climbing the wing into the plane at Lae. He lookes very fit, and very sober. He did not have to be poured into the plane! (: Rob Ellos


  4. Vernon;
    Ronald Jackson writes on page 153 [China Clipper, 1980];

    “Prior to being fired by Pan American, Noonan’s abilities had diminished to such an extent that some of the Clipper pilots noticed the courses he plotted were off as much as two hundred miles. For this Pan American dismissed him as untrustworthy.

    At forty-four Noonan had been at sea for thirty years, serving as a navigator on everything from square riggers to Pan American’s Clippers. When he remained sober he was the best; even Ed Musick considered him far and away the finest navigator in the Pacific. He told Earhart that he quit drinking so she may have decided to hire the best. Still, if Noonan began drinking on the flight, he would be an absolute liability, as Pan American had already learned.”

    In six pages of “Sources and Acknowledgements” Jackson includes;

    “…Former Martin Clipper pilots Scotty Lewis and H.G. Gulbranson gave firsthand accounts of the Martin flying boats, told stories about their flights, and offered insights into some of the personalities in this book…”


  5. FlyFan:
    Good ! Now, did Pan Am pilots Scotty Lewis and H.G. Gulbranson personally fly with Noonan? Or, are these hand me down, second hand tales about personalities? You know. Water Cooler stuff. Shop talk. The key lies in a first person account. “Offering insights” is a far cry from a Footnote that specifically states: “Telephone conversation with H.G.Gulbranson on 12 August 1980 in which he stated that on a Midway to Wake flight on February 1, 1936, where Noonan was my Navigator…etc.etc..”

    The same goes for that “alleged” Amelia to Putnam statement.about ” he’s drinking, etc” ( circa 6-26-37 ). Common sense would reveal that at every stop where he hit the John Barleycorn, there would have more than one witness. And after their disappearance. these people ( witnesses to the drinking /over indulgence ) would have certainly stepped forward. No one did.


    1. Vernon, Jackie Ferrari’s blog has more on Fred and his time with Pan Am.

      “Fred Noonan was ‘let go’ at the end of 1936 for drinking. He was in the words of a fellow crew member sent to the Cincinnati Division. I am assured by a former PAA navigator that that was the euphemism for ‘getting the boot.’ What is my evidence for this and how credible it that evidence?

      “In the archives of PAA, in Miami, there exists a series of transcribed interviews between John Leslie, a former PAA executive and several crew from the pioneering days of the Clippers. Two of those crew flew with Fred. They are Victor Wright and Harry Canaday. Both, but particularly Wright tell in no uncertain terms what happened. Fred developed a severe drink problem after Acapulco where the Clipper stopped during its transfer across country from Miami to Alameda….”


  6. Having a close familiarity with alcoholics of all stripes for decades I can say this; There is no blood test or any test to prove alcoholism, but Fred Noonan’s behavior is entirely consistent with a diagnosis of alcoholism. A problem drinker for certain. True alcoholics are famous for the behavior of getting wasted just before the most important of activities. Bulolo was a mining camp in full swing by 1937. Not 40 miles from Lae but 27 according to Google.

    I can’t say for certain, but there may have been some kind of dirt road between the two. What better place for Fred to go? Booze and broads for sure, I’m thinking. I’d put my money on it. Why would anyone at the time claim they went there if it was known you had to fly there and that could not be done at night? Or maybe they could do it before sunset and right after dawn. As for Fred looking “chipper” maybe that was the result of a couple eye-openers for breakfast. Couldn’t it be suspected that was a “shit eating grin?” I know people defend alcoholics for their own reasons, sometimes because they are problem drinkers themselves.

    I don’t see the point in questioning Captain Manning’s opinion and his bailing out of the flight. I would think anyone with a little flying experience could tell if the pilot was jockeying the throttles. Perhaps he could see the whole enterprise was very dubious. Maybe he saw and/or knew Fred was a lush, Amelia was sometimes erratic and Putnam was making demands that put unrealistic pressures on them all. It’s possible he knew a lot more than he was willing to tell.

    So anyway, Fred was possibly “under the weather” and (a) he screwed up and did not get them within 200 miles of Howland or (b) he did an excellent job and found Mili for them which was intended. One says he drank all night and another says he went to bed early. Take your pick. It just means some people quoted in these AE accounts aren’t telling the whole truth.

    I did want to mention that the episode of AE telling the PAA representative she wanted no help from them would be very consistent with her not wanting anybody to know where she was which PAA would have. I don’t recall this possibility being mentioned, generally it’s attributed to AE being just too arrogant to want anybody’s help. But it probably has been mentioned somewhere because I’m not that smart.


  7. Fred’s alcoholism:” Speculation Forevermore.” Of course,he seemed to be on the money at every gas stop ,from Africa to Lae, up to that point, which is a pretty big “Plus” in his favor.

    He set his three Chronometers precisely, taking his time as most proficient Navigators do, at Lae. Another “Plus” of sorts.

    And finally for Fred, any number of factors could have caused a Howland miss: head winds. cross winds, overcast which prevented Fixes, and even flying into a brilliant sunrise. But…. at 1000 feet altitude, you’re not going to easily spot a very small atoll. For curiosity, what was Fred paid for this trip. What did Putnam pay hiss newlywed widow?
    Now for Harry…..

    Manning was interviewed or talked about it at some later point either spontaneously, or as a result of a question. Of course, Amelia’s dead, so let’s kick her a bit, if his statement was true.. Neither here nor there in the great scheme of things. If he never said it, forget it. It’s all incorporated into the Earhart legend. Unless someone discovers a Manning death bed letter swearing on his soul that he never said it. For me, who cares?

    Finally, Pan American….

    Ol’ G.P. Putnam handled the planning, logistics, publicity, who was to greet her when she landed, see her off when she left, etc. I’m sure Putnam had a hand in that decision. Behind the scenes of course.Why? Who knows? The last thing Earhart would want to say at the completion of a successful flight would be ” I couldn’t have done it without the help of Pan American Airways.” And what, exactly, was Pan American going to do that Putnam couldn’t arrange anyway?
    Kind of ties into Fred’s alleged drinking problem. Why wouldn’t Pan American warn Amelia that Fred got tanked regularly and was either terminated or asked to leave? That he was a mediocre or even poor choice by their standards. Nope. No record of any of that stated.


  8. Vernon,

    Jackie Ferrari has more to say about Noonan’s drinking here;

    “There is no good evidence to say that he resigned from PAA because he had risen as far as he could go. Another similar statement is that he resigned because he could not be a pilot.

    I believe that he was fired because of drinking. I believe this because,

    1. This was told in great detail by a contemporary to a highly respected PAA executive who was writing the history of PAA. This was no mere chat over coffee. It was not a posting on a forum. It was not a throw away line in someone’s memoirs. It was an important enough document to be filed away with other taped interviews between the crew members who worked and flew with Fred Noonan and a man who was much their superior in terms of position within the company. If John Leslie had not known about what Vic Wright was recounting I doubt he would have allowed mere speculation to be transcribed.

    Moreoever in the interview with Harry Canaday, much the same story is told though with more reserve. Again, no censorship. Incidentally the story that Canaday had to navigate because Fred was drunk appears to be borne out by the Clipper logs. Canaday all of a sudden goes from having had no more than a few hours navigation instruction to suddenly having to navigate the whole flight. I mention this only though as possibly backing up this story, not as final proof. There could be other reasons Canaday had to navigate that leg. But one has to ask in that case why not tell of them if only to quash the story that he had to cover for Fred.

    The Wright Transcript also appears to shed light on the story about Fred falling in the bathtub and knocking out his teeth. A dental chart certainly shows the teeth as missing.

    In John Leslie’s file in Miami there exists correspondence between Horace Brock and Leslie concerning Brock’s manuscript for his book ‘Flying the Oceans’ in which Brock refers to Fred’s drink problem. Leslie castigates Brock telling him you can’t KNOW this. And this has always been the official PAA line. As Vic Wright said in his interview…Fred was sent to the Cincinnati Division because PAA could not be seen to be losing face. Cincinnati Division is a euphemism for fired.

    I intend to use this space to put all the ‘evidence’ for and against this issue for those interested to make up their own mind.” Jackie Ferrari (talk) 08:58, 28 June 2008 (UTC)


  9. But…was he a drunk from Miami to Lae, or on his good behavior? That is the true question.

    And, in an attempt to get back to the States by July 4, 1937, would Amelia actually risk a Lae to Howland flight with an intoxicated Navigator, or one who climbs on board with an ice pack on his head..

    Terminated or not, Noonan was selected by either Putnam on behalf of Earhart or by Earhart herself. We live and die by the decisions we make.If he had a poor track record, “why” was he selected? Death wish?


  10. Keep in mind Noonan was not the number one choice as navigator.

    Bradford Washburn appears to have been first in line, followed by Harry Manning as choice number two, and Noonan number three.

    If Putnam and Earhart had succeeded in signing up Washburn as navigator the story, no doubt, would have a different ending.

    Washburn commented years later- “…she ignored so many fundamentally important things [it] made you really think that she was pathologically optimistic.”

    “…While still in his early 20s, Brad became a crack pilot. And in January 1937 the flamboyant publisher George Palmer Putnam and his wife, Amelia Earhart, invited him to dinner. The subject of the conversation was Earhart’s still secret plan to fly around the world in her Lockheed Electra. The couple wanted Brad’s advice about the logistics of the flight, but hanging unspoken over the meeting was a potential invitation to come aboard as Earhart’s navigator.

    With the maps spread on the floor, Brad at once pinpointed the critical weakness in Earhart’s plan. On the next-to-last leg of her journey, she would take off from Lae, New Guinea, and try to hit tiny Howland Island in the Pacific by dead reckoning. That could be a needle in the haystack, Brad warned, but the solution was simple: Before the flight, get some passing ship to install a radio transmitter on Howland. Then Earhart could find her target by homing in on the signal.

    The couple looked at each other, dismayed. According to Brad, Putnam said to his wife, “Well, if we wait to set up a radio transmitter, the book won’t be out in time for Christmas.” Brilliant aviator though she was, Earhart had always been casual about logistics.”


  11. Flyfan:
    That tower of knowledge, Wikipedia, states that Washburn first flew in 1934. Geology and Geography, coupled with Mountaineering were his forte’. Amelia first flew in 1920: 17 years of experience versus his three….. It may simply have been a Celebrity gathering , with an opinion or two tossed around, versus a note taking session on Amelia’s part. We’ll never know.
    Where, in that article, does it state that Washburn was possibly the first choice? I could not locate it.

    Now, I can see Amelia not worrying about such details as Morse, radio communication, RDF proficiency, etc. She was a Show Woman, running out of records to set, and had set a target date to complete the flight.

    She didn’t need Washburn to point out the distance between Lae and Howland. Any map will indicate that. And while the Bureau of Commerce was going to scrape out a runway on Howland, perhaps Amelia’s influence with Eleanor R. should have found it’s way to the British Ambassador, and in turn to the Prime Minister, that perhaps a similar runway could be scraped out on Tarawa, as a potential emergency stop..

    I don’t think she picked Noonan out of desparation, or lack of choices. She was putting her neck on a long stretch between Lae and Howland. He was probably the next best choice.

    And, to anyone here, if Noonan was a lush, a bonafide alcoholic, would not Pan American ( ie: Juan Trippe ) have put out the word, very discreetly, to the effect that ” I wouldn’t pick him if I were you !”. Or even more bluntly: “Are you nuts ? “


  12. The sad facts are Earhardt crashed her plane twice ( Luke Field and Lae) before taking off for Howland. She was a great woman but not a great pilot. As for Noonan’s alcoholism, we will never know the complete truth. As both a licensed pilot and a celestial navigator, I know how easy it is to make a navigational mistake after 19 hours in the air.


    1. You’re still having spelling problems, Pete. And please tell us about Amelia’s plane crash at Lae, this is amazing news indeed. Are you revising history too?


      1. Her crash at Lae is well documented in the numerous authoritative accounts. She waited in Lae for weeks for replacement parts her landing gear.


      2. Oh really? Please, provide one of these “authoritative accounts” you cite. I, for one, have never encountered a single mention of Amelia crashing at Lae and waiting there “for weeks” for a replacement part for her landing gear. I can’t wait to learn more.


  13. This last comment by Klika is the best yet. In hundreds of hours of reading, researching, and writing, this is the first time I’ve heard about waiting “for weeks” in Lae due to an accident.

    One question before shooting this story of the “Lae crash” in the head:

    Can you help me with some simple math? How can you stuff “for weeks” into a story which leaves Miami on June 1 … flies all the way to Lae, New Guinea … arrives there during the last days of June … wait, hold on, that’s four weeks already … then add “FOR weeks” to “FOUR weeks” … and still leave Lae at the beginning of July, four weeks after leaving Miami? I’m really confused.

    FOR plus FOUR equals 4? Do we have a twilight zone that hasn’t been accounted for? I taught high school math 50 years ago, but I missed this. Embarrassing. I would love to have just ONE of the “numerous authoritative accounts” so that I could read and get up to speed on this new common-core math. No wonder my grandchildren can’t add.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I noticed Klika did not respond. Regarding the crash at Luke field, Manning’s description of AE “jockeying the throttles” has puzzled me; would that have been typical in that airplane at that time? I do believe it would have been a demanding task taking off in an extremely heavy twin engine taildragger (tailwheel aircraft being much more difficult to handle vs a nosewheel aircraft due to the CG being behind the main landing gear rather than in front of it….picture running down the grocery isle pushing the cart backwards rather than by the handle).

      I would think trying to steer the airplane using the throttles would only exacerbate the problem and put you “behind the airplane” due to the delayed reaction to the throttle inputs. Another problem with a twin engine taildragger is the “P” factor effect (I’m sure the Electra didn’t have counter rotating props); when you apply full throttle to begin the takeoff run you are in a nose high attitude and the airplane wants to veer left, until you raise the tail and then it goes right (I had the opportunity to fly a Twin Beech a few times years ago). All things considered I would think jockeying the throttles during takeoff seems like a recipe for disaster.


      1. Hi Tom,

        Correct. As of this date I’ve received no response from Peter Klika. Aside from humor, I would sincerely like to examine some of the “numerous authoritative accounts” of the accident in Lae. At 84, I’ve done massive amounts of research on both Wiley Post’s crash as well as Amelia’s disappearance. I have yet to find even one serious reference to a Lae accident, other than the bit of smoke showing on the takeoff run in the famous movie clip. However, it’s always possible to find a gen in the jungle, and if there is one, I know Mike, as well as myself would love to read it.

        Since I don’t know your level of experience as a pilot, all I can say is that you have a keen eye for detail and analysis. The jockeying of the throttles was something which bothered Paul Mantz greatly. Amelia was a good pilot in many ways. In 1981, I met and interviewed her first flight instructor, Nita Snook (Southern). During the interview, I asked what kind of pilot Amelia was. Because of what Amelia had accomplished, Nita was respectful and complimentary, but she admitted that Amelia did not stand out in her mind at the time.

        However, anyone who has tried to handle a Vega, or similar tail-dragger, especially on some of the landing strips where Wiley Post and Amelia landed, like Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, is more than an average pilot. I visited Harbor Grace on my own ’81 RTW flight, and I can tell you that that rough, sloping ground was an invitation for disaster. Amelia was no neophyte.

        Yet, her experience in an Electra was very limited. I have flown an Electra 10, and it is easy to land on concrete with a light load. But I’ve never tried to take it off on concrete, after a storm, at over-gross weight, facing the issues Amelia faced, at a time in my life when my experience was limited.

        What Amelia did at Honolulu, according to Manning, was what she had been doing with Paul Mantz when he was giving her training at Purdue, and elsewhere. One report says that he would get very upset with her when she tried to control asymmetric yawing which caused directional instability when two props not in sync. They had had a serious problem with the right prop coming into Honolulu, and the details of that “fix” is very revealing.

        To cut the story short, the takeoff from Honolulu on Amalia’s first attempt at a RTW flight was hiding several unknown factors. The landing gear struts, which had been adjusted earlier, were not at equal heights … the two props were not turning at the same speed when she pushed the throttles forward for takeoff … the runway was not dry … adjusting the left throttle back for the faster-spinning prop could have been too great a compen-sation … the left rudder was said to have been all the way forward with inadequate correction (a subjective bit of evidence) … the plane began to veer left with the correction of the throttles … the right strut, which had earlier been spotted by Mantz as suspicious, gave way … the heavy weight-shift caused the right wing to contact the ground … which caused the gear to collapse … the beginning turn of the ground loop could not be stopped … there appeared to be no attempt to pull back both throttles and try braking to a stop … the left gear collapsed … and the first RTW flight ended ignominiously on the runway before lifting off.

        What you term a “recipe for disaster” was indeed that. To shorten this reply, I’ve left out a full recipe of details. But perhaps this might help give the takeoff some context.



  14. Hi Calvin,

    Thank you for your insight, I can’t think of a better qualified person to provide it. I guess the “recipe for disaster” can be explained using a mathematical equation (I know you are a math guy)… over gross airplane + right prop issue + bad right gear strut + poor conditions = accident waiting to happen….possibly even without the throttle inputs.



  15. “I guess the “recipe for disaster” can be explained using a mathematical equation (I know you are a math guy)… over gross airplane + right prop issue + bad right gear strut + poor conditions = accident waiting to happen….possibly even without the throttle inputs.” –Tom

    Love your synthesis: + over-gross weight
    + sloshing fuel
    + right repaired prop slow
    + right serviced strut bad
    + runway wet
    = many grams of powder
    + lighted match (throttle mismanagement)
    = ignition
    * (at the first indication of directional instability…)
    (-) lack of both throttles back immediately
    = Explosion (massive ground loop)
    Are you an active pilot?
    Regards, Calvin


    1. You have all of the ingredients, that’s for sure! I am not active (lost my medical in 1990); I worked as a CFI/charter pilot in the 70’s and a banner tow pilot in Florida in the 80’s.

      Thanks Calvin


  16. I think Fred Noonan was a binge drinker. Definitely an alcoholic.


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