Invariably, the main objection raised by critics of what has long been popularly known as the “Marshall Islands landing theory,” but which I prefer to call “Amelia Earhart’s Mili Atoll landfall,” is that the Electra did not have enough fuel reserves to fly another 600 to 800 miles to reach the southernmost Marshall Islands from an area presumed to be somewhere north of Howland Island.
The most well-known proponent of this idea is the renowned aviator and author Elgen M. Long, whose 1999 book, Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, co-written with his wife, Marie, has become the bible of “crashed-and-sank” advocates.
The truth about the “crashed-and-sank” theory, which is nothing more than the original 1937 Navy and Coast Guard reports, is that never has even the smallest shred of physical, eyewitness or even anecdotal evidence been found to support it. In fact, as the years passed and the Saipan witnesses grew from dozens of native Saipanese to include the 26 American GIs who came forward to tell Thomas E. Devine of their experiences on Saipan during the summer of 1944 that revealed the presence and deaths of Earhart and Fred Noonan, the establishment was forced to find another, more plausible theory to explain Amelia’s disappearance. The crashed-and-sank idea was simply no longer selling well among the masses, and had become an anachronism.
In his book, Long, who set 15 world records while flying solo around the world over both the North and South Poles in 1971, presents a lengthy and, at first glance, impressive analysis of the final flight. Largely echoing the conclusions of the Navy and Coast Guard searches, Long believes the Electra’s fuel ran out shortly after Earhart’s last message, and she was forced to ditch the plane somewhere within 100 miles of Howland Island.
Soon after The Mystery Solved was published, longtime AES researcher and retired Air Force Col. Rollin Reineck issued a scathing critique of its major claims. In his book, Long cites Earhart’s first intelligible message to Lae, at 2:18 p.m. local time, when she reported, “HEIGHT 7000 FEET SPEED 140 KNOTS,” which Long says meant that “they were already experiencing stronger headwinds than anticipated. The increased winds had made them recalculate their optimum speed.”
Reineck called Long’s interpretation of this message “totally wrong,” a mistake that is “the foundation of the Long theory. … Long knows, as all pilots know, that when you give a position, you report the speed you are making over the ground, or GROUND SPEED, not TRUE AIR SPEED. … It is more than obvious,” Reineck wrote, “that Earhart is talking about GROUND SPEED when she says 140 KNOTS, not TRUE AIR SPEED as Long would like you to believe.” (Emphasis Reineck’s.)
Instead of the strong headwind Long says was forcing Earhart to decrease her air speed, Reineck says the increased ground speed reflected “a tailwind component for that period of the flight,” a normal condition the Electra might encounter in the intertropical convergence zone where winds tend to vary. At 5:18 p.m. (0718 GMT), seven hours, eighteen minutes after takeoff, Earhart reported her position as 4.33 south, 159.7 east, at 8,000 feet over cumulus clouds with winds at 23 knots. Long claims the wind was a 26.5 mph headwind, but doesn’t explain how he knows that, Reineck observed.
Throughout his analysis, Reineck demonstrates how Long’s erroneous assumptions conspire to exhaust the Electra’s fuel supply earlier than planned, preventing the fliers from reaching Howland Island. Reineck also debunked Long’s statement that the navigational chart Noonan used had missed Howland’s true location by six miles, when in fact Itasca had correctly charted the Line Islands, including Howland, in August 1936, and the correct charts were in Noonan’s possession during the flight.
“Long, by changing certain facts, using poor information and bad assumptions would have the reader believe that Earhart ran out of gas some 20 hours and 32 minutes after she left Lae, New Guinea,” Reineck wrote. “He changed GROUND SPEED to TRUE AIR SPEED. He said a wind reported was from a CERTAIN DIRECTION when in fact the radio communication DID NOT GIVE ANY DIRECTION. … The truth is that Earhart, maintaining a true air speed of 150 MPH and using the power settings provided her by Lockheed, had over 24 hours of flying time ahead of her. When she called in at 1912 GCT, she had flown approximately 2556 miles … at an average ground speed of 133 MPH.
“Maintaining a true air speed of 150 MPH would mean that she had encountered an average head wind of 17 MPH,” Reineck continued. “At 2014 [GMT, or 8:44 a.m. Howland Time], Earhart, in her last message said we are running north and south. At that time it can be reasonably assumed that she departed the Howland Island area and headed for the Marshall Islands. She would have had approximately four hours of fuel remaining. Using maximum range true airspeed of 150 MPH (130 knots) and a tail wind of 17 miles per hour, she would have been able to travel some 680 miles. Would it be enough to get her to the Marshall Islands? Yes, she did make it to Mili Atoll, the closest atoll in the Marshalls to Howland.”
“There has been much controversy over the Electra’s ultimate time-in-air before fuel exhaustion,” Bill Prymak wrote in his analysis, “Radio Log – Earhart/Itasca,” which appeared in the December 1993 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter and was discussed in an earlier post on this blog.
“Let me set the record straight,” Prymak wrote.” This issue was discussed at length with Art Kennedy, who had overhauled her engines prior to the second attempt, and who calibrated her engines with PRATT & WHITNEY factory test equipment. We carefully went over his test cell engine records, and barring fuel cell leakage and gross mixture control mismanagement, she had between 4.5 and 5.5 hours of fuel remaining after her 20:14 [8:44 am Howland Time] transmission.
“This calculation by Kennedy is superior to any Lockheed literature,” Prymak continued. “Therefore, it is my conclusion that she had the range to reach either the Gilbert Islands, or the lower part of the Marshall Islands, notably Mill Atoll, where so many researchers have placed her landing site. Based on the above it’s tough to convince any serious researcher that she really intended to land at Howland Island.”
Four years later, another Prymak analysis, “How Much Fly-Time Did She Really Have?” appeared in the May 1997 edition of the AES Newsletter. In this article, Prymak approached the question of the Electra’s fuel consumption from another angle, applying the plane’s performance during its 2,400-mile Oakland to Honolulu flight in March 1937 to the 2,556-mile Lae-Howland trip.
Prymak found that the Electra consumed 617 of the 947 gallons it held during the fifteen-hour, fifteen-minute Honolulu flight, for an average per-hour burn rate of 38.97 gallons he rounded off to forty gallons per hour. At Lae, loaded with 200 more gallons (1,200 pounds) but with two less people than the Oakland-Honolulu flight, Prymak estimated the plane was about 800 pounds heavier, and added one gallon per hour for the trip. He added another gallon per hour in consideration of the plane’s climb to higher altitudes after leaving Lae.
“Thus, with 1,100 gallons departing Lae, at average consumption of 42 gph [gallons per hour], at 20 hours 15 minutes, she had burned 850.50 gallons of fuel,” Prymak wrote. “She had close to 6 hours left before fuel exhaustion. If we assume Amelia was over, or close to Howland, at 20:15 hours [8:15 a.m. Howland Time], she had an average ground speed of 126 mph LAE-HOWLAND. ‘We must be on you but cannot see you’ is heard from Amelia at 19 hours 12 minutes into the flight; if we assume she was over or close to Howland at this time, she has an average ground speed of 133 mph over the entire trip. … [Clarence L.] Kelly Johnson was lavish in his praise of her careful and precise handling of engine power and mixture. … Six hours can get you to a lot of places – Phoenix Islands, The Gilberts, Canton, Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands.”
We should remember that no one knows where the Electra was actually located along the 157-337 line of position Earhart reported in her last transmission. Most believe she was referring to a sun line, the angle of the sun just as it broke above the horizon, and the July 2, 1937 Nautical Almanac confirms that at 1756 GMT in the area of Howland Island, the sun’s line of position was 157º – 337º. But a line of position does not establish a location, and a precise “fix” is only possible if combined with a point of reference — a landmark or a radio bearing, for example.
As Vincent V. Loomis put it, “Flying a line of position was like driving an interstate highway without knowing which exit to take for the destination.” During his 1981 scale-model tests of the Electra’s transmission capabilities, Paul Rafford Jr. collaborated with Loomis, who wanted to know how far north of Howland Island the Electra could have been when her last messages was heard at a strength 5 of 5. Rafford’s computer analysis determined Earhart’s last messages would have come in full strength even though the aircraft could have been 150 miles north-northwest of Howland.
In his 1985 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, Loomis suggested that the fliers, lost and turning westward for the Gilberts, were so far north of Howland they found landfall at Mili Atoll in the southeastern Marshall Islands. It was pure speculation, of course, based on numerous variables and guesses, but among Loomis’ greatest contributions to the Earhart saga are the eyewitnesses — Mrs. Clement, Jororo and Lijon — who told him of seeing the downed fliers near Barre Island.
In March 2009, I asked Rafford if he still endorsed his findings as reported by Loomis. “Nearly 25 years have passed since the Loomis book came out and I lost my copy some time ago,” Rafford wrote in an e-mail. “However, I can say that today I wouldn’t stand behind a claim that Earhart was 150 miles north-northwest whenshe claimed, ‘We must be on you.'” In the years following his early 1980s work with Loomis, Rafford developed a more radical theory, “The Earhart Radio Deception,” which we examined in October 2014, and which Rafford presented in his 2006 book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio.