Bill Prymak analyzes Earhart-as-spy theories
To anyone familiar with this blog, the late Bill Prymak needs no introduction. Prymak, the founder and first president of the Amelia Earhart Society (AES) was a great researcher and good friend whose significant contributions to the repository of Earhart knowledge continue to resonate.
For those new to this blog, this page of posts will give you an idea about Prymak’s legacy, which included three trips to the Marshall Islands, where he interviewed Bilimon Amaron in 1989 and found a previously unknown witness on Enajet Island, Joro, whose knowledge of the July 1937 landing of Amelia Earhart and Electra NR 16020 off Barre Island was significant.
As one might imagine, Prymak had some very definite opinions about what happened to Amelia Earhart, and he wasn’t shy about airing them when asked. Today I present a previously unpublished commentary, from February 2011, in which he looks at perhaps the most popular of the so-called “conspiracy theories” that have attached themselves to the Earhart phenomena. The opinions expressed in the following essay are not necessarily those of this blog’s owner, but they do make sense.
“A DISSECTION OF EARHART SPY THEORIES”
By Bill Prymak
I wish to put to rest the following spy theories that have been circulating around for so many years, to wit:
- Was she on a spy mission?
- What did the government want her to do?
- Was there a second Electra involved in her around-the-world flight?
- Was the engine changed at Bandoeng?
(To save space, I will hereafter call U.S. government intelligence “GI.”)
The Spy Mission
Did GI put surveillance cameras on board, in violation of her granted permission to fly over 14 countries if she possessed no cameras other than a hand-held?
If GI did install cameras, where? There are only six inches between the floorboards and the belly skin. No surveillance cameras circa 1937 existed to fit those dimensions. Besides, a camera-control panel would of necessity be in the cockpit or on Fred’s table — pretty obvious to customs or mechanics working the aircraft.
So what could she photograph on her 1,800-mile-flight Hawaii to Howland?? The nearest Japanese Mandated island, Mili Atoll, was 2,250 miles direct Hawaii to Mili, then another 800 miles back to Howland for her necessary landing there. Mili Atoll in 1937 had no military fortifications to photograph, and, in that time period, only Jaluit Atoll, some 100 more miles farther away, had something for the camera — the seaplane base at Emidj.
Kwajalein, 250 even miles farther, could not be considered in range for her aircraft. I have hydrographic maps of Mili and Majuro entitled SKETCH SURVEY FROM THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT CHART of 1928 — plenty of details, non-military of course, and certainly available to GI. This was much more detailed than what any aerial photos would show.
Another popular theory making the rounds: GI orders her to “get lost so U.S. planes can scour the area, including the Japanese Mandates, for much-needed intelligence information.” But everybody believing this loses sight of the fact that this order is a virtual death warrant! In the vast Pacific Ocean, there is very rarely a Captain Sully-Hudson River dead-calm water landing available, and no beaches, no flat, open land areas anywhere in range. Pacific open waters are nearly always rough, too rough for a safe airplane landing.
(Editor’s note: Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, 63, is a retired airline captain and aviation safety consultant. He was hailed as a national hero in the United States when he successfully executed an emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan, N.Y., after the aircraft was disabled by striking a flock of Canadian Geese during its initial climb out of LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. All 155 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft survived.)
Would Fred Noonan, Harry Manning and Amelia approve of such a PLAN? Would [her husband] George [Putnam] and Mother [Amy Otis] Earhart approve?
We can’t compare Capt. Sully to Amelia. He was fresh, beginning a new day, highly skilled while Amelia was some 18-plus hours in the air and dog tired — not a good candidate for a much-needed precision water landing, if they could find some flat water. I personally have compelling evidence of where she did land, but that issue is not within the province of this report.
And if the GI plan was to get her “lost” and scour the area with U.S. search planes, why wasn’t the USS Lexington deployed earlier to Hawaii instead of laying in shore leave mode on the west coast?
Outside of the usual request to international pilots to LRR — LOOK, RECORD, REPORT — not considered spying, I see no merit or need for AE being on a spy mission, and I will prove it in the next segment.
The Hawaii Crash
This event has engendered more hype, speculation and fantasy tales than any other aviation mystery. Let’s for the moment assume that she really was on a spy mission, totally planned and controlled by GI. First scenario: She gets to the airport on March 20, ready to go, when she receives a phone call from GI: ABORT, RENDER AIRCRAFT INOPERABLE. She is furious and shouts over the phone, “This is crazy!! We’ve planned this trip for months, have cached thousands of gallons fuel all over the world with spare parts, and now you tell me not to go?”
Bottom line: Obey orders, tell the press that the flight crew is unfit or the aircraft un-airworthy. She certainly would not have fired up the engines.
Second scenario: She fires up the engines, and while taxiing for takeoff, receives the same order to abort. So she ground loops the aircraft, rendering it un-airworthy. So much easier (and safer!) to run a wingtip into a truck, run a wheel into a ditch, or a dozen safe ways to inop [sic] the aircraft.
The above scenarios never happened. What proves this is the fact that both Amelia and George, after the crash, scratched, clawed, begged and borrowed the $30,000 to pay the repair bill. These efforts are well chronicled in various research books (see Elgen Long’s book, Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, for details of their efforts.)
If this was a spy mission, George Putnam, ever the astute businessman, would have written to GI, stating, “It was your order to abort, causing the crash. Bill from Lockheed herewith attached. Please take care of it.”
What really happened is what Harry Manning stated: ”SHE SIMPLY JOCKEYED THE THROTTLES AND LOST IT.” A bad day like this happens to every good pilot once or twice in his/her lifetime. Happened to me once. Amelia Earhart was destined to have two bad days.
In conclusion I must add my personal experiences with Art Kennedy. I spent a week with him in Portugal, in 1992, he telling stories about his experiences in the aviation world. Art showed me test cell papers proving that AE had more than six hours reserve when she called near Howland — six hours plus if the engines were flown properly.
Art was a lonely man, and privately admitted that his manuscript, given to JoAnn Ridley (a sweet lady who died last year , and who knew nothing about aviation) was rife with bursts of imaginative stories, all to be included in their book [High Times: Keeping ’em Flying, 1992] to boost his recognition and sell copy. Some of his imaginative tidbits that ran wild:
1. Amelia suggested to him that she was on a spy mission
2. He helped Amelia adjust the broken landing gear before the CAA inspector arrived.
3. He stated that Lockheed engine installers Firman Grey & Carl Leipelt and a crew went to Bandoeng to install fresh engines. (See below.)
A Second Airplane Involved in the RTW Flight?
I can only state no such airplane ever existed, and I have absolute irrefutable photographic proof that ONLY ONE AIRCRAFT, NR 16020, was used for the entire flight. Discussion on this issue ends right here.
The Infamous Engine Changes (How Silly Can You Get?)
First, AE arrived at Bandoeng with less than 120 hours on engines that were overhauled to new factory specs rather than service limits (Art told me this) — engines barely broken in and good for some 500 hours. Did some brain trust at GI feel these engines were inadequate for the Lae takeoff? Did they claim that [Pratt 7 Whitney] S1H1 engines with 12:1 blowers [an aircraft engine compression ratio] instead of the typical 10:1 blowers would reduce the risk, thus sending out the order to change engines?
A chronology of this entire circus act blows the claim apart, to wit:
1. AE was on American soil until June 1. It is quite apparent that GI would have wanted these engines installed on U.S. soil by American technicians. So decision date on new engines had to have been made after June 1.
2. Art stated that bigger blowers alone (for more horsepower) would be very difficult to install in the field because of the complex internal changes on the engines. Further, bigger blowers meant bigger cowlings.
3. Everything and everybody had to be in Bandoeng by the third week of June, her estimated time of arrival. Those big engine crates could not fit and be carried in any known air carrier of the day, so they had to be shipped by tramp steamer. Pratt & Whitney engines from Hartford factory to Boston, catch a freighter to Lisbon, then through the Suez Canal, on to Singapore, then by mule or truck to Bandoeng. Run a time frame on the above and you see it is impossible to meet the schedule. And when and how did the new cowlings from Lockheed (West Coast) arrive at Bandoeng?
4. To clinch the fantasy, my very good friend Dave Kenyon, now living in Eugene Oregon, worked on her repair at the Lockheed factory, and ultimately rose to rank of vice-president of engineering. We spent many pleasant evening discussing Earhart and her final voyage, and every time the engine-change story came up, he made the same statement: “[Carl] Leipelt and Firman [Gray] could never have left for such a lengthy time as they were the only ones at Lockheed who installed, fine tuned and signed off on the engines coming off the production line. I believe they were the only ones with CAA certification to do this.” Ed Cooper and Art Kennedy certainly would have been called in to fill the gap. They never mentioned this issue. Art Kennedy’s imagination just out-finessed himself on this one.
To all the pundits out there who claim AE was on a spy mission, I ask the questions: What were her orders from GI? What were the GI agency’s mission objectives? I haven’t the slightest clue towards answering any of the above.
Let’s try, “Get lost, dump into the ocean, and a sub or surface vessel will pick you up.” Impossible. The precise navigation (GPS) tools required for such a rendezvous did not exist in 1937.
The GI (knowing how the government works) must have comprised a sizable group of men dedicated to successfully completing her “spy mission.” And yet there has never been a single peep out of anybody claiming to be part of this unique group. Amazing, when you consider the tabloid value (millions, in today’s dollars) that one could reap if he were part of this group, revealing a crucial part of America’s greatest aviation mystery. (End of Prymak analysis.)
The possible Truk Lagoon scenario
One possible Earhart-as-spy scenario not mentioned by Prymak has been suggested by some: Earhart overflying Truk Lagoon to observe “the number of airfields and extent of Japan’s fleet-servicing facilities in the Truk complex,” as Fred Goerner wrote in the closing pages of The Search for Amelia Earhart.
Before and during World War II, Truk Lagoon, now known as Chuuk Lagoon, part of Chuuk State within the Federated States of Micronesia, was Japan’s main base in the South Pacific theater, a heavily fortified base for Japanese operations against Allied forces in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, serving as the forward anchorage for the Japanese Imperial Fleet.
In 1937, U.S. intelligence would have been extremely interested in the status of this naval base, once known to Allied forces as Japan’s “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” and Amelia might have been asked to observe and possibly even take some photos with her small, hand-held Kodak camera. The Electra would have arrived over Truk at about 7 p.m. local time, with plenty of daylight left. Of course, we have no proof that Amelia attempted to perform such a mission, but her actions during the final flight suggest something very strange was afoot, and she had two meetings with top U.S. officials during April 1937, according to Margot DeCarie, her personal secretary. (See Truth at Last for more.)
As seen in the above map, found on the Mystery of Amelia Earhart webpage, created by William H. Stewart, a career military-historical cartographer and foreign-service officer in the U.S. State Department and former senior economist for the Northern Marianas, the distance from Lae to Truk is 1,022 statute miles, from Truk to Jaluit 1,223 statute miles, and from Jaluit to Howland (via Great Circle), 1,010 miles. While shorter, this route would require Earhart to be in Japanese airspace and over several populated islands in the Marshalls for a longer period of time, which would give the Japanese more time for interception should the flight be discovered. The total distance is 3,255 statute miles as compared to 2,556 miles when flying direct to Howland from Lae, and indeed pushes the range limits of the Electra, said to be 4,000 miles in the absence of headwinds.
“The only serious problem with such a supposition,” Stewart, the author of the 1993 book, Saipan in Flames: Operation Forager: The Turning Point in the Pacific War, wrote, “is that a position report received from Earhart while in flight occurred at 5:18 p. m. (Lae time) and indicated her position as 4.33 SOUTH 159.7 EAST HEIGHT 8000 FEET OVER CUMULUS CLOUDS WIND 23 KNOTS,“ which would place the aircraft in the vicinity of Nukumanu Island, northeast of Bougainville and in the area where it should have been assuming the original flight plan was being followed. This fix would place the aircraft on a track from Lae to Howland Island some 742 nautical miles [854 statute miles] or about one-third the distance between the two points which are separated by 2,227 nautical miles [2,563 statute miles].
“This radioed position is far to the southeast of Truk and almost due south of Ponape (Senyavin Island, now Pohnpei) and north of Guadalcanal,” Stewart continued. “That the transmission was picked up in Lae is strange indeed, since the Electra’s radio range was said to be (although not confirmed by this researcher) not much more than 400 miles. If this was in fact true, how is it that the signal was picked up from almost twice the distance? Was it a hoax? Was it a deceptive position directed to confuse any Japanese radioman at Truk who might have been monitoring the much publicized flight path (presumed to be from Lae to Howland) and the radio frequency of 6210 KHz? If so, the report was received at Truk only a short time before the aircraft could have roared over the encircling reef at Truk to carry out its assignment of aerial espionage before turning east to fly toward Jaluit and thence southeast to Howland.”
Was Amelia Earhart on some kind of intelligence mission that went wrong? Goerner later changed his mind about the mission to Truk he proposed in Search, instead adopting the idea that Amelia had been asked to simply collect “white intelligence,” meaning that “she simply observed things during the course of her flight,” according to Goerner, who could hardly have been less specific. Goerner also changed his mind about the Mili Atoll landing scenario he proposed in Search, and made other serious misjudgments as well, so despite his great contributions to the Earhart saga, Goerner’s work is no longer the ultimate source for answers in this and other areas.
Like many things about the Earhart disappearance, the answers are buried deep within top secret, eyes-only federal archives, where only a scant few even know of their existence. Until the contents of these files are revealed to the public, the question of whether Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were lost while engaged in an intelligence mission for FDR will continue to be discussed and argued about by those who seek the truth.