Monthly Archives: December, 2016

Paul Rafford Jr., “Elder Statesman” of Earhart researchers, dies in Florida hospice at 97

Paul Rafford Jr., the “Elder Statesman” of Earhart research and the last of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, passed away on Dec. 10 in a hospice in Rockledge, Fla., at 97. Michael Betteridge, Paul’s nephew and general manager of WTHU AM 1450, a talk radio station in Thurmont, Md., said his uncle passed peacefully with his daughter, Lynn, at his side. “We lost a great man on that day,” Betteridge said in an email.

Earhart fans will recall Paul’s name from Vincent V. Loomis’ 1985 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story (Random House), wherein he presented his then-current ideas about the Electra’s radio propagation capabilities and Amelia’s strange decisions during the final flight. In 2006, Paul’s book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, was published by the Paragon Agency, and though it wasn’t a commercial success, it remains a treasure trove of invaluable information unavailable anywhere else.

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, is among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s.

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, is among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s. He wrote more than a dozen unique, scholarly articles for the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter between 1989 and 2000.

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with Paul’s fascinating and inventive work. In the past few years, I’ve written three lengthy pieces that brought new focus on his important contributions to the modern search for Amelia Earhart: “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change”: Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga; Rafford’s “Earhart Deception” presents intriguing possibilities; and  Rafford’s “Enigma” brings true mystery into focus: What was Earhart really doing in final hours?

Paul was a regular contributor to the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter between 1989 and 2000, expounding his theories about radio deceptions and plane switches, some of the most imaginative and compelling possibilities ever advanced to explain what could have happened during those final hours of July 2, 1937, before and after Amelia’s last officially recognized message was heard at 8:44 a.m. Howland Island Time. He even wrote two pieces with the nearly the same title, “The Amelia Earhart Radio Enigma” in 1997, and “The Earhart Radio Enigma,” in 2000, as if to emphasize the major problems and unanswered questions that still stumped him – and continue to baffle Earhart researchers.

Paul began his aviation career with Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer in 1940, flying with Pan Am until 1946. He worked with crew members who had flown with Fred Noonan, and talked with technicians who had worked on Amelia Earhart’s Electra 10E. After a promotion with Pan Am, he continued to fly as a technical consultant before transferring to the U.S. Manned Spaceflight Program in 1963. During the early space shots he was a Pan Am project engineer in communications services at Patrick Air Force Base, and joined the team that put man on the moon. He retired from NASA in 1988.

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

A recent photo of Paul Rafford Jr., the “Elder Statesman” of Earhart researchers. As a Pan Am radio flight officer from 1940 to 1946, Rafford was uniquely qualified as an expert in Earhart-era radio capabilities.

“I know of no person more qualified than Mr. Paul Rafford to present to the American public the most probable cause of Earhart’s failure to find her destination island,” Bill Prymak wrote in 2006. “Mr. Rafford is world recognized for his astute radio propagation analysis and is THE man to contact re: radio problems. We are proud to have him as an AES member and radio consultant.”

With Paul Rafford’s passing, we can now mark the end of the “Greatest Generation” of Earhart researchers, an exclusive club whose members include Paul Briand Jr., Fred Goerner, Vincent V. Loomis, Bill Prymak, Thomas E. Devine, Almon Gray, Joe Gervais, Joe Klaas, Rollin Reineck, Don Kothera and of course, Paul himself. If there were an Earhart Research Hall of Fame, Paul Rafford Jr. would have been inducted long ago on the first ballot. He was a fine and decent man, admired and respected by his peers, and loved by many. He made many significant contributions to the Earhart saga, and he will be missed.  May he Rest in Peace.

New Britain theory presents incredible possibilities

Like the recent Earhart timeline, this is another piece that’s long overdue. David Billings, a retired Australian aviation engineer, has worked intensely for over two decades on a project that, if successful, will turn nearly everything we assume about Amelia Earhart’s final flight on its head. I’ve known Billings casually through countless emails since about 2004, a year or so before his membership in the Amelia Earhart Society online discussion forum was revoked on a technicality by a hostile forum moderator.

Despite our vastly different beliefs about the Earhart disappearance, we’ve maintained a cordial communication. To me, Billings exemplifies the best in what some might consider the old-school Australian male, in that he’s forthright, with a sharp, wry sense of humor, unafraid to speak his mind, and dependably honest – a trait becoming increasingly rare in this day and age. His work is admirable and worthy of our attention.

Chris Billings (David's son), Claire Bowers and David Billings in the jungles of East New Britain, circa

Chris Billings (David’s son), Claire Bowers (his step-daughter) and David Billings in the jungles of East New Britain, circa 2002.

The evidence that motivates Billings, 76, who works in relative obscurity out of his home in Nambour, Australia, where he often flies gliders to relax, is real and compelling. Unlike our better known, internationally acclaimed “Earhart experts,” whose transparently bogus claims are becoming increasingly indigestible as our duplicitous media continues to force-feed us their garbage, David is a serious researcher whose questions demand answers. His experience with our media is much like my own; with rare exceptions, his work has been ignored by our esteemed gatekeepers precisely because it’s based on real evidence that, if confirmed, would cause a great deal of discomfort to our Fourth Estate, or more accurately, our Fifth Column.

Rather than waste needless effort trying to describe Billings’ New Britain Theory in my own words, we will now turn to the home page of his comprehensive website, which provides a thorough introduction. The site, titled Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project and subtitled “Earhart’s Disappearance Leads to New Britain: Second World War Australian Patrol Finds Tangible Evidence presents a wealth of information in nine separate sections, is presented in a reader-friendly, professional style and is must reading for the serious Earhart student.  We begin at the beginning; the following inset material is direct from the home page of the Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project:

Of all the various theories and searches regarding the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan, and their Lockheed Electra, only one endeavor has the tangible documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts to buttress the conclusion to their final resting place – the jungle floor in Papua New Guinea. In 1945, an Australian infantry unit discovered an unpainted all-metal twin-engine aircraft wreck in the jungle of East New Britain Island, in what was then called New Guinea.

The Australian infantry patrol was unsure of their actual position in the jungle and were on site for only a few minutes. Before they left the site they retrieved a metal tag hanging by wire on an engine mount. The Australians reported their find and turned in the tag upon return to base. The tag has yet to be recovered from the maze of Australian and American archives, but the letters and numbers etched upon it were transcribed to a wartime map. The map, used by the same Australian unit, was rediscovered in the early 1990’s and revealed a notation “C/N 1055” and two other distinctive identifiers of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra Model 10E.

This map illustrates the Lae-to-Howland leg (green) that Electra flew in almost 20 hours. A postulated return route (dotted red) to New Britain Island would have consumed the last bit of fuel and 12 hours.

This map illustrates the Lae-to-Howland Island leg (green) that the Electra flew for about 20 hours. David Billings’ postulated return route (dotted red) to New Britain Island would have consumed the last bit of fuel and 12 more hours.  Could this radical turn-around by Earhart have actually occurred, or is there another explanation for the existence of her Electra on New Britain Island? (Courtesy David Billings.)

On July 2, 1937, while en route to Howland Island from Lae, New Guinea, pilot Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared shortly before they were to arrive at Howland Island – up to 2,600 miles and 20 hours after take-off. They were flying a modified Electra aircraft built specifically for the around-the-world journey. Had they arrived at Howland Island, their next stop would have been Hawaii, and finally California. A flight around the world would have been the first by a woman pilot. They undoubtedly encountered headwinds on the flight. The widely accepted last radio voice message from her was “. . . we are running on line north and south . . . manually recorded 20 hours and 14 minutes after take-off by a United States Coast Guard ship at Howland.

This project theory holds that Earhart and Noonan, after flying some 19 hours should have “arrived” close to Howland, but after an hour of fruitless searching for the island, Amelia invoked the Contingency Plan she had made and turned back for the Gilbert Islands. While there were no known usable runways between Lae and Howland except for Rabaul, there was at least the opportunity to ditch the aircraft near to or crash-land on the numerous inhabited islands in the Gilberts along the way if needed, and there was more than sufficient range to reach Ocean or Nauru Islands. Earhart carefully husbanded the engines to extract the maximum range from the remaining fuel.

The aircraft had an advertised range of some 4,000 miles in calm air; there should have been plenty of fuel to retreat to the Gilberts at a minimum. Among the myriad of alleged radio calls from Earhart after her last confirmed message were four radio calls heard by the radio operator on Nauru Island…one call was heard just under two hours from her “final” transmission, and some 10 hours later, three more final calls on the pre-selected frequency were heard by the Nauru radioman. The Nauru radio operator was one of only a few radio operators who had reliably monitored Earhart on her outbound leg to Howland – he knew the sound of her voice over the radio. In any event, her aircraft has been projected to have run out of fuel some 50 miles south of Rabaul, New Britain Island, and then crash into the jungle.

 The stunning evidence that suggests Amelia Earhart's Electra was found in the Papua New Guinea jungle is in the area in yellow, above, which is the lower section of the tactical map maintained by "D" Company, 11th Australian Infantry Battalion in 1945. The Map was in possession of the unit's administrative clerk from 1945 until 1993. (Courtesy David Billings.)

The stunning evidence that suggests Amelia Earhart’s Electra was found in the Papua New Guinea jungle is in the area in yellow, above, which is the lower section of the tactical map maintained by “D” Company, 11th Australian Infantry Battalion in 1945. The Map was in possession of the unit’s administrative clerk from 1945 until 1993. (Courtesy David Billings.)

David Billings [sic], a now retired aircraft engineering professional, has been analyzing the flight and searching for Earhart’s Electra for more than 20 years in the jungle of East New Britain. Dense jungle, harsh terrain, poor maps, imprecise archival information, personal resource limitations, and possible natural or manmade burial of the wreckage, have thwarted success. He has led many expeditions into the search area, and has refined his analysis to the likely wreck site using terrain mobility studies, geospatial analysis of aerial and satellite images, custom-built maps, and re-analyzed archival maps and documents. As an example, the Australian-held wartime map is authentic, and the handwriting reflects unmistakable discreet data points and little known references of military operations in 1945 East New Britain.

The longtime map holder, the Second World War Infantry Unit clerk, Len Willoughby, retrieved the map from a map case on a pile of discarded equipment in 1945, and kept the map until he mailed it to former-Corporal Don Angwin in 1993 (and who revealed it to Mr. Billings in 1994). Neither of these former infantrymen had the motive nor “insider” expertise to create or introduce details concerning the Electra’s obscure component identification or situational nuances. The string of numbers and letters, “600 H/P. S3H/1 C/N1055,” remains the most significant historical notation found to date in the search for Earhart’s aircraft. This alpha-numeric sequence almost certainly mirrors the details on the metal tag recovered from the engine mount by one of the Australian soldiers on 17 April 1945. This three-group sequence translates to 600 Horsepower, Pratt & Whitney R-1340-S3H1, airframe Construction Number 1055. This airframe construction number IS Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 10E Electra aircraft, and the engine type exactly matches as well. The eyewitness visual descriptions from three of the Australian veterans at the scene also strongly support this supposition. The date on the map, 24 May 1945, refers to the return answer to the Australians from the American Army, who did not believe it was “one of theirs.”

The foregoing should give you a fairly good snapshot of Billings’ New Britain Theory. Much more can be found in the pages of the Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project.

In Fred Goerner’s 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart, the author recalled his first meeting with the famed Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, an interview arranged by Cmdr. John Pillsbury, public information officer for the 12th Naval District, in connection with Goerner’s work on a 1962 radio documentary The Silent Thunder.

A look at the East New Britain Island Mountains. (Courtesy David Billings.)

 A look at the East New Britain Island Mountains, where David Billings’ search for the possible wreckage of the Earhart Electra has been focused. (Courtesy David Billings.)

The meeting was the beginning of a friendship Goerner treasured, but it wasn’t until about a year later that Nimitz shared some of his inside knowledge about the Earhart case with Goerner. At Pillsbury’s retirement party at the Fort Mason Officers Club in San Francisco, he passed an incredible message to the KCBS newsman. “I’m officially retired now,” Pillsbury told Goerner, “so I’m going to tell you a couple of things. You’re on the right track with your Amelia Earhart investigation. Admiral Nimitz wants you to continue, and he says you’re onto something that will stagger your imagination. I’ll tell you this, too. You have the respect of a lot of people for the way you’ve stuck at this thing. Keep plugging. You’ll get the answers.” (Italics mine.)

Nimitz’s statement to Goerner through Pillsbury was a stunner, and it immediately found a permanent place in my memory when I read it for the first time so many years ago. Just what could the great Navy warrior have meant when he said, “You’re onto something that will stagger your imagination”? The answer has been elusive, but if Billings can locate the wreck, and it proves to be Earhart’s Electra, we’ll have a strong clue and a new place to start looking for that special something that Pillsbury hinted so strongly about.

In closing “Chapter II: The Final Flight” in Truth at Last, I cite some of the many questions that remain unanswered about those final hours: “What was Noonan, Pan Am’s best navigator, doing as their hopes of securing a safe landfall were evaporating before his eyes? Why the forty-minute void between Earhart’s 8:04 and 8:44 a.m. transmissions? Why couldn’t she hear Itasca on 3105 kc? Why did she ask for 7500 kc for bearings, when her direction finder could not home in on that frequency, instead of asking for 500 kc? Earhart never stayed on the air more than seven or eight seconds at a time, preventing the Itasca radiomen from taking bearings. Why? If the Electra was running out of fuel or experiencing another emergency, why didn’t she send a Mayday message?

“Did her transmitter break down after her last broadcast, as Prymak suggested?” I continued. “Was she really trying to reach Howland, or was her peculiar behavior simply part of a deception to make it appear she was lost?” Bur one question never occurred to me: “Why was Amelia Earhart in a different Electra than the one she flew from Oakland, Calif., when she set off on her second world flight attempt on June 2, 1937?” 

billings-four-men

What would it mean if Billings finds the original Earhart Electra, NR 16020? First of all, the discovery should be, at minimum, the biggest story of the week worldwide, with virtually all media organizations in the West giving it top billing (no pun intended). If past is prologue, however, any news that reflects the truth in this longstanding cover-up will be universally ignored, though a few exceptions might occur with a story of this magnitude. Billings needs to find the wreck and identify it in a way that’s forensically conclusive.

Remember, the metal tag recovered from the engine mount has vanished, likely joining the Earhart briefcase discovered by Robert E. Wallack in a Japanese safe on 1944 Saipan, the photos of the fliers in Japanese custody that several GIs claimed they found but lost on Saipan, and whatever else might be squirreled away in top-secret hidey-holes. Assuming Billings is finally able to locate the wreck, how will he determine beyond doubt whether this is the long-lost Electra, and not just another World War II casualty?

“I have always been good at ‘aircraft recognition,’ seeing an aircraft and immediately recognizing the type of aircraft it is, particularly WWII military types,” Billings told me in an email. “After being with the Electra 10E for 20 years and looking at the pictures and three-view drawings, it would be easy to recognize from certain aspects; for instances: the look of the six window panels surrounding the cockpit and the twin tails, the cabin door, the fuel filler panels, the step in the setting of the horizontal stabilizer are all recognition features. We are, however, speaking here of a damaged Electra, from the sighting in 1945, said to be with the cockpit smashed back to the heavy main spar, so the cockpit with the DF loop on top is effectively ‘not there’ and no description of the twin tails was given suggesting the empennage [tail assembly] is not there either.”

Billings says information he’s gleaned since 2011 indicates that the plane was purposely buried, though not too deeply, by someone using a bulldozer, so the use of metal detectors will be critical to a successful search. “When we get a strike with a metal detector then we follow the continuing strikes to map out the extent of what we have in the ground following the metal detector beeps,” Billings continued. “We mark a rough plan on the ground.   From that, firstly I would then be looking away from the ground plan for a distance, for the left hand Engine Serial No. 6150, said to be 30 meters away from the airframe and it will be a lump on the ground, if the bulldozer driver missed seeing it.  If we find that engine, then it will have a Pratt and Whitney Data Plate on the back of the blower housing with “6150” stamped on it.  At the airframe, if we have a rough ground plan we can dig where the right hand engine is as it too will have a Data plate showing “6149.”  One of these would be proof positive.”

A look at the East New Britain Island Mountains. (U.S. Geological Service map.)

An overview map of East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Note location of Lae to the far left, bottom third. (U.S. Geological Survey map.)

Though I admire Billings’ work, we certainly don’t agree on everything. The idea that Earhart turned around and landed in the jungle of Papua New Guinea after nearly reaching Howland Island is unacceptable to me — and every other Earhart researcher I know.  But the existence of the original Electra at East New Britain and the Marshalls-Saipan truth are not mutually exclusive, as would appear at first glance. Both can be true, and assuming Billings’ evidence isn’t some kind of bizarre hoax or misunderstanding, both must be true.

How can two scenarios that appear so radically different be part of a coherent series of events in the summer of 1937? One possible answer immediately suggests itself: Amelia Earhart changed planes somewhere along the line of her world flight route, and we already have some evidence to support the idea. Please see my earlier post, “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change”: Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga for the entire confusing discussion. It’s not conclusive, of course, and it raises many more questions than it answers.

The successful location and identification of the original Earhart Electra in East New Britain would be earth-shaking news, but it would also create a new Earhart “mystery,” a real one in this case, not the fabricated myth the establishment wants us to buy. If it’s ever discovered, the truth that explains the Electra’s presence in East New Britain could indeed “stagger our imagination.” In any event, a plane change and eventual crash of the original Electra in the East New Britain jungle under other circumstances makes far more sense to this observer than the dramatic turn-around Billings proposes.  The Mili Atoll and Saipan evidence are just too overwhelming to support the entirety of Billings’ theory, in my view.

An example of the dense jungle that covers the area where David Billings' search for the Electra is focuses on Papua New Guinea. (Courtesy David Billings.)

An example of the dense jungle that covers the area where David Billings’ search for the Electra is focuses on Papua New Guinea. (Courtesy David Billings.)

Billings has made 16 trips to the Papua New Guinea jungle since 1994, and plans his final foray into East New Britain sometime in the spring of 2017, the 80th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance. Funding is always a problem, but he says a recently completed road will allow vehicle access and eliminate the exorbitant helicopter costs previously incurred. Billings has always borne the heaviest part of the money burden, but if you’d like to help his cause, here’s a page with donation information.

In a recent email, I told Billings that I wanted to do a post about him and his work, writing, “We both want the truth, and if the original Electra is in the PNG jungle, so be it. IF and when you can prove it, we can then worry about how and why it got there!”

“Exactly!” he replied. “My same thoughts all along.”

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