Monthly Archives: August, 2018

Earhart’s “Disappearing Footprints,” Part III

Today we move along to Part III of Capt. Calvin Pitts’ “Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY,” his studied analysis of Amelia Earhart’s final flight.  We left Part II with Calvin’s description of the communication failures between the Navy tug USS Ontario and the ill-fated fliers.

“What neither of them knew at that time was the agonizing fact that the Electra was not equipped for low-frequency broadcast,” Calvin wrote, “and the Ontario was not equipped for high-frequency. . . . After changing frequencies to one that the Ontario could not receive, it is safe to assume that Amelia made several voice calls.  Morse code, of course, was already out of the picture.” 

We’re honored that Calvin has so embraced the truth in the Earhart disappearance that he’s spent countless hours working to explain the apparently inexplicable — how and why Amelia Earhart reached and landed at Mili Atoll on July 2, 1937.  Here’s Part III, with even more to follow. 

By Capt. Calvin Pitts

Although Amelia was obviously trying to make contact with the Ontario by radio, Lt. Blakeslee did not know that.  By the same token, Amelia had to wonder why he would not answer.

USS Ontario (AT-13), was a Navy tug servicing the Samoa area, but assigned to the Earhart flight twice as a mid-point weather and radio station for assistance.

This failure to communicate, however, worked into Amelia’s new plan.  Since she had no way of letting the Ontario know they were en route, being without Morse code and having frequencies which were not compatible, now that he had been plying those waters for 10 days along her flight path, she knew it was useless to try to find and to overfly the unknown position of the Ontario in the thick darkness of a Pacific night.

Therefore, it now made even more sense to continue on to Nauru whose people had been alerted by Balfour that the Electra was probably coming.  Although that had begun as a suggestion, no one yet knew that it had now become a decision.  She needed to let the Ontario know — but how?

She had lost contact with Balfour, couldn’t make contact with the Ontario, and the Itasca had not yet entered the picture.  Nauru, it was later learned, had a similar problem as the Ontario, and Tarawa had not broadcast anything.  Amelia was good at making last-minute decisions.  “Let’s press on to Nauru,” she might have said.  “It’s a small diversion, and a great gain in getting a solid land-fix.  I’ll explain later.”

The local chief of Nauru Island, or someone in authority, already had a long string of powerful spot lights set up for local mining purposes.  He would turn them on with such brightness, 5,000 candlepower, that they could be seen for more than 34 miles at sea level, even more at altitude.

Finding a well-lit island was a sure thing.  Finding a small ship in the dark ocean, which had no ETA for them, was doubtful.  Further, as was later learned from the Ontario logs, the winds from the E-NE were blowing cumulus clouds into their area, which, by 1:00 a.m. were overcast with rain squalls.  It is possible that earlier, a darkening sky to the east would have been further assurance that deviating slightly over Nauru was the right decision.

As the Electra approached the dark island now lit with bright lights, Nauru radio received a message at 10:36 p.m. from Amelia that said, “We see a ship (lights) ahead.”

Others have interpreted this as evidence that Amelia was still on course for the Ontario, and was saying that she had seen its lights.  The conflict here is that Amelia flew close enough to Nauru for ground observers to state they had heard and seen the plane.  How could Amelia see Nauru at the same time she saw the Ontario more than 100 miles away?

Amelia may have wondered if Noonan and Balfour were wrong about Nauru.  But they weren’t.  According to the log from a different ship coming from New Zealand south of them, they were en route to Nauru for mining business.Those shipmates of the MV Myrtlebank, a 5,150 ton freighter owned by a large shipping conglomerate, under the British flag, recorded their position as southwest of Nauru at about 10:30 pm on that date.  The story of the Mrytlebank fits in well to resolve this confusion.   It was undoubtedly this New Zealand ship, not the Ontario, that Amelia had seen.

MV Myrtlebank, a freighter owned by Bank Line Ltd., was chartered to a British Phosphate Commission at Nauru.  As recorded later, around 10:30 p.m., third mate Syd Dowdeswell was surprised to hear the sound of an aircraft approaching and lasting about a minute.  He reported the incident to the captain who received it ‘with some skepticism’ because aircraft were virtually unknown in that part of the Pacific at that time.  Neither Dowdeswell nor the captain knew about Earhart’s flight.”

Source: State Department telegram from Sydney, Australia dated July 3, 1937:Amalgamated Wireless state information received that report fromNauru was sent to Bolinas Radioat . . . 6.54 PM Sydney time today on (6210 kHz), fairly strong signals, speech not intelligible, no hum of plane in background but voice similar that emitted from plane in flight last night between 4.30 and 9.30 P.M.  Message from plane when at least 60 miles south of Nauru received 8.30 p.m., Sydney time, July 2 sayingA ship in sight ahead.’  Since identified as steamer Myrtle Bank (sic) which arrived Nauru daybreak today.

Unless Mr. T.H. Cude produced the actual radio log for that night, the contemporary written record (the State Dept. telegram) trumps his 20-plus-year-old recollection.

The MV MYRTLEBANK of the BANK LINE Limited was about 60 nautical miles southwest of Nauru Island when it entered the pages of history.  Amelia Earhart said, “See ship (lights) ahead.”  This was most likely that ship since the Ontario would have been 80 to 100 miles away.  Nauru, the destination of this ship, was lit with powerful mining lights.  At Nauru Island, the Electra would be eight-plus hours from “Area 13,” or 2013z (8:43 am) 150-plus miles from Howland Island.

This was most likely the ship about which Amelia Earhart said: See ship (lights) ahead.  Most researchers state that she had spotted the USS Ontario, which had been ordered by the Navy to be stationed halfway between Lae and Howland for weather information via radio.  No radio contact was ever made between Amelia’s Lockheed Electra 10E and the Ontario.

While it is possible that Amelia flew only close enough to Nauru to see the bright mining lights, it is more likely that a navigator like Noonan would want a firm land fix on time and exact location.

For this reason, in a re-creation of the flight path on Google Earth, which we have done, we posit the belief, in view of the silence from the Ontario, that having a known fix prior to heading out into the dark waters, overcast skies and rain squalls of the last half of the 2,556-mile (now 2,650-mile) trip to small Howland, it was the better part of wisdom to overfly Nauru.

Weather and radio issues were the motive behind Harry Balfour’s suggestion to use Nauru as an intermediate point rather than a small ship in a dark ocean.  Thus, the Myrtlebank unwittingly became part of the history of a great world event.

Now, with the land mass of Nauru under them, Fred could begin the next eight hours from a known position.  Balfour’s suggestion and Fred and Amelia’s decision was not a bad call, with apologies to the crew of the Ontario.  Unfortunately, it was not until after the fact that the Ontario was notified of this.  They headed back to Samoa with barely enough coal to make it home.  Lt. Blakeslee said they were scraping the bottom for coal by the time they returned.

The details of the eight-hour flight from Nauru are contained in the Itasca log.  In my own case, the Amelia story was interesting, but not compelling.  However, it was not until I began to study in minute detail the Itasca logs of those last hours of the Electra’s flight, hour by hour, and visualizing it by means of Google Earth, that the interest turned to a passion.


In the reliving of what was once a mystery, things began to make sense, piece by piece.  It was like being a detective who knew there were hidden pieces, but what were they, and where did they fit? For me, as the puzzle began to come together, the interest grew.  There is really more to this story, much more, than appeared during the first reading.

Itasca Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts and three other Coast Guard radiomen worked in vain to bring Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan and the Electra to a safe landing at Howland Island.  Photo courtesy Dave Bellarts.

The radio room positions and pages being logged contained valuable information.  Reading the details created a picture in the imagination at one level, but with more and more evidence piling up, a different level began to emerge. 

Can this story really be true?  Credulity was giving way to the reality of evidence.

If you will follow the highlights of the Itasca logs, you may find yourself captivated, as I was.  One thing that is not spoken at first, but becomes a message loud and clear, is the not-so-hidden narrative in those repeated, unanswered Morse code transmissions.

The radiomen thought they were helping Amelia and Fred, but with each unanswered Code message, they were really just talking to themselves.  As they get more desperate, you keep wondering: Surely the Electra crew can at least hear the clicks and clacks, the dits and dahs, even if they don’t fully understand them.

Why don’t they at least acknowledge they hear even though understanding appears to be absent?  Why the silence, the long silence into the dark night, the silence which leaves the Itasca crew bewildered, even “screaming,” as they later said, “into the mike?”

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland Island on July 2, 1937 to help Amelia Earhart find the island and land safely at the airstrip that had been prepared there for her Lockheed Electra 10E.

The position of the Electra, an area, not a fix, is our primary destination now because Howland was never seen.  This makes Howland secondary for this exercise, mostly because that was not the position from which Amelia made her final and fatal decision.

There were at least two extremely dangerous elements involving Howland, and one strategic matter.  Dangerous:  10,000 nesting and flying birds waiting to greet Mama big bird, and the extremely limited landing area of a 30 city-block by 10-block sand mass.

We delay our discussion about strategic since it deals with the government hijacking of a civilian plane, something controversial but which is worth waiting for.  Stand by.

For now, we join Amelia and Fred for some details of their flight to Area 13.  The purpose here is to locate, as best we can, that area from which Amelia made her final navigation decision.

That area encompasses a portion of ocean 200 miles by 200 miles.  South to north, it begins about 100 miles north of Howland to at least 300 miles north.  East to west, it begins with a NW line of 337 degrees and continues west parallel to that line for at least 200 miles.

There is a mountain of calculation behind that conclusion, but those details are for another venue.  For now, for those interested in re-creating that historic flight, especially if you have Google Earth, follow the Itasca log in order to see Google Truth.

We designate this 200 by 200 miles as “Area 13” for the simple reason that their last known transmission not within sight of land which can be confirmed was at 2013z (GMT) (the famous 8:43 am call).  Following this was nothing but silence for those on the ground.

After their long night of calling, waiting and consuming coffee, for the crew of Itasca and Howland Island, 8:43 a.m. was a special time.  But 2013 GMT (8:43 a.m.) was also the 20-hour mark for the fliers, after their own, even more stressful all-nighter.  Sadly, the two in the Electra, at 13 past 20 hours, were entirely on their own at 2013 — and here that sinister number “13” appears again.

Radio room of USCG Cutter Tahoe, sister ship to Itasca, circa 1937.  Three radio logs were maintained during the flight, at positions 1 and 2 in the Itasca radio room, and one on Howland Island, where the Navy’s high-frequency direction finder had been set up.  Aboard Itasca, Chief Radioman Leo G. Bellarts supervised Gilbert E. Thompson, Thomas J. O’Hare and William L. Galten, all third-class radiomen, (meaning they were professionally qualified and “rated” to perform their jobs).  Many years later, Galten told Paul Rafford Jr., a former Pan Am Radio flight officer, “That woman never intended to land on Howland Island.”

The following routing and times are a compilation from several sources:

(1) Itasca Logs from the log-positions on the ship, a copy of which can be provided;
(2) Notes from Harry Balfour, local weather and radioman on site at Lae;
(3) Notes from  L.G. Bellarts, Chief Radio operator, USS Itasca;
(4) The Search for Amelia Earhart, by Fred Goerner;
(5) Amelia Earhart: The Truth At Last, by Mike Campbell;
(6) David Billings, Australian flight engineer (numbers questionable),  Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project;
(7) Thomas E. Devine, Vincent V. Loomis, and various other writings.

The intended course for the Electra was a direct line from Lae to Howland covering 2,556 statute miles.  The actual track, however, was changed due to weather, in the first instance, and due to a change of decision in the second instance.  Such contact never took place.  Neither the Electra nor the Ontario saw nor heard from the other, for reasons which could have been avoided if each had known the frequencies and limitations of the other.  This basic lack of communication plagued almost every radio and key which tried to communicate with the Electra.   

If one has access to Google Earth, it is interesting to pin and to follow this flight by the hour.  The average speeds and winds were derived from multiple sources, including weather forecasts and reports. 

To generalize, the average ground speed going east was probably not above 150 mph, with a reported headwind of some 20 mph, which began at about 135-140 mph when the plane was heavy and struggling to climb.

In the beginning, with input from Lockheed engineers, Amelia made a slow (about 30 feet per minute) climb to 7,000 feet (contrary to the plan laid out by Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson), then to 10,000 feet (which should have been step-climbing to 4,000 to 7,000 to 10,000 feet toward the Solomons mountain), then descending to 8,000 feet depending upon winds, then to 10,000 feet reported, with various changes en route.

The remaining contingency fuel at 8:43 a.m. Howland time, to get the Electra back to the Gilbert Islands, as planned out carefully with the help of Gene Vidal (experienced aviator) and Kelly Johnson (experienced Lockheed engineer), has often been, in our opinion, mischaracterized and miscalculated.  By all reasonable calculations, the Electra had about 20 hours of fuel PLUS at least four-plus hours of contingency fuel.

July 2, 1937:  Amelia Earhart, leaving Lae, New Guinea, frustrated and fatigued from a month of pressure, problems, and critical decisions on a long world flight, and unprepared for the Radio issues ahead, unprepared, that is, unless there was a bigger plan in play.

Then why did Amelia say she was almost out of fuel when making one of her last calls at 1912z (7:42 am)?  Obviously, she was not because she made another call an hour later about the 157-337 (sun) line at 2013z.  Put yourself in that cockpit, totally fatigued after 20 hours of battling wind and weather and loss of sleep, compounded by 30 previous difficult days.  It is easy to see four hours of fuel, after such exhaustion, being described as “running low.”

With the desperation of wanting to be on the ground, it would be quite normal to say “gas is running low” just to get someone’s attention.  If one is a pilot, and has ever been “at wit’s end” in a tense situation, they have no problem not being a “literalist” with this statement.  The subsequent facts, of course, substantiate this.

An undated view of Howland Island that Amelia Earhart never enjoyed. Note the runway outline many years later, a destination which became a ghost.  In the far distance to the left, under thick clouds at 8:13 a.m. local time, was “Area 13.” 

Wherever the Electra ended up, and we have a volume of evidence for that in a future posting, IT WAS NOT IN THE OCEAN NEAR HOWLAND.  That was a government finding as accurate and as competent as the government’s success was against the Wright Brothers’ attempt to make the first fight.

For this leg of the Electra’s flight to its destination, our starting data point was Lae, New Guinea, and our terminal data point is not the elusive bird-infested Howland Island, but rather the area where they were often said to be lost, a place we have designated as Area 13.  (A more detailed flight, by the hour with data from the Itasca logs, is available.  Enjoy the trip.

Summary of track from Lae to Area 13 then to Mili Atoll (times are approximate):

(1) LAE to  CHOISEUL, Solomon Islands – Total Miles: 670 / Total Time: 05:15 hours
(2) CHOISEUL to  NUKUMANU Islands – Total Miles:  933 / Total Time: 07:18 hours
(3) NUKUMANU  to  NAURU Island – Total Miles: 1,515 / Total Time: 11:30 hours
(4) NAURU  to 1745z (6:15 a.m.
Howland) – Total Miles: 2,440 / Total Time: 17:45 hours
(5) 1745z  to  1912z  (7:12 a.m.
Howland) – Total Miles: 2,635 / Total Time: 19:12 hours
(6) 1912z to 20
13z  (8:43 a.m. Howland) – Total Miles: 2.750 / Total Time: 20:13 hours 

LAE  to AREA 13: Total Miles : 2,750 (Including approaches) Time:  About 20:13 hours

Fuel Remaining: About 4.5 to 5 hours

Distance from 2013z to Mili Atoll Marshall Islands = About 750 miles
Ground speed = 160 (true air speed) plus 15 mph (tailwind) = 175 mph
Time en route = About 4.3 hours

ETA at Mili Atoll, Marshall Islands = Noon to 12:30; Fuel remaining: 13 drops

NOTE that from a spot about 200 mi NW of Howland (Area 13) to the Gilberts is not the same heading as to the Marshall’s Mili Atoll. The Gilberts are the three small islands below Mili Atoll.  The “Contingency Plan” was to return to the Gilberts and land on a beach among friendly people.  Instead, they made an “intentional” decision to pick up a different heading toward the Marshalls whose strong Japanese radio at Jaluit they could hear.  Compare the two different headings from Area 13 to the Gilberts and to the Marshalls.  The difference is about 30 degrees.  THEY ARE NOT THE SAME.  Did they make an honest mistake, or an intentional decision?

The heading to the Gilberts would not have taken them to the Marshall Islands, with a heading difference of about 30 degrees.  The decision to give up on Howland, and utilize the remaining contingency fuel was “intentional,” not merely intentional to turn back, but to turn toward the Marshalls where there was a strong radio beam, a runway, fuel — and Japanese soldiers who may or may not be impressed with the most famous female aviator in the world.  Amelia and her exploits were known to be popular in Japan at that time.  Although their mind was on war with China, maybe this charming pilot could tame them.

Unfortunately, we know THE END of the Amelia story, and it was not pretty.  When she crossed into enemy territory, she apparently lost her charm with the war lords, and eventually her life.  (End of Part III.)

Next up: Part IV of “Amelia Earhart: Disappearing Footprints in the Sky.”  As always, your comments are welcome. 

Amelia Earhart’s “Disappearing Footprints,” Part II

Today we return to Capt. Calvin Pitts and his comprehensive analysis of Amelia Earhart’s last flight.  We concluded Part I with clue No. 7:  Position, which included Calvin’s observation that “At 8:43 a.m. (2013z), with the last transmission (was it?) from Amelia as shown on the Itasca log, it had been 20-plus hours since their takeoff from Lae at 10 a.m. local Lae time (0000z).”

Among his many achievements over a lifetime of aviation excellence, Calvin Pitts has become the first significant establishment figure to publicly embrace the truth in the Earhart disappearance, and we’re honored that he brought his considerable experience and talents to this blog and shared it with us.  Without further delay, here’s Part II of Calvin’s analysis.

By Capt. Calvin Pitts

8.  Contingency Plan:  HERE IS WHERE we zero in on the WHY of this so-called mystery, which is actually only a mass of confusion.  The next couple of clues have to do with Amelia’s relationship with a top government bureaucrat, Eugene L. Gene(father of Gore Vidal), and the flight made to the area where she was forced to make a fatal decision.  We call it “Area 13,” and when we get there, you’ll see why.

The answers to the following questions hold additional clues:

(1) Why was the failure in Honolulu of flight No. 1 so critical to the final outcome?
(2) After the Hawaii crack-up, did a military issue change the entire course of the flight?
(3) What caused the decision to reverse the direction of Flight No. 2 from west-toward-Howland to east-toward-Area 13?  There is more here, it seems, than meets the eye.
4) From Area 13, why was the Contingency Plan ignored after being so carefully prepared in favor of an intentional heading toward another destination?

Gene Vidal was a standout individual in America in the 1930s.  He was a respected graduate of West Point, a star athlete in various sports, the quarterback of their football team, and he was recognized as an outstanding aviator.  He was a star in the heady world of Washington, the head of a new, growing department, the Bureau of Air Commerce (BAC).  He was a friend of the president and he innovated new programs for aviation’s growth.  He was also handsome and his picture was featured on TIME magazine.  On top of those 12 outstanding attributes, Gene Vidal was deeply respected by the most famous woman in America.  That’s No. 13, and that’s good luck, isn’t it?

Eugene L. “Gene” Vidal, Time magazine, Dec. 18, 1933.  Vidal was President Franklin Roosevelt’s top civil aviation director from 1933 to 1937, and from September 1933 to March 1937 he was Director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, a predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, where he organized and expanded the government’s civil aeronautics program. 

Amelia also had great respect for George Putnam and his accomplishments.  He supported her in everything she did.  He was her fan as well as her husband.  They were good partners in things they did together.  They complimented the needs of each other, even though, at first, she reluctantly married him.

Amelia had captured the heart of America, or at least its attention.  What lady wouldn’t be proud of that in those times?  As friends, Amelia and Gene worked together in aviation pursuits.  As mates, Amelia and George worked together in achieving her dreams. 

George Putnam was a promoter and publisher, his company having published WE,” by Charles Lindbergh.  When Amelia needed personal help, including with her career, she turned to him.

Gene Vidal was a bureaucrat, aviator and director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, Washington, D.C., with political influence.  When Amelia needed guidance and help in aviation matters, she went to Gene.  All three of them were friends.

In preparation for Amelia’s world adventure, she and Gene spent much time with charts spread out on the floor, meticulously planning every detail of the world flight.  One of those critical details was a Contingency Plan.”  Just. In. Case!  “What happens, Amelia, IF you can’t find Howland?”  (The words of their conversations are supplied by the author.  The content of their work is supplied by the actors.)

As a Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), later Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) top government bureaucrat in the BAC, under Daniel Roper’s Department  of Commerce (DOC), Eugene Vidal was extremely knowledgeable — West Point graduate, sports superstar, one of the best pilots in the country, TIME magazine feature personality — and a handy government man to have around.

Not only was Vidal West Point’s star, he was also the government’s star and a luminary, at least in his own mind.  But he did not get along with major figures with whom he worked, and got crossed with his office partner, J. Carroll Cone, as well as his immediate boss, Daniel Roper, DOC secretary.  And most significant of all, he got crossed with his ultimate boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the heart and soul of the government.  That, of course, takes talent, or at least a massive sense of self-importance.

But Vidal knew aviation.  And he knew that a dear friend needed guidance in so great a challenge as a successful flight around the world, especially on that long leg across the open waters of the Pacific.  What should Amelia do if she was unable to locate that postage-stamp, bird-infested land mass called Howland?

A look at the teeming wildlife on Howland Island, so overpopulated with “10,000 frigates, 8,000 boobies (albatrosses), and 14,000 terns, according to Army Lt. Daniel A. Cooper, writing in July 1937, that many doubted that Amelia Earhart really intended to land there when she disappeared on July 2, 1937.

HOWLAND?  What was it about this piece of land that was so strategic?

That decision, however, of locating a dot in the sea would never have been necessary if flight plan No. 1 had not failed.  But it did, and the circumstances which followed determined the details which led to a sad tragedy.  That needs to be explored.

However, because flight No. 2 is the flight which is known best, and is discussed most, we’ll follow it to “Area 13,” at which point we’ll pause and ask: What happened?  What went wrong?  Why did a flight conceived in innocence get hijacked and become so complicated as to become a flight into hell.

In the beginning, we could take things at face value.  But afterward, the face was not what it seemed.  More often than not, it was a false face.  The government face, hidden for so long, left a long shadow, and was far uglier than the public was led to believe.

The leg of Flight No. 2 that was the most dangerous and most challenging was the one from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island.  It was full of challenges, decisions, changes and surprises — a surprise that held a double-surprise.

This is what’s left of the Howland Island runway.

The leg into and out of Australia was the site of a major radio problem with an easy solution.  A fuse for the direction-finder receiver had blown, and needed to be fixed at Lae.  It was a small thing, but it had major significance.  If it blew again, the Electra would have the same problem going into Howland — namely, a DF steer that was essential would no longer be available

However, the Electra’s crew was already unable to receive Morse code messages from the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca at Howland, and the Navy’s USS Ontario tug which had been placed halfway between Lae and Howland.

One source says that both Amelia and Noonan were able to understand code, which is only partly true if the speed in sending means that the one receiving hears sounds but cannot interpret them.

Fred Noonan had a second-class radio license, and he had been communicating slowly in code en route from Darwin to Lae, according to Alan Vagg, the radio operator at Bulolo, 40 miles southwest of Lae.  But Amelia did not really know Morse code, although she had been advised earlier by a close friend to spend time learning it.

This raises two difficult questions: (1) Why did they remove the Morse code key at the beginning of the flight, making it difficult if not impossible for Noonan to communicate by code, unless he had his own personal key?  What was the purpose in removing it? (2) Why were the Ontario at sea and the Itasca at Howland totally uninformed that the multitude of Morse code messages they sent would go unanswered, because Fred could only understand code if it were keyed very slowly, and Amelia’s knowledge consisted of only a few letters?  This was a critical issue.

When can beauty be hell? When you can’t find a place to land.

“Upon enquiry Earhart and Noonan advised that they entirely depended on radio telephone reception as neither of them were able to read Morse at normal speed but could recognize an individual letter sent several times,” wrote Eric Chater, general manager of Guinea Airways Limited in a July 25, 1937 report.  “This point was again mentioned by both of them later when two different sets at Lae were used for listening in for time signals.

Two different sets of keys?”  How many knew that?  Two?  For what purpose?

Compounding this radio issue was a profound misunderstanding between Amelia and the Itasca regarding the important intricacies of frequency incompatibility and DF usage.  That was a radio disconnection, to be sure.

Another issue that surfaced at Lae were telephone calls and telegraph messages between Amelia and both Gene and George.  A telegram she sent from Lae, which delayed the departure by one day, contained the following message:

“Radio misunderstanding and Personnel Unfitness (stop) Probably will hold one day (stop)  Have asked Black for Forecast for tomorrow  (stop) You check meteorologist on job as FN (Noonan) must have star sights.”

When asked about the meaning of personnel unfitness, Gore Vidal, son of Gene Vidal said: Well, just the night before the final flight, she reported in and they had a code phrase, personnel problems, which meant Noonan was back drinking.  And my father said, Just stop it right now and come home,and G.P. agreed and said, Come back, abort the flight, forget it, come home.’  And then she said, Oh, no, and she said, I think it’ll be all right, something like that.  So you may put that down to invincible optimism or it may have been huge pessimism.

When the Electra left on the morning of July 2 at 10:00 am local time, they were ill-equipped for the radio challenges ahead.  On flight No. 1, Amelia had Harry Manning, a seagoing captain on vacation for purposes of helping that flight that ended in Honolulu.  He was well-versed in radio usage and intricacies, but he bailed after the crack-up at Luke Field.

The greatest area of confusion for the observer is the neglect in getting the radio frequencies and usage clear in one’s understanding, as well as clearly communicating to other personnel such as those on the Itasca, the Ontario, Lae radio, Nauru radio, Tarawa radio in the Gilbert Islands, and Hawaii radio.  Why were all these facilities not properly notified?  What was the big secret?  Why were they not in the communication loop?

The second area of confusion was the casual and strange way in which the radio calls and position reports were made, and the technique of using the radio properly for getting bearings.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the track of flight No. 2 as it relates to the Pacific crossing, noting the changes made due to weather and necessity.  Two diversions to the initial plan added more than 100 miles to the flight, but it kept the fliers out of serious thunderstorms and it gave them a positive land fix at Nauru.

Lae is our point of origin.  Howland is our destination.  Unfortunately, Howland doesn’t remain our destination, for reasons that need to be explored.

But even at Lae, things did not go as planned.  With a heavy fuel load, the Electra had no place to go but into the water of Huon Gulf if the takeoff had to be aborted.  As it was, the Electra used up 97 percent of the dirt strip they called a runway, lifting a few inches before beginning to settle beyond the cliff.

As they rolled down the 3,000 feet of rough dirt at more than 35 percent over gross weight, they watched the performance of Lockheed’s modern design of what became a classic airplane.  It has two great Pratt & Whitney Wasp 550 horsepower/600 horsepower (at takeoff) engines, but the wheels are still not leaving the ground as they neared the end of the 3,000 feet available.  The fuel-heavy plane with 1,100-1,150 gallons flies into the air off the cliff above the Huon Gulf, and begins to settle, settle, settle until it was just a few feet above the water.

An incoming plane later describes what he sees. By the time the Electra stops its descent and settles into a slight climb of 30 feet per minute, the Electra is leaving behind a spray of water from the prop-wash of the spinning lifeline.

Amelia set up a rate of climb of 30 feet per minute, predetermined from the manual with input from Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s later designer of the 9D Orion, the model 18 Lodestar, the PV-1 Ventura, the PV-2 Neptune, the PV-2V Harpoon (which I’ve flown to airshows), the P-38 Lightning, the TWA Constellation, the P-80 Shooting Star (my first Jet to witness at age 12), the F-104 Starfighter, the C-130 Hercules, the U-2, the SR-71 (which I’ve visited at Beale AFB), and the Electra 10 (which I’ve also flown), 40 in all.

Such a cruise climb was the most efficient.  By 0115z (GMT) (11:15 a.m.), an hour later, Amelia let local radio operator Harry Balfour know she was still climbing to 7,000 feet,not the plan Kelly Johnson of Lockheed had laid out for her.

Due to severe thunderstorms resting above the original planned course, Noonan, with help from Balfour, decided to fly due east to the Solomon Islands.  At Choiseul’s Mount Maetambe, weather permitting, they would turn northeast toward Nukumanu Atoll, sitting very near their original course.  So not even the first leg was going as planned.

For the first seven hours, Harry Balfour was Amelia’s lifeline.  He was the last to have two-way radio contact with the Electra.  He also helped Amelia and Fred make a decision to go slightly north, a little out of their way, to use Nauru as a land-fix before the long eight-hour night flight to Howland from a known position.

Balfour and the mechanics had served the Electra crew well.  But after Nukumanu at 0718z (5:18 p.m. Lae time), when Amelia changed frequencies from day (6210 kilocycles) to night (3105 kc), he never heard from her again.  Balfour requested that she stay on a frequency where she was being heard, but he received no reply.

Harry Balfour, circa 1937, the radio operator at Lae, New Guinea, the last person to carry on a two-way radio conversation with Amelia Earhart.

One can assume that with darkness coming on within an hour or so (it was now about 5:30 p.m.), she was changing the frequency early in order to establish contact with the USS Ontario, commanded by Navy Lt. Blakeslee.  If they were diverting slightly north in order to get a land-fix over or near Nauru, she certainly wanted to inform him of that.

The Navy had sent this tug, now being used for minor assignments in Samoa, to serve as a floating radio and weather station for the Electra at a midpoint of that leg.

Unfortunately, what neither of them knew at that time was the agonizing fact that the Electra was not equipped for low-frequency broadcast, and the Ontario was not equipped for high-frequency.

The Ontario had stated that it would broadcast on 400 kc.  The Electra was not equipped for this low frequency.  Why didn’t they know about this incompatibility?  Who was in charge of communication arrangements?  They didn’t know for the same reason, perhaps, that the Itasca personnel were not aware of other frequency anomalies and DF limitations.  Who went to sleep on those details?

Commander Thomson of the Itasca was not the only one who later blamed George Putnam for overlooking such details.  But where was Vidal, or Noonan, or even Amelia?  Somebody dropped the ball, and it fell with a fatal blow — unless there was already a bigger event in play.

After changing frequencies to one that the Ontario could not receive, it is safe to assume that Amelia made several voice calls.  Morse code, of course, was already out of the picture.

(End of “Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY,” Part II   ) 

We’ll conclude Calvin Pitts’ fascinating analysis in our next post.  Once again, the opinions presented in this piece are Calvin’s, and are not necessarily shared by the editor.  As always, your comments are welcome.

Calvin Pitts analyzes Amelia Earhart’s last flight

Calvin Pitts is best known for his 1981 world flight, when he and two co-pilots commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Wiley Post-Harold Gatty World Flight in 1931.  The 1981 flight was sponsored in part by the Oklahoma Air & Space Museum to honor the Oklahoma aviator Post. 

Calvin’s first co-pilot was Jerry Kuzia, an FAA inspector from Cleveland, who helped with many of the detail preparations during 1980.  After a cancelled clearance due to high-frequency radio failure over the Atlantic and the subsequent two week-delay, Kuzia ran out of vacation time.  NASA engineer Emmett Fry flew to Germany to replace Kuzia, and competed the flight back to Manchester, New Hampshire.

But instead of replicating Post and Gatty’s 15,474-mile world flight, an unforeseen circumstance changed their plans.  A clearance across Siberia was cancelled due to an HF radio failure over the Atlantic, which in turn caused a delay in Germany.  Additionally, several mechanical and red tape delays extended the trip to nearly 25,000 miles from Manchester, departing on June 23, 1981, instead of Post’s flight of 15,000-plus miles, which began exactly 50 years earlier, on June 23, 1931.  They flew a single-engine 1980 Beechcraft A36 Spirit of Winnie Mae, named after Post’s Lockheed Vega, the Winnie MaeTo read Calvin’s recollections of his around-the-world journey, please click here.

Calvin Pitts in 1981, with The Spirit of Winnie Mae and the thermos Amelia Earhart carried with her on her solo Atlantic Crossing in 1932.  The thermos was on loan from Jimmie Mattern, Wiley Post’s competitor who flew The Century of Progress Vega in an attempt to beat Wiley in the 1933 solo round-the-world race, but Mattern crashed in Siberia.  Calvin brought Amelia’s thermos along with him on his own successful world flight in 1981. 

During his long and accomplished aviation career as an instructor, corporate pilot, airline pilot, flight manager, training manager and engineering test pilot, Calvin has flown antique planes to airshows, trained pilots and flown a multitude of single and multi-engine aircraft, including Twin Otters, DHC-7s, Aero Commanders, Metro IIIs, Lear Jets and Boeing 727s.  He also worked for 10 years in public affairs for NASA at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Field Naval Air Station, Calif.; and NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Calvin, 84, lives with his wife Wanda in the small Kentucky town of Sadieville, where he has alog house on a small river, surrounded by wild life, fish, otters, beavers, and beautiful bluegrass and trees,and where he stays busier than ever.  Occasionally someone asks him to go flying, he says, “but time keeps flying even when I’m grounded.  It’s great to be alive with good health and lots to do with good friends.  Life has never been better, blessed and more challenging.

In the past year, his complimentary comments have been a welcome addition to this blog, and recently he told me much more about his longtime fascination with Amelia’s disappearance.  He’s known many of her friends, including Mae Post, Wiley’s wife; Gordon Post, Wiley’s brother; Clarence Page, Director of the former Oklahoma Air & Space Museum (now the History Museum of Oklahoma); Ernie Shults, Wiley’s mechanic; and Jimmie Mattern (1905-1988), who flew The Century of Progress Vega against Wiley Post in the 1933 solo around-the-world race, but crashed in Siberia.  “It was Jimmie who loaned me Amelia’s thermos from her Atlantic flight to carry on a successful flight RTW,” Calvin wrote in a recent email.  

Mattern carried the thermos with him in 1933, but failed to finish the flight,Calvin went on.  “Finally, Amelia made it all the way around the world with me, even with the delays, disappointments, conquered challenges and final success.  I have pictures holding that thermos with the Spirit of Winnie Mae in the background before the flight, and with 99’ers drinking from Amelia’s thermos in Lexington, Kentucky after the flight.  Thoughts of her were very intense, especially as we flew near Howland after leaving Tarawa.  Ironically, our fight began with Wiley in New York, transitioned to Amelia over the Pacific, and then ended with Wiley and Amelia as we returned to have dinner with a close friend of them both, Fay Gillis Wells.  It was, to say the least, a surreal experience where you imagined you could actually feel their presence.

Fay Gillis Wells (1908-2002) was the first woman pilot to bail out of an airplane to save her life, and one of the original founders of the Ninety-Nines, the international organization of licensed women pilots that now numbers over 6,500 members.  “Her stories about Amelia were priceless,” Calvin wrote.  “Fay was not only an intimate friend of Amelia, but was also the person who arranged Wiley’s fuel stops in Siberia in 1933 where her father was a businessman.”

Fay Gillis Wells, the first woman to save her life by jumping out of an airplane in a parachute and a close friend of Amelia Earhart.  “She helped Amelia organize the ‘99s for female aviators,” Calvin Pitts wrote in a recent email.  “She lived in Alexandria, Va., allowing me a chance to have meals with her when I was transferred to Washington, D.C.  Her stories about Amelia were priceless.”

Ernie Shults, Wiley Post’s mechanic in Bartlesville, Okla., was another old-timer who knew Amelia, Calvin recalled.  His stories about the difficulties of the 1934-’35 stratospheric flights in a wooden plane with a normally aspirated engine were priceless.  Because of his mechanical stature, he had many contacts with Amelia.”  Louise Thaden, the first woman pilot to win the Bendix Trophy Race and who is largely credited, along with Amelia Earhart, as the co-founder of the Ninety-Nines, used an engine Shults rebuilt.  Shults passed away in 1997 at age 99.

Ernie Shults (right) and Paul Garber, “two good friends whom I have known for years,” Calvin Pitts wrote.  “I visited in the Shults’ home in Burbank, Calif., many times.  We visited the Queen Mary and the Spruce Goose in Long Beach, Calif.  Ernie  maintained the Pratt and Whitney engines on Howard Hughes’ plane, which was on display next to the Queen Mary.  I  took them flying in the Spirit of Winnie Mae after my ’81 RTW flight.  They were thrilled because they had also flown in the Winnie Mae Vega with Wiley Post.  He was Wiley’s mechanic. He became a father-figure for me.”  (Courtesy Calvin Pitts.)

Still two more of Calvin’s aviation acquaintances were Joe Crosson and his wife, Lillian.  Joe was the first to fly over Antarctica and the first to make a landing on Mount McKinley’s glaciers, and was celebrated on radio, newspapers and even comic books.  He helped Wiley Post complete his first solo flight around the world in 1933, and flew to Barrow, Alaska to retrieve Post and Will Rogers’ bodies in 1935.  Post and Rogers stayed with the Crossons in Fairbanks before leaving for Barrow and their untimely deaths. 

“Lillian fed them their last meal before the crash,” Calvin quoted her as telling him.  “It bothered her, she told me, to think that they died a few hours later with her food in their stomachs.  She and Joe were good friends with Amelia, and Joe’s sister, Marvel, was a competitor of Amelia’s in air races and knew her very well.  Their family stories are treasures.  There were numerous others, which gives me the feeling that I knew Amelia.  (Italics mine.)

“Because of this,” Calvin continued, “with great information from EarhartTruth postings,  I have spent literally hundreds of hours reading and writing about Amelia’s disappearance.  Since I have a close friend who still lives in Saipan, my communication with her has verified the fact that the local rumors there are so well known, so numerous and so widely accepted that locals find it strange that Americans even question her presence there.  My friend lives near the Japanese Jail where Amelia and Fred were taken.  I have a passionate desire to visit Saipan, but age and expense will probably not allow me to realize that dream.  All of this, and much more, is merely a way of illustrating that I share your deep interest in The Amelia Story.”

Thus in Calvin Pitts and Saipan’s Marie Castro, we have two of the last living links to Amelia Earhart, slightly indirect though they may be.  I’ve never met Amy Kleppner, Amelia’s niece through her sister Muriel and only surviving direct relative, now 87, who publicly echoes the official, anachronistic crashed-and-sank line whenever asked.  But if anyone else is out there who knew Amelia and is still living, I’m unaware of it.

Calvin has also extensively investigated the 1935 deaths of Wiley Post and Will Rogers in a plane crash in Alaska, and has written critically about the U.S. government’s failure to conduct a proper investigation into the tragedy, but it’s his interest in the Earhart disappearance that concerns us now.

Lillian Crosson, Fanny Quigley and Joe Crosson (left to right) at Kantishna, Alaska in the early 1930s, whom Calvin Pitts knew and read about back in the day.  Joe Crosson was the first pilot to land at the mining camp, and Lillian fed Wiley Post and Will Rogers their last meal before their fatal plane crash in 1935.  (Courtesy Calvin Pitts.)

Calvin has asked me to keep the spotlight away from him and on his analysis of Amelia and Fred’s last flight in this post, but it’s important for you to understand and appreciate what he has achieved — and who he’s known — in his extremely impressive aviation career.  Calvin brings a lifetime of well-earned credibility, as well as objectivity and honesty, to his analysis of Amelia Earhart’s final flight

At a time when the entire Western establishment’s hatred and aversion to the truth in the Earhart disappearance has never been worse, it’s heartening that a man who has been a well-known figure within that establishment comes forward to fully embrace the truth without apology.  Following is Part I of Calvin’s analysis of Amelia’s last flight.  (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)



By Capt. Calvin Pitts, PART I


The following is a summary of a few clues which lead directly to Amelia’s fateful decision to disregard a previous Contingency Plan, designed by her and Gene Vidal, director of the Bureau of Air Commerce.  By intent, it appears she made a deliberate decision to forget what had been agreed upon, going instead to the Japanese-controlled Marshall Islands — on purpose.  I posit here the tentative belief that ending up in the Marshalls was not the result of merely being lost, but was intentional, the details of which are just a little more than intriguing in the following post.



Any attempt to unravel the not-so-mysterious mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance must deal with both a WHAT and a WHY.  After years of searching for answers by competent researchers, it is more than reasonably undergirded with solid evidence that the Electra’s pilot and navigator ended up on Saipan as prisoners of the Japanese.

After decades of work by men such as Paul Briand Jr., Fred Goerner, Jim Golden, Vincent V. Loomis, Oliver Knaggs, Thomas E. Devine, Donald Kothera and Bill Prymak, and recent investigations at Mili Atoll by Dick Spink and Les Kinney, as well as others like Mike Campbell writing about the answer to the Earhart disappearance, we can feel assured that we know WHAT became of the Electra pair.

They were captured by the Japanese near Barre Island at Mili Atoll where they crash-landed, taken to Jaluit Atoll, the Japanese headquarters in the Marshall Islands, and then flown to Saipan where they spent time in the Japanese Jail in Garapan, eventually dying while in captivity.

While that may be the end of the 1937 story, it is not THE END of the story that subsequent generations have extracted from tons of available evidence.  We now know WHAT happened to them.

But the question remains unanswered: WHY?

Why did the Electra with such precious cargo as two beloved aviation professionals end up so far from Howland, and in Japanese hands in the Marshall Islands, a hotbed of war activity?  Our government knew that a pending attack was coming by the Japanese on China.  Our government knew that those islands should be avoided by civilians.

This was the official flight plan, 2,556 statute miles from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island. The 337-157 line of position, or sun line, passed through the Phoenix Islands, near Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, and the popular theory, though completely false, is in part attributable to this phenomena.  (Map from Amelia Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday: The Facts without the Fiction.)

Based upon firsthand sources, my actual course for the Electra is not a straight line from Lae to Howland Island.  Instead, due to a massive low-pressure system and serious thunderstorms sitting directly on the pre-planned course, the Electra flew directly east from Lae to the Solomon Islands, then northeast to the Nukumanu Islands (also known as Nukumanu Atoll and formerly Tasman Islands) hence northeast to Nauru Island, and then east toward Howland where the course turned dramatically northwest to the Marshalls from a distance approximating 200 miles from Howland, a small island 30-city-blocks-by-10-blocks wide.

Or could it be that the fact that our government knew these things was the very reason that The Amelia Story ended as it did?  That is not an idle question.

In fact, Japan’s declaration of war on China (July 7, 1937) which was the precursor of World War II four years later against the United States (Dec 7, 1941), did actually happen a mere five days after the Electra’s disappearance on July 2, 1937.

So, WHY did Amelia and Fred end up at the Marshalls Mili Atoll, approximately 750 statute miles from their decision point northwest of Howland Island?

Our government knew all of this because they had already broken the Japanese Diplomatic Code, as well as all their naval codes.  Our leaders, especially President Franklin D. Roosevelt, knew that the Japanese were about to explode in war against China, at the time a U.S. ally. 

Our leaders, especially FDR, knew that war between Japan and China was on the horizon, if not with us.  THAT was no secret.  Our government, especially FDR, knew this.

But the world also knew something else, namely that Earhart and Noonan were actually making a civilian round-the-world flight at that very time, and would be passing within close proximity of serious military activity in the Marshall Islands.

Our government, especially FDR, knew all of this — and more.  So why didn’t they issue a clear warning to Amelia to be extremely careful on that leg from New Guinea over the Gilbert Islands en route to Howland – or did they?

Has something been kept from the American public for over 80 years?  And one more WHY? Why, after all these years, is it impossible to see the classified records that deal with what they call a “mystery” disappearance, especially the details about the Navy’s efforts to find Amelia, Noonan and the Electra?  If it truly is amystery, why not let us read the records for ourselves, so we can help solve this?  Why the secrecy?

Why is this civilian event, eight decades old, still off-limits to history researchers?  What is our government still trying to hide — and WHY?  Give that at least five seconds thought.  A civilian flight in 1937 is still off limits for researchers.  Why?  Give us the records and we’ll tell you why.

Two men who knew plenty more than they ever revealed about the fate of Amelia Earhart: Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr. (left) and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1934.  Neither man ever revealed his knowledge or was called to account for his role in the Earhart disappearance, her death on Saipan or the subsequent cover-up that continues to this day.

Nevertheless, in this search for a reasonable answer, there are some key events and realities which provide clues for removing another factual layer from thismystery onion.”  Aside from the government’s role, here is a sampling of a few clues which lead up to the point of Amelia’s fatal decision to change something significant in her plans.

1. Drift Bombs:  Noonan forgot the drift bombs at Lae, New Guinea, making it impossible with the drift indicator to determine daylight drift from the strong southeast crosswinds en route for the 2,556 statute mile, 18- to 20-hour flight in search of a very small island.  Not knowing the amount of drift complicated the question about how far north-northwest they were from their course upon arriving within about 200 miles of their destination.

Those bombs were ceramic-type cylinders filled with either bronze or aluminum shavings dropped from about 1,000 feet, breaking as they hit the water and spreading a reflective surface on the water that could be tracked with the drift sight, estimating both the direction and speed of the wind.  After dark, magnesium water lights were available.

Some Electras had a Mk IIB Pelorus drift sight which could be used on either side of the aircraft provided the Sperry Auto Gyro Auto Pilot created a stable flight.  With turbulence, accuracy was virtually impossible.

Amelia’s sister, Muriel Earhart Morrissey, offered a description of how the Electra’s type D-270 Speed & Drift Indicator worked:An arrangement has been devised to open the cabin door about four inches, where it is held rigidly in place.  A Pioneer drift indicator is mounted for use looking down through this aperture to check wind drift on the earth or sea below.  For this work flares are used at night over water, smoke bombs in daylight.”  (Morrissey, Muriel Earhart;, Osborne, Carol L., Amelia, My Courageous Sister, Osborne Publisher, Inc., Santa Clara, 1987, p. 192)

There was some uncertainty regarding drift because Noonan forgot the drift bombs.

2. International Date Line:  They crossed the IDL when within about 200 statute miles of Howland.  Actually, according to my calculations on Google Earth, at an average ground speed of 145 to 150 mph, the Electra was within about five miles of the IDL at 1745z (Greenwich Mean Time, 6:15 a.m. local Howland time), when that important transmission of about 200 miles out was made, which was the time of sunrise at their destination.  If due to extreme fatigue or busyness, Noonan forgot to adjust for that change in days, then the accuracy of his celestial calculations would be off by at least 60 nautical miles or more.

Just before this critical time of 6:15 am (1745z), here is some of Noonan’s workload:  (We will assume that he had not been drinking the night before, and was not hung over, although there is one report to the contrary.  We will assume that he was only dealing with extreme fatigue caused by much loss of sleep.)

(1)  due to the reported clouds north and northwest of Howland, was he able to get good celestial calculations for an approximate position?

(2)  what guess did he make for their unknown drift due to a strong crosswind, where the drift meter was not usable due to his forgetfulness?

(3)  plotting that position on a chart;

(4)  determining their distance from Howland;

(5)  relaying this information to Amelia, via a fishing pole and card, for an important radio transmission at 6:15 (1745z), Howland’s sunrise, in compliance with their standard calls at 15 and 45 minutes past the hour;

(6)  reviewing the celestial landfall approach;

(7)  reviewing the expanding box technique of increasing the search area;

(8)  fighting off the mental fog from extreme fatigue;

(9)  remembering to change charts when passing over the International Date Line;

(10)  preparing for the next fix 30 minutes later at 6:45 a.m. (1815z) where the deviation for the celestial landfall approach would be initiated;

(11)  did Noonan take another star or moon shot to update their position?;

(12)  did he forget to use a different celestial chart for the next day as they crossed the IDL?  If he did, then his calculations were all wrong.  This we will never know.  But the coincidence of the mandatory 6:15 (1745z) radio call occurring at the very same time they were crossing the IDL was ironic, and was no small matter.

A view of Howland Island that Amelia Earhart never enjoyed.  The island, a property of the United States, about 8,000 feet long and 2,600 feet wide, remains uninhabited, but has always been quite popular among thousands of birds that nest and forage there.

3.  Celestial LandfallDid Noonan suggest to Amelia that they use the “celestial landfall” technique for approaching Howland?  As an instructor with Pan Am, it was Noonan’s practice to teach new navigators the technique of using a celestial Line of Position (LOP) as an imaginarylandfall, whereby they would deliberately aim some miles north or south of their destination so that upon arriving at the celestial landfall, or sun line, they would know which way to turn toward their intended runway.

As one who professionally taught this method of approaching an island in an ocean, such as Wake Island on Pan Am’s scheduled route, it is inconceivable that he himself would not use it with Amelia when approaching such a small island as Howland.  It is reasonable to assume that Noonan aimed north rather than south of their destination for the simple reason that their emergency landing occurred in the Marshall Islands, north of Howland.

Complicating this is the matter of cockpit communication.  With their cramped quarters and navigation table between the two of them, how did Noonan explain this approach to Amelia?  Did he do this at Lae, and if so, did such a detailed explanation register fully during the pressure of executing such an approach while fatigued and being distracted by various radio problems?

4. Expanding Box:  In addition to the above, if one had difficulty locating an island with the celestial landfall approach, then Noonan taught an additional method which was called theexpanding box technique.  This maneuver consisted of a series of 90-degree turns with expanding legs of the box.  This expanding box around a given point would hopefully and eventually allow them to locate their island.  Time and heading, corrected for wind, was the key for executing this method of surrounding a point with an expanding box.

5. Explaining celestial landfall:  As it applied to this specific approach to Howland:

(A)  It was defined by the Line of Position (LOP) which occurred over Howland at 6:15 a.m. (1745z) sunrise.  That definition is an imaginary line perpendicular to the sun’s azimuth listed in the navigational almanac for July 2, 1937, i.e. 067 degree azimuth creating a perpendicular “sun line” or LOP of 337 degrees NW or 157 degrees SE. 

(B)  However, the LOP at that time actually consisted of an imaginary zone of approximately 60 nautical miles in width from 6:15 a.m. (1745z) to 7:17 a.m. (1847z), the length of time the sun’s azimuth (the direction of a celestial object from the observer, expressed as the angular distance from the north or south point of the horizon to the point at which a vertical circle passing through the object intersects the horizon)** remained at 067 degrees.  That meant that 7:16 am (1846z) was the outside limit of the existence of a sun line of 157°-337°, because the sun’s azimuth changed at 7:17 a.m.

** Put that into street language:  Standing on Howland, you are standing at the center of an imaginary compass.  Look due east.  That is 90 degrees.  Turn left 23 degrees.  You are now looking at 67 degrees where the sun will break over the horizon.  That gives you the sun’s azimuth at sunrise, 6:15 a.m. on July 2, 1937, a number published in the almanac that Noonan possessed.

(C)  Translated:  When you have time to explore some of the sites below, you’ll begin to see the impossible job Noonan had in explaining the concept to Amelia, and the impossible task she had trying to fly accordingly.  If you’re on the 157-337 sun line or LOP between 6:15 a.m. (1745z) and 7:17 a.m. (1846z) within 60 nautical miles of Howland, you might have success.  If you’re a novice, you might want to think twice about actually trying this for the first time out over the open Pacific. 

For more information, see The myth of the “sunrise” LOP – Fredienoonan;  Single LOP Landfall procedure – Fredienoonan;  American Air Navigator, Mattingly (1944) – Fredienoonan.

6.  CONFUSION: At 8:43 a.m. (2013z, according to the Itasca log) almost 90 minutes after 1846z, Amelia made a radio call to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca at Howland, stating that they were running north and south on the (sun) line 157°-337°.  That, of course, was impossible since the sun’s azimuth had changed from 67° about 90 minutes earlier, thereby making a 157°-337° LOP nonexistent.

The difference in heading or course was minimal, but that is not the issue.  Instead, the issue was the confusion illustrated by such a transmission.  Noonan had undoubtedly used those course numbers more than an hour earlier, but obviously failed to explain how they changed with the sun’s changing azimuth.  At 8:43 a.m. (2013z), Amelia was flying a heading, not a course.  And with a very strong crosswind from the east, her position east and west was changing by the minute, even if her NW heading was a constant 337 degrees.

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland Island on July 2, 1937 to help Amelia Earhart find the island and land safely at the airstrip that had been prepared there for her Lockheed Electra 10E.

This confusion was greatly complicated by much additional radio confusion, which was extremely concerning to the Itasca crew who were doing their best to communicate.  (The Itasca log and radio transmissions will be discussed later.)

7.  Position:  At 8:43 am (2013z), making an estimated calculation of her average ground speed of approximately 145-150 mph, PLUS making an estimated calculation for drift divergence from her desired easterly course, PLUS making an estimated pattern calculation for the celestial landfall approach, PLUS making an estimated pattern calculation for the expanding box technique, PLUS her radio transmission at 8:43 (2013z) stating that she was running north and south on the  nonexistent (sun) line 157-337, all provide a reasonable and realisticarea of position some 150-200 miles NW of Howland.

At 8:43 a.m. (2013z), with the last transmission (was it?) from Amelia as shown on the Itasca log, it had been 20-plus hours since their takeoff from Lae at 10 a.m. local Lae time (0000z):

  • where they had a serious thunderstorm diversion and strong low pressure area;
  • where they bucked excessively strong winds;
  • where the clear night sky turned to overcast coverage making star sightings and celestial calculations impossible for long periods of time;
  • where the drift meter was useless due to forgetting the drift bombs at Lae;
  • where radio problems surfaced and transmissions from Lae and the Itasca were mostly unheard, a repeat of an earlier case of losing their receiver;
  • where the Itasca had sent numerous Morse code messages (shown in the Itasca log), which went unacknowledged by the Electra, a verbalized frustration expressed by Bellarts and his radio crew;
  • where there was confusion regarding direction finder homingon a signal which could not be received;
  • where previous radio problems and incompatible frequencies re-appeared;
  • where Amelia had discounted the pleas of George Putnam and Gene Vidal to abandon the flight in Lae;
  • where Noonan’s drinking problem re-surfaced in Brazil and Lae;
  • where the human factor of fatigue, due to excessive stress and lack of sleep reared its ugly head, and
  • where Amelia was down to one last decision concerning the pre-flight Contingency Plan to reverse course for the Gilbert Islands.




End of “Clues” Part I

Your comments are welcome.  Though I agree with much of Calvin’s analysis, some points of disagreement are to be expected in any analysis of Amelia’s last flight, when so much is yet unknown and educated speculation is the best anyone can do.  I will refrain from expressing my views until Calvin’s complete analysis is published.  For now, I want to extend my most sincere appreciation and thanks to Calvin for his learned and timely contribution. 

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