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 Mae. To read Calvin’s recollections of his around-the-world journey, please click here.
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 a “log 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY
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.
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 Marshall’s 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 a “mystery,” 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.
Nevertheless, in this search for a reasonable answer, there are some key events and realities which provide clues for removing another factual layer from this “mystery 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 1000 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.
3. Celestial Landfall: Did 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 imaginary “landfall,” 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 the “expanding 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.
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.
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 realistic “area” 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 “homing” on 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.
UNDER THESE CONDITIONS, IT IS EASY TO UNDERSTAND WHY DECISION MAKING COULD BE IMPAIRED AND MISTAKES COULD BE MADE. BUT THE REALITY IS THIS: MUCH OF THEIR RADIO CONFUSION WAS SELF-INDUCED, WHICH CREATED PROBLEMS THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED.
AS ONE LOOKS BACK TO HONOLULU AT HARRY MANNING’S DECISION TO LEAVE THE FLIGHT “DUE TO INADEQUATE RADIO CAPABILITY,” WE CAN APPRECIATE THE FACT THAT THEY HAD SET THEMSELVES UP FOR PROBLEMS WHICH NEED NOT HAVE HAPPENED. FOR THIS REASON, ALONG WITH “THE MILITARY CONNECTION,” WE WILL NEXT TAKE A LOOK AT WHAT WE CALL “THE RADIO DISCONNECTION.”
FURTHER, IF THERE WAS A BIGGER PLAN IN PLAY, AS WE WILL EXPLORE, THEN THE RADIO ISSUES COULD TAKE A BACK SEAT TO WHAT MAY REALLY HAVE BEEN HAPPENING.
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.