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.

Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY 
By Capt. Calvin Pitts, Part II

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” Vidal (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 magazineOn top of those 12 outstanding attributes, Gene Vidal was deeply respected by the most famous woman in AmericaThat’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.

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11 responses

  1. In retrospect it seems inconceivable that an attempt would be made to takeoff from such a rough, unpaved runway of that length with such a heavy load at Lae; what kind of takeoff distance would they have anticipated?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. William H. Trail | Reply

    Tom,

    I don’t have a Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) for a Lockheed Electra 10E to consult, but I do know that a combination of a rough, short runway, weight, density altitude (heat and humidity), not to mention the surface wind speed and direction across the runway can make for a very “sporty” take off. And as we know, for AE and FN, it was.

    According to Safford’s, “Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday” the Electra was capable of carrying 1,151 gallons of Avgas. At 6.0 pounds per gallon that works out to a total of 6,906 pounds of fuel. Add to that the weight of 75 gallons of reserve engine oil required to keep those big Pratt & Whitney radials lubricated at 7.5 pounds per gallon. That comes to 6,906 pounds of fuel plus 562.5 pounds of engine oil for a grand total of 1,258.5 pounds.

    All best,

    William

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In the rush to complete this flight, I think there was just a little, too much assuming, on everyone’s behalf. From the frequencies, to the codes, with the limitations, etc. Were all these people on the same page? Makes you wonder?

    Harry Balfour sends them, in a slightly more northern course. This seems to be, the TIP OFF for me, to something that takes them, somewhere other than Howland. (Marshalls)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is just an observation, means nothing in particular, like some of my other comments, but in the modern picture of the Howland runway there are no birds whatsoever. It looks like a great place to land. What happened to the 30,000 birds occupying the island in 1937? Are they all gone? Or did the photographer shoo them all out of the picture?

    As for Les Kinney’s link to celestial navigation, I couldn’t begin to comprehend that whole article. That’s why people went to navigation school to learn it all. But Les seems to be saying that Fred couldn’t have determined his latitude during daylight, that doesn’t sound right to me. Does that mean any plane taking off at sunrise in those days could only determine a dead reckoning position and had to wait until well after sunset to figure out where they actually were and if it was cloudy, forget it? That doesn’t sound right either, but maybe it is.

    As for Fred’s alcohol consumption, other books seem to dismiss his “alcoholism” as a minor insignificant issue, but Loomis’ book gives it a lot more weight. The fact that Fred apparently delayed the flight by his drunkenness would appear to be very significant to me. Did Fred bring a jug along on the flight? Was Amelia a hopeless enabler in the case of first her father, then Fred? MAYBE THE ANSWER WILL COME OUT.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you read my post about Noonan’s drinking, David? I can’t put the link here, but it’s titled “Fred Noonan’s drinking: In search of the true story,” and was posted Jan. 6. 2015. It might help you understand about Noonan — or maybe it won’t. But I haven’t seen a more comprehensive treatment of the subject anywhere else.

      MC

      Liked by 1 person

    2. William H. Trail | Reply

      David,

      A fix can, indeed, be determined during the day. From my limited understanding of celestial navigation, and the book “Celestial Navigation: A Step-by-Step Procedure for the Complete Idiot” (my kind of book!) by K. Kenny, a “fix” (exactly where you are) may be determined during the day by two or more Lines of Position (LOP) crossing over each other. We obtain two or more LOP’s crossing each other by (a) measuring the height of two or more celestial bodies within a short period of time, or (b) measuring the height of the same celestial body several times throughout the day. Method “b” is known as a “Running Fix.” And all of this is dependent on being able to clearly see the horizon. “Celestial Navigation” by Jeff Toghill is also a good reference. Hope this helps.

      All best,

      William

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mike-
    I just reread that section you suggested. I knew you downplayed Fred’s drinking and at the time I read that, I went along with your take on the subject. But after reading Loomis and then rereading your section with Loomis in mind I have come down on the side of Balfour. I now believe the story of Fred being out all night at Bulolo is much more likely to be the true one. Why would Balfour make up a story like that? He would have no motive whatsoever that I can think of. The others that covered up for Fred? I believe in those days drunks were much more likely to be given a pass, as Fred was in his drunken head on car collision. Also out of respect for Amelia, no one wanted to question her judgment in hiring a washed up alcoholic for navigator, at least not for the public record. It would not be polite in those days. Also in those times most people would conclude that Fred would pull himself together and rise to the occasion when the chips were down. Knowing alcoholics like I do, I would say nothing could be further from the truth.

    Not only do I believe Fred was out all night, I would not put it past him to bring a little something with him to taper off. It sounds like he was on a bender and there was no stopping him now. Then I got to thinking……. We all assume Fred was injured in the plane landing. That would just make sense. But what if that were not the case? After all, when they landed, wouldn’t he have sat on the floor with his back braced up against the fuel tanks? What if he actually fell while on the flight, hit his head, knocked himself senseless? Passed out. Amelia couldn’t do much for him. He was useless, comatose. No wonder they were lost.

    It may have been an incident like this at Pan Am that finally got him fired. So perhaps Loomis was right. That they were way too far North and had no clue what latitude they were at. She finally had to go to her fall back position and fly due West. After all, the Gilberts are a big group of islands. It was her only way out, but as Loomis conjectured they were at Marshalls latitude and that’s where they wound up. I rest my case.

    AS for their navigating during daylight, William H. Trail makes it sound like it’s not so easy. Compounded by the fact that they were not at sea level when making observations. Their assumed position could have been way off, even if Fred was on the ball. But then again, there is still the mystery of her non-communications. No call of distress. If she deliberately turned west why wouldn’t she announce that she was lost and trying a desperate last chance maneuver? Especially if she wanted the Japs to believe she was honestly lost? It makes little sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      Once learned, celestial navigation is not especially difficult. It does, however, require the proper tools, meteorological conditions conducive to observing celestial bodies as well as the horizon, and due diligence and attention to detail on the part of the navigator.

      As for Fred Noonan, I believe, based on his attention to the chronometers at 0800 Hrs local time on 2 July, that he was fit for duty and remained so.

      All best,

      William

      Liked by 1 person

  6. David –

    I don’t think Fred was drunk nor were they lost. Fred got them to the Marshall Islands. I think they were low on fuel, didn’t want to risk a crash landing at sea. She knew this area was off limits, but must have figured, the U.S. Navy would still rescue them. FDR was mad and abandoned them for political purposes. He wasn’t about to embarrass himself. He was going to let her do that, in his mind. He would have had to apologize to the Japanese, negotiate her release, lift the fuel embargo, etc. This would have been a HUGE EMBARRASSMENT and set back to not only him, but his administration.

    That’s the way I see it.
    Doug

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Gene F. Danforth | Reply

    I read an article many years a go that a Radio technician in the navy remembers changing a radio in a plane like Earhart’s. I wish I still had the article. I cannot help but wonder if our government knows more than we think.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great comments.

    Regarding Noonan, drunk or sober on the day of takeoff?: After hundreds of hours of research, and reading the comments of his contemporaries, I changed my position from supporting the rumors of drunk … to being very sober during that period of needing to calibrate his chronometers.

    His friends described him as a true professional, considered the best in the country, even by Pan Am, albeit it is said that he got fired. I’m still looking for documented proof of that. He did terminate his relationship with Pan Am, but who initiated it? And why?

    He opened up a School of Navigation with one of the world’s best, Harold Getty, who was Wiley Post’s navigator in 1931. That was the RTW flight which I commemorated in 1981.

    Gatty had no ghosts in his closet, although Post was so frustrated by the news reports that he could not have done it without Gatty, that he did a solo flight in 1933 just to prove his skeptics wrong. He even beat the record of the two of them. Of course, there was so much more to it than that, which I have written about also.

    But Gatty and Noonan were considered the very best, and were together in the Navigation School venture. Why would Gatty, with no known drinking problem, team up with Noonan, who did enjoy his drinks? But his contemporaries whom I read said that his drinks never, ever interfered with his work.

    Knowing the media the way I do, and having been on the receiving end a few times, I can believe that a journalist took a seed of truth and helped it grow into a tree, a story which then took on a life of its own when others quoted him. It was one of my heroes, Gatty, and his contemporaries who won me away from the rumors.

    The comments about the Howland runway are coming up in a later post. I will present what I believe to be a compelling story about that runway, but your preliminary comments are right on the money. Sorry, this went on much longer than I intended. Thanks for your comments. -Calvin

    Like

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