Fred Hooven: “Man Who (Nearly) Found Earhart”

Cameron A. “Cam” Warren, former longtime member of the Amelia Earhart Society, may be still with us at 95 in Fountain Hills, Ariz., but my current information on him is limited.  Warren was among the better known of the “crashed-and-sankers” in the AES, along with former ONI agent Ron Bright and Gary LaPook. 

Warren and Robert R. Payne, former editor of the Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association newsmagazine, CRYPTOLOG, who passed away in 2015, at some point joined to complete Capt. Laurence F. Safford’s unfinished manuscript of Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday.  Safford was among the most important of the founding fathers of U.S. Navy cryptology, and was closely involved with the Navy’s code-breaking efforts more or less constantly until shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

His 2003 book is an analysis of the final flight as seen from a strong crashed-and-sank bias, which is revealed without pretense in a brief chapter toward its conclusion, “Survival Theories.”  Here Warren and Payne incredibly write that Safford’s criticism caused Goerner to “reverse his opinion about the survival theory, and joined Safford in his belief of a crash-landing into the sea.”  This is an outrageously false contention and defies credulity, given the large volume of Goerner’s work, in which he never denounced his conviction in the fliers’ Saipan demise, though he did inexplicably reverse his ideas about the landing at Mili Atoll.  This writer even devoted a chapter in  Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, “Goerner’s Reversal and Devine’s Dissent” to a discussion of Goerner’s bizarre and still unexplained change.

The foregoing has little direct connection to the following brief tribute by Warren to the great inventor and Earhart researcher Frederick J. Hooven, which appeared in the November 1997 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter.  We’ll hear more from Hooven in the future, and from Safford as well.

        Cam Warren, circa 2003.

“The Man Who (Nearly) Found Earhart”
by Cam Warren

Over the years, there have been many people on the trail of Earhart and Noonan, ranging from the idly curious to the truly brilliant.  Theories as to the fate of the famous couple have similarly varied from the ridiculous to the sublime, but all have at least a kernel of truth as their root source.  So the speculation continues and so does the intense analysis and re-examination of the ideas, clues and factual data.  One man stands out among the serious researchers, uniquely equipped to dispassionately consider the mountain of information, and who — had he lived longer — might have solved the mystery with all the storied ability of Sherlock Holmes himself.

Frederick J. Hooven, inventor, engineer and Dartmouth professor first met Amelia when she arrived at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio in 1936.  She was there to have a direction finder installed in her Electra, and the device was an advanced model designed by Hooven himself.  Here was a man who, at the age of 15, had met Wilbur Wright, and sought his advice on an aircraft that young Fred and his pals would attempt to build, unsuccessfully, as it turned out.  Later, in 1978, Hooven completed a computer analysis of the Wright Brother’s plane and determined the plane was inherently unstable.  “The only reason the flight worked was because the Wrights were such good pilots,” he once told the Boston Globe.

Hooven’s DF (direction finder), which operated on the conventional low frequency bands, featured a small loop in a low-drag streamlined housing, and though the original design circuits were deemed unreliable by operators at the time, the system would eventually be made automatic in its operation, and as the “ADF” (automatic direction finder), would become the de-facto standard for commercial aviation for many years.  Unfortunately, perhaps, the Hooven system was removed from the Electra soon after installation and replaced by another prototype which Bendix people were hoping to sell to the U.S. Navy.  It purported to utilize high frequency (3-10 megacycle) radio waves, especially 7.5 megacycles, corresponding to the amateur’s cherished 40-meter band.  Apparently Earhart and her husband, promoter George Putnam, were led to believe it was a magic device.  It wasn’t, and Lawrence Hyland, who was a Bendix vice president at the time, later denied it was aboard when the Electra disappeared.

The late Fred Hooven, noted engineer, inventor and creator of the Gardner Island (Nikumaroro) landing theory, later commandeered by TIGHAR and advanced with great fanfare and international acclaim without attribution to Hooven, was adamant that some of the so-called post-loss transmissions originated from Amelia Earhart’s Electra 10E.  He soon completely denounced the idea the lost fliers landed on Gardner after close study with his friend Fred Goerner.

Hooven, who died in 1985, was the holder of 38 U.S. patents, including a short-range radar set for World War I bombers, and landing systems for other aircraft.  His interest was not confined to aviation electronics, for among his many other accomplishments were such developments as front-wheel drive for GM cars, computers, photo-typesetters and the first successful heart-lung machine.  He was a 1927 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, better known as MIT, and worked in GM Research for 25 years, before leaving to pursue other interests. Employed for a time by Vince Bendix, they later had a falling out when Hooven became dismayed with Bendix’ over-zealous business activities.

Professor Hooven’s interest returned to Earhart on the publication of Fred Goerner’s book in 1966.  He began a lively and very extensive correspondence with Goerner, whose research into the Earhart puzzle never ceased in his lifetime.  They became close friends, and Hooven devoted more and more time to combing through Goerner’s writings and spoken observations, seeking the solution to the mystery.  His (incomplete) conclusions are of more than passing interest, considering his scientific background and research experience.

Despite the “final” conclusions of the U.S. Navy, Hooven was substantially convinced that the “post-splash” radio messages intercepted by Pan Am DF stations in the Central Pacific (and several serious “hams”) were authentic.  That of course meant Earhart had somehow landed on an island or atoll and used her radio to call for help.  Hooven, in an article he wrote in 1982, did not address the issue of the “plane in the water,” but apparently assumed a wheels-down landing on firm ground, in order that one of the Electra’s motors could be operated briefly for battery charging.  At one point in his correspondence with Goerner, he suggested that at least one “of the intercepted calls from the plane gave aural evidence of radio operation with a recharging battery.”

Given the possibility of such a landing, and the Pan Am coordinates, he favored McKean or perhaps Gardner Island (Nikumaroro), and calculated her gasoline supply would have allowed her to fly that far.  It seemed highly likely to Hooven that the crew and perhaps the Electra were recovered by the Japanese prior to the arrival of COLORADO’s search planes several days later.  This would tend to confirm the Marshall Island scenario, with AE and Noonan later taken to Saipan, and explain why no trace of plane or crew were ever found on either island.  Of course, Richard Gillespie of TIGHAR seized the idea of Nikumaroro, without credit to Hooven, incidentally, but continues to deny any possibility Noonan and Earhart didn’t linger there despite much evidence (or lack thereof) to the contrary.

Amelia with the Bendix Radio Direction Finder Loop Antenna, which replaced Fred Hooven’s Radio Compass for use during her world flight attempt in 1937. Hooven was convinced that the change was responsible for Amelia’s failure to find Howland Island, and ultimately, for her tragic death on Saipan.

Why did the Navy discount this whole scenario? Hooven raises the question of intercepted code.  If our military was aware, via partial code-breaking, of what the Japanese had done, they faced a serious dilemma. Confronting the Japanese would tip that nation off that their secret codes had been compromised, and if this was the case, the value of our eavesdropping in the immediate pre-war climate would have to outweigh the rescue of Earhart and Noonan. This theory fits the puzzle so neatly it boggles the imagination; suffice to say that at this point in time no hint of such intercept capability in 1937 has surfaced.  Neither Captain Safford nor Rear Adm. Edwin T. Layton (Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s intelligence officer, and a likely source for Nimitz’s broad hints to Goerner on the subject) have ever so much as dropped a hint, despite the sensitive revelations both made in their post-war comments on the Pearl Harbor debacle.

(Editor’s note:  Based on several credible researchers’ findings, the above statement by Warren, that in 1937 the U.S. Navy did not have the capability to intercept Japanese naval radio messages, is false.  See pages 261-264 Truth at Last for more.) 

Hooven was not infallible, of course, but any misstatements were traceable to inaccurate information, such as the viability ofreefs reported south of Howland as emergency landing places.  It was several years after Professor Hooven died before that idea was conclusively proved false, which caused some serious corrections on both U.S. and British naval documents.  Despite a minor flaw or two, Hooven’s contribution to Earhart research is substantial, and given his scientific background, extremely valuable.  Had he lived longer, he truly might have “found” Earhart.  (End of “The Man Who (Nearly) Found Earhart.”)

Hooven was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1905, met Orville Wright as a child and by age 15 was a regular visitor to the Wrights’ Dayton laboratory.  After graduating  from MIT in 1927, he was hired by General Motors, and rose to vice president and chief engineer of the Radio Products Division of Bendix Aviation Corporation by 1935.  He died in 1985.

In my May 15, 2017 post, Hooven’s 1966 letter to Fred Goerner quite clear: Removal of his radio compass doomed Earhartwe saw the first of many letters between Hooven and Fred Goerner.  We’ll see more of the fascinating exchanges between these two giants of Earhart research in future posts.

 

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17 responses

  1. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Swapping out Fred Hooven’s modern and vastly superior radio compass/ADF for the older, lighter, and, allegedly, “more reliable” model on AE’s Electra really doesn’t make much sense. It had already been proven reliable in tests and actual use. The weight difference must have been negligible, and, if not, could have been made up for in other ways. I’d reason that most likely the swap was made was to preclude Hooven’s state-of-the-art ADF from falling into the hands of the Japanese in the event of the Electra coming down in their territory.

    All best,

    William

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Cam Warren’s article states “It seemed highly likely to Hooven that the crew and perhaps the Electra were recovered by the Japanese prior to the arrival of COLORADO’s search planes several days later”…. yet the Hooven Report concludes “the flyers landed in the Phoenix area, probably on McKean or Gardner, that they transmitted signals from there during the next three days, that they were removed by the Japanese, who either removed or destroyed their plane, that they were taken to Saipan, where they died sometime before the end of 1937.” It doesn’t seem possible that the Japanese could have “removed” AE & FN and the Electra from Gardner Island in the midst of the unprecedented massive search underway by the US Navy without being detected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Correction…include only the last sentence (I was reading highly “un”likely in the first quote).

      Like

    2. William H. Trail | Reply

      Tom,

      Yes, the idea of the Japanese mounting a short notice operation to sail past/through the massive U.S. Navy search to essentially kidnap AE and FN as well as remove the Electra and all traces thereof from Gardner Island, and get away undetected, stretches all credulity. How an intelligent human being such as Fred Hooven could have come up with that idea is simply beyond me.

      All best,

      William

      Liked by 1 person

      1. William and Tom,

        Hooven soon recanted what was known as the McKean-Gardner Island landing theory after working with Fred Goerner, who apparently convinced him the fliers could not have possible landed on Gardner (Nikumaroro) with so many different people living there from the late 1930s on. Here’s a link to Hooven’s paper, “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” which he submitted to a 1982 Smithsonian Air and Space Symposium, and which was later absconded by the always reputable group at TIGHAR as their own.

        https://tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/Archives/Documents/Hooven_Report/HoovenReport.html

        MC

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Was it the same Cam Warren who was a well known automotive writer?

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    1. I believe that is the case, but as I said my current info on him is limited. I lost his email address long ago and the people locater site Intelius says he’s 95 and still living in Las Vegas. However they are often wrong about whether someone is with us or not. I could find no obit for him.
      MC

      Liked by 1 person

  4. William H. Trail | Reply

    Mike,

    I read the Hooven Report at the website provided. Many thanks. Hooven stated in his report that the weight saved by removing his radio compass and replacing it with the older, but lighter yet less capable one was about 30 pounds. To my mind, given the absolutely critical need for the most precise navigation possible to hit a flyspeck of an island in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean trading a state-of-the-art radio compass for an inferior one just to save a mere 30 pounds makes no sense. It is a classic case of being “penny wise and dollar foolish.” To make my point consider this, 30 pounds of Avgas is equal to 5 gallons and at the rate the Electra’s P&W Wasp engines consumed fuel at anywhere between 38.6 to 51.5 gph, 5 gallons is roughly, maybe 5 or so minutes of flying time more or less. Over the course of a 20 hour flight five or so extra minutes of fuel is really next to nothing. It’s certainly nothing you’d want to bet your life on. The Wasp engine fuel consumption data is taken from “Amelia Earhart What Really Happened at Howland” by George Carrington — Unabridged Report IV., Appendix II, Page 190.

    Bottom line: Were I flying ’round-the-world, and especially on that long, lonely 2,626-mile stretch over water from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island, I’d rather have the most capable radio compass available than just five pitiful extra gallons of fuel. Having flown the Atlantic solo in 1932 as well as Hawaii to Oakland in 1935, AE knew all too well what was at stake.

    Like I said in a previous comment, the only thing that makes sense to me vis-a-vis removing Hooven’s radio compass and replacing it with the older, less capable one is that the U.S. Government simply did not want to take the chance of it possibly falling into Japanese hands.

    All best,

    William

    Like

    1. William,
      Your theory makes sense, but if that was the case, then the U.S. government was even more involved with the final flight than was readily apparent, and nobody ever explained to Hooven why his auto compass was replaced. From Cam Warren’s piece:

      “Unfortunately, perhaps, the Hooven system was removed from the Electra soon after installation and replaced by another prototype which Bendix people were hoping to sell to the U.S. Navy. It purported to utilize high frequency (3-10 megacycle) radio waves, especially 7.5 megacycles, corresponding to the amateur’s cherished 40-meter band. Apparently Earhart and her husband, promoter George Putnam, were led to believe it was a magic device. It wasn’t, and Lawrence Hyland, who was a Bendix vice president at the time, later denied it was aboard when the Electra disappeared.”

      So WHO led the Putnams to make the decision to remove Hooven’s device? Warren doesn’t seem to know either. And why would Hyland deny his prototype was ever on board to begin with, when it was common knowledge?

      Like

  5. As William stated, trading a state-of-the-art radio compass for an inferior one just to save a mere 30 pounds makes no sense……in fact the increased drag more than offsets the additional fuel as Hooven mentions, so that doesn’t seem to explain the switch. In Hooven’s 1966 letter to Fred Goerner he describes Hyland as a “Navy man” and goes on to say “From what you say about the Navy’s involvement in the affair, it could well have been that the Navy persuaded her to take out this piece of equipment that had been developed in connection with the Army Air Corps”. Who knows?

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    1. Tom,

      Good catch with the 1966 Hooven letter. If it was the Navy that pulled Hooven’s radio compass, why didn’t they have the grace to tell Hooven? Or did they?

      MC

      Like

  6. William H. Trail | Reply

    Mike and Tom,

    I’ve spent a good chunk of today pouring through, re-reading Chapter VI of Don Dwiggins’ “Hollywood Pilot” The Biography of Paul Mantz, for any possible clues about the switching out of the radio direction-finding compasses. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it. Dwiggins’ book does not provide much information about the radio direction finder, but says that Mantz himself installed the Bendix loop antenna on the Electra as a back-up to the trailing wire antenna. There is no mention anywhere of either Lawrence Hyland or Fred Hooven, nor is there any discussion of swapping out the actual radio direction-finding compass.

    In describing Mantz’s account of the March 1937 Oakland to Honolulu flight Dwiggins writes, “For the first time AE had a chance to try out the Bendix loop antenna direction finder. Noonan asked her to hold Makapu beacon ‘ten degrees on the starboard bow’ — a heading of 252 degrees.” Dwiggins further writes, “She [AE] went about it calmly, professionally, rotating the antenna loop on top of the cockpit until the compass needle swung over to 010 degrees — ten degrees to the right of where the Electra was pointed. This, she knew, was a wind drift correction Noonan had figured out.”

    It sounds to me from this account that AE had a good handle on operating the radio compass, and worked well with FN on the flight. Dwiggins writes that Mantz was satisfied with FN’s navigation. He was less impressed with Captain Harry Manning.

    Dwiggins further writes that on the day AE slipped out of Oakland for Miami in the Electra on what was announced as a test flight with Fred Noonan, George Putnam, and mechanic Bo McKneely aboard, Paul Mantz was in St. Louis, Mo participating in an aerobatics competition. Dwiggins says that when Mantz heard the news on the radio that AE had departed Oakland for Miami he was furious. It seems strange to me that, as how Paul Mantz was AE’s flight instructor, coach, and good friend who’d worked full-time since February 1937 to prep her and the Electra for the ’round-the-world flight, he would be so abruptly and unceremoniously cast aside.

    About what the U.S. Government may or may not have told Fred Hooven about the removal and substitution of his radio direction-finding gear for Bendix’s product, who knows? So far, I’ve not been able to pin down when or where the swap of the radio direction-finder equipment actually occurred. As for who may have put it to AE and Putnam to switch out Hooven’s radio direction finder for the Bendix gear and why, again, who knows for sure? I’d hate to think, however, that AE and FN were denied use of the very best equipment available to them because of some Army/Navy rivalry or corporate machinations.

    Lawrence Hyland’s denials that AE’s Electra was equipped with a Bendix product, although it was common knowledge that it was does not surprise me. Today we call it “spin.” Hyland was most likely protecting Bendix’s corporate image and reputation from tarnish (nobody likes being associated with loss or failure) to say nothing of Bendix’s stock value in a market still struggling from the Great Depression.

    All best,

    William

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent work, William. I think you’ve exactly nailed Hyland’s denial. Thanks so much!
      MC

      Like

    2. William,

      Interesting about Paul Mantz; as knowledgeable as he was, I would have thought he would have advocated for the use of Hooven’s new improved DF.

      Like

  7. William H. Trail | Reply

    Tom,

    One would think so. I think Fred Noonan would have advocated for the new gear as well. However, from Mantz’s account of the 17 March 1937 Oakland to Honolulu flight in Dwiggins’ “Hollywood Pilot,” it’s unmistakably clear that AE was using the older radio direction-finding gear. This begs the questions then, exactly when was Hooven’s radio direction-finding gear installed in the Electra and when was it removed? From 24 July 1936 when AE and Putnam took possession of NR16020 to 17 March 1937 and essentially the start of the first world flight attempt is, lacking a just few days, 8 months.

    There are numerous references to Frederick J. Hooven in a number of books, including TTAL; however, those are references to the Hooven Report and his initial Gardener Island theory, which he later recanted. So far, the only reference I’ve found that gives even the vaguest hint as to when the installation of his radio direction-finding compass in the Electra occurred is in Paul Rafford, Jr.’s “Amelia Earhart’s Radio.” On page 21 Rafford writes, “We know that one of Hooven’s automatic direction finders was originally installed on Earhart’s plane. But later, it was replaced by a conventional, manually operated loop.” Rafford goes on at length about Hooven’s ADF being a great advancement in technology, but says the reliability of then state-of-the-art electronics lagged far behind. He sites this as the reason for the swapping out of the Hooven DF gear. I take it from Rafford’s comments that “originally installed” meant Hooven’s radio direction-finding compass came as original factory installed equipment from Lockheed. It may have been replaced as early as February 1937 when Paul Mantz took up full-time work as AE’s technical advisor.

    All best,

    William

    Liked by 1 person

    1. William,

      Cam Warren’s article says Hooven’s DF was installed at Wright Field in Dayton Ohio in 1936 when he met AE, and later says it was removed “soon after installation”. Fred Goerner mentioned it in his 1991 letter to Life Magazine (Mike’s February 23, 2016 post) and gives more insight into the reason for the removal…”Hooven and the then U.S. Army Air Corps allowed one of those (then new) direction finders to be installed aboard Earhart’s plane, and Hooven met directly with Amelia Earhart. Because of pressures from her friend, Eugene Vidal, and a division of Bendix Radio, Earhart removed the Hooven device and replaced it with an older null-type, high­ frequency direction finding device then used by the U.S. Navy”. Another name/hat thrown into the ring.

      Like

      1. William H. Trail

        Tom,

        That’s interesting. Now we have a conflict between Hooven’s account via Cameron Warren and Paul Rafford, Jr. Eugene Vidal, like Safford, always seems to be just in the shadows. I have often wondered as to the full extent of Vidal’s involvement in AE’s RTW flight. A lot of players working their own “slice” with no central coordination.

        All best,

        William

        Like

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