Most observers of the Amelia Earhart saga are well aware of the longstanding speculation that a plane change gone wrong during one of Amelia’s many stops along the route of her 1937 world-flight attempt might have contributed to the fliers’ doom, or in some way unlocks some key aspect of the so-called “Earhart Mystery.” If only we could locate at least one of these planes, the thinking goes, the rest of the puzzle might just fall into place.
The scenarios range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and I won’t include examples of the latter that can be found in a few of the books that exemplify Fred Goerner’s “lunatic fringe” in this post. Among the serious, well-researched theories, we have Paul Rafford Jr.’s “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change,” posted here on Nov. 14, 2014 and Dec. 5, 2016, and I’ve continued to wonder about the possibilities inherent in David Billings’ still viable New Britain theory.
Please understand that I’m not taking a pro or con position relative to whether Amelia might have changed planes at some point during her world flight. I simply don’t know, and so I present the ideas of researchers with definite, more finely honed and better-educated opinions. We’ve already seen the ideas of Paul Rafford Jr., who strongly believed a plane change happened in Miami.
Next we’ll examine the evidence presented by Bill Prymak, who strongly disagreed with Rafford. One of them was wrong, of course. The following is the first of two provocative pieces that appeared in Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, this in the November 1998 edition.
“DID AMELIA REALLY CHANGE AIRPLANES?”
By Bill Prymak
Several serious researchers over the years have bandied about the possibility that AE, for some secretive covert reason, switched planes “somewhere along the route.” Strong anecdotal evidence backs these folks, but I have recently come across another way to identify her airplane as it flew some 22,000 miles from Oakland to Lae, New Guinea. I call it a “signature.”
Aluminum aircraft skin production in the mid 1930s was a new, burgeoning science, and the process produced various different tones and shades, even from sheet-to-sheet off the same lot. So, each tone or shade becomes a unique signature, and if we study the rear half of the left vertical rudder below the horizontal stabilizer as illustrated on the blow-up below you will find that the same dark shade consistently repeats itself on every photo I have ever seen as the plane wends its way around the world.
I have only included in this NEWSLETTER five photos showing this unique signature, and I would certainly like to expand my file on this issue. If anybody out there has a photo of AE’s airplane with the above signature clearly shown, please send a clear copy to me, it’ll be deeply appreciated.
In the March 2000 edition of the AES Newsletters, we find a more extensive photo essay by Bill Prymak, with plenty of information that was lacking in his first piece. Thus, a few photos are repeated to avoid confusion. (Caps and underline emphasis Prymak’s.)
“HOW MANY DIFFERENT AIRPLANES DID SHE REALLY FLY?”
The feeding frenzy continues to this day . . . rumors, stories, swear-accounts, and “positive documentation” that Earhart flew more than one airplane on her final flight. Some of the “documentation” pointing to multiple airplanes is pretty darned good, suggesting government involvement with cloak-and-dagger overtones, spy missions, a second Electra 10 being shipped to Australia, all making great reading for the conspiracy-hungry American public, but sadly, the true-grit hard copy proof still remains elusive.
This analysis is presented after searching through Lockheed Documents, Purdue Library SPECIAL COLLECTIONS papers and CAA documents, which together give an accurate and objective perspective of the events of May 1936 thru July 2nd 1937 re: the acquisition and registration of her airplane, plus an in-depth study of the timing and implantation of the various modifications, alterations and additions done to her ship during the above period. The author bears no pre-conceived opinion re: the multi-plane theory. Let the chips (and the facts), fall as they may.
May 16, 1936: George Putnam telegraphs Bob Gross, President of the LOCKHEED CORPORATION, directing him to proceed with the construction of Amelia’s LOCKHEED ELECTRA 10E, but, for confidentiality reasons, GP orders Gross to temporarily name CLARA LIVINGSTON as purchaser until the aircraft is delivered to Earhart on July 24 with the assigned registration number of 16020. It’s appropriate at this time to discuss the Lockheed Electra 12A discovered on Mount Tierfort, Bicycle Lake Calif., in 1961 by Joe Gervais, bearing the same registration number, N16020. With the serial number 1243, and delivered 12 May 1937, this airplane acquired a strange twist of fate when it was later purchased by PAUL MANTZ, technical advisor to Earhart on her final flight. In June of 1957 Mantz requested and obtained a change from the aircraft’s existing registration N 60775 to N 16020 (the number on Amelia’s lost aircraft, but lacking the “R”), and the 12A still had that number when it crashed in 1961.
“A PHOTO ESSAY ON AE’S AIRPLANE CHANGES,
ALTERATIONS AND MODIFICATIONS”
Earhart’s airplane, delivered to her on July 24, 1936, had a single window at each side, but by the end of the year it had been extensively modified with six cabin fuel tanks, four filler ports instead of the original two, and two windows added: one in the entrance door and another opposite in the fuselage for a total of four. These two added windows were larger than normal and were optically flat, for accurate celestial navigational purposes. Later, just before her second attempt, the starboard large window was removed and the fuselage skinned over. This appears as a bright shiny patch easily seen on photographs taken at Miami, circa June 1, 1937.
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AMELIA WITH HER NEW AIRPLANE IN JULY 1936
The “R” designation, plus the Hooven-faired DF housing on top of the fuselage, plus the solid door, plus the shiny new metal all-around, dates the above photograph pre-November, 1936. Also note the “light-colored” logo on the right rudder. Further note the horizontal bar in the side window, the purpose of which still baffles researchers.
P.S. Note the dark “Prymak” signature, the vertical left bottom rudder rear section that seems to ubiquitously find its way right up to Lae New Guinea.
After July 1936, Amelia’s aircraft adorned the registration number of X 16020 as seen in the photo below (“X” designated factory test work).
R 16020 was seen on the aircraft when she entered the BENDIX AIR RACE in September 1936, at which time the engine cowlings were painted in a New Zealand motif. The “R” designation was requested Aug. 6 and approved the next day. On Sept. 21, 1936 the Bureau of Air Commerce finally approved NR 16020, but the aircraft continued to display R 16020 well into the end of 1936.
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The photo below taken late October 1936 shows the FRED HOOVEN DF dome, solid door, dark-colored logo, bar in window and bottom protruding wing navigation light. Trailing antenna fairlead is also clearly shown at rear of airplane.
The photo below shows the post-crash mess at Luke Field, Hawaii. Note the door has built-in window.
Photo below, arriving back in the states, shows ADF loop, larger rear starboard window, and large dark fuselage panel, just above right wing. This dark panel can also serve as a “signature” for photos in other locations.
Photo below shows well-documented Miami June 1 takeoff. Note the shiny new patch over rear window, our side fuselage dark panel over the wing, the dark long skinny panel over the two windows, visible in both photos, and it becomes apparent that both photos show the same airplane.
The Lockheed drawing below shows the configuration of the aircraft just before her May 20 departure on the second attempt. As noted on the drawing, the flush navigation lights appear, probably because the new right wing installed after the crash had the flush design already incorporated into the wing, necessitating the left wing to be similarly configured. Note 4+1 filler ports, window in door, and dark logo.
And finally, conspiracy buffs get all cranked up over a photo like this, claiming all kinds of sinister things like “positive proof-another airplane,” but this most likely was just another PR stunt (for which AE was famous) with the letter “E” painted or taped on the right side. “E” for what? EXLAX?
What can we deduce from the previous photos?
1. The cabin door was certainly windowed around January 1937. I have found no work orders to confirm actual date of installation.
2. The bar in the window vanishes before the first round-the-world-attempt March 15 — clothes rack for Fred?
3. Right side second large window [was] skinned over and shown as “new, shiny aluminum” before AE left for Miami. But why would they cover an oversized window fitted with optically perfect glass for Fred’s navigational work?
4. The mystery of the 4+1 fuel ports pretty well explained on previous pages.
5. The navigation lights were installed when the new right wing was installed during the factory repair days, March 30 to May 20, 1937.
6. The airplane sports the Hooven domed DF antenna housing in the fall of 1936, then it falls out of favor to the loop antenna, which remains on the airplane until the very end, Lae, New Guinea. However, we still cannot explain Paul Rafford’s close friend Bob Thibert stating that at Miami he was instructed to install an open DF loop on NR 16020, where he found only VIRGIN SKIN ABOVE THE CABIN. Should we invoke the “faded memory” clause at this time as one possible answer? (End of “HOW MANY DIFFERENT AIRPLANES DID SHE REALLY FLY?”)
Your comments are of course welcomed.