Today we conclude the two-part analysis of E.H. “Elmer” Dimity, of “Round The World Flight” cover fame, who had an opinion on just about everything related to Amelia’s last flight, including the enigmatic “post-flight messages,” as you will soon see. Thanks again to the late, great researcher Bill Prymak for preserving this historical treasure from the ever-receding days of 1939. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
“Grounds for a Possible Search for Amelia Earhart” (Part II of Two)
by E.H. Dimity, August 1939
At 3:15 in the morning after her takeoff Miss Earhart broadcast “cloudy weather,” and again, an hour later, she told the Itasca that it was “overcast,” and asked the cutter to signal her on the hour and half hour.
More than an hour later, at 4:42 a.m., the Earhart plane indicated for the first time that it might be off course, and made its first futile plea for aid in learning its position. The plane asked, “Want bearings on 3105 KC on the hour. Will whistle into the microphone.”
Half an hour passed, and Miss Earhart again said, “Please take a bearing on us and report in half will make noise into the microphone. About 100 miles out.” Miss Earhart apparently thought she was 100 miles from Howland Island.
The Itasca could not give her any bearing, because its direction finder could not work on her wavelength.
An hour later, at 7:42 a.m., Miss Earhart said, “We must be on you but cannot see you. Gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.“
This was a little more than 15 hours after the takeoff. The ship carried 1,150 gallons of gas, enough for about 17 hours in the air under normal conditions.* Perhaps the plane had encountered heavier weather earlier, or in just bucking the headwinds had used more gas than anticipated. At any rate, Miss Earhart must have flown about 1,300 miles from the point of her first known position, when she first said her gas was running low.
* AES calculates 24-25 hours.
This distance, with perfect navigation, should have taken her to Howland Island, and that without doubt is the reason she said, “We must be on you.” If the plane had hit its mark, why could she not see the island or the Itasca, with a clear sky and unlimited visibility? Even a smoke screen laid down by the cutter to help guide her evidently escaped her view. It is impossible that she was where she thought she was . . . near Howland.
Although Miss Earhart reported at 11:13 a.m. that she had fuel left for another half hour in the air, the contact was poor and no land fall position was heard.
Fifteen minutes later she said, “We are circling, but cannot see island. Cannot hear you,” and asked for aid in getting her bearings. This plea she repeated five minutes later.
It will be recalled that at 11:12 Miss Earhart said she had only a half-hour’s fuel left, but an hour later, at 12:13 she called the Itasca to report, “We are in line of position 157 dash 337. Will repeat this message on 6210 KC. We are running north and south.”
Unfortunately, the position she gave had no meaning for those on the cutter or elsewhere, because it failed to give the all-important reference point for computing her bearing. What the figures meant, and why they were incomplete, can only be guessed.
An important point that should be noted is that the plane direction finder evidently was not working as well as it should for she could not cut in on the agreed frequencies. Another fact that is perhaps of significance is that when Miss Earhart reported half-hour fuel — the Itasca estimated that she should have about four hours fuel supply. It is probable that she barely had gas enough to reach Howland, although she thought she was there at 11:20 a.m. when she circled trying to pick up land.
The 12:13 message was the last heard from the plane in the air. It was next heard shortly before 11 p.m. of the same day, in Los Angeles, long after the plane must have been down.
The reader will note that nearly 11 hours elapsed between the time the plane, still in the air, was last heard by the Itasca, and its signals were again heard in Los Angeles. There are factors involved which probably explain this lapse.
First is the fact that radio short waves go up, at an angle, until they reach what is called the heavyside layer of ionized air, in the stratosphere, then bounce back to earth, many miles from the point where they originated. There may be a dead spot in between, where the signals may not be heard. This is called “skip distance,” in radio circles, and it accounts for the fact that a close-in receiver may not hear signals which are received clearly a thousand miles or more away.
Broadcasting from land, the Earhart plane might not have been received by the Itasca, in the vicinity, while the messages were picked up thousands of miles away. This effect of “skip distance” did occur, as will be shown later, and the Itasca had to rely on distant receivers to get any messages from the plane when it was down.
Another factor is that it is useless in Los Angeles to try to tune in during the daytime on signals west or southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. Signals from this part of the world can only be heard at certain times.
When they learned that the Earhart plane was overdue, Lockheed Aircraft telephoned Walter McMenamy, her radio contact man who had picked up her signals before when others could not get them, and asked that he listen. That night, McMenamy and Karl Pierson, radio manufacturer and nationally known radio wave expert, began a vigil which lasted nearly a week, and which was rewarded by reception of signals which McMenamy positively identified as being from Earhart’s plane.
Shortly before 11 p.m. on July 5, McMenamy and Pierson picked up a weak signal on Miss Earhart’s frequency, 6210 kc, but it was not strong enough to be understood. On another set in the room, tuned to 3105 kc, the listeners shortly thereafter heard two distinctly different signals, one from the Itasca and the other from the plane. Evidently the Itasca could not hear the plane, but two different stations definitely were transmitting on that wave length at that time.
Two hours later, at 1 a.m., McMenamy and Pierson heard the code signals “SOS-SOS-SOS KHAQQ” (the Earhart plane’s call letters), on one of her frequencies, and McMenamy positively states that he could identify the signals as from the plane, although they were poorly sent.
Radio short-wave listeners learn to detect from the sound of a transmitter the approximate location of its source. This characteristic sound is called the “carrier.” The swell and fade of the carrier is as familiar as a voice to the operator.
Being well acquainted with the characteristic noise of Miss Earhart’s transmitter, which he helped install, McMenamy can state with authority that the signals heard on her wavelength came from her plane.
The first SOS was repeated over and over again for five minutes, followed by steady transmission which was unreadable because of fading bursts of static, and poor sending. Three radio operators were present when these signals were heard, and they were able to distinguish the following cryptic numbers: “173 . . . 1 . . . 8,” which were of no assistance to the searchers.
Again at 6 a.m. on July 3, 17 hours after her disappearance, a steady carrier was picked up on one of Miss Earhart’s wavelengths, and was heard intermittently for 20 minutes, but the signals were too weak to be understood. Within ten minutes another carrier was heard, much stronger and with a woman’s voice which McMenamy did identify as that of Miss Earhart, saying, “KHAQQ CALLING SOS.” During the three minutes in which this continued, McMenamy heard the words “SOUTHWEST HOWLAND,” and the operators reported also hearing the definite sound of an airplane motor running, through the speech. It is possible that the right motor of the plane was turning in order that the batteries would not run down completely.
These calls were sufficiently loud to be heard on the loudspeaker, and by coincidence at this time Mr. Pete Pringle, managing news editor of station KNX, called McMenamy by telephone to check on reports. Mr. Pringle heard, over the telephone, the woman’s voice through the loudspeaker, and when he went on the air over his station half an hour later he told his audience that he could confirm the reports that Miss Earhart’s voice was heard requesting help. He had heard it himself.
At 8:43 a.m. the carrier heard on her other frequency, 3105 kc, became strong enough to distinguish a man’s voice and the letters “KHAQQ,” only once.
The same morning, that of July 3, the British ship HMS Achilles reported the following message: “At 11:33 a.m. we heard an unknown station make a report as follows: ’Please give us a few dashes if you get us.’ This was heard on 3105 kc (Miss Earhart’s frequency). The station then repeated ‘KHAQQ’ twice, then disappeared. Nothing more was heard from it.” This was the Earhart frequency and her call letters . . . heard by a British ship in the Pacific many hours after she undoubtedly was down somewhere.
Nothing further was heard until the following day, July 4, two days after the plane disappeared. Then station KGMB in Honolulu heard the message she was to send three long dashes if on land, and four long dashes if on water. It was not known to the station that she could not broadcast from water.
In the response to the broadcast, long dashes and a strong carrier on the Earhart 3105 frequency was reported. At about this same time, the government “monitor,” which is Uncle Sam’s listening post for air communication in San Francisco, reported heating a strong carrier on the other Earhart frequency, and this was heard on three receivers with directional beam antennas which indicated a position west of the Pacific Coast.
The “monitor” station reported shortly before midnight hearing the cutter Itasca calling the Earhart plane, asking the plane to answer. Shortly after, a carrier was heard on the Earhart frequency, and this was repeated at approximately 15 to 20 minutes each hour until 8:05 the following morning.
During this time, and at 4:30 a.m. July 5, McMenamy, Pierson, and other operators they had called in, picked up the Earhart signals once more, the first they had received in two days. They reported first hearing the Itasca ask the Earhart plane to send four long dashes and then give a bearing. Almost immediately and on the plane frequency, the operators heard three long dashes. Fifteen minutes later the Itasca repeated its request, and again the answer came back with THREE long dashes, ending with a decided sputtering or tippling.
It will be recalled that the Honolulu station KGMB had asked the plane to send THREE long dashes if on land, FOUR if on water. It appears possible that Earhart and Noonan sent THREE dashes in answer to the Itasca call to prove they were on land, perhaps in desperation after nearly three days without sighting any searchers.
The sputtering or tippling, heard at the end of the Earhart message is interpreted by McMenamy as meaning that the batteries of the plane were nearly exhausted. When, five minutes later, the Itasca again asked the plane to give four dashes, no answer was heard.
At 5:17 this same morning, July 5, the San Francisco “monitor” station heard the cutter calling “KHAQQ,” the Earhart call sign, requesting the dashes and shortly afterward a carrier and a man’s voice was heard on the Earhart frequency. The voice was indistinguishable but for one word: “ONE.” This word was distinguished at the end of a transmission two minutes in length. The Press Wireless also reported hearing signals, which could not be identified, on the Earhart frequency at 5:15 a.m.
Howland Island, likewise, reported hearing KHAQQ that morning, at 10:45 a.m., the portion of the message that was heard indicating a bearing of 281, with no reference point and therefore of no help.
Pan American Airways also, on this morning, reported hearing the plane signal, with a radio bearing at 144 degrees Wake Island.
The next reported radio reception was by Louis Messier, a cooperating operator in Los Angeles, the following morning, July 6, at 3:30 a.m. — a weak, unidentified code signal, sent very slowly on the Earhart plane frequency, and ending with a pronounced “ripple.” This message was logged as follows: “17 mo . . u . . 4 . . southwest . . 1 . . 53 . . rel . . 13 . . ja . . so . . not . . nx . . equen . . 170 . . sou . . sec . . will . . son . . most . . new . . sou . . ”
While no one understands this jargon, it is important because it might have been Miss Earhart trying to give her position, even though it was quite probable she did not know where she was.
The next morning, July 6, McMenamy and Pierson heard their last sounds from the Earhart frequency, a rippling carrier at 1:13 a.m. This same effect was reported heard from 8:17 to 10:37 a.m. the same day, by amateur stations in Honolulu.
These details of the radio reports are given because they prove beyond a doubt that the Earhart plane broadcast during four or five days after it was down. The signals were heard in various parts of the western hemisphere by several stations. When saying that one operator might have imagined the signals, it could be possible, but it is too much to believe that all did, including government and ship operators.
The layman might ask if it is not possible that the signals were a cruel hoax by some criminally insane operator. This possibility is ruled out definitely by the fact that there was no other transmitter in that part of the world which could have sent the signals.
Conclusive proof then exists that the Earhart plane landed safely, or at least that its occupants and its radio apparatus were unharmed, somewhere on land in the South Pacific. If on an island, where and why were they not found?
It has been pointed out before that there are hundreds of islands in the area where the plane might have come down. The two principal groups near Howland Island are the Gilbert and Phoenix groups. The cutters Itasca and Swan spent not quite two days searching the Gilbert group, they reported. But the group contains 16 islands, shown on the map, and perhaps others, strewn along a distance of more than 400 miles. How could cutters, traveling at about 12 knots an hour, adequately search all the islands of this group, 800 miles up and down their length, in two days? They could steam about the length of the islands and back, in that time, without stopping
An unproductive search by air was also made, under circumstances which rendered a complete investigation impossible, of the Phoenix group, 500 miles south and east of Howland, and about 300 miles long by 180 miles wide and containing 10 charted islands in its 65,000 square miles.
The Ellice Islands, about 600 miles southwest of Howland, were not searched at all nor were hundreds of other islands in the vicinity, and back over the course to Lae. It was also reported that inhabitants were interviewed, on the two or three islands of the Gilbert group where humans live, and they reported no knowledge of the plane. This, again, is no proof. Who has seen or heard an airplane for more than 20 or 30 miles? Many islands in the group are hundreds of miles from the nearest humans.
There are two schools of thought about the disappearance of the Earhart plane. Each cannot be right. One is that the plane was lost at sea. The other is represented by this memorandum. As to the first, is it not perfectly natural that even those closest and among the most dear to the missing flyers, with the evidence of the Navy search of the sea close to Howland Island, would prefer to think that the flight had come to an end — to avoid the life-long torture of a question in their minds? The facts as related have been to intrude such a question. No comfort, then, could come from the facts, and the mind would seek to shut them out, in favor of the peace that comes from resignation.
In an effort to reconstruct what might have happened, let us review the possibilities. We know that the Earhart plane was lost. The navigation had gone wrong. It is likely, even, that it was hundreds of miles from the sea area near Howland which the Navy searched, and from the Gilbert group.
With little gas left and after circling the area beneath them. what would experienced fliers do? No doubt they had passed many islands on the course behind them. Any pilot, under the circumstances, probably would have gone back to one of them and landed, relying on their radio and on searching parties for rescue.
THAT RESCUE NEVER CAME BECAUSE NO ADEQUATE SEARCH HAS EVER BEEN MADE.
Compiled from notes and copied in August 1939.
Recopied from original February 2, 1948. (End of “Grounds for Earhart Search.”)
The study of the alleged Earhart post-loss messages is one fraught with endless speculation and individual interpretation, even by the real radio experts who have written and pronounced publicly on the topic. I have no expertise in this area, and so have no problem presenting others’ work as clearly and objectively as I can. The statements and opinions are those of E.H. Dimity, are presented for your consideration, education and entertainment, and are not necessarily shared by the editor.
For much more on the alleged Earhart post-loss messages, please see: “Earhart’s “post-loss messages”: Real or fantasy?”; “Experts weigh in on Earhart’s “post-loss” messages“; “Did Nina Paxton hear Amelia’s calls for help? “Absolutely,” says longtime researcher Les Kinney “; and “Amelia Earhart’s alleged “Land in sight” message remains a curiosity, if not a mystery.”
Editor’s Note: June 29 UPDATE: Calvin Pitts has kindly informed me that he’s found several factual errors in Mr. Dimity’s treatise, errors in time and fact that got by Bill Prymak initially in 1997 and that I failed to pick up in my editing before presenting this piece to you. I suggested to Calvin that he write a brief post, nothing too extensive or exhausting, to set the record straight. Thanks for your patience as we seek to make straight what Mr. Dimity has oddly bent.