With the recent publication of E.H. “Elmer” Dimity’s 1939 analysis of Amelia Earhart’s last flight, I’ve been gently reminded that, as an editor, I could have done a far better job of reviewing Dimity’s article. I’ve never been particularly drawn to the Itasca flight logs and have never claimed any expertise about them, as for me, they provide more confusion than clarity, but I can still proofread and compare times and statements attributed to them.
This I failed to do, in large part because I assumed that Bill Prymak, the editor of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, had done this already, before presenting Dimity’s work, or that Prymak would have made some kind of a disclaimer to accompany it. He did neither, and my own disclaimer following Part II, in light of Calvin Pitts’ stunning findings, should have been far more emphatic. I broke a journalism rule — never assume anything — that I’ve always done my best to obey, until now.
Regular readers of this blog are familiar with Calvin, 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 has already graced us with his impressive five-part analysis of Amelia Earhart’s last flight. To review this extremely erudite work, please click here for Part I, from Aug. 18, 2018.
Our focus today is a striking example of a difficult exercise in attention to detail, and an object lesson in the old axiom, “Never assume anything.” We appreciate Calvin taking the time to set the record straight. With his learned disputation below, in addition to his previous contributions, Calvin has established himself as the reigning expert on the Itasca-Earhart flight logs, if not her entire final flight, at least in my opinion. Without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Calvin, who has many important things to tell us:
First, I want to thank Mike Campbell for his passion and dedication to The Amelia Story. SHE — and history — have had no better friend.
I also appreciate Mike’s ability to dig up “forgotten” history. As a lover of history’s great moments, I am always fascinated by the experiences of others. Also, as one who has made a 1981 RTW flight in a single-engine plane, passing over some of AE’s ’37 flight paths from — India – Singapore – Indonesia – Australia – New Guinea – Solomon Islands, Tarawa and within a few miles of Howland — I was drawn to this story, and to this blog’s record of it.
Recently, I was fascinated by the publishing of Dimity’s 1937-1939 insights into the details of AE’s flight. However, upon reading it, I spotted some errors. Ironically, I was at that very time re-studying the Itasca Logs as I re-lived some of the details and emotions of the most famous leg of any flight. I had the Itasca details in front of me as I read.
Because it is easy to unconsciously rewrite and revise the historical record, I felt an unwelcomed desire to share some errors which were in Dimity’s interesting account. I shared my thoughts privately with Mike, and he, in turn, asked me to make them public. I’ve had a long aviation career, and have no desire to add to it. At 85, I’m retired in a log house on a small river with more nature-sights than anyone could deserve. I’ve no yearning for controversy. But Mike asked, so here are some observations. If you spot errors in my response, please make them known. Only one set of words are sacred, but these at hand do not qualify.
Calvin Pitts’ analysis of:
“Grounds for a Possible Search for Amelia Earhart” (First of two parts)
by E.H. “Elmer” Dimity, August 1939
(Editor’s note: To make it easier to understand and track the narrative, Dimity’s words will be in red, Calvin Pitts’ in black, with boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
At 3:15 [a.m.] 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.
I am sitting here reading Dimity’s Part II of the “Grounds for Earhart’s Search” with a copy of the Itasca LOGS on the screen in front of me. My challenges to Dimity’s reproduction of the Itasca Earhart flight logs are based, not upon prejudice, but upon the actual records compiled and copied from those 1937 Logs.
At 3:15 a.m. Howland time, times recorded by the crew of the Itasca, there is no such record of “cloudy weather.”
From position 2/Page 2: At 3:15 am, Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts records: “3:15-3:18, Nothing heard from Earhart.”
Position 1/Page 1: At 3:14 am, Thomas J. O’Hare, Radioman 3rd class records: “Tuned to 3105 for Earhart,” with no additional comment. Seven minutes later at 3:21 am, he records: “Earhart not heard.”
Position 2/Page 2: However, at 3:45 a.m., not 4:15 a.m., Bellarts records: “Earhart heard on the phone: WILL LISTEN ON THE HOUR AND HALF ON 3105.”
Position 1/Page 1: At the same time, 3:45 a.m., O’Hare records: “Heard Earhart plane on 3105.” That was it. No reference to “overcast,” and no request for a signal.
However, in his book, Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday (2003), Laurance Safford copies Bellarts’ statement, except that he adds the word “Overcast.” The word “overcast” is not in the Itasca log at that time.
Position 2/page 2: According to the log’s record, it was not until 4:53 a.m., more than 1.5 hours later, that the phrase “PARTLY CLOUDY” appears.
Earlier, at 2:45 a.m., Safford quotes a statement by author Don Dwiggins about 30 years later: “Heard Earhart plane on 3105, but unreadable through static . . . however, Bellarts caught “Cloudy and Overcast.”
Yet, Bellarts, who was guarding Position 2/Page 2 made no such statement on his report. The statement, “unreadable through static” was recorded by Bellarts at 2:45, but that was it.
Bellarts was also the one who recorded, an hour later at 3:45: “Will listen on the hour and the half on 3105.” These issues are very minor to most readers. But to those at the time, where minutes count for survival, the devil was in the details.
Also, there is the historical and professional matter of credibility. If one is not accurate, within reasonable expectations, of quoting their sources correctly, then the loss of credibility results in the loss of confidence by their readers.
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 beatings (sic) on 3105 KC on the hour. Will whistle into the microphone.”
At 4:42 a.m., which is a very precise time, there is nothing recorded at any station. But we can bracket an answer. Bellarts records the following at 4:30 a.m.: “Broadcast weather by Morse code.” His next entry, at 4:42 a.m., is an empty line.
At 4:53 a.m., Bellarts states, “Heard Earhart [say] ‘Partly Cloudy.‘ ”
Also, Position 1/Page 2 of this record states: “4:40 a.m. – Do you hear Earhart on 3105? . . . Yes, but can’t make her out.” Five minutes later at 4:45 a.m. (with no 4:42 notation at this position): “Tuned to Earhart, Hearing nothing.” There is no recorded statement here from her about being off-course or whistling.
Half an hour passed (5:12 a.m.), and Miss Earhart again said, “Please take a beating on us and report in half hour will make noise into the microphone. About 100 miles out.” Miss Earhart apparently thought she was 100 miles from Howland Island.
5:12 a.m.? At neither position is there a posting at 5:12. At 5:15, one says, “Earhart not heard.” And the other, at 5:13 says, “Tuned to 3105 for Earhart signals. Nothing yet.”
The above “about 100 miles out” message was sent at 6:45 am, about 1.5 hours later.
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.”
Strangely, even amazingly, sandwiched between numerous bogus times, 7:42 am IS correct.
This was a little more than 15 hours after the takeoff.
Would you believe that, more than 19 hours after takeoff, this call was made? Here, there are four unaccounted-for hours in Dimity’s record-keeping.
The ship carried 1,150 gallons (sic) of gas, enough for about 17 hours in the air under normal conditions.*
Would you believe “more than 24 hours” of flight time, a seven-plus hour discrepancy?
* AES calculates 24-25 hours. — (Whoever AES is, this is more realistic and accurate. Editor’s note: AES is The Amelia Earhart Society, almost certainly Bill Prymak’s estimate.)
Perhaps the plane had encountered heavier weather earlier, or in just bucking the headbands 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.
An interesting question: When was her first known position? And measured by what evidence? 1,300 statute miles from the transmission at 7:42 a.m./1912 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT and z, for Zulu, are the same) would put her about halfway between Nukumanu Atoll and Nauru. If Nukumanu was her first or last known position at 5:18 p.m. Lae/0718 GMT/ 7:48 p.m. (Howland, the previous day), then that is roughly 1,600 statute miles, not 1,300.
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 (Having such a flight under my belt, I could offer several reasons) 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 landfall position was heard.
At 11:13 a.m., the Navy ships and Itasca had been searching the ocean for some two hours or more. The “last known” message from Earhart was at 8:43 a.m./2013z when she said, “We are on the line 157/337.” The message “fuel for another half hour” was made at 7:40 a.m./1910z, some 3.5 hours before Dimity’s “11:13 a.m.” time.
This particular time discrepancy possibly could be corrected by adjusting it to a new time zone in Hawaii, but that would destroy the other record-keeping. At no place in this Itasca log saga were they talking in terms of U.S.A. times. The Itasca crews were recording Howland local time. If someone has proof otherwise, it should be provided, and it will alter the story.
Fifteen minutes later (11:28 a.m.) 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 (11:33 a.m.).
This “circling” reference was made at 7:58 a.m., some 3.5 hours earlier. However, something which is often missed is the fact that the word “CIRCLING” is in doubt even within the footnotes of this log itself. It is listed as “an unknown item.” It was a word they did not hear clearly. It could have been, “We are listening.” No one knows.
It will be recalled that at 11:12 a.m., Miss Earhart said she had only a half-hour’s fuel left, but an hour later, at 12:13 p.m., 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.”
This “line 157/337” radio call, NOT a “line of position” call, was made, as already stated, at “8:43 a.m./2013z” and NOT at “12:13.” Somehow Dimity has a discrepancy here of some 3.5 hours from the Itasca logs.
The “157/337 line of position” is not only NOT what she said, but it is inaccurate for any researcher who understands basic navigation. The LOP of 157/337 existed only as long as the sun’s azimuth remained 67 degrees.
As the sun rose above the horizon, its azimuth changed 1+02 hours after sunrise (6:15 a.m. Howland time on July 2, 1937.) That meant that at 7:17 am, there was no longer a 67 degree azimuth by which to determine a “157/337” line of position (LOP). It simply no longer existed. It lasted only an hour-plus. After that, she could only fly a heading of 157 or 337 degrees.
(Editor’s Note: As a non-aviation type, I’m lost when Calvin starts using terms such as azimuth. For others like myself and for what it’s worth, Wikipedia (image above) defines azimuth as an angular measurement in a spherical coordinate system. The vector from an observer (origin) to a point of interest is projected perpendicularly onto a reference plane; the angle between the projected vector and a reference vector on the reference plane is called the azimuth. Calvin will provide clarity in Part II.
(End Part I)