We return to the work of the late Paul Rafford Jr., the last survivor of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, who passed away on Dec. 10, 2016 at 97. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
Readers of this blog are familiar with Rafford’s fascinating work. His public introduction came in Vincent V. Loomis’ 1985 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, in which he discussed his current ideas about the Electra’s radio capabilities and Amelia’s bizarre actions during the final flight. Rafford’s 2006 book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, wasn’t a commercial success, but presents invaluable information unavailable anywhere else.
I’ve written three lengthy pieces that brought new focus on his important contributions to the modern search for Amelia Earhart: “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change”: Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga; “Rafford’s ‘Earhart Deception’ presents intriguing possibilities”; and “Rafford’s ‘Enigma’ brings true mystery into focus: What was Earhart really doing in final hours?”
Prymak’s interview of Rafford about his “Howland Island Fly-By” theory appeared in the March 1992 issue of the AES Newsletters, and was presented in two parts, Phase I and Phase II. Following is Phase I, presented nearly exactly as it appeared in the original, with photos added by this editor. Prymak is designated as “AES” throughout, Rafford’s answers are designated simply as “A.”
Phase I of the question-and-answer interview was preceded by the following biographical information.
Paul Rafford Jr.: THE MAN
In 1940, Paul Rafford Jr. joined Pan Am as a Flight Radio Officer on the flying boat Clippers. As a result, he is well acquainted with the radio equipment and operating procedures of the Earhart era. After joining the company he met Pan Am people and others who either knew Earhart and Noonan or had a part in their flight preparations.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, under Pan Am’s contract with the Air Force, he worked as a Communications Manager on the Astronaut Recovery Team. His specialty was the analysis and forecasting of radio communication with the ships and planes supporting the astronaut landings.
It was while at his console in Mission Control that he became impressed with the parallels between the Navy’s astronaut search and recovery operations in the mid-Pacific and its vast search for Amelia Earhart in the same area thirty years before. As a result, he decided to apply space-age, computer aided investigative techniques to the problem of tracking down Earhart’s whereabouts when last heard from.
In the following question and answer session he presents his theory that Earhart may never have come anywhere near Howland Island. Instead, what the Itasca’s crew really heard were recordings of her voice made weeks beforehand, transmitted by a Navy plane to simulate her supposed efforts to find it.
“THE AMELIA EARHART
The theory presented herein represents
a major digression from the commonly
held belief that Earhart was in the vicinity
of Howland Island when her voice
was last heard on the air.
It proposes that the radio calls intercepted
by the Itasca were actually recorded
by Earhart before she left the
United States, to be played back at the
appropriate time later on by another
Paul Rafford Jr.
December 7, 1991
“PHASE I — THE HOWLAND ISLAND FLY-BY”
AES – So, you now suggest that Earhart never flew anywhere near Howland Island and you doubt that she ever intended to land there?
A – Yes, and I quote my friend Bill Galten, radio operator aboard the Itasca standing off shore, “That woman never intended to land on Howland.”
AES- But, don’t the Itasca’s logs contradict this?
A – No. If you study the logs carefully you will note that Earhart never called the Itasca directly or replied to any of its many calls. Her method of operating as observed by the ship was to suddenly come on the air for seven or eight seconds with a brief message. Then, she would be silent for anywhere up to a half hour or more before breaking in with another message.
The Itasca’s report states that two-way contact was never established. All of the transmissions received by the ship could have been recorded weeks beforehand for playback by another plane. It could just as well have been a PBY flying out of Canton Island.
AES – How were the recordings played back to make them sound authentic?
A – By following a carefully planned script. On my chart, THE SIMULATED HOWLAND ISLAND FLY-BY, I show the flight track I propose the PBY would have followed. At 1415, 1515 and 1623 GMT, the plane could have transmitted the first three recordings while sitting on the lagoon at Canton. They would simulate Earhart approaching Howland before sunrise. Then, at dawn the PBY could have taken off and headed toward Howland, transmitting the remainder of the recordings as directed by the script.
AES – But, the year was 1937 and PBYs didn’t carry radiotelephone?
A – True, but small, low power radio telephone transmitters for short distance communication by aircraft were available. I particularly remember the ten watt model we carried on the Pan Am flying boat Clippers. It would have been ideal for the Earhart fly-by simulation. The operator would simply start the playback machine and hold the radio mike up to the earphone to transmit the recordings.
AES – But, weren’t recording and playback equipment very primitive and bulky back then?
A – By modern standards yes, but not too bulky or primitive to be operated aboard a PBY.
AES – What evidence do you have that Canton Island might have been used as the base for the PBY that transmitted the Howland Island fly-by messages?
A – We know that the Navy had hosted a scientific party to observe a solar eclipse on Canton a month before Earhart’s flight. Aviation fuel, a radio station and supplies could have been left behind for the PBY operation.
AES – Isn’t there an exception to your claim that Earhart never replied to any of the Itasca’s calls? What about her request for the ship to transmit on 7500 kilocycles followed five minutes later by her statement that she had received the signal but was unable to get a bearing?
A – This apparent exchange of communication between the plane and ship could have been planned well in advance by the mission script writers. Earhart would request 7500 khz from the Itasca. Then, five minutes later she would announce that she had tuned it in but was unable to get a bearing. This would later explain to investigators why she could not find Howland.
AES – But, suppose the Itasca had not been able to come up on 7500, what would the PBY crew have done then?
A – They could have substituted another recording in which Earhart would be heard saying that she was unable to pick up the ship. However, it didn’t matter either way because the end result would be the same. Earhart’s failure to find Howland would be blamed on radio navigation.
Incidentally, no aircraft direction finder can take a bearing on 7500 khz. The Itasca’s crew knew this but without two-way communication with Earhart could not point out her supposed mistake and suggest a frequency where she could get bearings.
Today, we have every reason to believe that Earhart must have known that she couldn’t get a bearing on 7500 khz. Previously, she had been an adviser to the government on aircraft direction finders. Then, just prior to her departure from Lae, Harry Balfour, the local radio operator, had reviewed the operation of her d/f with her, particularly with reference to taking bearings on ships.
AES – Wouldn’t Noonan have known that she couldn’t take bearings on 7500?
A – Definitely! We radio operators worked very closely with our navigators back then and they knew what could or could not be done using radio direction finders.
Playing a recording of Earhart asking for that frequency was just a ploy to make it appear to the Coast Guard that she was ignorant about the basics of radio navigation. What better way to explain why she got lost?
AES – But later, wouldn’t some of Earhart’s aviator friends have pointed out that she very well knew she couldn’t get bearings on 7500 khz?
A – Yes. And I believe that this is one of the reasons why the logs and search report had to be classified for 25 years.
AES – What about the Howland Island direction finder, it never got a bearing either. What went wrong there?
A – The Howland direction finder was still another ploy to make it appear that Earhart’s failure to find Howland was due to radio navigation. The unit was an aircraft model, specially modified to take bearings on 3105 khz while Earhart was supposedly approaching the island. Its range was very limited, particularly when taking bearings on airplanes using fixed antennas. However, to further ensure that Howland couldn’t get a bearing, transmission from the plane never lasted more than seven or eight seconds, far too short for an operator to get a bearing.
AES – Why was it important for Howland not to get bearings on the plane?
A – Because they would have shown it to be approaching from the southeast and not from the west. This would have been a dead giveaway that the plane was not Earhart’s.
AES – Why was it necessary for Earhart to appear to get lost?
A – To touch off one of the world’s greatest air/sea searches. It would give the Navy an opportunity to make a vast survey of the Central Pacific, an area where the latitudes and longitudes of some of the islands had not been corrected on its charts since the early explorers first stumbled across them.
The storm clouds of World War II were fast gathering and our government needed all the intelligence information it could get. The searches would also give the Navy an opportunity to exercise its forces in an urgent, war-like situation without upsetting powerful pacifist groups in the U.S.
AES – Where would she finally be found?
A – Probably on some secluded island but not before the Navy had completed its survey. (End of Phase I.)
As is evident in the foregoing, Paul Rafford developed a unique, full-blown “Earhart Deception” theory, that’s compelling in its concept, execution and audacity. In our next post, Bill Prymak’s interview with Rafford will continue with Phase II of the “Howland Island Fly-By.”