Paul Rafford’s “Howland Island Fly-By”: Phase I

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 bookAmelia 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?

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, was among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s.

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 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


Bill Prymak, a veteran pilot with more than 6,500 hours in private aircraft since 1960, interviewed Paul Rafford Jr. for this article.  Prymak and Rafford were among the most significant contributors to the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, but Rafford’s “Howland Island Fly-By,” while still retaining the Marshall Island-Saipan truth, is perhaps the most unique of all the alternative scenarios proposed by researchers.



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 look at the teeming wildlife on Howland Island, so overpopulated with “10,000 frigates, 8,000 boobies (albatrosses), and 14,000 terns,” according to Army Lt. Daniel A. Cooper, writing in July 1937, that many doubted that Amelia Earhart really intended to land there when she disappeared on July 2, 1937.

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.

This was the official flight plan, 2,556 statute miles from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island.  The 337-157 line of position, or sun line, passed through the Phoenix Islands, near Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, and the popular theory, though completely false, is in part attributable to this phenomena.

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.”

5 responses

  1. What can I say- truly amazing- sounds incredibly far fetched, but why not? Everything else about this case seems to be wrapped in an enigma except for their final landing spot


  2. This morning I received a nice comment from Michael Betteridge, newpew of Paul Rafford Jr, and a radio host on WTHU 1450 AM in Thurmont, Md., who had me on his show back in July 2013. The photo he sent can’t be posted in the comments, but here’s the rest of Michael’s email to me today (Aug.22):


    Thanks for keeping the legacy of my Uncle Paul alive. I read your recent article with anticipation:

    Every time I see a photo of him, I see the face of my Grandmother. They could have been twins. Your dedication to the truth is inspiring and I enjoy each and every one of your Amelia Earhart newsletters.

    Some background on Uncle Paul’s interest in radios and navigation: My great grandfather Paul Rafford, Sr. (Pop) was an experienced ham radio operator. He became interested in radio as a young man and continued his hobby up until his late retirement years. Pop’s father William Rafford was the first NY police officer killed in the line of duty serving a warrant in Riverhead NY in 1903. Pop had to leave school and go to work to support the family in his teens.

    When I was a young boy Pop sold a piece of land behind his house in Hampton Bays to a ham radio friend Augie Persechetti (retired chief of police Jersey City) and “Uncle” Augie built a house behind my great grandfathers house as they became best friends for the rest of their lives because of their early ham radio hobby connection. That was the inspiration that my Uncle Paul received to seek his career in radio. Remember radio was still in its infancy. The navigation part comes from Uncle Paul’s grandfather on his mother’s side Alonzo Austin Bellows (Grampy) who owned a sailing vessel that was docked at the bottom of the hill from where Uncle Paul grew up. He would have spent many hours navigating Shinnecock Bay, the Inlet and the Ocean with Grampy when dead reckoning, experience and instinct were all they had and hanging out a Grampy’s shop (we loved that place) with all its tools, fishing gear, apparatus and mystique. The shop was built out over the water and Grampy even kept his own oyster bed for special visitors to enjoy with him out on the docks with a cold beer.

    I don’t know if you knew this but during WWII all Pan Am officers were automatically drafted into the Army Air Corps service for the duration of the war. Uncle Paul was the radio navigation officer in the planes that flew Roosevelt (first President to ever fly…imagine how nerve wracking that must have been for the Secret Service) to Malta and later he was stationed all by himself in a radio station in the North African desert guiding bombers in on their runs from his bunker…..very dangerous….the Germans were everywhere.

    I attached a photo of Grampy’s shop where Uncle Paul grew up. From the cars in the foreground, this was obviously around 1939 or 40 and from the debris fields, I am certain it was just after the Great Hurricane of 1938 (see The Long Island Express)

    Thank you again for “keeping the light on” so that the heinous truth of what our government did to Amelia Earhart is revealed. I know you have done so with great personal sacrifice. I truly appreciate your courage!

    Michael Betteridge
    General Manager
    COOL OLDIES 1450
    (301) 637-6736 office
    (301) 639-4323 cell

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A great beginning story, Mike. Thanks for including the informative comment from Paul’s great-nephew, Michael Betteridge. I loved both posts, Mike. Eagerly awaiting Phase II.

    Sonny Auld


  4. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Simplicity is key to successfully planning and executing any task or mission. With the greatest respect for Paul Rafford Jr. and his invaluable contributions to Amelia Earhart research, I can’t help but think that his Amelia Earhart Radio Deception theory is unnecessarily complicated. The Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat, it’s crew, the additional radio gear as well as pre-recorded radio messages from AE wouldn’t be needed at all if AE and FN were flying the published flight plan right up to Howland Island, before diverting toward the Marshall Islands.

    Additionally, the mission objectives of the naval operations resulting from AE and FN “getting lost” as stated by Mr. Rafford are not plausible. The U.S. Navy did not need to “touch off one of the world’s greatest air/sea searches” for AE and FN as cover to make a vast survey of the central Pacific. Likewise, the Navy didn’t need excuses to hold fleet maneuvers, or “exercise it’s forces in an urgent, war-like situation.”

    All best,


    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mike –

    *GREAT piece which makes perfectly, good sense to me. I have to give Naval *Intelligence a #10 on this one. What a better way to have tricked the Japanese, had it worked in favor for Amelia & Fred. Paul Rafford was an *ACE and Mike’s work of putting all the pieces together, gives us the *TRUTH at Last……………………..No wonder the American, broadcasting, media stations avoid the hard facts, dissuade the evidence and avoid the *proof, Mike continues to provide us…………………………………THUMBS UP for the *TRUTH at Last!



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