Letter from 1937 Lockheed factory expert to Prymak: No unorthodox repairs were made to AE’s plane

Anyone who’s read extensively about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has seen various claims that, while in the Lockheed repair facility in Burbank, Calif., following the March 16, 1937 Hawaii crash on takeoff, the Electra underwent special modifications that would allow the plane to accommodate aerial reconnaissance cameras in order to best prepare it for a covert spy mission.  Special cameras were allegedly installed, and new, more powerful power plants replaced the standard  Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp S3H1, 600 hp engines.  While it’s not the purpose of this post to present the various claims that have been made in this regard, I’ve not seen any substantive evidence to support these assertions.  

An even more outrageous asseveration came in Joe Klaas’ 1970 bombshell, Amelia Earhart Lives, wherein his friend Joe Gervais said there was no record of what became of the Lockheed XC-35 Electra, the first successful enclosed-cabin, pressurized airplane, capable of altitudes up to 40,000 feet, and suggested it could have been used by Earhart during her last flight.  Klaas then theorized that Earhart could have “switched” from her own Electra to the XC-35 to fly a photographic spy mission, and that Lockheed could have built two XC-35s, one of which Earhart and Noonan flew on their special mission.  In fact, the only Lockheed XC-35 ever built, with commercial serial number 3105 and military serial number 36-353, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1948, and has remained there until this day.  For more on Klaas, Gervais and the XC-35, please click here. 

The XC-35, in flight near Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, in August 1937, was an Electra 10A similar to Amelia Earhart’s but reconfigured by Lockheed engineers working with a team from the Army Air Corps. According to Joe Gervais and Joe Klaas in Amelia Earhart Lives, another XC-35 was produced and exchanged for Earhart’s Electra 10E at an airfield north of Lae, New Guinea, shortly after takeoff July 2, 1937, as part of a spy mission.

The following letter appeared in the July 1998 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, from former Lockheed specialist David Kenyon to Amelia Earhart Society President Bill Prymak, and will not silence the fading echoes of the Earhart Electra conspiracy theorists.  But Kenyon’s letter does  buttress other credible evidence arguing against the spy cameras, souped-up engines and other alleged special adjustments Earhart’s Electra supposedly underwent in order to operate at a higher level on a covert mission, one that nonetheless wasn’t good enough to prevent her landing at Mili Atoll, where she was soon grabbed up by the Japanese military and taken to Saipan.  (Boldface emphasis is mine throughout.)

Bill Prymak’s note: David Kenyon is our “person on scene” in the Lockheed factory in 1937 during the repairs to AE’s “ship,” as they called it then.  We asked poignant question re: his tenure, rumors of a 2nd Earhart Electra 10E and a 2nd XC-35 (see note below letter), the skunks works and his role in the repair of Amelia’s crashed ship in Hawaii.

David H. Kenyon
2165 Greenview Street
Eugene, Oregon 97401-2393

July 13, 1998

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your letter of the 6th that I will now respond to in the order of your questions:

1.  On January 4, 1937 I began my 40 year career with Lockheed Aircraft, retiring in 1977 as a Marketing Director.

My role as an observer of the Amelia Earhart Hawaiian accident repairs was very limited.  At the time I was employed as an assembler apprentice in the Wing and Tail Department assembling the Model 10 wing spars and the Model 12 stabilizers.

I was not qualified to repair the AE empennage when it came to our department.  I simply observed a lead man cutting and removing damaged Alclad skin for reconstruction of the frame in the jigs.  I managed to secure a piece of the upper stabilizer’s skin which I still  have.  I don’t recall whether I saw the plane in the final assembly department later.

2.  I recall being able to walk thru the various departments of the factory to visit friends and see what was going on during a lunch break as in those prewar days there really weren’t many secrets in the 1,000 employee work force.  In 1937 the Model 10 hit a high of 44 planes built tapering off before the Model 12 and 14 planes were produced.

Amelia with brand-new Electra, July 1936. Note “dark signature” in rear half of the left vertical rudder.  The dark signature stayed with the plane throughout its repairs and during its world flight attempt. 

I really doubt that a covert Model 10E was built since the employees would have known about given the above circumstances.  No section of that small plant was hidden from casual view.  If a second XC-35 were produced it certainly would have had to go thru most of the Model 10 assembly jigs. *

I remember being able to walk through the separate enclosed area where the XC-35 finishing work proceeded. The L.A. Times referred to it as a SECRET plane when they photographed it upon quiet roll out on our open ramp.  To obtain a covert additional plane it would have been easier and less expensive to have bought a used plane from some other operator.  However, after all these years it seems logical that some trace of the first plane would have surfaced.

3.  The Lockheed Skunk Works probably did not come into existence until the XP-38 was constructed in 1939 in a closed area of the factory.

4.  The XC-35 was the product of a one plane contract, see enclosed excerpts from Lockheed reports nos. 1650 and 9374 and Master Schedule chart delineating the single XC-35 dated 1963.

5.  No unorthodox repairs could have been made to A.E’s plane since they would have to reflect conformance to existing blueprints and repair manualsThe enclosed copy of a Lockheed 3-3-37 blueprint clearly shows the 6 fuselage tank fillers.  The enclosed photo depicts these openings as well.  The photo on page 28 of your March 1989 Newsletter clearly shows a rectangular tank under the A.E. plane.  So all the evidence seems to rule out a singular circular tank.  (Editor’s note: I don’t have the March 1989 Newsletter, as it’s not among those in the Assemblage of AES Newsletters, which covers issues from Fall 1990 to June 2002, nor was the referenced “Lockheed 3-3-37 blueprintincluded with Kenyon’s letter.)

6.  During Dick Merrill’s EAL [Eastern Air Lines] Electra flight from London to New York with the coronation films in 1936, he may have utilized extra tanks.

7.  I have no knowledge of the numbers painted on Electras delivered to Australia and New Zealand. Suggest writing to Pat Donovan, Lockheed Aircraft Owners Club, as he has some lists of current A/C.

Bill, I look forward to your visit this summer and given some advance notice can arrange to be on hand to extend full hospitality.

With best regards,

David

The aft pressure bulkhead of the XC-35. The XC-35 was fitted with two Pratt & Whitney XR-1340-43 engines of 550 hp (410 kW) each compared to the two Pratt & Whitney R-985-13 of 450 hp (336 kW) fitted to the base Model 10 Electra.  The engines featured a turbo supercharger to permit the engines to operate in thin air at high altitudes.  This system was able to maintain a cabin altitude of 12,000 feet while flying at 30,000 feet.

* From Wikipedia:

The Lockheed XC-35 is a twin-engine, experimental pressurized airplane.  It was the second American aircraft to feature cabin pressurization.  It was initially described as a “supercharged cabin by the Army.  The distinction of the world’s first pressurized aircraft goes to a heavily modified Engineering Division USD-9A which flew in the United States in 1921.  The XC-35 was a development of the Lockheed Model 10 Electra that was designed to meet a 1935 request by the United States Army Air Corps for an aircraft with a pressurized cabin.

The XC-35 was delivered to Wright Field, Ohio in May 1937, made its first performance flight on August 5, and was involved in an extensive flight testing program for which the Army Air Corps was awarded the Collier Trophy.  The lessons learned from the XC-35 played a key role in the development of the Boeing 307 Stratoliner and the B-29 Superfortress which was to be the first mass-produced pressurized aircraft.

The Air Corps brass were so confident in the new technology that they allowed the XC-35 to be used as an executive transport for Louis Johnson, the Assistant Secretary of War and future Secretary of Defense.  The XC-35 was donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in 1948 and remains there in long-term storage.

5 responses

  1. There seldom seems to be one concrete, verifiable story within this tale- I guess it’s just human nature to add and subtract as the story gets passed around. What is speculation and what is the truth? We may never know.

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  2. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    In Appendix III of his book, “Earhart What Really Happened at Howland” (1977) George Carson Carrington provides a complete list of all 149 Lockheed 10 Electra aircraft built. All are accounted for. The idea of a switch in aircraft as suggested by Joe Gervais, or that NR16020 was highly modified beyond the installation of additional fuel tanks is not plausible. Substantial modifications, to include installation of more powerful engines beyond the factory installed Pratt and Whitney S3H-1 powerplant would have been readily noticed and widely commented on. And, as David Kenyon commented to Bill Prymak, everything at the Lockheed factory at Burbank was done in the open; there were no segregated or “secret” areas prior to 1939, and the drawings/ repair manuals, etc. do not reflect additional substitutions/modifications beyond the known fuel tanks.

    I’m convinced that the Lockheed Electra that landed on Barre Island, Mili Atoll in the Japanese Mandated Marshall Islands on 2 July 1937 was Serial Number 1055, purchased for Amelia Earhart in Las Vegas, NV on 24 July 1936. It wasn’t modified beyond the additional fuel tanks necessary for the round-the-world flight because it didn’t need to be.

    All best,

    William

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    1. William,

      And then there’s the conundrum with the New Britain find of the metal tag containing the number “C/N 1055”. That one is mind boggling if actually true.

      All the best,

      Tom

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      1. William H. Trail

        Tom,

        How right you are. It is quite the conundrum, and will no doubt remain so until the wreckage it came from is found (again) and positively identified. Until then it’s just one of those oddball pieces of evidence that just doesn’t quite seem to fit anywhere.

        All best,

        William

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  3. It’s an interesting concept, a pressurized XC35 being substituted for her own L10. They could have used her original “dark signature” rudder on the new plane. Maybe the purpose was for her to fly high enough over the Mandates to evade any pursuit by Jap fighter planes which had ceilings of maybe a little over 20,000 feet? What if she could fly at 35 or 40,000 ft.? The leading proponent of switched planes was the “widely discredited” Randall Brink who says they gave her a prototype L12. He said he had a friend at Lockheed who told him all this. He also said her records indicate she flew some legs far faster than her original plane was capable of. I have never seen any comments about this. Maybe he’s right. But what would the point be? We have already lately here agreed that a spy flight was unlikely. So what did she need a different plane for anyway?

    I believe that one of the reasons the U.S. was so interested in the Marshalls was that it was believed that the Pearl Harbor “sneak attack” would come from the Marshalls as it was much closer to Hawaii and FDR was surprised it came from Japan home islands. Which meant any American observation ships and planes had to be moved at last minute so they wouldn’t see anything. Inconvenient for sure. Of course many Americans saw through this, but wound up supporting what was considered a “just war” in the end.

    The widely believed concept that AE was doing what she said, that is, an innocent not very revolutionary around the world flight to pick up a few bucks with the publicity, was just minding her own business and inexplicably wound up flying over and landing on Mili Atoll just doesn’t add up, either.

    WE have to remember that in 1937 there was no Internet, no whistleblowers either. If U.S. government told Lockheed this is what you are going to do and keep your mouth shut I believe in those days it would have been the patriotic thing to do and no one would blab the truth because no one would believe anything but the official government line and the blabber would be ridiculed or worse. Times have changed, Americans are allowed to question authority although TPTB are working to eliminate that loophole through the use of more sophisticated propaganda techniques. On this blog we think we are (as I do) keener than most people when we are merely part of a psyop playing our role only to be squashed underfoot as an example to others who would dare to think for themselves. How’s that for hyperbole?

    AS William said, whatever she was doing probably didn’t require any modifications.
    All Best,

    David

    Liked by 1 person

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