Readers of this blog are familiar with Paul Rafford Jr.’s fascinating and imaginative contributions to Earhart research. Rafford passed away in December 2016 at 97, but some of his ideas about Amelia Earhart’s final days and hours are still alive and well. He was a valued contributor to the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters between 1989 and 2000, expounding his theories about radio deceptions and plane switches, some of the most creative possibilities ever advanced to explain what could have happened during those final hours of July 2, 1937, before and after Amelia’s last officially recognized message was heard at 8:44 a.m., Howland Island Time.
We’ve seen three lengthy pieces on this blog already, basically re-presentations of Rafford’s work as found in Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters: “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?”
The following analysis by Rafford Jr. appeared in the September 1993 issue of the AES Newsletters, and is the first of two parts. Boldface emphasis mine throughout; underline emphasis in original AES Newsletters version.
“Amelia Earhart – Some Unanswered Questions About Her Radio Communication and Direction Finding” (Part I of two.)
by Paul Rafford Jr.,
June 22, 1993
“The Miami Layover”
Why did Earhart refuse Pan Am’s offer of direction finding help on her second attempt to circle the globe?
During her layover in Miami; Pan Am radio engineer, Charlie Winter, conferred with Amelia about her forthcoming trip. She would no longer have 500 khz. in her transmitter, so why not carry a Pan Am frequency in its place., to be used with the airline’s Pacific direction finding network?
To his surprise, she immediately dismissed the suggestion with a contemptuous comment, “I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.”
Why did Pan Am install a new loop on the Electra at Miami when all earlier pictures of the plane show that it already had one?
On the morning before Earhart’s departure from Miami, Pan Am radio technician Bob Thiebert was given a radio loop by his boss and told to install it on the plane immediately. Bob mounted it and connected it to the receiver that had already been installed. He then had the plane swung through 360° while he took bearings on a nearby broadcast station and prepared a calibration curve.
Page 215 of the book, Amelia, My Courageous Sister (1987), shows a news photo of Earhart, Noonan and two friends standing in front of the Electra. The caption advises that it was taken on May 31, 1937. An accompanying newspaper clipping comments:
“Mechanics today completed the adjustment of navigation instruments to guide Amelia Earhart down a well-worn aerial lane to South America on her eastward flight around the world. The aviatrix expected to take off at dawn tomorrow for San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1033 miles away.”
The new loop appears on top of the plane while a mechanic appears in the background below, crouched over his tool box. — Bob Thiebert?
After Bob told me his story, several questions came to mind. The Electra already had a loop and the pictures of the Honolulu crackup show no damage to it or the surrounding area. Then, a newsreel picture purporting to show Earhart arriving in Miami clearly shows a loop on the plane. Why install a new one?
I asked Bob if he had seen any evidence of where and how any previous loops had been mounted. We know that there were at least two other loops installed on the Electra at one time or another after Earhart took delivery.
Bob was quite surprised to hear this and replied that he found no evidence that any other loop had ever been installed. If there had been he would have seen where their mounting holes had been. But, he declared, he had seen nothing to indicate this possibility.
Why, just before Earhart’s departure on her round-the-world flight did Pan Am mechanics in Miami make the same changes to her fixed antenna that had already been made by Joe Gurr in California just few weeks before?
Two days before Earhart’s departure, Pan Am radio technician Lynn Michaelfelder was sent out to the Electra, “. . . to fix a problem with the transmitter.” Apparently there was some concern about the limited transmitting range of the fixed antenna.
He lengthened the antenna wires by moving the mast forward and by bringing the feed line down through the lower right side of the fuselage instead of through the roof. Imagine my surprise when I came across Joe Gurr’s letter of May 3, 1982, to Fred Goerner. In it he describes making these same changes in California, just a few weeks earlier.
Lae to Howland
Why did Earhart refuse the offer of Harry Balfour, the Lae radio operator, to stay in communication with her until she made contact with the Itasca?
It was standard operating procedure in those days for an aircraft on a long ocean crossing to stay in contact with the station behind it until reaching the mid-point of the flight. There, the plane would turn its “radio guard” over to the station ahead. Although Balfour was not obligated to offer this service to Earhart, he did so anyway.
But, to his chagrin, when Earhart was approximately one third of the way toward Howland, against his advice because he was still receiving her very well, she signed off with him at sunset and switched from 6210 khz. to 3105 khz. She explained that she had to try and make contact with the Itasca. He never heard her again and she never again engaged any station in two-way conversation.
There was no technical reason for Earhart to have to sign off with Lae before attempting to contact the Itasca. She could have returned to 6210 at periodic intervals to confirm to Balfour that her flight was proceeding normally, or advise him if it wasn’t. Then, after establishing contact with the Itasca she could have said goodbye to him.
Why did Earhart never stay on the air more than seven or eight seconds at a time when she was in the vicinity of Howland Island?
While Earhart followed standard airline type operating procedures during her contacts with Balfour, when in the vicinity of Howland her procedures were anything but standard. She never called the ship directly or answered any of its many calls. Instead, she would suddenly come on the air without a call-up, deliver her message, and then go off until she had another message. The Navy’s report states that communication between Earhart and the Itasca was “never really established.”
The Navy’s report also states that she never stayed on the air more than seven or eight seconds at a time. This includes the transmissions she was supposedly making so the Howland direction finder could take bearings. Even under the best of conditions, back then a DF operator required at least 30 seconds to go through all the procedures required in taking a bearing after a station might suddenly come on the air without warning. Later, Radioman [2nd Class Frank] Cipriani, operating the Howland DF, complained that she never stayed on the air long enough for him to get a bearing.
Bill Galten, the Itasca radio operator on duty at the Earhart radio watch told me during World War II of his efforts to contact Earhart and of her peculiar operating procedures. On one occasion she suddenly came on the air, announcing, “Give me the weather! I’ve got to have the weather.” But, she failed to advise what frequency she would be listening to or if she wanted the weather to be sent on voice or telegraph. In desperation, Bill sent it on both of his voice frequencies and then his telegraph frequencies. He never received an acknowledgment. Later, based on his futile attempt to get in radio contact with Earhart, Bill gave me his personal opinion: “That woman never intended to land on Howland!” (End of Part I.)