Rafford asks tough questions about Earhart comms

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.

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.

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?

This photo, from Paul Rafford’s book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, is captioned “Earhart’s Landing in Miami.” “It’s not easy to see,” Rafford wrote, “but a radio loop is visible directly above the cockpit of the Electra. . . . Although never revealed publicly, Earhart switched airplanes after arriving in Miami.  In 1940, John Ray told me how he had been called out to remove her trailing antenna shortly after she arrived from Burbank.”

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 guardover 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.

Harry Balfour, circa 1937, the radio operator at Lae, New Guinea, the last person to carry on a two-way radio conversation with Amelia Earhart — at least as far as the “official” record tells us. 

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.)

15 responses

  1. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    I believe that Bill Galten was absolutely correct. AE never intended to land on Howland Island. Declining PAA’s offer of assistance vis-a-vis tracking via high frequency direction finding, signing off from contact with Harry Balfour, not establishing real radio contact with Itasca, and not staying on the air long enough for Cipriani to get a fix is not incompetence, or indifference, but a pattern of behavior — actions executed to serve a definite purpose. That purpose was to create a perception that would be easily accepted as reality by one and all at home and abroad, but especially by the Japanese.

    Of course, AE and FN were never supposed to land in the Marshall Islands, and were certainly never supposed to be captured by the Japanese.

    All best,

    William

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  2. I don’t know if Rafford was right or not.. but t does raise some intriguing questions as to why Earhart ostensibly refused any communication help. Unless, as was stated, she never had any intention of landing on Howland Island. Strangest of all seems to be the short bursts of communication from her, unsolicited..i.e,. not in response to any inquiry . Pre-recorded messages that were transmitted from elsewhere? Sounds crazy, bu then, a lot of this does.

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    1. William H. Trail | Reply

      Dave,

      I agree. Pre-recorded messages transmitted from elsewhere does sound crazy. Why do something unnecessary, overly complicated, and at risk of exposure when AE (who was following the Navy’s plan) could easily keep communications short, not respond when called, and even sound “panicky” — all by herself in real time?

      All best,

      William

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  3. Mr. Rafford’s assumptions are incorrect.

    There is a strong paper trail documenting the Electra’s original build and the subsequent reconstruction of the Electra and its communication system including the loop antenna.

    In my opinion, Rafford, who was not a contemporary to these proceedings, ( I believe he started working for Pan Am in 1943) was always at odds with Almon Gray, a Pan Am radio operator and later Captain in the U.S. Navy. Gray was at Wake Island when Noonan first arrived, he flew with Noonan, and intimately knew the communication capabilities of the Electra and the Pan Am Clippers.

    I trust Gray, and would never trust Rafford’s take. How could you? He’s the man who assisted Jim Donahue and his ridiculous assertions Donahue penned in “The Earhart Disappearance and The British Connection.”

    Les Kinney

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    1. Les,

      Are you saying Rafford was lying about what Charlie Winter and Bob Thiebert told him about Earhart refusing Pan Am’s help and Thiebert’s installation of the radio loop in Miami? If so, that’s a tough accusation, one I find hard to swallow.

      Mike

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  4. The stuff you are describing unfortunately has become “Earhart Lore.” Where is Rafford’s source material for his statements? When and where did he get this information? Are there letters or documents backing up his assertions? Was Rafford, as a nineteen year old working for Pan Am in Miami at that time? Did Charlie White and Bob Thiebert document their accounts? if so, when?
    There is no question the Electra went through some radio modifications in Miami but Rafford is reaching .

    Just because a lot of people told me Earhart crashed and sank. Should I believe them?

    Les Kinney

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    1. OK Les, you want documentation to back up Rafford’s statements, and apparently we have none. So in this context “reaching” has become a euphemism for “lying,” if I’m reading you correctly. Personally I believe Rafford was telling the truth about what he was told by Winter and Thibert. Either of them might have been dishonest, but in these two incidents I’ll take Rafford’s word for it.

      Remember, we still have the plane discovered in Papua New Guinea in 1945 with the Electra’s Construction Number, C/N 1055. That has yet to be explained, and a direct tie-in with a plane switch in Miami seems plausible.

      Mike

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  5. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    AE’s seemingly cavalier refusal of PAA’s offer to track her via their three Pacific Division HF/DF stations, her signing off early from Harry Balfour, not establishing two-way communications with Itasca, and not staying on the air long enough for Cipriani to get a fix on her location are very telling. Every move has a purpose, and every move reveals something.

    I believe the arguments regarding Paul Rafford vs Almon Gray, and the veracity of Miami based PAA mechanics Charlie Winter and Bob Thiebert vis-a-vis radio/antenna modifications to the Electra, although interesting, nonetheless miss the point. Yes, details are important in any investigation. They should never be ignored or neglected. However, details have weighted value, and what is truly important here is not radio experts, aircraft mechanics, or loop antennas, but rather the actions of AE.

    Mrs. Ellen Belotti’s 1971 revelation to Fred Goerner regarding ONI’s confiscation of PAA records pertaining to AE, and their admonishment to employees to say nothing about it had a very specific purpose and is also very revealing. If AE and FN truly could not find Howland Island, flew until they ran the tanks dry, ditched, and perished in the ocean as the U.S. Government and some others maintain, why would ONI care what may or may not be in old PAA files?

    All best,

    William

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    1. William, your points are well taken except for your first comment. Earhart asked for and accepted Pan Am’s offer to assist with DF bearings and tracking. There are plenty of news stories and corresponsive substantiating this fact.

      Earhart’s radio repairs in Miami were meant to repair the work done by Joe Gurr in Burbank which Pan Am in Miami felt was inadequate. Yet, we know when Earhart and Noonan left Puerto Rico they almost immediately began to have radio issues.

      Les Kinney

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      1. William H. Trail

        Les,

        Many thanks. For my edification and better understanding, as well as for others reading Mike’s blog, please site your source for AE’s request for and acceptance of PAA’s offer to assist with bearings and tracking across the Pacific.

        As for my comments, I’m citing Paul Rafford’s “Amelia Earhart’s Radio” (2006) published by The Paragon Agency, Publishers. Specifically, I refer to Rafford’s WWII conversation with radio engineer Charlie Winter, which is recounted on page 39; Rafford states that AE immediately rejected Winter’s suggestion (of PAA HF/DF tracking assistance across the Pacific) with the comment, “I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.”

        After initially declining PAA’s offer of HF/DF tracking assistance, for AE to then request and accept it as you assert would seem to be quite the turn around. It raises lots of questions. Was Winter’s story correct? Rafford? If they were correct, what or who caused AE to change her mind?

        All best,

        William

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  6. When reading this blog, it occurs to me that AE’ radio transmissions were at best, evasive. Because she was such a public icon, we simply can’t compute her actions here. The reality was she was caught in a web of deception, apparently.

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  7. Amelia left the messy work of flight preparation to others. She had no real clue of how the radio worked nor did she take the time to learn the details. All she wanted was the ability to talk to someone on 3105 or 6210 kHz. Joe Gurr did a crappy job installing her antenna system in Burbank prior to the Electra’s flight to Miami. He was a “hammy” not a trained radio technician. The Pan Am technicians in Miami tore out Gurr’s work and reconfigured it. They too obviously screwed up. It wasn’t long after she took off from Miami her radio malfunctioned again. Whether it was the receiver, or transmitter, or one of the antennas or all of the above, we don’t know.

    For those uninformed, the Electra had an antenna array on the roof in a reverse V extending from the cockpit to each tail, another extending along the underside belly, and a third antenna by way of the circular directional finder (DF) placed on top of the cockpit roof. it could be turned from inside by the pilot or co-pilot. It is believed the topside antenna was used for transmitting and the underside antenna for receiving. The DF antenna was definitely hard wired into the Electra’s receiver and its primary purpose was to pick up incoming radio beams. Undoubtedly, there are many radio aficionados out there more qualified to have given this explanation, so take that into consideration with your criticism.

    Since Amelia’s route took her primarily over remote regions of the earth, any communications with ground personnel, or ships, would have had to have been by Morse code. Pan Am used it exclusively. CW was the the standard method of communication in those days. The loss of Harry Manning was catastrophic. Amelia yanked out the long trailing wire in Burbank and left the telegraph key in Miami. Harry wasn’t only a competent celestial navigator but a good radio operator. After leaving Miami, it’s It’s believed that it wasn’t until Amelia reached Brisbane was voice communication available. Even then, she touched down with an inoperative receiver with a blown fuse. How long before reaching Brisbane did that occur?

    Amelia didn’t know the difference in terminology when referring to meters and kilocycles, yet in those days, especially in the British Empire, they were used interchangeably.

    At Lae, the radio transmitter, receiver, and directional finder were tested and believed to be in good working order. TIGHAR seems to think she lost her belly antenna on take-off which meant she lost her receiving capabilities. It’s possible, but if that was the case, how was she able to respond to Itasca’s message as she approached Howland Island, and then later respond to KGU Honolulu’s request to send four dashes? She would have had to have known her belly antenna was lost (if it was lost) and switched to her small rooftop DF antenna – which would required a switch change on her receiver that I explain in the following paragraph. I doubt whether Amelia would have remembered that. Fred, on the other hand, from all of his years using DF in combination with his aerial navigation techniques at Pan Am should have known that was the thing to try.

    Leaving behind her trailing wire meant an effective loss to communicate on 500 kHz. Did Amelia attempt to send many more messages than is known between Lae and Howland? Probably not. Regardless whether her receiving antenna was lost, her transmissions would have been unaffected. Nauru heard her “loud” on her nighttime frequency but she came in distorted. She either flew over or within 60 miles of the island. Being so close, that shouldn’t have been the case. Why was her voice distorted being so close to Nauru? Something must have been wrong with both her transmitter and receiver. The round directional finder on her cockpit roof was capable of picking up reception on 3105 and 6210 kHz. If Amelia had the sense to switch the settings on both the DF and the receiver. That would have been the only way she could have heard the Itasca on the 7500 band when when she asked them to transmit on that frequency, if indeed she lost her belly antenna. No matter what TIGHAR says, it’s not known if that was the case.

    Over the years, many pilots have commented that if they were lost over the Pacific enroute to Howland Island, or anywhere else in the Pacific, and low on gas, they’d been transmitting like crazy. Yet, Amelia didn’t do that. Why? And throughout the night and into the morning crisis where was Fred? On dozens of Pan Am flights he sat near the radio operator. He was familiar with these situations. Everyone at Pan Am said he was the coolest man on the plane. Wouldn’t he have worked the radio while Amelia flew? After getting his early morning sun fix, wouldn’t he have been fiddling with the switches on the receiver and DF wondering why they weren’t getting a response to their messages? Wouldn’t he also have been yelling into the mike?

    Of course, this gives rise to the speculation they were on a spy mission and didn’t want their position known to the Japanese. It’s a righteous argument – it’s possible, but a stretch.

    Rafford alludes to the DF not being on the roof of her plane when she arrived in Miami, but there are pictures of the Electra in Oakland on the day of departure. The DF is clearly visible and Pan Am was cooperating. Juan Trippe instructed his company to do whatever Amelia requested and said as much in a letter. Prior to the first world attempt, Pan Am assisted Earhart’s team in final preparations and offered the services of their DF and radio communications. They swapped radio schedules and noted the times they would call each other. Rafford got that part all wrong.

    In the meantime, harken to Admiral Chester Nimitz’s profound statement. What happened to Amelia and Fred will “stagger your imagination.”

    Les Kinney

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    1. I was hoping at least one of our readers would send a comment addressing yours of Aug. 31, in which you embarked upon a fairly lengthy tutorial in which you address the history of the Electra’s communication systems leading up to the last flight — its radio and antenna systems, Amelia’s bizarre radio behavior compounded by Noonan’s inexplicable lack of presence during the critical hours of the last flight, and other technical considerations related to the Electra and the fliers.

      We appreciate you taking the time to refresh us on all these matters, and respect your knowledge and many years of Earhart research, but you failed to address the main question William Trail raised in his Aug. 29 comment to you: “For my edification and better understanding, as well as for others reading Mike’s blog, please site your source for AE’s request for and acceptance of PAA’s offer to assist with bearings and tracking across the Pacific.”

      William’s comment came in response to yours of the same day: “William, your points are well taken except for your first comment. Earhart asked for and accepted Pan Am’s offer to assist with DF bearings and tracking. There are plenty of news stories and correspondence substantiating this fact.”

      In concluding your Aug. 31, comment, you write that “Rafford alludes to the DF not being on the roof of her plane when she arrived in Miami, but there are pictures of the Electra in Oakland on the day of departure. The DF is clearly visible and Pan Am was cooperating. Juan Trippe instructed his company to do whatever Amelia requested and said as much in a letter. Prior to the first world attempt, Pan Am assisted Earhart’s team in final preparations and offered the services of their DF and radio communications. They swapped radio schedules and noted the times they would call each other. Rafford got that part all wrong.”

      I assume this comment was your way of answering William Trail’s Aug. 29 question to you, but your response is lacking in accuracy. On pages 32-33 of Rafford’s Amelia Earhart’s Radio, we have Rafford’s statement that “[Bob] Thibert was quite surprised when I told him that pictures of the Electra taken during its arrival at Miami clearly show that it already had a direction finding loop. So I asked him if he had seen any evidence that one might have been previously installed on the roof, such as filled-in bolt holes. He claimed he hadn’t.”

      Nowhere does Rafford “allude to the DF not being on the roof of her plane when she arrived in Miami,” as you suggest, but he’s nearly certain that the DF was indeed on the Electra’s roof, when he wrote, “newsreels of the Electra taken just after it arrived in Miami from Burbank show a loop already mounted on it.”

      More importantly, you reference a letter from PAA president Juan Trippe, and write that “Prior to the first world attempt, Pan Am assisted Earhart’s team in final preparations and offered the services of their DF and radio communications. They swapped radio schedules and noted the times they would call each other. Rafford got that part all wrong.” (Italics mine.)

      The crux of the matter is your re-statement — without providing sources as William Trail requested — of your Aug. 31 comment that “Earhart asked for and accepted Pan Am’s offer to assist with DF bearings and tracking. There are plenty of news stories and correspondence substantiating this fact.” Once again, you do not cite any source for this statement or your closing declamation that “Rafford got that part all wrong,” in which you directly reject Rafford’s by now well-known (among researchers) assertion that Earhart rejected PAA’s offer of assistance in tracking her last flight.

      If a letter from Juan Trippe supports your belief that Earhart “accepted PAA’s offer,” I hope you will quote the pertinent sentences or paragraphs that will provide clarity for us.

      Since there’s no record of any calls between Earhart and PAA during her last flight, whether they “swapped radio schedules” or not is hardly relevant now, but Rafford’s claim that Earhart rejected PAA’s overtures certainly is.

      I may be making too much of all this, but just for the record, Les, I’ll ask you again to provide a legitimate source – other than yourself — for your statement that Earhart did not reject PAA’s assistance and in fact accepted it prior to her final flight.

      I had never heard this before your comment of Aug. 31, nor had William Trail. I was looking forward to learning something new and significant, and hope you can still enlighten us about the errors you claim were rife in Rafford’s narration.

      Mike

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  8. I read a comment here that AE’s directional antenna was used for transmitting. That seems backwards to me. It is usually used for receiving only to get a fix on a location.

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    1. The direction finder on Amelia’s Lockheed Electra was a circular loop antenna located atop the aircraft. It was designed only for receiving radio signals and could give a bearing from/to the source of transmission, relative to the aircraft’s heading. It was NOT used for transmitting from the aircraft. This type of antenna worked much like the old AM radios that had an internal antenna. Remember how you had to turn the radio to receive a better signal? By requesting that the Itasca transmit on a given frequency for a period of time, using an identifiable signal (like dots or dashes), Amelia could turn her direction finder antenna until she got the strongest reading. This would give her a line of bearing either to or from the transmitting source. The system was unable to determine if it was to or from the source.

      As to Amelia asking for a bearing, she was transmitting on her radio using the long wire High Frequency (HF) antenna atop her aircraft, and asking the Itasca or shore based radio personnel to take a bearing (using their own direction finding antennas) on her. This would then be relayed to her over normal voice transmission.

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