Rafford’s questions about Earhart comms conclusion

We continue with the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s Amelia Earhart – Some Unanswered Questions About Her Radio Communication and Direction Finding”  This analysis appeared in the September 1993 issue of the AES Newsletters.  Boldface emphasis mine throughout; underline emphasis in original AES Newsletters version.

Amelia Earhart – Some Unanswered Questions About Her Radio Communication and Direction Finding”  (Part II of two.)
by Paul Rafford Jr.

June 22, 1993

Why was the Howland direction finder never able to get bearings on Earhart?

The reasons here are several fold.  Primarily, it was because Earhart never stayed on the air long enough for an operator to take a bearing.  But, even if she had stayed on longer, the combination of her low transmitting power with the inadequacy of the jerry-rigged aircraft DF on Howland, would have limited its range to less than 50 miles.  In other words, on a clear day she could have seen the island before the island could have taken a bearing on her.

The questions that arise out of this fiasco are:

1) Why did whoever organized the project of setting up the direction finder on Howland not know of its extreme limitation?

2) Why did Earhart, supposedly a consultant to the government on airborne direction finders, never stay on the air more than seven or eight seconds?

Why did Earhart ask for 7500 kHz [kilohertz] in order to take bearings on the Itasca, considering it could not be used with her direction finder?

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland Island on July 2, 1937 to help Amelia Earhart find the island and land safely at the airstrip that had been prepared there for her Lockheed Electra 10E.

Supposedly, “7500” came about through Earhart’s ignorance of the two different designations for radio channels.  It has been theorized that she confused 750.0 meters with 7500 kHz.  Of course, 750.0 meters is 400 kHz, a bona fide beacon frequency, while 7500 kHz is 40 meters.

It would appear that not only did she get meters and kilocycles mixed up but she overlooked the decimal point.

Bob Lieson, a former co-worker of mine had done a stint on Howland Island as radio operator shortly after Earhart’s disappearance.  I asked him if the Itasca might have used 7500 kHz for any other purpose than to send dashes for Earhart. Oh yes, he replied, “We used 40 meters for contact with the Coast Guard cutters when they were standing off shore.”

This brings up two questions:

1) Could it have been that Earhart was not confusing meters and kilocycles but knew ahead of time that 7500 kHz was the Itasca’s link with Howland so would be available on call?

2) Why would Noonan, both a navigator and radio operator, let Earhart make the potentially fatal mistake of trying to take bearings on 7500?

Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the radio team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca during the final flight of Amelia Earhart.

Why did Earhart not seize on the one occasion where she heard the Itasca and knew it was hearing her, to try and establish communication with the crew?

This is the most incredible part of the Earhart saga.  At 1928 GMT she announced, Go ahead on 7500 kilocycles.”  Then, at 1933 GMT she announced, We received your signal but unable to get a minimum.”  Supposedly, she is hopelessly lost and about to run out of gas.  Now, after searching for Howland for over an hour, for the first time she is hearing the Itasca and knows the ship is hearing her.  Does she breathe a giant sigh of relief because she has finally made contact with the crew?  Of course they are using code but Noonan is a radio operator and can copy code while replying to the ship by voice on 3105 kHz.

No!  Instead of desperately trying to keep in contact, Earhart is not heard from for over forty minutes.  When she returns to the air it is only to make one brief, last transmission.  She declares she is flying north and south on a line of position 157-337 and will switch to 6210.  The Itasca never hears her again.

The Mysterious Post-Flight Radio Transmissions

What was the source or sources of the mysterious signals heard on Earhart’s frequencies that began just hours after her disappearance and lasted for several days?

During the hours and days immediately following Earhart’s disappearance, various listeners around the Pacific heard mysterious signals on her frequencies.

Ten hours after the Itasca last heard her, the crew of the HMS Achilles intercepted an exchange of signals between a radiotelephone station and a radiotelegraph station on 3105 khz.  The telephone station requested, “Give us a few dashes if you get us.”  The telegraph station replied with several long dashes.  The telephone station then announced, “KHAQQ, KHAQQ.”  (Earhart’s call letters).

Believing they were hearing the plane safely down somewhere, the Achilles sent the U.S. Navy a message to that effect.  However, in its reply, the Navy denied this possibility.

Two hours later, Nauru Island heard the highly distorted voice of a woman calling on 6210 khz.  They reported that, although they could not understand the words, the voice sounded similar to Earhart’s when she had passed by the island the night before.  However, this time there was “– no hum of engines in the background.”

West Coast amateur radio operators Walter McMenamy (left) and Carl Pierson, circa 1937, claimed they heard radio signals sent by Amelia Earhart, including two SOS calls followed by Earhart’s KHAQQ call letters.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Karl Pierson and a group of his radio engineering colleagues set up a listening watch on Earhart’s frequencies.  During the early morning hours of July 3rd, they heard SOS calls on 6210 kHz both voice and telegraph.  Of particular interest was the fact that the voice was a woman’s.  However, neither call included enough information to identify the plane’s position or status.

The Pan Am stations at Wake, Midway and Honolulu managed to pick up a number of weak, unstable radio signals on Earhart’s frequencies and take a few bearings.  But, the stations never identified themselves or transmitted any useful information.

Despite his failure to get bearings earlier, the Howland operator got a bearing on a fairly strong station shortly after midnight on July 5th.  It indicated the transmitter was either north northwest or south southeast of Howland.  But, again there was no identification or useful information from the station.

The question that arises here is, were the distress calls heard by Karl Pierson and his group authentic?  If they were, why did the calls not include more information?  If they were not, who would have sent them and why?

Earhart’s “post-loss messages”: Real or fantasy?and Experts weigh in on Earhart’s “post-loss” messages.”

12 responses

  1. As always, great stuff, Mike..while the eventual outcome of these two is no mystery, it is baffling trying to answer these mysteries posed by Rafford. Obviously, this was no joy ride taken by Earhart and Noonan, but involved much more. I am not versed enough in communications to come up with an answer, but then again no one else seems to be able as well. I need tp reread the above columns you have included. Thanks.
    read the 2

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The only thought that comes into my mind that makes any sense at all, is this: I haven’t got out my world map to look, but I’m guessing, and I could be very wrong, is that 1728 GMT might be, or should be, about early morning at Howland where the radio exchanges take place, with her calling Itasca indicating she was lost. In fact, it’s likely that she had already landed at Mili Atoll and she was just sending out messages to make it appear she was lost.

    The 750 mile distance from Mili would not be so far away that her signal would be noticeably weak. Of course she would not sound desperate, because she is safely landed on a reef or beach. Of course her exchange with the Itasca was such that it could have been recordings, Itasca’s reply to her would have been fairly predictable. In other words, if we accept the Mili landing as Fact then she had to have landed there by the time her final messages went out. So either it is recordings or she is being purposely deceptive.

    One would think that if the purpose of her landing on Mili was to give the USN an excuse to search the Marshalls then she would have transmitted some message to the effect that she was down on an island west of Howland. However she didn’t. This also assumes that the record of her radio messages is accurate and not purposely doctored. Didn’t McMenamy and his fellow radio monitors get into a scuffle with the USN when they indicated they had heard a different version of her radio messages and they were told to button their lips? I seem to vaguely remember some such encounter in my readings.
    Sincerely,
    David

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The radio intercept by HMS Achilles was subsequently denied when they arrived in Honolulu (my thanks to Les Kinney for this information). This raises an important question: why would Achilles report overhearing a very specific SOS message from Earhart “quite down, but radio still working”, only to later retract it??

    The answer seems obvious, the British were aware what had happened and retracted their previous report to maintain the official conclusion of the US Navy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Greetings,

      Given the tenor of the times vis-a-vis the ongoing dispute between the United States and Great Britain over the sovereignty of a number of Pacific islands, I think it would require something very compelling indeed for HMS Achilles to retract a report of hearing a post-loss radio transmission from AE to accommodate the U.S. Navy.

      For more about the island sovereignty disputes between the United States and Great Britain please see the following sources:

      https://tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/Research/Research Papers/Phoenixislands.html

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Equatorial_Islands_Colonization-Project

      usas1939.org/richard.black/

      All best,

      William

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The interesting thing about HMS Achilles retracting their earlier report stating that they overheard Amelia’s distress call is that the person giving this statement was Lt Commander (later Admiral, and Sir) Peter Dawnay. Dawnay was signals Officer for the New Zealand Swiadron of the Royal Navy, of which HMS Achilles was the flagship. Dawnay was assigned to HMS Leander, not HMS Achilles. From what I have researched thus far, he was not aboard Achilles when the distress calls were picked up, nor when they docked in Honolulu. I intend to confirm this as definite shortly.

        So the question is this: why would the British retract their earlier report despite overhearing a very definite SOS. The very same SOS also overheard by the Pan Am station at Wake Island.

        There is rather more to this than meets the eye. In fact, rather than providing evidence that there were no legitimate post-loss radio signals, the subsequent back-tracking by the British suggest an attempt to conceal the truth. And the fact that the senior signals officer became involved adds further weight to the argument.

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    2. Many thanks for the reply. This is all most interesting, and I look forward to reading more about it. All the very best to you with your research.

      All best,

      William

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      1. Reading these posts this morning sent me off on another tangent. Clearly, I am at times completely off-base. I just take a story I read here or in a book and assuming it to be true, think about all the implications. Another day I might read something that seems to contradict the first story and see where my thinking will take me for that one.

        Anyway, today I got to the post-loss radio transmissions. I had been wondering about Pierson and McMenamy, but I didn’t see anything about “the authorities” telling them to keep quiet about any radio message they purportedly heard. I guess I might have been wrong about that. It was interesting to see that Gurr? had installed an emergency battery in her plane. One day, I tried to figure how long a 6 volt heavy duty battery would power a 50 watt radio. I came up with about an hour. I read just now that Hooven thought just the same. But then it read like she couldn’t have transmitted after an hour. No, it means that she could have done many short messages over an extended period until they added up to an hour elapsed time. So that means many days. Also, by my calculations, the auxiliary tanks by themselves would have floated the plane.

        This is a fact. It does not mean the plane would sink quickly given the example of the Cape Cod plane sinking. One does not follow from the other. The wing tanks would have helped. What were the vents like? As far as I know, they were U shaped inverted tubes designed so no water would come in even if the wing leaked. Why Prymak would be convinced the plane would quickly sink I don’t understand.

        One thing I never hear discussed is how long did it take the Japanese to get to her? If the two natives that witnessed her landing on Mili Atoll were apprehensive they would be spotted, it sounds like the Japanese were there quickly, or a fishing boat was. So if they spotted her within hours, how could she transmit for days? I suppose if the official USN narrative is she crashed and sank, any transmissions would be debunked by the USN. It was also interesting to read that Fred was still alive after the war and people would meet him in bars. Sounds plausible. If Fred survived, it implies Amelia did too. Whatever assignment Amelia and Fred had, it appears they completed it. We just don’t know what it was. It also appears that the disparaged book about British involvement in her disappearance may not have been a work of fiction after all.

        Sincerely,
        David

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      2. David,

        There are references to Joseph Gurr on pages 25, and 45-47 in TTAL 2nd ed. Gurr installed the emergency battery in the Electra’s cockpit. Also, Carl Pierson, pages 40-42, and Walter McMenamy, pages 40-42, 51, 53, and notes on page 168.

        From page 42 of TTAL — “Later, Goerner wrote [26 March 1971 letter from Fred Goerner to Fred Hooven], Amelia told Pierson she welcomed his assistance during her forthcoming world flight, ‘but sometime before the start of the first… attempted flight, AE became unavailable to him and he got the message that his assistance was neither required or desired.'”

        I don’t know if we can attach anything sinister to that. It’s open to wide interpretation. Let’s just say that it’s interesting.

        In case you’re interested, there’s a book entitled, “Aeronautic Radio A Manual For Operators, Pilots, Radio Mechanics” (1939), The Ronald Press Company by Myron F. Eddy, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, Retired. I recently acquired an April 1943 3rd edition. Chapter 6 is devoted entirely to batteries. If you can find a copy, it may answer some of your radio/battery questions. Chapter 12 is all about Radio Direction Finders, which was my principle reason for purchasing the book.

        I think that, surviving ditching in a calm sea intact, the empty gas tanks in the Electra would have kept it afloat for a very long time.

        All best,

        William

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      3. Thanks, William. It was gratifying to discover that Fred Hooven agreed with my analysis which I did with high school physics. The only question is, would a 50W radio perform the same as a 50W light bulb? Yes, evidently it would. But my analysis would never match someone like Rafford’s, so maybe I am wasting my time. I always get that feeling when I sit down with my map and calculator, I am not answering the big questions.

        I feel that AE was obviously able to make distress calls, whether it was an emergency radio & battery or whether she could anyway, even floating in a lagoon. Since she made distress calls, that would rule out my hypothesis that she intentionally landed on Mili. REading about Rudolph Hess, the thought crossed my mind that AE may have been sent to talk Japan into aligning with the Allies against Germany as Japan had done in WW1 and got about nothing in return. I think she just took the mandated islands, no one handed them over to her. When that didn’t work, maybe FDR disavowed her and the Japanese decided to keep her. Yes, very far fetched, just as Hess’ flight was. THat’s my thought for today. Sorry, I haven’t solved anything.
        Sincerely,
        David

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  4. AE had to have known how unfriendly some of the listeners of her messages were, so it might have been that the Japanese used them to find her in the Marshalls. But her appearance at Barre island was probably a pretty strong beacon of attention. Be interesting to see the diplomatic communications from Japan to Washington about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ken,

      Interesting that you would bring that up. I have something interesting and new — at least to me — ready to post fairly soon. Stay tuned.

      Mike

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m staying tuned, I haven’t reached for my dial yet. So this is the story we are supposed to believe. Never mind how she got there, or what she was up to, we stipulate she landed on Mili Atoll. At first the Japanese were celebrating rescuing the famous aviatrix, then quickly changed their tune and denied ever having found any sign of her. This immediately became a sensitive secret, but why? There is no plausible reason they should deny they found her. Somehow, FDR soon learns where she is. He can’t tell the Japanese he knows because he only found out by breaking their code.

    Why can’t he say they heard one or more SOS messages from her and they came from that direction? It always seemed to me that the most likely scenario was that the Japanese wanted a concession or explanation which FDR refused to give, so the Japanese just kept her. In the past I have thought there were intense negotiations between the two countries and the issue was never resolved, yet we are supposed to believe that no such negotiation ever happened. To me, that seems very unlikely, but I have no way to refute it. In this years long discussion we are all having these conjectures of mine, at first shot down, have a way of becoming more close to the truth as time goes on, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it turns out there were intense conversations between Japan and USA about her case.
    David

    Liked by 1 person

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