Lae radio operator recalls Earhart flight in ’61 letter

More has been written about Amelia Earhart’s final flight and the hours immediately preceding and following it than any other aspect of her disappearance.  With the 85th anniversary of Amelia’s last flight now in our rear-views, we hear from Harry Balfour, the radio operator at Lae, New Guinea, officially the last person to carry on a two-way conversation with the doomed flier. 

The following letter appeared in the July 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.  I don’t have Joe Gervais’ letter that elicited this response from Balfour.  Boldface emphasis mine throughout. 

“A Letter to Joe Gervais from Harry Balfour, Radio Operator at Lae, New Guinea July 1937″

Cairns, Australia
March 4, 1961

Dear Captain Gervais,

I received your letter and the log copy of the Itaska [sic] upon my arrival at Cairns.  Both are very interesting, BUT THE LOG IS CONFLICTING.  I feel I must give you a picture of the radio setup at Lae and what took place before and after AE arrived at Lae.

The radio equipment [on Lae] was composed of two transmitters, one of 300 watts phone fed into a dipole antenna cut to 3 megacycles [3000 kilocycles or kcs].  This transmitter was remotely controlled from an operating position in the cargo store on the airstrip and was normally operated by the cargo superintendent (Mr. Farnham) for the purpose of getting cargo information from Salamoa, Wau, and Bulolo on phone usually on 6540 kcs; a separate receiving antenna was swung between the hangar and the cargo store.

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.

The second radio transmitter was in the cargo store for the purpose of receiving early morning weather reports from inland, and for communication with Rabaul and Salamoa coast stations which sent and received all our commercial traffic.  All AE’s weather reports were received over this circuit from stations on her route, and weather forecast and past weather from Howland.  This transmitter was both phone and key, power one kilowatt. The company had one Lockheed and one 5AT Ford fitted with radio.  The three Junkers G31 and the Junkers W34 were open cockpit machines, and therefore were not fitted with radio although plans were, I understand, that these machines were to be fitted by the previous manager.  But when Eric Chater took over the management he was not so progressive.  Although he was a pilot, he had never, to my knowledge, flew a radio equipped aircraft, nor had any other of the pilots in the company.

I had two jobs at Lae: Radio Operator in Charge, and Electrician in charge.  Our power supply was a diesel electric generator 3 phase 50 cycle AC 150 kw.  This power was more than adequate for the day and night load at Lae.  I was also Flight Engineer at weekends occasionally.

We received messages of AE progress from Java onwards to Lae.  A message was finally received from Darwin, giving information that she had finally taken off for Lae and giving her estimated ETA.  I called the aircraft on 6540, but received no reply at any time, but that was explained later; she had no knowledge that we were equipped for aeronautical communication.  On arrival, she was met by all the necessary big shots and plans were made to give them both a great social round-up.  She acknowledged the welcome, and was very nice to everybody, and was photographed quite a lot by an amateur photographer, T. O’Dea, who was a part-time manager of Stephens Aircraft Co., a pilot, and a publicity seeker also.  But at that time he was not in the employ of Guinea Airways.  AE eventually snubbed him; she disliked him.

AE and Fred eventually settled into the hotel at Lae and would not see anyone, but sent a message that she particularly wanted to see me.  I went down to the hotel and she wanted all the weather, plus her private messages that had stacked up for her.  I went over all these with her in detail, and she asked me if I could come to the hotel every day and bring the weather reports, and any other traffic for her.  Fred trotted around quite a bit, I cannot remember everywhere he went, but AE was so enthusiastic over the flight that she did not want to go anywhere or be entertained by the local ladies (much to the anger of the local ladies)!  She never even dressed like a woman while she was in Lae. 

She had her hair cut short like a man, and wore trousers and checked shirt, and from a short distance looked like a slim, freckled-faced youth.  But to talk to, she was very charming and seemed to take in all that was said to her.  She was an excellent pilot, and won the respect of our pilots for the way she handled the Lockheed.

In this rarely seen photo taken from Last Flight, Amelia Earhart is shown shortly after her arrival at Lae, New Guinea on June 30, 1937.

 I made arrangements to keep the station open for long periods in the evening in case any extra traffic came in via Rabaul.  She was very grateful for the extra service, but the management did not like it.  However, it was on my own time, and I felt that anything I could do was my business, and that the radio communication was going to be an important factor in the flight.  I was anxious to prove to AE that my transmit could (under normal conditions) hold communication with her to the end of her flight (modulation was always very clear on phone).  She seemed to be very happy and relieved to know this. The only thing was that it took 15 to 20 minutes to change frequency to 3 megacycles.  It meant that I would have to walk to the station, change coils, tune, and walk back to the control room.  This I explained, and if she wanted to go to the night frequency she was to allow me that time before coming on again.  I was not happy about it because I had never ever used 3 mcs — only for testing with our own Lockheed.

Now comes a very interesting part.  During one of our conferences between AE, Fred and myself at the hotel, I was explaining to them how they could make use of shipping along the route, and that I could arrange that she could communicate with ships in range.  Also that Rabaul and Nauru could warn ships and keep a lookout for them on 500 kcs or give them weather en route.  It was then they both admitted that THEY COULD NOT READ MORSE * and were only able to pick out an individual letter! 

* (Prymak note) AES DOES NOT BUY THIS. . . BALFOUR OBVIOUSLY HAD PERSONAL SELF-AGGRANDIZING MOTIVES TO SPREAD THIS LIE. . . . SEE PG. 6 FOR FRED NOONAN’S TRUE MORSE CODE CAPABILITY.

And the night before the flight, they were seriously thinking of making an offer to take me with them.  She asked me if I would go along if they decided they could manage with the extra weight.  I said that I would consult my wife about it, and let her know later in the evening.  However, my wife thought it would be all right.  I told AE, and she decided later that I would be of more use to the flight by looking after her interests at this end at the radio station.  Furthermore, they would have to sacrifice gas load.  I still maintained that a radio operator would have been more use than the extra gas, and that handling a fully loaded machine in any weather is a full-time job unless there are adequate radio facilities along the route.  Before she had arrived at this decision she informed me that they were going to arrive in the US [sic] on the 4th of July, if all went well, and that it would be the National Holiday, and that if I had to lose my job by coming with them, she would see that I got a job with PAA.

Apart from the test flight which I mentioned in my letter to you, I checked her DF on the ground.  But only two points were checked 000 degrees and 090 degrees, with Salamoa radio station on 500 kcs.  The plane at that time was not loaded.  Fred was quite happy about it.  AE was around the aircraft quite a lot during the day, watching our mechanics going over her engines, and asking quite a lot of questions.  I do not recollect what was done to her machine mechanically.  That part of the job was in charge of a chap by the name of Herman Hotz, who was an excellent mechanic and a thorough tradesman in every way.  The mechanic in charge, or Chief Engineer, was Ted Finn, also a very capable man.  Mr. Chater did not like her about the workshop, but he never got around to telling her.  He did not appear to go out of his way to help, but only to do the necessary things and no more — or the things HE considered ought to be done.  Mr. Chater seemed to consider that the flight was a bit of a nuisance, and that they were upsetting the routine of the company, and that is where I tangled with him.

View of group posed in front of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10-E Electra (NR 16020) at Lae, New Guinea, July 1937. From left to right are Eric Chater (Manager, Guinea Airways), Mrs. Chater, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.

My own personal opinion about the flight was that it was not particularly hazardous, because she had a good machine, good radio, a navigator who was an ex PAA man, with radio assistance at both ends, plenty of fuel, and up-to-date weather reports with an excellent forecast before take-off.  I have since flown with Quantas many trips 3,600 miles non-stop, carrying mail and passengers on twin engine Catalinas through Japanese occupied territory from Perth to Ceylon — 29 to 30 hours from take-off to landing.  I would consider our conditions almost similar to hers — just a flying gas tank.  But we had to put up with radio silence.  I did remark to AE one day, looking inside the fuselage, that even if she had to ditch, that enormous cylindrical gas tank that she carried inside would keep them afloat.  I doubt it would ever sink — that is if it did not break up on landing.

Now with regard to the airmail covers, I have no reason to doubt that they were on the inside.  I did notice a couple of bags or sacks in the tail end.  They were not very big, but I don’t know what they contained.

The items she left with me were: radio facilities, books, personal telegrams, pistol and ammunition, a spare jacket, and clip board.  These items are all scattered; I don’t remember what happened to the jacket, the radio facilities book with her notes, and telegrams.  As far as I know, they are still in Sydney.  I have not seen them for a long time.  I did not have time to try and get them in Sydney as our stay was too short, and also my wife and I have been separated now for some years.  She still has them — also photos.  With regard to the log, I have written Mr. [Jim] Collopy, who may be able to dig it up from the archives at civil aviation headquarters in Melbourne.  He was at that time Govt. Aircraft Inspector, living in Salamoa, but more about that when I see you.  My log and my report was handed over to Mr. Chater, and it was shortly after that I had a big disagreement with the management, resigned, and went to sea until I joined Quantas.  I did criticize the company in my report for not allowing me more time in which to carry out further checks on her radio equipment, and that I was told to close the station after 8 P.M. the day of her take-off.  We had no means of taking any radio bearings at Lae, but I felt that if I had stayed on all night, I may have been able to pick up something or QSO [contact] the Itasca.

My last schedule with her was at either 7:15 or 7:45 PM Lae time, in which she reported everything O.K. and on course at 7,500 feet — and she would change to 3105 [kcs] for next schedule.  In the meantime, I rushed home and had something to eat and drove back to the strip as soon as possible.  Without my log I cannot remember whether it was 7:15 of 7:45 that I last contacted her on 6210/6540 [kcs], but she was loud and clear.  I particularly asked her not to change frequency because there was no need to do that.  Communication up to that time was excellent, and during the day people working in the cargo store could hear her over the loud speaker.

AES Newsletter caption: A rare photograph of Amelia and Fred with local mechanics checking out the ship. . . Lae, N.G.”

My opinion why she wanted to change frequency was to try and contact the Itasca, thinking that the night frequency was better.  I did hear her voice through the static, but unable to distinguish any sense from the signal.  In fact I could not even say if it was her. The signal I received may have been from the Itasca.  It was a night of fairly heavy static for phone operation, but a radio operator using Morse could have gotten through.

With regard to AE’s papers, I could obtain them, or you could, as they are of no use to anyone else but you.  If you do go to Australia, you certainly could get them.  I will fix that up.

Yours very sincerely,

H. Balfour

 

Regarding Bill Prymak’s note that readers should SEE PG. 6 FOR FRED NOONAN’S TRUE MORSE CODE CAPABILITY, he’s referencing a 1988 letter from Alan Vagg, a radio operator at Bulolo, New Guinea, 40 miles southwest of Lae, to Fred Goerner, in which he makes some confusing, even conflicting statements, the truth of which remains fuzzy.  In writing about this letter in Truth at Last, I made the mistake of omitting a key sentence, which I will include now.

On page 46 of Truth at Last (2nd Edition), I wrote: 

Although most researchers believe the Electra carried no telegraph key on its flight to Howland Island — a reasonable assumption based on Earhart’s own statements — we cannot be certain.  Noonan could have kept a telegraph key for emergency use without telling anyone.  Alan Vagg, the radio operator at Bulolo, forty miles southwest of Lae, claimed he had radiotelegraph communication with Noonan during the Electra’s flight from Darwin, Australia, to Lae.  In a 1988 letter to Fred Goerner, Vagg said he “was impressed with the quality of Noonan’s Morse.  Slow but very clear and easy to read.  This is based on the first contact made with the plane when I contacted it on its flight to Lae from Darwin.  This was done following an instruction from our Head Office in Sydney to endeavor to contact them.

The foregoing could easily influence the reader to believe that Noonan used Morse code to communicate with Alan Vagg during his approach to Lae, but I inadvertently omitted statements by Vagg in the same letter to Goerner that might contradict his assertion about Noonan’s Morse usage.

“Re the Amelia Earhart case,” Vagg wrote in the second paragraph, “I found the copies of correspondence that you sent of great interest, and realize that it is quite possible that I was wrong in stating that Morse was used.  I am surprised that Balfour did not mention that we both worked in it together, and took alternate turns to work the aircraft throughout the day.”

Much later in Vagg’s letter, he returned to the subject of Noonan’s alleged Morse usage:

As Harry and myself were communicating with each other frequently during the day in question and taking it in turns to work the aircraft, we could have been constantly changing from voice to aircraft and Morse between stations, which was normalThis and the time lapse could account for my mis-statement [sic] re the methods of communication.

Others were more familiar with Noonan’s radio capabilities, including Almon Gray, who, with the possible exception of Paul Rafford Jr., was qualified to discuss Amelia Earhart’s radio arrangements and behavior.  In Gray’s “Amelia Earhart and Radio” his lengthy analysis that first appeared in the June 1993 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, he wrote in part: 

From personal observation the writer knows that as of late 1935 Noonan could send and receive plain language at slow speeds, around eight to 10 words per minute.  Recent research by Noonan biographer Michael A. Lang has revealed that circa 1931 Noonan held a Second Class Commercial Radio Operator license issued by the Radio Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.  Second Class licenses of that vintage certify that the holder has been examined and passed the following elements:

. . . (c) Transmitting and sound reading at a speed of not less than sixteen words a minute Continental Morse in code groups and twenty words a minute in plain language.  (Italics mine.)

So much for Noonan’s alleged Morse code usage during the world flight attempt, for what it’s worth.  For many more discussions by experts on various aspects of the final flight, please click here.

8 responses

  1. In todays communication environment, the radio issues of 1937 seem large. Changing coils in a transmitter seems very crude. You had to be careful also working around the high voltage on those transmitters too. You could get shocked easily. In spite of this, they did communicate well with what they had. Morse is not as hard as it first seems. You get used to the rythms of certain words pretty quickly.

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  2. Fascinating, Mike- interesting that Balfour did not consider the flight particularly hazardous..was that a true sentiment or just something to make himself look more capable..I wonder if Balfour had been able to make that leg with them if that would have made any difference..I guess we will never know

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  3. David Atchason | Reply

    Just wondering……
    From the sound of this AES article, it would seem that between Fred and Amelia, they did know some Morse code. How come, if they were aware as everybody on this blog is, that messages that MUST be understood would need to be sent in Morse? How come there is no record whatsoever of Amelia sending an SOS or anything else in code? I’m not sure if this is right, but doesn’t CW or Morse code use much less electric power? There would have been no garbled messages that “sounded like her” but “not understood.” If they were truly in grave danger wouldn’t they have tried everything?

    That they never used Morse sounds suspicious to me. Were her voice distress calls all fake? Or was she being understood very well and her distress calls were deleted? Maybe she didn’t carry a Morse key, but they could still send basic letters using the microphone key? Since they did carry emergency gear, why not a lightweight Morse key? Seems like Fred most likely did use one to commnicate with Balfour.

    To go off on a tangent, I liked Balfour’s recognition that they had so much capacity in those auxiliary gas tanks that they would not sink. It is true, that those tanks, when empty by themselves would float the plane. Indefinitely, as he said. Did those tanks have dump valves? I know the wing tanks did. Didn’t pilots always dump their fuel when ditching their plane, especially landing on a coral reef or even a sandy beach? I doubt very much Amelia would have kept any gas in her tanks when landing on the rough Nikumaroro coral. So that she could transmit many messages as Gillespie asserts by running her engine.

    I would think that even landing in the open ocean as Long believes, if she could empty her tanks she would float indefinitely. This would be a strong incentive to do just that. The plane could drift anywhere and might not sink until it washed up on one of the little islands. Even Mili Atoll. Long appears to believe once she landed in the ocean, the plane would just sink. Period. I doubt that. This is a problem with my offbeat theories, I know that. I just don’t have the answer, unless she somehow scuttled her plane by letting seawater into the gas tanks. Far fetched, I know.

    Sincerely,
    David

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    1. “I would think that even landing in the open ocean as Long believes, if she could empty her tanks she would float indefinitely. This would be a strong incentive to do just that”; um….the only reason for landing in the open ocean would be empty fuel tanks to begin with.

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      1. Tom,

        Good remark. You got me there.

        What I don’t know, is, if she was attempting a landing on Mili Atoll, would she try to land on a sandy beach if one existed or land in a shallow lagoon or could she land on hard coral if that’s what the surface was? From the sound of the eyewitness reports she had to use a little yellow life raft so she didn’t land on a dry beach or on coral. Eventually, maybe decades, the plane would sink. However, if she was on a spy mission she would need cameras and she might be instructed to sink the plane, don’t let it fall into Japanese hands. From what I have learned, during the war in the Pacific, aerial photos were made of all those islands before they were invaded. What use would photos of Jap islands in 1937 really be? It seems it would be far too dangerous in those days to send Amelia to overfly the Mandates for the little amount of info she would get.

        Sincerely,
        David

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  4. After reading Balfour’s letter, I think the crash and sunk crowd lacks support for their idea. The plane would have floated for a long time with that big empty gas tank as a flotation device.

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  5. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Maybe it was simply a nice gesture made by AE based on her strong assumption that he’d decline the offer, but Harry Balfour’s claim of an invitation from AE to accompany her and FN on the last leg seems inconsistent with their emptying of the Electra of all extraneous items to save weight.

    From Dave Horner’s “The Earhart Enigma,” (2013), Pelican Publishing Company, pages 31 and 32 — “Amelia was well known to have been concerned about weight. She had left the trailing antenna–in Miami, although the entire rig weighed only about nine pounds, or less than two gallons of gas. She said, ‘Fred and I have been working very hard in the last two days repacking the plane and eliminating everything unessential. We have discarded as much personal property as we can decently get along without and henceforth propose to travel lighter than ever before.'”

    Agree with Tom Williams’ comment 100%.

    All best,

    William

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  6. David Atchason | Reply

    I was just reading about the Japanese invasion of the Gilberts in Dec 1941 which originated in Truk. Simultaneous the with Pearl Harbor attack, just about. There was also a Japanese force (a different invasion?) which left from Jaluit. My take is that possibly FDR was concerned that the Pearl Harbor attack fleet would sail from Truk and/or Jaluit perhaps as early as 1937. I think I have read this elsewhere. What would set off this alarm to FDR I don’t know, but it would imply a motive for sending Amelia to overfly Truk, at least, on her final flight as I now believe she did.

    When I thought about it, a while ago, I thought, here we have a woman pilot, rare in those days, who was reasonably competent but couldn’t hold a candle to the likes of Lindbergh, whom the members of FDR’s National Security Council took a shine to. So much so, that they gifted her a superior aircraft to do what with? Make publicity flights so she and Putnam could make a big score? There must have been some in those days who considered it an irrational expense in those Depression years. The public was even more naive in those days than they are now.

    Whatever set off the alarm bells in FDR’s head in 1937 must have seemed a compelling reason to send Amelia off on her very risky endeavour. There probably wasn’t a Japanese invasion force at Truk in 1937, but since the Japs were already thinking about the eventuality of their first strike it must have plenty freaked them out that this American plane was nosing around the Mandates. Maybe FDR thought the Japs were getting ready for their Gilberts invasion, which would be an equally important reason for Amelia to do a little spying. My speculation for today.
    Sincerely,

    David

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