Rafford Jr. on amateur radio in the AE “Mystery”

Readers of this blog are familiar with Paul Rafford Jr.’s fascinating work.  His public introduction came in Vincent V. Loomis’ 1985 book, Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, in which he discussed his current ideas about the Electra’s radio capabilities and Amelia’s bizarre actions during the final flight.  Though Rafford’s 2006 book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, wasn’t a commercial success, it presented invaluable information and insights previously unseen. 

I’ve presented three articles that focused on his important contributions to the modern search for Amelia Earhart: 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?

Rafford, among the last surviving members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society, passed away on Dec. 10, 2016 at 97.  I often thought of him as “The Elder Statesman of Earhart Research.  Recently I came upon a gem from Rafford that he sent me in 2008, and which has been unpublished until now.  This is the first of two parts.

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.

“Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery”
By Paul Rafford Jr.

“AMELIA EARHART MISSING!” screamed the newspaper headlines and radio newscasters. The world’s most famous woman flyer and her navigator, Fred Noonan had vanished in mid-Pacific while trying to reach tiny Howland Island from Lae, New Guinea.  After she failed to make radio contact with the Coast Guard cutter Itasca waiting at Howland, the crew heard her declare that she was on the line of position 157 – 337 and was switching from 3105 kHz to 6210 kHz.  When Itasca failed to hear her on 6210 kHz they assumed she was down and hurriedly steamed north northwest.  Thus, on the morning of July 2, 1937 Itasca began one of America’s greatest air sea searches.  Along with a fleet of smaller vessels it would be joined by the Navy’s aircraft carrier Lexington  and cruiser Colorado..

I remember tuning my National 100 ham receiver to Earhart’s frequencies.  I realized that the chances of hearing signals from an airplane down in the mid Pacific at my New Jersey QTH were astronomically small.  But I could at least boast that I had listened for her.

In order to maintain control over several uninhabited islands in the Central Pacific claimed by the United States, in the mid 1930’s our government decided to colonize them.  But it was in the middle of the Great Depression and government money was scarce.  Our military might have been tasked to set up weather and radio stations but with war clouds gathering it was decided to occupy them with civilian volunteers.

The project was turned over to the Department of Interior who built the runways.  The communications problem was solved by amateur radio.  Each island would have a ham station with the operators using their own call signs.  They would send weather reports and any other government business messages to a designated ham in Hawaii.

In late 1981, Bob Lieson and I were seat partners aboard an Air Force airliner on our way to Ascension Island from Cape Canaveral.  Our job would be trouble shooting a 50 kilowatt transmitter that had developed somebugs.  I confided to Bob that I would also be measuring static levels on 3105 kHz.  Ascension, in the middle of the South Atlantic should have the same static levels as Howland.  I needed the values for my Amelia Earhart radio analysis.

Bob immediately perked up. “I was on Howland for eight months!  Didn’t you read my article in CQ?”  I admitted that I probably had but 1941 was forty years ago and I was busy flying the oceans for Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer.

During his stay on Howland, Bob had contacted hundreds of stations from KF6SJJ, some of them many times.  But what Bob didn’t know was that after the outbreak of war in Europe, the FCC ordered that American hams could no longer work foreign stations. 

When Bob returned to Honolulu there were hundreds of QSL cards waiting — and an FCC Inspector!  But Bob got off the hook by explaining that he was out of touch with the world: No one told me not to work foreigners!

The crumbling “Earhart Lighthouse” was built in 1937 but was doomed to a short life.  The island’s short history as a settled colony ended with strafing from Japanese aircraft during WWII.  The station has been inactive since 1942 — the structure is now considered a “day beacon” — and the island is now a national wildlife refuge.

[Editor’s note, from Wikipedia: A QSL card is a written confirmation of either a two-way radio communication between two amateur radio or citizens band stations; a one-way reception of a signal from an AM radio, FM radio, television or shortwave broadcasting station; or the reception of a two-way radio communication by a third-party listener.  A typical QSL card is the same size and made from the same material as a typical postcard, and most are sent through the mail as such.

QSL card derived its name from the Q code QSL.  A Q code message can stand for a statement or a question (when the code is followed by a question mark). In this case, QSL? (note the question mark) means Do you confirm receipt of my transmission?while “QSL (without a question mark) meansI confirm receipt of your transmission.]

Bob had already left when Howland was strafed at the time of Pearl Harbor, killing two colonists.  After the survivors were evacuated, the island was never again occupied.  Today it is a wildlife sanctuary.  Visitors are prohibited from going ashore unless accompanied by government officials.  But for a DX-pedition, and there have been several, what could be better that a tiny Pacific island, the closest land to the intersection of the international date line and the equator?

[From Wikipedia: A DX-pedition is an expedition to what is considered an exotic place by amateur radio operators and DX listeners, perhaps because of its remoteness, access restrictions or simply because there are very few radio amateurs active from that place. This could be an island, a country, or even a particular spot on a geographical grid. DX is a telegraphic shorthand fordistance or distant (see DXing).]

Yau Fai Lum, K6GNW is undoubtedly the most famous ham to have operated  from Howland.  He was the resident radio operator at the time Amelia Earhart was supposed to land and refuel.  During the 1990’s my friend John Riley, N2ERJ happened to locate Lum in the Call Book while looking up another ham.  Soon, both John and I were corresponding with him.  Lum had retired from the Honolulu Police Department as head of the communications section with a rank equivalent to police captain.  Now very old and sickly, he had given up ham radio.  But his mind was alert and his memory very clear.  Unfortunately, he died shortly after we started corresponding.  But he had been an active ham right up until his illness took him down.

Yau Fai Lum, undated. Courtesy of Paul Rafford Jr.

In 1981, I visited the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and the Naval Archives in our nation’s capitol.  Up until then, I had accepted the commonly held belief that Earhart and Noonan had simply been unable to find Howland, ran out of gas and crashed at sea. But I found it hard to believe that a Pan American Airways’ navigator could get lost!  In all my years of flying we never got lost.  Maybe we got a bit confused now and then but lost — never!

As I read Itasca’s radio logs and the Navy’s report on its search, I became more and more skeptical!  I knew that things couldn’t have happened the way the public had been led to believe.  For example, there were three radio navigation systems that could have led Earhart to Howland.  They were radio bearings taken on Itasca with her own direction finder, radio bearings taken on her by Itasca and radio bearings taken on her by a portable direction finder set up on Howland.  So what went wrong?

Regarding radio bearings taken by Itasca, the ship’s direction finder covered only frequencies below the AM broadcast band.  The crew had expected Earhart to transmit on 500 kHz. while approaching Howland.  But unlike most planes flying the oceans back then, Earhart did not carry a trailing antenna.  Without it she could not transmit on 500 kHz.

So why didn’t the flyers try to take bearings on Itasca’s 500 kHz. transmissions with their own direction finder?  It had been calibrated in the 500 kHz. range in Miami and checked at Lae.  But instead, Earhart requested that Itasca transmit on 7500 kHz., a frequency far too high for airborne loop direction finders.  After announcing that she was unable to get a bearing on 7500 kHz., Earhart made no further attempt to take bearings, despite the fact that Itasca was also transmitting on 500 kHz.

There was still one other direction finder that could have brought the flyers to Howland. [Navy 2nd Class] Radioman Frank Cipriani was set up on the island with a loop direction finder tuned to 3105 kHz.  But Earhart never gave him a chance to get a bearing.  The Navy’s report claims she never stayed on the air more than seven or eight seconds at a time.  With those old loop d/f’s it took at least 30 seconds between when a station came on the air and when the operator finished getting a bearing.  But even if she had stayed on longer, her signal was so weak that her range for bearings was little more than fifty miles.  However, even if Cipriani had been able to get a bearing, without two-way communication he couldn’t have passed it up to her.  Noonan was well versed in radio navigation.  So where was he while Earhart was allegedly struggling to find Howland?

(End of Part I.)


13 responses

  1. In Fred Goerner’s book “The Search For Amelia Earhart”
    he states that AE had the Trailing Antenna removed from
    the Electra. Why would she do this? Especially with Noonan
    with her and Paul Mantz as her advisor.

    It’s also odd that Fred Noonan did not know Morse Code.


  2. Stuart R Brownstein | Reply

    Mike, My friend down South:
    Keep up the awesome work, I am enjoying it immensely ! Take care my friend and be well.
    Stuart, Your friend up north


  3. Very good and concise summary of emergency radio options available in 1937.

    The trailing antenna would have allowed Amelia to transmit on 500 KHZ, which would have allowed Itasca to get a radio bearing on her. Removal of the reel and antenna reduced weight, allowing more fuel to be carried, but it also removed the possibility of them transmitting on the 500 KHZ emergency frequency.

    I think that Fred Noonan DID know Morse Code, but the point was moot once the Antenna was removed. For emergency transmission (he did not need to read any incoming messages) he could easily have drafted (using dots and dashes) an emergency message format in advance, and simply filled in the necessary numbers corresponding to his Position, Time, Altitude, True Heading, True Airspeed, and any remarks (such as fuel/time remaining).

    Itasca was hearing Amelia’s voice transmissions, although she could not hear them. Had she simply relayed the above information at any time in the form of a position report, Itasca would have had much better information to begin their search for her.

    Although the Air Sea Rescue portable radio set, known as “The Gibson Girl” was not in production until 1941, it also operated on 500 KHZ and was in use throughout World War II by US, British, German, and Russian forces and was highly successful in locating downed airmen. It did require deployment of a very long antenna, just as would have been required of Amelia’s trailing antenna.



  4. I thought Noonan did in fact know some basic Morse code..I read that somewhere, maybe here in a previous blog. After reading all the discrepancies in this case, you really have to ask yourself, “what the hell was going on in those final moments?” Was leaving the trailing antenna deliberate ? Was in fact, the landing on the Mili Atoll deliberate, part of a plan from the beginning? if she was in fact so ignorant of radio skills, would Noonan not realize that, deliberately placing themselves in danger on what was already a very dangerous leg of the journey? Unless. of course, this was all part of a plan as theorized, to allow the US to inspect what was going on in the Mandated Islands in their rescue mission of the two fliers. Most interesting is Radford’s claim that he could not imagine Noonan(maybe the best aerial navigator of his day), getting lost.. all this makes your head spin


  5. The more I learn about the mystery of Earhart and Noonan the more I think it has been covered up by both the US and Japan.


  6. A Cessna was flown from California to Hawaii this week, an 18 hour flight. The pilot used HF radio to communicate. Modern airliners usually use VHF radios, but that can’t be used on long flights to places like Hawaii or Australia.


  7. Searches for downed aircraft often turn up empty-handed. Consider the massive search for Steve Fossett in 2007 that turned up nothing. He was found a year after he crashed by some hikers by accident–they were not looking for him. He had run into the side of a mountain. He did not run out of gas or have radio problems. If left up to the govt., that would have been another “mystery” disappearance too.


  8. The more I learn about Howland Island, the more I think it better that Earhart never landed there. She might have gotten stuck there and unable to take off. What a nasty “airport”!


    1. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Amelia would rather have landed at Howland and gotten stuck there (of course she wouldn’t have actually been stuck there) than dying on Saipan at the hands of the Japanese.


  9. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Neither Amelia Earhart nor Fred Noonan were stupid, careless, or irresponsible. The decision to leave the trailing wire antenna behind (whether at Lockheed in Burbank, at Miami, or at Lae is immaterial) that was absolutely crucial to communicating on 500 kHz was not taken lightly or done casually. Its removal was deliberate and with a specific purpose. It served an agenda. I do not buy the flimsy excuses that it was a chore for AE to reel back in. So what? It was critical to the safety of their flight. And FN could have easily performed that task for her anyway. Nor do I believe it was to save weight. The trailing wire antenna only weighed about nine pounds — that’s less than two gallons of aviation gasoline. Surely, if weight was that critical a factor, something else far less important could have easily been sacrificed and the trailing wire antenna retained. Or, were “radio difficulties” a part of the plan?

    There are other things which do not make sense to me. One of the most glaring in my mind is why AE would so blithely decline the kind and generous offer by Pan American Airways’ George Angus (no doubt with Juan Trippe’s enthusiastic approval) to follow her flight across the vast, trackless expanse of the Pacific using PAA HF/DF. One could reasonably expect that a smart, savvy, experienced flyer, as well as a modern, forward-thinking individual such as AE would use every tool at her disposal to ensure her and FN’s safe arrival at Howland Island. Yet, AE responded to Angus’ offer with words to the effect of, “Why do I need that? That’s why I have a navigator.” It does not make sense, unless there was an ulterior motive — something in play that would have been compromised by a non-government entity such as PAA tracking the flight.

    Other things that raise suspicion in my mind are, why, in 1936 with the country still well in the grip of The Great Depression — the age of “Brother, can you spare a dime?” would Perdue University pony up $80,000.00 just like that to purchase a Lockheed Electra 10E Special for Amelia Earhart? It sounds like a pretty irresponsible allocation of precious university funds to me. Then again, suppose it wasn’t PU’s money after all. Could it be that PU was a “cut-out”; that they were simply a front for the real purchaser?

    And then, after the disastrous 20 March 1937 attempted takeoff from then Luke Field on Ford Island, Honolulu, who paid for the transport of the damaged Electra to Lockheed in Burbank, CA and the massive repair/rebuild accomplished in just under three months time? AE said, “GP went hat in hand,” and “We mortgaged our future, but that’s what futures are for.” With deepest respect to AE, I don’t buy it, but what else could she have said under the circumstances? Again, someone else was calling the shots.

    It’s not just about radio frequencies and antennas. There’s so much more, including the change of R-T-W flight direction, the unannounced departure to Miami without even a word to Paul Mantz, and the whole Morgenthau Transcript business, but I’ll leave it here for now.

    All best,


    Liked by 1 person

  10. Tom Williams is right about AE being better off being stuck on Howland, assuming the Japs did not strafe it before American help arrived. The worst part of her trip in 1937 is the Japanese X factor that added a lot of risk to the trip. In the end, that turned out to be her undoing.


  11. Douglas Foster Pritchard | Reply

    Getting back to navigation, I like to hear “They never got lost.” Fred Noonan would naturally fly offset from his course to Howland, then at the calculated distance covered, turn at right angles toward the target. The course line 157/337 is not at right angles to their straight course toward Howland. It is simply at right angles to the azimuth of the sun at sunrise, a convenient almost north/south line for Amelia to use to obfuscate their actions as they headed for the Jaluit radio signal with the expectation that the Japanese would treat them as mere adventurers.


    1. William H. Trail | Reply


      Agreed. They were never lost. Fred Noonan was a master of his craft, and came to Amelia Earhart and the R-T-W flight through Paul Mantz. Mantz was a friend, mentor, and flight instructor to AE with a genuine interest in her success. Would he have recommended Noonan, and risked a friend’s life, to say nothing of his own professional reputation, if Noonan were not up to the task of navigating AE from Oahu to Howland in the first attempt, and then all the way around the globe for the second? I don’t think so.

      All best,



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