Today we present the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s fascinating and thought-provoking analysis of Amelia Earhart’s final flight, “Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery,” previously unpublished. Rafford sent this gem to the Amelia Earhart Society’s online forum in 2008, too late for admission to the AES Newsletters.
Conclusion of “Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery”
by Paul Rafford Jr.
Government records claim that after the shore party was hastily called back to Itasca, four radio operators remained behind to man the Howland direction finder. They were Yau Fai Lum, Henry Lau, Frank Cipriani and Ah Kin Leong. The latter three were part of the shore party while Lum was the resident radio operator. Supposedly, they operated the station for nearly two weeks, keeping nightly vigil on 3105 kHz. Their logs can be found in the government’s Earhart files.
However, close inspection of the records shows that Cipriani signed off with Itasca at 0802 July 2, stating “No signals on 3105 and impossible to work.” The shore party was ordered to return at 0826 and arrived aboard Itasca at 0912. There is no evidence indicating that Cipriani and the others were told to remain behind. No reference to the group appears in the records until July 5. At 0001 a message is allegedly received by K6GNW from Itasca. It orders the Chinese boys to assist Cipriani in manning the direction finder during Itasca’s search. Are we to believe that Cipriani and the others, having made a last-minute decision on their own to stay on Howland are now, three days later being pressed into service to man the direction finder?
When John Riley questioned Lum, he was vehement in declaring that Cipriani, Leong and Lau had returned to the ship as soon as word was received that it was about to leave on a search for the missing flyers. In a letter to Riley dated September 4, 1994 Ah Kin Leong backs up Lum. He declares, “No idea who wrote the false log. Stood no watches on Howland Island. Cipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”
In October 1994, Lum wrote Riley as follows, “This letter from Ah Kin Leong proves that I am right and Captain Thompson’s report is not accurate. If we were watch standers we would have spoken to Cipriani at least 16 times when we change shifts in monitoring Earhart. This never happened. I have never seen the CG equipment nor did Cipriani ever come over to look at my equipment. I stand by my previous statement, ‘The radio report is false!’ ”
In his answer to Lum, Riley sums up the situation as follows: “Unfortunately, if the Itasca log is partly fraudulent, it means that all research since Earhart disappeared, whether conducted by Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, or by private parties, has been based on deliberate misinformation put out by a few. The radio logs of the Itasca are the most fundamental, most primary, of reference material. Nothing else compares. They supposedly tell us what is known of this tragedy.” If, as it appears, the Howland logs are forgeries, what would have been gained by such a subterfuge and who would have directed it?
[See my March 30, 2022 post, “Rafford and Horner on the bogus Howland log” for the full story on Yau Fai Lum’s claim that challenged the veracity of the Howland radio log, and thus the Coast Guard’s version of the final hours of the Earhart flight.]
Exactly three years after Earhart and Noonan disappeared, I joined Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer. I soon met several people who were involved one way or another in the mystery and/or knew Fred Noonan. My first boss, Harry Drake had shared bachelor quarters with Fred in Miami during the mid-1930’s. Later, Harry was the station manager at Caripito, Venezuela where the flyers spent their second night. He offered to collect the latest weather forecasts along the route they would follow the next day. Earhart rebuffed him with, “I don’t need that! I got it all back in California.”
“The latest weather?” Harry mused to himself. Nevertheless, he sat up all night collecting the weather as promised. But to no avail! Just as he pulled into the airport parking lot he heard the roar of her engines as she took off. The thought struck him, “I wonder if I’ll ever see Fred alive again?”
My first assignment with Pan Am was on the training plane flying with John Ray, instrument flight instructor. John had been moonlighting an aviation radio service business when he was contracted to remove Earhart’s trailing antenna. She had just arrived from California at the start of her round-the-world flight. Her explanation to reporters was that she had it removed to save weight and the bother of reeling it out and in. But the weight saving would be little more than a gallon of gas, while Noonan was familiar with the operation of trailing antennas aboard our Pan Am planes.
For years I wondered why Earhart would have discarded her trailing antenna. I even built a model of her plane on a scale of 9 to 1, transmitting on a frequency 9 times 3105 kHz. I equipped it with both a trailing antenna and a fixed antenna. I discovered that transmissions on 3105 kHz with the small, fixed antenna would have been 20 dB (decibels), weaker than with a quarter wave trailing antenna. To check the experimentally derived measurements, I referred to the antenna formulas in my engineering hand books. After working the equations, I found the theoretical values very closely matched my experimental values. Earhart’s fixed antenna radiated only one-half watt on 3105 kHz.
During World War II, I discussed the Earhart disappearance with our Miami radio engineer, Charlie Winter. He had offered Earhart the services of the Pan Am direction finding net in the Pacific if she would carry a Pan Am frequency. She rejected his offer with a terse, ”I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.” Charlie wasn’t offering to send the positions back to her. He was merely offering a flight following service in case of an emergency. But Earhart would have none of it! Why? Didn’t she want anyone to know where she was?
Also during World War II, I met Bill Galten after he came to work for Pan Am. He had been the Itasca radio operator assigned to contact Earhart. Despite his more than fifty calls on all his frequencies, she never answered him. Her method of operating was to suddenly come on 3105 kHz. without a call-up, deliver a brief message and be off, all in less than ten seconds. [Navy] Radioman Cipriani, manning the portable direction finder on Howland, never had a chance to get a bearing.
Bill Galten expressed his opinion to me, “Paul, that woman never intended to land on Howland!” There were several reasons. Chief among them was the bird problem. Howland, the tip of an extinct underwater volcano, was the home of thousands of sea birds, many as large as turkeys. They found its runways an ideal nesting spot.
Yau Fai Lum wrote me how he had watched an attempt to disburse the birds by setting off a dynamite charge the day before Earhart’s expected arrival. “The birds leaped in the air, fluttered around for about ten seconds and then settled right back down again.” Because of the bird problem, Howland’s runways were never used except in emergencies. Today, the island is a bird sanctuary. Visitors, such as ham DX-peditions, must be accompanied by U.S. Government officials. For a DX-pedition, how far away from the rest of the world can you get than the intersection of the equator and the International Date Line?
While working for Pan Am in Miami I had known Bob Thibert when he was head of Pan Am’s electronic overhaul shops during the 1970’s. But it was not until the early 1990s that I learned he had installed and calibrated a radio direction finding loop on Earhart’s plane the day before she left Miami. But pictures of the plane arriving at Miami from California show that it already had a loop. What was going on here! When I queried Bob he was quite surprised. No, he hadn’t seen any evidence that a loop might have been installed previously.
I realized we must be dealing with two different planes, but why the great secrecy? And where could that second plane have come from? Also, Thibert was surprised to learn that John Ray had worked on Earhart’s plane before he did. Why hadn’t Pan Am’s radio shop removed the trailing antenna at the same time it performed the other work?
It was not until just recently that I got some answers. The publisher of my book, AMELIA EARHART’S RADIO, Douglas Westfall of the Paragon Agency (SpecialBooks.com) uncovered some interesting historical facts. Less than a month before Earhart and Noonan left Miami, a sister ship of their Electra, the Daily Express had flown round trip between New York and London. It carried pictures of the Hindenburg disaster to London and returned with pictures of King George’s coronation. It was billed as the first commercial flight to fly the Atlantic.
Pictures show the Daily Express had no radio loop or trailing antenna during the London flight. I maintain it was secretly swapped with Earhart’s Electra after John Ray removed the trailing antenna. Earhart didn’t want a trailing antenna but she did need a direction finding loop. This is where Bob Thibert came into the picture. As he told me, the morning before she left Miami his boss handed him a new loop and told him to install and calibrate it immediately.
But why swap the original plane for the Daily Express? There were two reasons. Primarily it had 100 gallons greater fuel capacity and had already flown round trip between New York and London, non-stop each way. Secondly, on Earhart’s first attempt to circle the globe she had cracked up at Honolulu. Although Lockheed had repaired her plane, it was no longer a factory fresh model. By contrast, the Daily Express was a proven flyer. But why all the secrecy?
There is evidence that Earhart finally came down in the Marshall Islands, occupied by Japan. She could have reached them without Noonan’s help by homing in on the high-power AM broadcasting station on Jaluit with her loop. After over heading it she could have followed a bearing from it to the only land plane field in the Marshall Islands, Roi Namur. But legend has it that she was forced down by a carrier-based fighter pilot before she could reach it. In any case it was a very inappropriate time for an American to land in the Marshalls — Japan went to war with China just five days later!
Fast forward to 2004. Little had I realized that my fellow engineer on the Space Program, James Raymond Knighton, W4BCX would later work on Roi Namur when I delivered my Earhart speech to our Pan Am Management Club. Later, he provided me with a fascinating story:
I was on Kwajelein from 1999 to 2001, living on Kwajelein Island but working on Roi-Namur, which is 50 miles north of Kwajalein. I flew back and forth each day to work.
One day during lunch I was walking around Roi and I happened across an old Marshallese who was very friendly. He was back visiting Roi after a long time. He was very talky and spoke pretty good English. He was excited because he was born on Roi-Namur and lived there during the Japanese occupation and the capture by the Marines in 1944. Of course I was interested in his story of how it was living under the Japanese and the invasion. I was very inquisitive and he was happy to talk about old times.
Then he said he saw Amelia Earhart on Roi when he was a young boy. It was the first white woman he had ever seen and he could not get over her blond hair. Basically, he told me that Earhart crashed on the Marshall Island of Mili. The Japanese had gotten her and brought her to Roi, the only place that transport planes could land.
Sadly, John Riley joined silent keys before we had a chance to work together in writing this article. However, he had already shared his files with me so at least I have been able to work with his notes as well as my own.
Paul Rafford Jr., July 23, 2008 (End of Rafford article.)
Rafford, among the last of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society, passed away on Dec. 10, 2016 at age 97.