AES’s Cam Warren on “Noonan & Earhart”

Cameron A. “Cam” Warren, former longtime member of the Amelia Earhart Society, may be still with us and in his upper 90s in Fountain Hills, Ariz., but my information on his current status remains nil.  Warren was among the best known of the few “crashed-and-sankers” in the AES, along with former ONI agent Ron Bright and Gary LaPook, who are both alive and well, to my knowledge.

Warren’s “Noonan and Earhart” appeared in the October 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.  It’s a good general summary of the nuts and bolts of the Earhart story, something you don’t see often, and good to use occasionally as a reference.  Opinions expressed in this piece are those of the Cam Warren and do not necessarily reflect those of the editor or anyone else.  Boldface emphasis mine throughout.

“Noonan & Earhart”
by Cam Warren

What exactly was the relationship between Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan?  Originally Amelia was going to fly around the earth solo, at least if her husband, George Putnam, had his way.  And his way was to revive a fading star, turn her into the World’s Most Famous Woman, and live comfortably ever after on book royalties, endorsements and the other fruits of international fame.

Accounts and interpretations vary, and curiously enough the true relationship of the Putnams has been well glossed over by most biographers.  There is little doubt of Amelia’s accomplishments both in aviation and in the field of what we now know as the feminist movement.  We have been told of the love that presumably existed between George and Amelia, but the latter herself showed some doubt as to how well the marriage would work out.  And there is more than a little suspicion that George was very much the Svengali, manipulating Amelia to his own purposes.  Perhaps, but she had her own ambitions too, and probably didn’t require a great deal of persuading to set forth on the next big adventure — a solo flight around the world.

This photo appeared in the October 1999 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters with the tagline, “Amelia at Wheeler Field, Hawaii 1935.”  Courtesy of Col. Rollin Reineck.

When Putnam & Company got into the serious planning for the ambitious undertaking, it didn’t take long for them to realize that the long over-water portions would require some help in the form of a skilled navigator.  (Apparently a co-pilot wasn’t considered — this was to be an Earhart showcase.)  So Amelia would have the services of Harry Manning, an accomplished sea captain, skilled in navigation and radio operation.  He would accompany Amelia as far as Australia, shepherding her over the vast Pacific.  Since Howland Island, the first stop after Hawaii, was such a small target, it was further decided to obtain the services of ex-Pan American Airways navigator Fred Noonan, an acknowledged expert on trans-Pacific flying.

Noonan’s credentials included Pan Am survey flights, and the first commercial seaplane operations in the Pacific.  There have been hints he was relieved of his Pan Am position as the result of a drinking problem, although precise confirmation of this has not surfaced.  Suffice to say, he was available and, despite having just been married, was willing to accept the risks of the flight.  It has been said he planned to open a school for aviation navigators after his stint with Amelia; undoubtedly, he felt the attendant publicity would be useful. 

But to avoid any upstaging of Amelia, Noonan’s contribution would be relatively small — he would accompany her to Honolulu, and then to Howland, where he would disembark and catch a ride back to Hawaii on a Coast Guard cutter.  But plans had to be revised when Earhart cracked up her Electra on takeoff from Hawaii’s Luke Field.  Manning, saying his leave of absence from the cruise line for which he normally worked was about to expire, bowed out when Amelia spoke of a “retry.”  Privately Manning expressed great relief at surviving the accident and did not wish to press his luck further.

Amelia Earhart with Harry Manning (center) and Fred Noonan, in Hawaii just before the Luke Field crash that sent Manning back to England and left Noonan as the sole navigator for the world flight.

Noonan agreed to stay on, even after Putnam explained his role would be expanded to the full circumnavigation — this time starting eastward.  One suspects it was made clear that Amelia would be the star; Noonan’s role was to be minor — he would be merely a hired hand.  A proud and capable man, Fred was still a good soldier, and knew all about performing a subordinate role on a team.  AE would be the boss — no doubt about it — and Fred would carry out her orders without question.  Mindful of his less than strong bargaining position, he accepted the terms.

A word about teams, especially the two-party type.  Successful ones depend heavily on inter-personal relationships; the pair must fit together like Yin and Yang.  Abilities must be respected, but an occasional misstep must be accepted without rancor, in the full knowledge that the mistake was not an intentional one.  Most commonly, the experienced know that A’s error will most assuredly be matched, sooner or later, by B’s.  Any tendency to flare up by one of the parties is extremely serious, and quickly becomes theburr under the saddle.  A famous recent example being a young couple, very much in love, who undertook to row to Australia together.  They eventually made it, but never spoke to each other again.

It’s highly likely that friction developed within the Electra, and a safe bet that of the two, Fred was the more restrained.  Obviously, the success of the mission largely depended on a comfortable rapport between them. Quite likely, under the stress and strain of the long hops, patience wore thin, and the chances are good that when operational questions arose, Amelia did it her way.  Perhaps this could be excused; she was very proud of her flying ability and justifiably so, but “seat of the pants” judgments are risky.  Noonan would go by the book, but would no doubt accept her decision if need be.

Earhart was impressed by Fred’s navigational wizardry, although her self-confidence apparently led her astray as they approached Dakar, on the African west coast.  She overrode Fred’s advice and turned left to St. Louis, a couple of hundred miles to the north.  This has been explained as intentional by some researchers, but Amelia sounded contrite about her move in Last Flight, the book put together from her in-flight notes by ghost-writer Janet Mabie, and hastily published by Putnam.  The book seems to indicate Fred rode up front, at least during the early days, but moved back into the navigator’s “office” as time went on and the atmosphere grew chilly.

If my analysis of the situation is correct, several puzzling facts in the story of the Electra’s disappearance are explained. Firstly, why was Noonan never heard on the radio?  Certainly, common sense would dictate his sitting up in the co-pilot’s seat as they looked for Howland Island.  A second pair of eyes would help Earhart’s visual search, and Fred could easily man the radio.  But such does not appear to have been the case; Fred had his charts and his navigation gear and a convenient table back aft, and most likely Amelia thought he should remain back there calculating their position.

Researcher Joe Gervais interviewed Jim Collopy at his home in Melbourne, Australia in 1962.  Collopy, the former regional aviation administrator at Lae, told of joining Noonan for a drink before dinner the evening following the Electra’s arrival in New Guinea.  He described a confidence Fred privately shared about his employer. After describing Amelia in a less-than-complimentary, fashion, Noonan added she can fly and I can navigate and let’s leave it at that!”  Incidentally, although he may have been sorely tempted under the circumstances, Fred did not do any heavy drinking the night before takeoff, as some reports have stated.

Fred certainly knew the value of radio communications; Amelia treated the facilities in a cavalier fashion.  This can partly be traced to previous flights, when eavesdropping listeners were plotting the Electra’s progress to the annoyance of Putnam and the newspapers to which he had promised exclusive coverage.  “Keep your messages as brief as possible” he likely warned her, “and don’t give away anything over the radio.”  How else to explain her on-the-air reticence; the terse broadcasts only on a set schedule?

Another look at the original flight plan that targeted Howland Island, the “line of position” of 157-337 Amelia reported in her final message, and the close proximity of Baker Island, just southeast of Howland, as well as the Phoenix Group, farther to the southeast. which includes Canton Island, as well as Nikumaroro, formerly known as Gardner Island, of popular renown.

As they approached Howland, Earhart was heard to say, We must be on you, but cannot see you, referring to the waiting Coast Guard cutter Itasca.  Then we are circling but cannot hear you — go ahead on 7500 [kc] [an unsuccessful attempt to get a direction finder fix].  This offers us a clue as to her mind-set.  “Circling” was what an old barnstormer would do, while looking for a landing place, or trying to spot a ship.  A highly unlikely maneuver for Noonan to suggest — search patterns are invariably flown in a precise rectangular pattern that can be plotted.  Circling, on the other hand, is an imprecise maneuver.

When Howland did not appear, and a search was not bearing any fruit, Noonan would certainly suggest a heading for the nearest land, and land of sufficient size to be easily spotted.  His choice most likely would have been to the southeast, toward Baker and the Phoenix Islands.  Had they headed in that direction, they would have emerged from the cloud bank they undoubtedly were in.  Then they might have spotted the Itasca, which was making black smoke, or at least Fred could have worked out a position based on the now-visible sun.

Earhart allegedly told friends that if she couldn’t find Howland, she would reverse course and “head back to the Gilberts.”  Again, most likely a choice not enthusiastically supported by Fred.  Many researchers feel they were much further north than believed, and somehow reached the Marshall Islands instead.  No one knows just how close to Howland they really were — there is conflicting evidence — but the nearest land to the west or northwest was a long distance away, and even with her gasoline reserve, probably unreachable.

Cam Warren, circa 2003.

The Coast Guard, the Navy, and most experts are sure the Electra splashed down hard and went to the bottom.  A few optimists postulate Earhart made a successful water landing, and the plane floated for a time.  If so, perhaps the crew WAS rescued by a Japanese ship, although none has ever been positively placed in the vicinity.  No matter, the ending may well have been a success story, despite the ill-luck with the weather and the malfunctioning, or the mishandling, of the radio and direction finder, if only the crew had been able to work together more smoothly.

No hard evidence supports this scenario, so we cannot claim to have solved the mystery.”  However, it certainly is credible, and a thoughtful analysis of the personalities involved offers considerable substantiation.  Even Putnam’s post-loss behavior tells us something, for he lost no time in having his wife declared legally dead within months, and quickly took a new bride.  Hardly the behavior of a devoted husband, grieving over his true love.  Of Amelia and Fred, my deepest sympathies go to the latter; to a talented and capable man thrust into a life-threatening situation, saddled with an ambitious and overconfident pilot.  Fred undoubtedly never faltered in his assignment, and most likely died with a slide-rule in his hand.

For more on Cam Warren’s work, please see my Feb. 1, 2019 post, Fred Hooven: ‘Man Who (Nearly) Found Earhart. ” 

6 responses

  1. Not bad, Cam got a lot of the lead up right. But why discard eye witness evidence, and why ignore the statements from the highest ranking Naval and Marine officers in the Pacific?

    I do disagree with his views of Amelia and Fred looking for the Phoenix group first. Fred would have followed the radio beams to Jaluit.

    Les Kinney


  2. Fascinating look into the these two would seem Amelia(as he states) was always meant to be the shining star of this flight, and Fred just an add-on. You can speculate just what the outcome would have been if Harry Manning had stayed on, if any, I wonder just how much of this whole operation was really Putnam’s or Amelia’s ambition, supplemented by the government’s wish to have her do a little spying for them. Not being an expert on the subject, first time I have ever heard of Noonan being in the co-pilot’s seat during the flight..certainly, had they made it back safely, he would have been in his customary seat in the back so Amelia would have been seen exiting the plane first..otherwise, Putnam would have had a stroke! One would give anything to be a fly on the craft’s wall to listen in on what really happened in those frantic last moments…heated arguments about where they should head to land?I guess we will never know.


  3. William H. Trail | Reply

    Greetings to All:

    Fred Noonan was a talented, and accomplished individual. On 23 January 1930, he was issued a Limited Commercial Pilot Certificate #11833 for Airplane, Single Engine, Land. During their R-T-W flight, in addition to his primary duty as navigator, Fred could have spelled AE at the controls, as well a providing another set of “pilot trained eyes” in the cockpit. Please see the link provided.

    All best,




    I was rummaging through thr TIGHAR transcript and came across this from July 7, 1937. Who is Huxford?



  5. I like the way Cam brings in the “interpersonal relationship” piece to this story, but he offers nothing regarding the first hand experiences of US soldiers on Saipan during WWII. The GI reports coming out in the 60s by Fred Goerner fill in some hugh gaps in this story.


  6. I wonder if there is a reference work where I can find out if there are small reefs 50 miles SW of Howland Island? To make the above story possible. Would a Japanese ship actually take Amelia to Howland Island? That would be nice of them.

    I also clicked on the Hooven link and read all that. I see William H. Trail speculated Amelia may have left Hooven’s superior device behind lest it fall into Japanese hands. Yet the theme of Jim Golden was that the Japanese already had superior DF to the Americans. Does that mean superior to what Amelia had or superior to a device like Hooven’s? Evidently what Amelia actually brought was real old techhnology by then.

    I’m not sure what the TIGHAR transcript actually is. I didn’t read beyond the section my above post came from. Maybe there is comment further on about Huxford. I guess I have some homework to do. To me, it is an intriguing possibility that she landed on a reef. Isn’t this what Goerner thought later on?

    What if a Japanese boat actually did pick her up? I still think the Japs had fishing boats in the area that may have been instructed to NOT go to Howland Island, in fact, bring her to Jaluit because we want to talk to her (about her overflight of the mandates, maybe?) Did the planes from the Colorado search in close proximity to Howland Island like to the SW? Where a small reef may have been? Looks like I have some work to do to find out.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: