Calvin Pitts passes away in Kentucky at 89
Calvin Pitts, likely the last of the great “Old School” aviators, whose wisdom, knowledge and class graced everyone he touched and who lifted this blog to rare heights during the brief time of his presence here, passed away Feb. 20 at his home in Sadieville, Ky., at the age of 89.
“I received a phone call from Carolyn [Wilson] at 1:46 pm this afternoon to inform me that Calvin passed quietly, peacefully, and gently from this life earlier this morning.” William Trail wrote in a Feb. 20 email. “She said he was in no pain, or discomfort.” His death was not unexpected, as he’d been in failing health for the past several months, but is painful nonetheless.
Calvin is survived by his wife Wanda, two sons, Darrell and Steven Pitts, stepdaughter Sharon Lynn, and stepson Robert Lee Clark, three grandchildren Kate, Rachel, and Melissa, a brother Joe (Virginia) Pitts, a sister Joyce (Mike) Welch, and several nieces & nephews. Our sincere condolences and prayers go out to Wanda, his family and friends. He will be greatly missed. The funeral home produced a musical slide show in Calvin’s memory; to view Calvin’s obituary please click here.
Calvin was perhaps best known for his 1981 world flight, when he and two co-pilots commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Wiley Post-Harold Gatty World Flight in 1931. The 1981 flight was sponsored in part by the Oklahoma Air & Space Museum to honor the Oklahoma aviator Post.
They flew a single-engine 1980 Beechcraft A36 Spirit of Winnie Mae, named after Post’s Lockheed Vega, the Winnie Mae. To read Calvin’s recollections of his around-the-world journey, please click here.
During his long and accomplished aviation career as an instructor, corporate pilot, airline pilot, flight manager, training manager and engineering test pilot, Calvin has flown antique planes to airshows, trained pilots and flown a multitude of single and multi-engine aircraft, including Twin Otters, DHC-7s, Aero Commanders, Metro IIIs, Lear Jets and Boeing 727s. He also worked for 10 years in public affairs for NASA at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Field Naval Air Station, Calif.; and NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
Closer to home, Calvin’s stunning, five-part analysis of Amelia’s last flight, “Earhart’s Disappearing Footprints” in 2018, is one of the finest pieces of work ever presented on this blog. When he wasn’t teaching and expounding on his brilliant, comprehensive vision of Earhart’s last days, he was encouraging us in our own work, spurring us on to do our best. Calvin was truly one of a kind, a rare human being who will never be duplicated down here.
Calvin’s true decency, humanity and goodness transcended his vast technical knowledge and even his love for Amelia Earhart, her story and her legacy. Nowhere was this more evident to me during my relatively brief time as his friend than his conciliatory words toward the hypocrites and phonies at the International Forest of Friendship when they not only rejected this blog, but ignored his beautifully written letter appealing to their better angels, which, as it turned out, did not exist. For the full story of this deplorable situation, please see my Jan. 24, 2022 post, “IFF rejects Calvin Pitts’ appeal, refuses to engage.”
Ever the Christian gentleman, Calvin’s response to those who least despise him and his firm convictions about Amelia Earhart, were words of forgiveness and compassion that few of us could ever possibly emulate:
In times like this, when we encounter those who out of fear, misplaced loyalties and willful ignorance refuse to do the right thing, the best we can do is try to forgive them and move on. We can also try to pray that someday the light will come on in their dim minds, and they might consider joining those of us who can honor the legacy of Amelia Earhart and revere and honor the truth in the same breath — something they’ve proven themselves incapable of at this time.
Fortunately, due to the professional research, the tedious work, and a love for truth as displayed in Mike Campbell’s stellar book, THE TRUTH AT LAST, coupled with other gifted researchers, writers, and eyewitnesses, we were introduced to some of the private, unpublished knowledge of men like Adm. Chester Nimitz Jr., Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, Gen. Graves Erskine, Gen. Tommy Watson, and a host of eyewitnesses who told their stories. Because of men and women like that, we know the end of the Earhart story, and are able to lay to rest the amazing life of a beautiful woman who has earned her rest.
The last time Calvin contacted me directly was in late June 2022, when he wrote me an extremely kind, personally meaningful message, as were all of his missives, which said in part:
As I’ve thought before, I knew you were good, and were my kind of truth-telling Journalist but this analysis and response just broke my “Excellence” meter. You outdid yourself.
If a person loves honesty-with-evidence, they will be hard-put to deny what you have written, not only in this current piece, but in the massive material you brought together in your TRUTH AT LAST tome of persuasive facts and eye-witness reports.
He told me many other things over the past few years, personal, priceless, unforgettable things that will stay in my heart, to be savored and cherished always.
If you believe in Heaven, as I do, then it’s not hard to imagine that Amelia Earhart, resplendent in a starry white gown specially woven by Seraphim for the occasion, was among the first to welcome Calvin Pitts as he crossed over and entered his Eternal Home, where he’ll forever enjoy fair skies, following seas and happy landings. They will have much to talk about.
Requiescat in pace, Calvin.
Another look at Muriel: What did she know?
Once again we return to Grace Muriel Earhart Morrissey, Amelia’s younger sister and only sibling, and what she might have known or believed about Amelia’s fate in view of some additional writings that haven’t been considered on this blog.
First, some excerpts from my Sept. 4, 2017 post, “Devine’s bizarre 1961 visit to Amelia’s sister Muriel,” in which Devine recalled his August 1961 visit to Muriel at her home in West Medford, Mass.:
. . . Mrs. Morrissey mentioned that she had been visited recently by Paul Briand [Jr.], who was associated with Joseph Gervais and Robert Dinger. Briand, she said, was writing a thesis about Earhart which he hoped would evolve into his second book.
Over the years, she said several people had brought information to her, which they irresponsibly claimed would solve the Earhart mystery. These sensational disclosures had put a tremendous strain on the family. I hoped Mrs. Morrissey was not classing my investigation with those. After years of investigative failures, she said she had accepted the 1937 report that Amelia Fred were lost at sea near Howland Island.* I pointed out that no physical evidence substantiated this conclusion. I reviewed how the gigantic sea and air search for Earhart and Noonan had failed to turn up one scrap of wreckage or equipment.
To Thomas Devine,
Who is genuinely and unselfishly interested in Amelia’s fate. I am happy to give this photograph [sic] of her.
Muriel Earhart Morrissey
August 19, 1961
. . . In 1963 when I visited the Hartford station of the Office of Naval Intelligence, I read a confidential report on the location of Amelia Earhart’s gravesite. Later I made a second visit to the facility to determine if the ONI were still active in its investigation. I was ushered into an office where two men and a woman were seated. One of the men opened the safe to get the Earhart file, shuffled through some of the pages, and pointed out certain passages for the woman to read. She was obviously acquainted with the file and understood the significance of the noted passages. During this exchange, the second man left.
I was haunted; the woman looked familiar to me. Slowly, I came to the astounding realization that this woman was the “waitress” in the Boston depot! The woman must have sensed that I recognized her, for she immediately excused herself. Hastily, the remaining ONI agent informed me that there had been no further investigation of Amelia Earhart’s grave. I left the meeting convinced that the people who had accosted me in Boston were agents of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Why their presence in Boston on the day of my visit with Mrs. Morrissey? I cannot say. Mrs. Morrissey did tell me that she had informed the Navy of my intended visit. But why would the ONI trail me to West Medford? I don’t know. What was the purpose of the ONI agents’ peculiar antics in Boston? That I do not know, either. Perhaps they were trying to frighten me into curtailing my investigation.
Muriel’s inexplicable actions when Devine visited her in 1961 could lead one to reasonably conclude that despite her encouraging note to Devine, Muriel was already working with the Office of Naval Intelligence to thwart or frustrate Devine’s good-faith efforts to determine Muriel’s degree of knowledge about her sister’s disappearance.
Closely following with Devine’s strange visit with Muriel, we have Fred Goerner’s late August 1961 letter to her:
Mrs. Albert Morrissey August 31, 1966
One Vernon Street
West Medford, Massachusetts
Dear Mrs. Morrissey:
Your letter of the 27th meant a great deal to me.
I can’t begin to tell you how I have agonized over continuing the investigation into Amelia’s disappearance and writing the book which Doubleday is just now publishing. I know how all of you have been tortured by the rumors and conjectures and sensationalism of the past years.
I want you to know that I decided to go ahead with the book last December at the advice of the late Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz who had become my friend and helped me with the investigation for several years. He said, “it (the book) may help produce the justice Earhart and Noonan deserve.” The Admiral told me without equivocation that Amelia and Fred had gone down in the Marshalls and were taken by the Japanese and that this knowledge was documented in Washington. He also said that several departments of government have strong reasons for not wanting the information to be made public.
Mrs. Morrissey, regardless of what the State and Navy Departments may have told you in the past, classified files do exist. I and several other people, including Mr. Ross Game, the Editor of Napa, California REGISTER and Secretary of The Associated Press, actually have seen portions of these files and have made notes from their contents. This material is detailed in the book. I am sure that we have not yet been shown the complete files, and General Wallace M. Greene Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps in Washington, refuses to confirm or deny the testimony of many former marines that the personal effects of Amelia and Fred and their earthly remains were recovered in 1944.
Please believe what I am saying. If justice is to be achieved, it may require your assistance. You know I have the deepest respect for Amelia and Fred. My admiration for their courage has no limits. They should receive their proper place in the history of this country. A San Francisco newspaper editor wrote the other day that Amelia and Fred should be awarded the Congressional Medals of Honor for their service to this country. I completely concur.
I shall be in Boston sometime toward the end of September or early October. I hope that I can meet with you at that time and bring you up to date on all of our efforts.
My very best wishes to you and “Chief.”
CBS News, KCBS Radio
San Francisco 94105
Goerner had known Muriel since October 1961, when he traveled to West Medford, to ask her for permission to submit the remains he had recovered on Saipan during his second visit there, about a month earlier, for anthropological analysis. For a time, Goerner thought it possible that the bones and teeth he excavated during his second Saipan visit, in September 1961, might have been those of the fliers, but he was soon disabused of that idea when Dr. Theodore McCown determined that the remains were those of several Asians.
Before he engaged with Muriel and her husband, Albert, better known as “Chief,” Muriel told Goerner she believed that Amelia “was lost at sea,” and that “a crash-landing on the ocean was more likely than capture by the Japanese.” But after her meeting with the charismatic newsman, Muriel changed her mind, and sent letters to officials granting Goerner permission to have the remains evaluated.
For more on Goerner and Devine, please see my Oct. 12, 2015 post, “Goerner and Devine reach out to Muriel Morrissey: Did Amelia’s sister know more than she let on?“
Now we’ll look more closely at her 1970 letter to airship author J. Gordon Vaeth, following by a 1986 letter to her from the Consulate General of Japan, which raises new questions.
In her letter to Vaeth she thanked him for sending her a copy of the little known 1970 book, Before the Eagle Landed, an aviation history by the editors of the Air Force Times. She then told Vaeth that she appreciated his “factual, unemotional reporting, which will, I am sure, do much toward debunking the tales begun by Captain Paul Briand [Jr.] and continued with a sad, poorly written, unproven story, Amelia Earhart Returns from Saipan  by a Cleveland veterinarian [Joe Davidson].”
If this letter to Vaeth, once a staunch Goerner supporter before he transformed into a stubborn, confirmed crashed-and-sanker, is any indication, she had apparently changed her mind about the Saipan truth and again was endorsing the official line.
Dear Mr. Vaeth,
Thanks you for sending me the copy of Before the Eagle Landed. I of course read your account of Amelia’s flights first, though the other stories are excellent and bring before the public several men whose names are not well known except to historians and fliers.
I appreciate your factual, unemotional reporting which will, I am sure, do much toward de-bunking the tales begun by Captain Paul Briand and continued with a sad, poorly written, unproven story, Amelia Earhart Returns from Saipan by a Cleveland veterinarian [Joe Davidson, 1969].
My only criticism of the Air Force Times editors’ book is their failure to include at least two other women, Jackie Cochran and Anne Pellegrino, both of who I fell have contributed to the saga of aviation. I doubt there will be much support for the book from the Ninety-Nines!
The Chief (my husband) and I would be happy to have you come to our home in Medford if you are ever in this area. As we have both retired now, we are home during the day, so just call us – 395-4787.
Finally, we add another piece, one entirely new to this blog, to the Muriel Earhart Morrissey file for consideration, one that doesn’t easily fit her earlier statements to Devine, Goerner and Vaeth. This is a letter, not from Muriel, but from the Consulate General of Japan to Muriel, responding to her Oct. 20, 1986 missive to the Emperor of Japan (which I do not have), requesting any information Japan had about her sister or her Lockheed Electra. (Click on image for larger view.)
Note Bill Prymak’s comment underneath the Japanese official’s letter: “VERY STRANGE . . . . . . What was Muriel trying to accomplish at this late date in her life (1986) re: her sister’s fate???? One can only speculate as to the nature of Muriel’s request to the Emperor of Japan . . . she was certainly seeking information re: Amelia’s life AFTER July 2nd, 1937.” Strange indeed.
Some have suggested that Muriel, at some point in time, could have been informed of the truth by the U.S. government in exchange for her silence. If that was the case, could this knowledge have been gained at some time after 1986, when she wrote to the Consulate General of Japan about Amelia, or did she known much earlier, possibly before Thomas E. Devine’s 1961 visit to her at her home in New Bedford, Mass., when she acted so strangely in apparently cooperating to ONI or federal agents?
Muriel made few public statements from then until her death in 1998, and what she may have learned or believed during the intervening years is anyone’s guess.
Gray’s “Amelia Didn’t Know Radio” Conclusion
Today we present the conclusion of Almon Gray’s “Amelia Didn’t Know Radio,” which appeared in the December 1993 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
THE HOWLAND ISLAND RADIO DIRECTION FINDER: Earhart obviously had misconceptions concerning the radio direction finder on Howland. She apparently thought it was a functional equivalent of the Pan American Adcock systems that had furnished her bearings from her 3105 kcs signals during the Alameda-Honolulu flight, and she expected that the DF station would be monitoring her signals and it would take a bearing when she asked the Itasca for one. The bearing would be passed to the ship, which would send it to her on the next schedule. This explains why she repeatedly asked the Itasca for bearings on 3105 kcs. She did not expect the ship to take the bearings with its own DF gear — she was counting on the Howland Island DF.
I think there was some basis for her misconception. After changing to an east-about route, and while the Lae-Howland leg was being studied, Earhart and Noonan suggested to the Coast Guard that a radio direction finder be set up on Howland. According to an unpublished manuscript by the late Capt. Laurance F. Safford, U.S. Navy, (Retired) [which later became Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday: The Facts Without the Fiction, 2003], it was Richard Black, scheduled to go to Howland in the Itasca, who arranged for the Howland DF.
Unfortunately, Earhart did not understand the relationship between wavelength and frequency nor how to convert one to the other.
Apparently reacting to Noonan’s suggestion, he recommended to George P. Putnam, Earhart’s husband and business manager, that they borrow a high-frequency radio direction finder from the Navy. Subsequently Black, assisted by Lt. Daniel A. Cooper of the Army Air Corps, also going to Howland in the Itasca, obtained the desired apparatus from a Navy patrol plane at Pearl Harbor and took it to Howland, where it was jury-rigged to provide a temporary DF capability. An Itasca radioman operated it.*
*[Incorrect: Navy Radioman 2nd Class Frank Cipriani was temporarily assigned to operate the Howland Island direction finder for the Earhart flight.]
According to Captain Safford, the apparatus was “ . . . a 24-volt aircraft type of loop-direction-finder similar to the one installed in Miss Earhart’s plane — possibly its twin.” Black later described it to author Fred Goerner as an “experimental model of some of the direction finders we used in the war.” It may have been one of the three experimental receivers built by Bendix, and thus a twin to Earhart’s. Cooper, who helped Black obtain the DF gear, wrote in his official report: “It is true that an airplane direction finder capable of working 3105 KC had been borrowed from the Navy just prior to sailing. This was set up on Howland mainly as a standby in case the ship’s direction finder on 500 KC should go out.”
This clearly shows that Cooper, Black, and Putnam believed that inasmuch as the frequency range of the receiver included 3105 kcs, it would be able to take bearings on that frequency. Putnam communicated frequently with Earhart and certainly would have kept her apprised of developments regarding the Howland DF: when he told her (while she was in Darwin) that the Itasca reported the DF had been installed on Howland, she had good reason to believe that en route to Howland she would be provided with bearings taken on her 3105 kcs signals just as they had been provided her by PAA on the Alameda-Honolulu flight.
She was wrong. The apparatus undoubtedly was an excellent receiver and was capable of receiving a wide array of frequencies well above Earhart’s 3105 kcs. For direction finding, however, it used a simple rotatable loop-type antenna, which because of the very nature of radio wave propagation, is incapable of obtaining meaningful bearings over significant distances on frequencies higher than about 1800 kcs. On higher frequencies, signals can be heard but no steady null or “minimum” (which indicates the bearing) can be obtained. It should have been no surprise then that the Howland DF was unable to get bearings on the plane. The operator complained that Earhart had not transmitted signals long enough for him to take a bearing, but this was irrelevant; longer transmissions would not have helped.
- Nauru. On July 3 (GMT date) an operator at Nauru radio station VKT sent the following “wire note” to RCA radio station KPH at San Francisco, with the request that it be passed to the Itasca:
VOICE HEARD FAIRLY STRONG SIGS STRENGTH TO S3 0843 0854 GMT 48.31 METERS [6210 kcs] SPEECH NOT INTERPRETED OWING BAD MODULATION OR SPEAKER SHOUTING INTO MICROPHONE BUT VOICE SIMILAR TO THAT EMITTED FROM PLANE IN FLIGHT LAST NIGHT WITH EXCEPTION NO HUM ON PLANE IN BACKGROUND.
The Nauru operator was a professional wireless operator, well qualified to judge the quality of radio signals. He had heard some of Earhart’s transmissions the night before and was familiar with the sound of her voice and of the cockpit background noise. That he was able to recognize the voice but was unable to understand what was being said, and his diagnosis of probable over modulation, jibe with the reports of the wireless operator at Lae and the DF operator at Howland. He had nothing to gain by fabricating information. Given this — and because Earhart probably was the only woman in that part of the world transmitting voice signals on 6210 kcs, there is a strong case for ascribing the signals to Earhart’s plane. Since more than 12 hours had elapsed between the time the Itasca last heard the plane and the time the Nauru operator intercepted the signals, the aircraft certainly was no longer in flight. The absence of the “hum” (engine noise) in the intercept tends to confirm this.
- Pan American Airways. Shortly after Earhart became overdue at Howland, the Coast Guard requested PAA assistance in the search. The stations at Mokapu Point, Midway, and Wake almost immediately began to monitor the plane’s frequencies consistent with available personnel, and were prepared to take bearings on any signals reasonably believed to be coming from the plane. The airline established a special radio circuit linking the three stations. Numerous weak signals were heard but nothing of interest was picked up until July 5 (GMT). The following is extracted from a report made by the Radio Operator-in-Charge at the Wake Island station, R.M. Hansen:
“At 0948 a phone signal of good intensity and well modulated by a voice but wavering badly suddenly came on 3105. While the carrier frequency of this signal did not appear to vary appreciably, its strength did vary in an unusually erratic manner and at 0950, the carrier strength fell off to QSA2 [2 on a scale of 0 to 5] with the wavering more noticeable than ever. At 0952, it went off completely . . . . At 1212 [GMT 5 July] I opened the DF guard on 3105 KC. At 1223 a very unsteady voice-modulated carrier was observed on 3105 KC appx [sic]. This transmission lasted until 1236. I was able to get an approximate bearing of 144 degrees. In spite of the extreme eccentricity of this signal during the entire length of the transmission, the splits were definite and pretty fair. . . . After I obtained the observed bearing, I advised Midway to listen for the signal (couldn’t raise Honolulu). He apparently did not hear it. This signal started in as a carrier strength of QSA5 and at 1236, when the transmission stopped it had gradually petered out to QSA2 during the intervals when it was audible.
“The characteristics of this signal were identical with the signal heard the previous night (0948 GMT) except that at DF the complete periods of no signal occurred during shorter intervals. . . . While no identification call letters were distinguished in either case, I was positive at that time that this was KHAQQ [Earhart’s aircraft call letters]. At this date I am still of this opinion.”
- Midway. At 0638 5 July (GMT), the station heard a signal having the same characteristics, and almost certainly the same station. The operator computed a quick bearing of 201° True, but the signal was not audible long enough to take a really good bearing and the 201° figure was labeled “approximate.”
- Honolulu (Mokapu Point). This station also heard the 3106 [sic] kcs “peculiar signal” several times. From 1523 to 1530 on 4 July (GMT), the station attempted to get a bearing; the signal was weak and shifting, and only a rough bearing was obtained. It was logged as 213° but was by implication a doubtful bearing. Sometime between 0630 and 1225 GMT another bearing was attempted. The log describes it thus: “Signals so weak that it was impossible to obtain even a fair check. Average seems to be around 215 degrees — very doubtful bearing.” It is obvious that the bearings from Honolulu were much inferior to those taken from Wake and Midway; they are useful mainly that the unknown station continued to function.
Few paid any attention to these intercepts at the time because no one was aware that Earhart’s radio signals had been abnormal. Had it been known that she was having over-modulation problems more attention probably would have been given them because the wavering in the carrier strength is consistent with a varying degree of over modulation rapidly increasing and decreasing carrier power. The gradual drop in signal strength from QSA5 to QSA2 over a span of 13 minutes is consistent with the further discharge of an already partially discharged storage battery power supply. The peculiar signals on 3105 kcs heard by Wake, Midway and Honolulu may very well have come from the Earhart plane, and it is likely that the radio bearings taken on these signals by Wake was accurate within a degree or so. The one from Midway may have had a slightly larger error.
FREDERICK J. NOONAN: 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. The license, which was valid for two years, certified that the holder was capable of: “Transmitting and sound reading at a speed of not less than 16 words a minute Continental Morse in code groups and 20 words a minute in plain language.”
CONCLUSIONS: Earhart failed to reach Howland, because she was unable to use the electronic aids that had been set up to help her find the Island. Her inability to hear the Itasca on the communication channel precluded any possibility of receiving aid from the Howland DF. Therefore she was completely dependent upon bearings she could take on the Itasca beacon with her own DF.
When it became evident that she would get no help from the Howland DF, Earhart prepared to take bearings on the Itasca’s beacon. She tuned in the beacon on her DF and heard the signals clearly. When she tried to take a bearing, however, she was unsuccessful because she could not get a “minimum.” She had no idea why she could not get a bearing, nor did she know what to do to improve the situation. Lack of two-way communication with the ltasca prevented her from getting advice from the ship. Apparently, after a final unsuccessful attempt to have a bearing taken on her 3105 kcs frequency, she gave up on radio navigation and left the area.
The direct cause of the flight’s failure was Earhart’s unwitting error in designating 7.50 Mcs as the beacon frequency for the Itasca.
The probable cause for the antenna system failure was malfunctioning of the “send-receive” relay, located physically in the transmitter unit, which left the receiver without an antenna. The relay probably malfunctioned because of damage by lightning or heavy static discharge. (End of Almon Gray’s “Amelia Didn’t Know Radio.”)
As a layman whose technical knowledge and ability barely extends to mowing the lawn, something that’s becoming increasingly difficult as I progress into my 70s, Almon Gray’s radio sophistication boggles my mind. But Gray’s entire, comprehensive radio analysis is based on one key assumption, which is that Amelia and Fred were actually trying to reach Howland Island. Without that one overriding element, Gray’s scenarios become strictly academic.
Over decades of study and discovery since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, many researchers have concluded that Howland Island was not the real destination of her final flight, but was just another official piece of a larger puzzle, whose intricacies have yet to be definitively unraveled to reveal the true picture.