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Rare letters from Earhart’s “Forgotten Navigator”

We rarely see anything about Fred Noonan in the establishment media, or any media for that matter, as publicity fanatic George Putnam made sure that his wife, Amelia Earhart, got most if not all of the round-the-world-flight press.  We do what we can on this blog to share all the Noonan-related information we have with our readers, and today is such an infrequent occasion. 

FRED NOONAN — The Forgotten Navigator appeared in the February 1996 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, and originally appeared in the International Women’s Air & Space Museum Quarterly, Volume IX, Issue 3, 1995.  Here we see a few of Noonan’s previously unpublished letters to Helen Day Bible, written during the 1937 world flight; the introduction was written by Winifred Wood, author of We Were WASPs (1978).  Boldface emphasis mine throughout; ellipses and dashes unchanged from AES version.

FRED NOONAN — The Forgotten Navigator

Much has been written about Amelia Earhart, but little has been written of Fred Noonan, aviation pioneer and transoceanic navigator.  Recently three letters, written by Noonan on that round-the-world attempt, came to light. The woman who received them, Helen Day Bible of Miami, said, “He was gallant,” emphasizing the last syllable, “always soft spoken and so polite.”

Helen said, “Fred Noonan came to Miami as General Manager for NYRBA, New York-Rio-Buenos Aires.  I was about 16.  A friend and I had dates with two fellows who drove up in a beauty of a Chrysler.  We were impressed, thinking it was theirs.  But, it belonged to Fred Noonan and he was driving.”  The friendship that started that night continued while Noonan was in Miami.  NYRBA sold out to Pan American and Noonan stayed on.  An excellent navigator, he set up their early routes throughout the Caribbean.

Fred Noonan at Bandoeng Java, June 1937.

Pan Am transferred Noonan west to help plan Pacific routes.  Helen lost touch with him, but when he returned to Miami to depart on the fatal flight, he asked her to have dinner.  I went to the Hotel Columbus where the party was staying.  Reporters were in the lobby, but I was the only one allowed out of the elevator on Earhart’s floor.

Before she and Noonan left for dinner, Earhart invited Helen to have breakfast with them the next morning before takeoff.  That was how I came to be there to help push the plane out of the hangar.  I picked Fred up about 3:30 and we followed the Earhart car.  After breakfast, when we got to the airport, no one was there but Bo McNeeley, Miss Earhart’s mechanic.  We — McNeeley, Earhart, Noonan, George Putnam and his son, David, and I — pushed the plane out of the hangar.” — The following are excerpts from letters written by Noonan:

(1) From Fortaleza, Brazil: 5 June 1937 —

Dear Helen, We are well on our way, but I know the most enjoyable part of the flight is behind us.  I cannot express the pleasure I found on the few hours you so kindly devoted to me …

     We have enjoyed a pleasant and uneventful trip so far – it was particularly interesting to me because rather than fly the established trade routes we flew the most direct routes from Caripito, Venezuela to Paramaribo, Dutch Guyana, and from there to Fortaleza.  Those routes took us across hundreds of miles of unexplored dense virgin jungles.  Nothing visible but solid carpets of tree tops, with frequent wide winding rivers cutting through them … over the Orinoco River we encountered a few heavy tropical downpours, but were able to circumvent them by flying around the cloud formations, or going upstairs over them.  It was interesting because of the lack of recognizable landmarks – a jungle is as equally devoid of distinguishable markings as an ocean …. several times we had to rely upon celestial navigation to ascertain our position.

     We are leaving in the morning for Natal – only 270 miles distant – and will take off from there for Dakar, Africa just as soon as weather permits.  I wish to again express my pleasure at having seen you again – and to hope I will be equally as fortunate in the not distant future.  Oh yes – while we were in the cockpit waiting to take off from Miami both Amelia and her husband paid you nice compliments – he said you were a mighty nice girl and Amelia said – “Yes, mighty attractive, and beautiful with it.”  I’m glad they could appreciate such obvious facts.  Will drop a line from some place along the route. — Kind regards, Fred

No caption accompanied this photo, but it was placed next to Noonan’s letter from Bandoeng, Java, and his shirt appears to be the same as in the photo above, identified as taken in Java.

(2) From Bandoeng, Java: 22 June 1937 — Dear Helen, It is strange how sometimes thoughts of one person will run through one’s mind all day… And so I decided to write you … We arrived here yesterday from Singapore – and as some minor instrument adjustments were necessary we decided to remain an additional day … Tomorrow we jump off for Surabaya, or possibly as far as Kupang. Since last writing we have visited many out of the way and little known places, but by far the most enjoyable experiences were the charming people we have met.  Since arriving in Africa we have been the guests of the Governors of Senegal, French West Africa; of French Sudan, and British, or Anglo Egyptian Sudan – Standard Oil people in Karachi and Calcutta – also in Akyab, Burma; the American consul in Rangoon, and the American Consul General in Singapore; of the Army in Massawa and Assab, Italian Eritrea, Africa.  In all places our hosts were most charming and hospitable.  In some places we had amusing times because of linguistic difficulties.  However, because of Amelia’s smattering of French and German and my slight knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese we made ourselves understood by the French and Italians. In some places – such as Port Lamy in the French Sudan, and in Massawa and Assab, Eritrea, not a soul could speak English.  But we had a glorious time despite our difficulties coming across Africa – particularly near Timbuktu – it was so hot we slept on the open desert at night – and like it immensely. . . . With favorable weather we should be back in the States within ten days more or less – perhaps long before you receive this letter.  I shall look forward to a letter from you after our return and I am hoping I will not be disappointed . ….  Sincerely, Fred

(3) From Koepang, Timor Island, Dutch East Indies: 27 June 1937 —
Dear Helen, If you are living the normal, like a nice young girl should live, you are in the deepest of slumbers now … it is a quarter to six Sunday evening here in this out of the way comer of the earth, and it is a quarter of five Monday morning in Ye Little Woods.  We arrived here about noon from Surabaya, Java, with intention of going on to Port Darwin, Australia, but upon arrival received a weather report indicating headwinds of about 40 miles per hour lay ahead of us.  As Port Darwin time is two hours ahead of local time … we decided not to risk landing at a strange airport after darkness had fallen.

View of group posed in front of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10-E Electra (NR16020) at Lae, New Guinea, July 1937, just before the fliers’ July 2 departure from Lae.  From left to right are Eric Chater (Manager, Guinea Airways), Mrs. Chater, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan.

… We spent considerably more time in Java than we expected to – had some minor, but important, instrument adjustments to be made, and as the Dutch Line is using the new DC 3 Douglas – equipped with similar instruments – we decided to have the work done in their shops at Bandoeng … Took off once and got as far as Surabaya – about 350 miles – only to have the instruments fail again – so returned to Bandoeng.  They are functioning perfectly now, thank goodness to the Dutch mechanics.  So tomorrow we hope to take off for Port Darwin – the next day for Lae, New Guinea, and then the three overwater hops – Howland Island – 2,600 miles – Honolulu – 1,800 – and Oakland – 2,410.

     We had a most enjoyable time in Java – visited a volcano – made a trip to the capitol – Batavia, where we were entertained by friends of mine and the American Consul General and made several sight-seeing trips to nearer places.  While in Java we partook of the famous … Rijs Katolfel – first a helping of rice – then about 27 different dishes … Each dish is served by a different boy … 27 of them … appear over your left shoulder in a seemingly endless string of silver dishes and brown hands.  Everything is piled on the plate before one commences to eat – and, as you can imagine – the resultant heap presents a rather formidable appearance.  But – believe it or not – I cleaned my plate!  I will admit I did not ask for a second helping – although I understand the Dutch frequently do.  I am glad I did not do so … because my stomach seemed the playground of hundreds of little imps playing around with tiny – but sharp – pitchforks all the night of that memorable day!

     Java proved far the most interesting and beautiful country we have visited – terraced rice fields climb the hillsides to heights – and at inclinations – almost unbelievable – and they afford a pretty picture patterned in all hues of tans, browns, greys, greens and yellows.  In between the rice paddies are large areas of beautiful woodlands and the entire island is a succession of low, level coastal plains – high plateaus, deep and beautiful valleys, rolling hills and towering, rugged mountains – many climbing more than 13,000 feet.  The days are not too warm, and the nights are delightfully cool – a veritable paradise. The natives are gentle, friendly people, very industrious and, in contrast to other places in the far east, the men seem to do most of the work.

     The cities are numerous, fairly large, and almost without exception, very clean and truly beautiful – paved streets, good street lighting, pleasant substantial homes set in nicely – but not too formally – landscaped grounds. I hear the dinner gong – or its equivalent – and Amelia is calling – so I must close.  With kindest regards – and the hope I shall be back in the not distant future. — Sincerely, Fred

Fred Noonan and Amelia Earhart disappeared
July 2, 193

For much more on Fred Noonan, please see my Dec. 23, 2014 post, Fred Noonan: Amelia Earhart’s forgotten navigatorand Fred Noonan’s drinking: In search of the true story,” published on Jan. 6, 2015.

“Only surviving” 2nd Earhart World Flight Cover

Today’s post is devoted to stamp collectors, also known as philatelists, and everyone else who’s interested in stamps honoring Amelia Earhart in all corners of the world.  First, from the opening pages of Volume 1 of the collected Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters (December 1989 to March 2000), we have:

THE ONLY SURVIVING FIRST DAY FLIGHT COVER OF THE 2nd AMELIA EARHART WORLD FLIGHT ATTEMPT OF 1937.  Margot DeCarie Miss Earhart’s secretary did not return it in time to be placed aboard the Lockheed Electra aircraft when it departed Oakland, California for Miami, Florida on May 19, 1937 [sic, correct date was May 21].  Miss DeCarie age 83 who died in N. Hollywood, California on March 13, 1983 presented the cover to Major Joe Gervais for his extensive Pacific research [sic] into the Earhart Mystery.  The flight cover displays 10 years of U.S. Airmail postage from the period of 1927 to 1937.

Author David K. Bowman offers more about the Earhart flight covers.  In Bowman’s 2015 bookAmelia Earhart Philately, The World’s First Book on Amelia Earhart Philately,” (in 2016 an enlarged second edition was published), he presents an image of the “only autographed souvenir envelope known to survive from Amelia Earhart’s 1937 round-the-world flight. . . . Autographed by Earhart and addressed to Mr. E.H. Dimity, a parachute manufacturer who was her unofficial business manager, the stamped flight cover was among approximately 10,000 sole by Gimbel’s in Manhattan to raise money for the first attempt at a world flight.   6500 [sic]of them were consigned to Earhart to take on her flight.”  Bowman continues:

During the takeoff attempt in Honolulu, the plane went into a loop (type of fishtail), its landing gear gave way and it crashed.  When the plane was sent back to Burbank for repairs, the mail was placed in the custody of the Honolulu postmaster.  A cachet was added to the envelopes reading, Held over in Honolulu following Take-Off Accident of March 20, 1937.  An additional 1000 covers were also subsequently sold with the cachet “2nd TAKEOFF.”  The covers in Honolulu were later returned to Oakland, but before they were loaded into Earhart’s plane in May, Elmer Dimity removed his envelope and part of a joke he planned to play when Earhart returned.  He said he had hoped to meet her with the envelope in hand, saying the mail had arrived before she did.  On May 2, 1937, Earhart took off on her ill-fated flight [sic, correct date was May 21].  The final number of covers carried on the flight was 7500.

This is the front page of the program for the 1991 Christi’s Auction, at which the Dimity cover was sold.

Mr. Dimity sold the envelope in the 1960s on behalf of the Amelia Earhart Foundation to a dealer,according to Scott. R. Trepel, a Christie’s consultant, who organized the auction house’s sale.  The collector who bought the envelope from that dealer is the unidentified seller of the Earhart memento, which was sold with an affidavit from Mr. Dimity, bringing in between $20,000 and $30,000.” 

In David K. Bowman’s Amelia Earhart Philately, the author states that this is a “rare specimen of a Second Takeoff cover, of which 1000 were sold. Few are known to exist.” Italics mine.

This is the cover of the 2016 Enlarged Second Edition of David K. Bowman’s Amelia Earhart PhilatelyIt is the only book in the world showing all stamps issued to honor Amelia Earhart, the greatest aviatrix of the 20th Century.  Lavishly illustrated in full color, this volume should be a hit with those interest in philately, history and aviation.  Completely illustrated in full color.  It will shortly be in the American Philatelic Society’s online library.

Another example of the fascinating collection of stamps and other collector’s memorabilia from David K. Bowman’s Amelia Earhart Philately

Editor’s note: We’ve just been informed of the sad passing of David K. Bowman.  Details are unavailable, but for much more on Dave’s life and work, please see my Jan. 18, 2017 post,The Psychic World of Amelia Earhart.”

May 23 update: There was a good reason by I put quotes around “Only surviving” in the headline for this post, as I wasn’t sure if the claims being made in the pieces from the AES and Dave Bowman were entirely accurate, as I’m no Earhart stamp expert myself.

On May 22, researcher Les Kinney wrote, “For your information, a second flight cover turned up and was sold at auction many years ago.  Its provenance is strange; but no doubt it was the real thing. George Putnam and Amelia were less than honest about the flight covers and their trip around the world.”

Next, Woody Rogers, a longtime collector of Earhart memorabilia, checked in with an even more weighty and complex correction:

I have all 3 types of the last flight covers. The one that Dave Bowman posted of the second takeoff is mine. As I heard and have read bits and pieces of, there were 10,000 covers produced. Type 1 has AROUND THE WORLD FLIGHT in the bottom left of the cover. Type 2 has the same words with stars in between around the world and type has second take off under around the world flight, as evidenced in the photos that I’ve attached. As far as a total on the plane, nobody has those numbers. You could purchase the covers over the counter at either Gimbels location, with or without her signature. You could also opt to have the cover franked and mailed to you. The last option was to receive your cover carried on her plane by mail after she completed the flight.

The numbers I found were 3500 type 1s, when Gimbels ran out, 3500 more type 2 covers were made with the stars on them.  After the disaster in Hawaii, 3000 2nd takeoff covers were made, because of time constraints, all but 12 of the type 3s went on the plane. Those 12 Amelia gave to her mother and told her she would give them to her for good luck and sign them after she completed the flight. Amy eventually gave them away. There weren’t actually 10,000 on the plane because of the over the counter and mailed covers sold before the flight, so there’s no accurate count of what was actually put on the plane. I bought all of mine on eBay starting in 2002.  The signed type 1 was $1250, the type 2 was $142 and the Second Take Off cover was $785.  A few weeks after I bought it, I saw one sold at auction for $32,000, so mine was a great deal! I have a few pre and post flight documents and letters from Gimbel’s that I’ll send you copies of later today. Enjoy! You may use these photos as you wish.

Cover one (below), which is signed, has no stars in around the world flight.  Cover two has the stars. Cover 3 is imprinted with 2nd Take Off.  Cover 4 is a cover from a stamp club that was franked and mailed by the stamp club to their member after the crash in Hawaii. On the back of that cover is a stamp from the Treasure Island Exposition, 1938-1939.  Paul Mantz gave plane rides in his Sikorsky amphibian during the 2 years of the Exposition.  My dad was there with his Boy Scout troop, Paul Mantz was out with his plane, my dad started asking him questions about the plane, Paul handed him a blank ticket with a photo and gave him a ride that morning.  This was my dad’s start in a love of flying that eventually led to a 31-year military career in with 23 years of that as a Marine Aviator.



1965 State Dept. memo belies official Earhart line

The below document appeared in the February 1995 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, and is aptly titled, “A U.S. STATE DEPT. MEMO DATED FEB. 8TH, 1965.”  It contains references to former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke and GI Earhart witnesses on Saipan, and appears to have a direct relationship to author and researcher Fred Goerner’s early 1960s Earhart investigations on Saipan.  Click on image for larger view.

This document has been marked asDECLASSIFIED at its top and bottom borders.  It’s impossible to determine when this declassification occurred, but it was likely later than early 1965, when it was created.  The memo may have been included in the package of 1967 declassified Navy files, which I do not have in its original form. 

Herein we learn here that the State Department’s Earhart file complete jacket is identified as number200.113 (1960-1),and that the copy of Adm. [Arleigh] Burke’s letter of Dec. 24 1960 to Assistant Secretary Parsons as well as Parson’s reply of Dec. 30, 1960 have been sent to the recipient(s) of this letter, identified as EA/J – Mr. Knowles and P/HO Richardson Dougall.

The only reference about John F. Knowles an Internet search found was as a State Department official listed in a Memorandum of Conversation of Dec. 4, 1962 on State’s Office of the Historian website.  The subject was Japanese Copper Ore Purchases; Trade Liberalization by Japan; Trade Expansion Act.”  

Much more can be found about the other addressee in the memo, Richardson Dougall.  In a 1985 interview with the Minnesota Historical Society, we learn that Dougall was a retired State Department Historian (thus theHO in the address line) and organist, 68 years old, living in Portland, Ore.  A search of Amazon reveals he wrote at least seven books, most relating to his State Department position, all quite obscure and non-selling.  Clearly, Knowles and Dougall were inside players in the State Department’s Earhart cover-up during the mid-1960s.

Adm. Arleigh Burke was Chief of Naval Operations from 1955 to 1961, distinguishing himself during World War II and the Korean War, and this is the first time I’ve seen his name connected in any way to the Earhart disappearance. 

Fred Goerner with witness Dr. Manuel Aldan on Saipan, June 1960.  Aldan was a dentist whose patients were Japanese officers, who told them of the lady spy in they called “Earharto!”  See page 85 of Truth at Last for more.  (Courtesy San Francisco Library Special Collections.)

The “references to photographs [and presumably, accounts] in the Game-Goerner article” of the two individuals described in No. 4, “a former member of Army Intelligence from New York, who took a ‘photograph from a Japanese officer during Saipan’s 1944 invasion showing Earhart before Japanese aircraft,’ ” and an “ex-Marine from Virginia, who fought across Saipan’s Red Beach One in 1944 and ‘tore a snapshot of Amelia Earhart, shown with a Japanese officer, off the wall of a house the Japanese had occupied’ ” were included in Fred Goerner’s 1966 bestseller The Search for Amelia Earhart.  

The Saipan GIs were Sgt. Ralph R. Kanna, of Johnson City, N.Y., and Robert Kinley (rank unknown), of Norfolk, Va., respectively.  Their accounts, as well as other finds of Earhart-related photos, can be found in my March 13, 2020 post, Veterans recall seeing Earhart photos on Saipan.

Below the negatively exposed memorandum, AES President and newsletter editor Bill Prymak offered the following comments:

QUESTIONS:  Why should the State Dept. still be interested in Earhart in 1965 if they took the official position in 1937 that she was simply lost at sea?

Who is RM/R?  Why the interest in the photos from Saipan?

Is the above mentioned file part of the same Earhart file(s) that Col. [Rollin] Reineck has been trying to get released?

STAY TUNED. . . . . we may have more coming.


Conclusion of Goerner’s interviews with Joe Gurr

We continue with the conclusion of our retrospective look at the Amelia Earhart Electra’s radio capabilities via interviews of radio expert Joseph Gurr by Fred Goerner as compiled by researcher Cam Warren and appearing in the February 1999 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.  

Fred: [Are} 9.3, 15.45, and 21.7 mc that you referred to back in 1937 as being the ranges or the capabilities of that Bendix direction finder that was in the aircraft [considered] pretty high frequencies?

Gurr: Oh boy, I tell you it was.  Initially those frequencies were not used too much.  Today, they are commonplace.

Fred: Where would 7500 [i.e. 7.5 mc] fit in there?

Fred Noonan, circa mid-1930s, in his Pan Am uniform. In March 1935 he was the navigator on the first Pan Am Sikorsky S-42 clipper at San Francisco Bay in California.  The following month he navigated the historic round-trip China Clipper flight between San Francisco, California and Honolulu, Hawaii piloted by Ed Musick (who was featured on the cover of Time magazine that year).  “I don’t care what kind of equipment she had in that airplane,” Joseph Gurr told Fred Goerner, “She did not know how to use it.  Noonan, hell, he didn’t know nothing as far as I’m concerned!”

Gurr: Oh, that would be wonderful.  That is one of the real good ones.  That is what you call the 40 meter band.  It is a real good general band.  Day time, up to a thousand miles generally with relatively low power.  At night, you can whip around the world.  Again, it is subject to a certain amount of skip.

Fred: “[Was] Amelia capable of sending CW [Morse Code], or was Noonan capable of CW?”

Gurr: “I don’t know about Noonan but I don’t think Amelia was.”

Fred: That is why she never made any attempt to use it?

Gurr: “I was really concerned.  In using the radio direction finder; that is if you are homing in . . . if [you] haven’t got a range and you want to work a problem, you have to know at least an a from a n.”  I’m sure she didn’t know the code.  As far as Noonan is concerned, I don’t know.

Fred: “Unless Noonan was in the cockpit, he couldn’t have worked any radio anyway, could he?

Gurr: “No.  The way the thing was set up, we had a key — oh, about that key.  Now, let me see if I can think about that once.  We had a key installed on the navigator’s table in the back.  It was installed when I got into the picture.  The idea was that you would send code.  Code gets out far more distance.  That was great, but then, I have a very hazy recollection that that key was removed.  I don’t remember just when, but some place along the line, I heard that they had removed it.  It might have been in Florida.  Nobody knew the code anyway.”

Fred: Manning did. It was there to begin with and I suppose it was there for him to use. Neither Amelia or Noonan knew how to use it then?

Gurr: “That was it then.

Fred: “It was of no use to them anyway.  They were going to depend upon their 3105 or 6210 channels, and their direction finder.

[End of radio remarks. The balance of this interview discusses various people such as Vidal, Miller, Pearson, et al.]


[PART TWO: Interview recorded Aug. 14, 1987]

Gurr generally concurred with his earlier story.  He reiterated his fondness for the [direction finder] that “the Navy sent out,” again remarking that “the receiver was an all-band job” that “they can even listen to ham radio on this one.”  (Later in this interview he enlarged on the statement, saying it went from 200 to somewhere around 15,000 kc because it also covered the 20 meter amateur band, which is 14,000.)  (If he recalled correctly, this would likely indicate the [Bendix] receiver covered five bands, as did the RA-1B.)

Gurr felt the equipment was fine, but had reservations about the operators.  “I don’t care what kind of equipment she had in that airplane, she did not know how to use it.  Noonan, hell, he didn’t know nothing as far as I’m concerned!” Gurr told Amelia that she didn’t have much transmitting power, but to use 6210 during the day, 3105 at night, and just press the button. Just say, ’Itasca, this is me!’  Just press the button and Itasca would get a bearing — assuming that the Itasca had the equipment and that they knew how to use it far better than Amelia Earhart.  That was the answer to the whole thing — they would give you a compass heading to take, and you’ve got it made.”

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.

Harry Manning had Gurr’s full admiration: “He was good. He was a nice guy personally, but on top of that he was qualified.  If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be captain of a big ship like that [the SS America].  He was really good.  I thought, [Amelia] you’ve got it made.  I hate to go on record to say this, but when Noonan showed up — aw, golly!”

I don’t know but there was just something that happened to all of us [in Burbank] — to
everybody around there, all the people that were working around on the airplane.  Like, if I may say this, the reputation he [Noonan] gave Amelia, and that caused her to take him, was that he was the original navigator for the original trip of Pan American to fly over the Pacific and so on.  Well, I immediately said, O.K., so how come he is out of a job now?  In those days, we were using navigators.  United [Airlines] was using navigators on their trips to Honolulu.  In fact, we don’t anymore, but in those days that is how it was done. Navigators were — heck he could get a job anytime; I’m sure he could.  Something happened fight there.  I never talked to Amelia.  I never talked to Noonan.  His reputation as a man who imbibed a little once in awhile came with him.”

Earlier, Goerner had asked Gurr that, considering the radio installation, if it would have been possible to use the transmitter if the plane was afloat in the pacific.  Gurr said he knew the plane wouldn’t sink for awhile if they could somehow dump those big motors.  But the transmitter would operate especially for a little while.  They couldn’t do it for long because now your engines are stopped and you are running on storage batteries.  It takes power.  Now let us say, under some conditions, if she was able
to land that airplane so that it was floating, even for 5 or 10 minutes, yes, she could transmit because the antenna was in the clear and the transmitter was not in the water because it was up pretty high.  You know, above the navigator’s table.  Now this is all an assumption.  If the airplane was floating at all, yes, she could transmit.  She could really get on that mike button and really transmit.”

Amelia Earhart at the controls of her Lockheed 10E Electra before taking off from New Guinea, on July 2, 1937. She disappeared the next day. (National Archives)

Fred: “How severe would the drain be on those batteries if she were trying to transmit on 3105 or 6210?”

Gurr: “Not severe. It was not that big a transmitter. They were 12 volt batteries, and I would say, [the transmitter would draw] probably 10 amperes when she pressed the button.  Ten amperes would be about right.  I never measured it.”

Fred: So you would have what? In terms of amount of time available from those batteries.

Gurr: Oh, she could transmit for an hour off and on.  But, if that airplane was afloat, it wouldn’t be afloat for long.  It wouldn’t be afloat any three days; those engines would pull them under.”  And further, I can conjecture what could happen to Amelia’s airplane.  I knew the airplane, all those big tanks, the heavy motors and the skill.  Not only that, I know the Pacific Ocean.  A lot of people seem to think that it is a big flat pond.  It isn’t.  It’s always rough out there.  And you take waves 5 or 6 feet high with little white caps and you try to land an airplane in that, and believe me boy, you just hop, skip, and so on and finally you just plunk!  If you did a good job with your gear up.”

End of “What Radios Did She Really Have?”


Goerner interviews radio expert Joe Gurr, Part II

We continue today with Part II “What Radios Did She Really Have?” our retrospective look at the Amelia Earhart Electra’s radio capabilities via interviews of radio expert Joseph Gurr by Fred Goerner as compiled by researcher Cam Warren.

In answer to Fred’s query as to how Amelia got this “Navy gear.”  Gurr replied: “I asked no questions.”  Fred showed him several photos of the plane “passed by Navy censors.”  They clearly showed the topside antenna mast and the loop, “and some of the gear below.”  Gurr confirmed that this showed the configuration after the rebuild.

Fred: Right after the disappearance, newspaper accounts mentioned a Joseph Gurr, Burbank engineer, who installed the sending apparatus. Then [the story] quoted you as having said:9.3, 15.5 and 21.7 mc.’  What does that mean to you?

Gurr: “She could receive [those] frequencies on the Bendix gear, but not transmit on [them].

Fred: “To get a heading from the Bendix Direction Finder?  She would receive on those frequencies?”

Gurr agreed, saying: “This was high frequency.  It also had the [2-400 kc band]. [I’m afraid I didn’t stress to Earhart] the value and usefulness and that gear.  Oh, it was wonderful!”

The Bendix RA-1B, used in Amelia Earhart’s Electra during her final flight without apparent success, was a brand-new product and was reputed to be pushing the state of the art in aircraft receiver design.

Fred asked if Gurr thought Fred and Amelia knew how to operate it property.  The reply was only a grunt.

[There following a discussion of the gasoline load, then the subject returns to radio].

Fred: “Why was it do you suppose that Amelia never broadcast on 500 kc? All during the flight on which she disappeared, she never once broadcast on 500 kc.  The Itasca had a 500 direction finder.  The Navy had sent a 3105 direction finder down from Pearl Harbor and installed it at Howland Island.  She kept broadcasting on 3105 and asked the Itasca to take a direction on her on 3105. The Itasca kept asking her to broadcast on 500 and she never did on 500.  Why not?

Gurr: “There might be a number of reasons for that.  At 500, I never was able to work anybody on 500 when I was working on the equipment.  That was only here locally.  500 kc is a very, very low frequency and you have to have power to get out at all.  [She had] her little 50-watt transmitter and a reduced size antenna.  On 500 kc you want to have a proper antenna.   On sea-going ships, they have these great big antennas between the masts that are separated by quite a distance and they have a lot of wire out there.  That is what you have to have.  On an airplane where she did not have much of an antenna, her range on 500 kc was very short.  If she was, let’s say in sight of a ship, she could talk.  As I recall, we talked about that very thing.  If she was in an overcast and she raised a ship, she could be sure the ship was not very far away.  In reading your book, I think you explained it very well.  She did not stay on the air long enough for the Itasca to take a beating on her.  In those days we didn’t have the automatic features.  We had to do all of this manually.  The radio operator on the Itasca would tune the signal in, then he had to rotate his beam to get a null and I don’t think she ever talked long enough for him to do that.  They kept asking her to send ’A’s.  All they needed was that carrier.”

Fred: “She asked the Itasca to send As on 7500.

Gurr: “That means she was using that Bendix machinery.  On 7500 she could have heard that if the Itasca had any power at all, even 2[00] or 300 watts.  They could transmit a good signal for several hundred miles.

Fred: “At one point, she said, we are receiving your signals but cannot get a minimum.  What did that mean?

Gurr: “That means she was turning the loop and could not get a null.

Fred: “Because of what? The signal was too weak?

Amelia, with Bendix Corporation rep Cyril Remmlein, and the infamous direction finding loop that replaced Fred Hooven’s “radio compass” or “automatic direction finder.”  Hooven was convinced that the change was responsible for Amelia’s failure to find Howland Island, and ultimately, for her tragic death on Saipan.  Whether the loop itself failed the doomed fliers during their final flight remains uncertain.  See p. 56 Truth at Last for more.  (Photo courtesy Albert Bresnik, taken from Laurance Safford’s Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday.)

Gurr: There are many reasons she could not get a null.  As an example, unless you have a considerable number, a quite strong signal, nulls are not easy to find.  If the signal is weak, you can go through a null.  You have to have a solid signal.  Then too, in those days the equipment wasn’t developed like it is these days.  State of the Art is quite different.

In those days, a little static — maybe she was excited, flying the airplane and trying to tune the set to get the best signal.  She might have had the loop turned more or less at the null.  She should have had it straight forward, if she was headed toward Howland.  Had the loop fore and aft to get the maximum signal.  She had a sensing antenna which was that V-antenna and the idea was to first tune in the signal on that antenna and then switch it over to the loop and get a bearing.

Fred: This takes time.

Gurr: “And it takes a certain amount of cool-headedness about that time.

Fred: “The trailing antenna had been removed at that time?”

Gurr: “It was still on board.  She did not use it on 500 kc.  That was the object of the antenna on top.  We put on all the wire we could, as much wire up there as possible, and to get it off the fuselage so that the fuselage would not have an absorbing or a reflecting effect.  We were very successful.  Actually she had as much wire as possible on that airplane.  This was for transmitting.  For receiving, you didn’t have to have that much.  She had that V-antenna down there which was fine.

Fred:  “Apparently that was working very well because she checked back in with Lae, New Guinea 800 miles out on 6210 in the daytime.”

Fred: There were messages that amateur radio operators said they had received after the time of the disappearance of the plane. They were received along the Pacific Coast.  I have talked to a number of the operators and I believe they actually did receive messages. Would it have been possible to broadcast if they had been down in the water?

Gurr: “Yes.  The antenna was dear.  If that airplane was floating, the antenna was up on top of the fuselage and she could transmit until that antenna was submerged.”

Fred: “Did she have batteries in the cockpit or something that would enable her to power her gear.

Gurr: Storage batteries, yeah. There was a storage battery generator. In flight, the generator was charging the batteries. In those days, airplanes carried decent flight batteries. I don’t remember how many she had, but I know she had at least one.  Flying along as she was, that battery was probably well charged.  Then, supposing she was down in the water, and got on the air to transmit, she had the power.  The transmitter itself did not take an awful lot of juice.  It was a low powered transmitter.  She could probably transmit for 30 minutes if the battery was fully charged.  Intermittent, maybe longer than that.”

Fred: “Could 3105 be received on the Pacific Coast and not be received in the general area of where she went down?

West Coast amateur radio operators Walter McMenamy (left) and Carl Pierson, circa 1937, claimed they heard radio signals sent by Amelia Earhart, including two SOS calls followed by Earhart’s KHAQQ call letters.

Gurr: “Oh yes.  Especially at night. 3105 at night.  It was daytime between here and Howland Island.  It is very unlikely, but at night, yes.  These frequencies are subject to a certain amount of skip and the higher frequency you go, the more that skip.

Fred: “And not be received by a vessel in the general area?

Gurr: That’s right.

Fred: This Navy direction finder, the 3105 that the Navy Dept. sent down on board Itasca to use in conjunction with the flight evidently was a rather hush-hush model at that time.  They were experimenting with high frequencies, through a department and the Navy known as OP-G20, which was Naval Intelligence Communications.  You know anything about development of high frequency direction finders at that time?

Gurr: Only things that were published.  I had no connection with the Navy or any military organization so far as any of the classified developments.  We knew in the airline business and especially being interested in radio as I was then, I knew pretty well what developments were upcoming.  We knew the limitations of the low frequencies.  We knew that we had to have something better.  Obviously the experimentation had to go to the high frequencies.  At that time there was a feeling that the high frequencies had a tendency to bend, the waves would bend and would get a false radio direction finding.  Maybe that was true in certain locations, certain altitudes and so on.  This was all subject to experimentation.  That was brand new stuff in those days. Now, as you know and we know, the military is always researching, developing and working on projects.  Now-a-days, they call it classified, or secret.  You never stop.

Obviously the Navy had classified gear then.  And they have it now.  The 3105 [kc] radio
direction finder was considered a pretty high frequency to get a reliable direction, at that time. Today, we know its limitations.  We know what it is doing.  The airlines now have fully automatic units that lock on to the beam and take it right down the line.  In those days, we thought 3105 was getting into rather high frequency.”

(End of Part II.)

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