David Billings recently returned from his seventeenth trip to East New Britain in search of the Earhart Electra, and again he was unable to find the hidden wreck that he believes is the lost Electra 10E that Amelia Earhart flew from Lae, New Guinea on the morning of July 2, 1937.
Billings’ New Britain theory is the only hypothesis among all the various possible explanations that vary from the truth as we know it, that presents us information and poses questions that cannot be explained or answered. Unless and until the twin-engine wreck that an Australian army team found in the East New Britain jungle 1945 is rediscovered, this loose end will forever irritate and annoy researchers who take such findings seriously.
Readers can review the details of Billings’ work by reading my Dec. 5, 2016 post, New Britain theory presents incredible possibilities. Billings’ website Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project and subtitled “Earhart’s Disappearance Leads to New Britain: Second World War Australian Patrol Finds Tangible Evidence” offers a wealth of information on this unique and fascinating theory.
Billings has sent me a detailed report on the events of the last three weeks, and it’s presented below. I wish he had better news, however, as this aspect of the Earhart search is one that screams for resolution, unlike the others, which are all flat-out lies and disinformation, intended only to keep the public ignorant about Amelia’s sad fate.
SEARCHING FOR THE ELECTRA AND FOR AMELIA AND FRED
Our last expedition started on Friday, June 2, when the six members of the Australian team met at the Brisbane International Motel on the Friday evening prior to the flight out of Brisbane for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on the morning of Saturday, June 3.
We flew from Brisbane for three hours and went into transit at Port Moresby, then on to the flight which is “nominally” to Rabaul but actually Kokopo and arrived at Tokua Airport after an hour and 20 minutes, on time, and then by mini-bus to the Rapopo Plantation Resort just outside of Kokopo, which was the base for our “equipment and rations” gathering over the next two days.
The hired HiLux vehicles arrived and Sunday and Monday was spent on shopping for the major items from prepared lists and boxing all the goods up and storing them in the rooms. Money changing at the banks in Kokopo and final shopping was Tuesday for odds and ends.
The U.S. team members arrived at the Rapopo on Monday, June 5, and after their hectic flight schedule relaxed on the Tuesday ready for the road trip on Wednesday.
The Journey to Wide Bay
The road trip with all 10 members was carried out in three Toyota HiLux Dual Cab 4WD’s with diesel engines. We had walkie-talkies for contact during the drive. The road we had planned on was to be approximately 160 kilometers (99.4 miles) and we expected to be able to do this in about four and a half hours. The actual time was seven hours over very rough roads and with a planned one major river crossing and several minor river crossings. In the event, due to finding one road impassable, we were forced to ford a quite wide and substantial river which we know from previous trips can be in flood quite rapidly as it has a large watershed area stretching up into the Baining Mountains.
The supposed “sealed” roads out of Kokopo through small villages towards Kerevat town were a nightmare with potholes every few yards and the daily multitude of vehicles were weaving in and out of the potholes and wandering all over the road to avoid the holes.
A good 10 kilometers out of Kerevat town, a turnoff towards the village of Malasait brought us onto the very rough tracks that we were to use for the rest of the journey. This rough track constitutes the major part of what is euphemistically called the “East New Britain Highway.” For a detailed look at the Gazelle Peninsula in relation to the Billings search, please click here.
On the Highway
All went well over the awful rough roads until about the halfway point whereupon we came across a gigantic mudslide over a stretch of the “highway” on a downslope about 100 meters long, with ruts in the mud about 500 millimeters (19.6 inches) deep. There was a truck there which they had shed the load off of it and copra bags littered the drains as they had strived to get the truck through and they were picking the bags up on a long pole when we got there. Rain water had gone completely over this section and washed the road out. After throwing rocks into the deepest rutted sections and pushing the loose mud down also, we managed to get through this area in four-wheel drive. We had to remember this section of “road” and prepare for it for the return journey.
Shortly after this, we crossed the Sambei River No. 2, in a wide sweeping arc with water just over the wheel hubs which allowed us to stay on the shallowest parts and then continued on the way.
At this river crossing we had met up with a local man who said he was going to the Lamerien area and we followed him along a newly cut forestry road which joined up with the old road near to the turn-off to Awungi then we entered the steep descending curves down into the Mevelo River Valley and expected to turn off to the right to follow the track through the Mumus and Yarras River Valleys. However, our guide drove straight ahead to a security guard post leading into the Palm Oil Plantation, sited on the northern side of the Mevelo River. On realizing that we were being led into the Palm Oil Plantation the expectation then was that the bridge over the Mevelo which we could see “not completed” in Satellite views must then be “completed,” which would mean we could cross the wide Mevelo River with ease.
The Mevelo River
After driving through the Palm Oil roads for about 40 minutes we came to the Mevelo River and our hopes were dashed! There was no bridge. We had seen a bridge with a very nearly completed driving span in the satellite pictures with but one span to be completed. What we were now looking at was a damaged bridge with no roadway across the pylons. The Mevelo River is a very fast flowing river in flood and an earlier flood had obviously caused the bridge supports to move and the bridge had collapsed.
The bridge was down, destroyed by the “mighty” Mevelo at some time in a flood. Several of the old shipping containers that had been used as ballast cans for rocks to hold and support the concrete bridgeworks had been moved out of position by the strength of the flow of water down the Mevelo River and now we were left with a choice — we must now ford the river or turn back.
Luckily, while we had a rest stop close to the access road to the river, I had seen two Toyota Land Cruiser troop carrier vehicles come out of the track entrance to the river and sure enough when we arrived at the river, there were the wet wheel tracks of these vehicles left behind on the steep entrance into the river, so we decided to go across, fording the river in the HiLux in H4, in four-wheel drive. I went first and kept a straight line across and the water was deeper over on the far side of the river and estimated to be just at wheel height. The second vehicle came across and then Matt took a different wider line and we could see water up to the bonnet before the front end of the vehicle reared up out of the water onto dry land. A sigh of relief went up from all watching!
The Old Track
What we now know is that the former old track (part of which I have previously walked) which leads out of the Mevelo Valley and up to the Mumus and Yarras River Valleys, our planned route, is totally overgrown and cannot be used. It is a seven-hour 166 kilometer (106 miles) drive from Kokopo to Lamerien over very rough roads with what we thought were two major river crossings. We had three large rivers to cross, only one of which was bridged.
Change to the Planning
The crossing of the Mevelo River by the ford, which was forced upon us by the closure of the now “overgrown road” out of the Mevelo Valley meant that we had to rethink our carefully laid plans on several aspects: The Americans had appointments to keep on their return so had to get back for their flights. We got to the campsite on Thursday, June 7 and managed to get the tents up before dark. That left a maximum for them of six nights in the camp but in the light of the river fords (particularly the Mevelo River ford) we had to gauge intervals in the rain to get back over the Mevelo River, which was accessed as the biggest obstacle.
1. The American participants had a maximum of seven nights/six days at Wide Bay and had to return to Kokopo, the seventh day had been planned as the “return to Kokopo day.”
2. Originally it had been planned for two vehicles to return with the American participants and then one vehicle return to Wide Bay on the same day. It was now deemed too dangerous for one vehicle to make the trip back due possible breakdown on the rough roads or getting bogged on the mudslide. This planned return trip would take two days if carried out.
3. The drive cannot be done Kokopo to Wide Bay (Lamerien) and back in one day, it had been planned as a one-day trip because “if the river crossings were possible on that day in the morning” then they would still be able to be crossed later in the day. The two-day return trip negated that idea.
4. More importantly, we would have to ford the Mevelo River on a return journey and to that there was no alternative, the Mevelo River had to be crossed in order to get back to Kokopo with the vehicles, that meant the surety of a day when the river ford was at a low point.
5. We also had to make a contingency for the 100-meter-long mudslide in the road at roughly the halfway point, after the Sambei River, which doubtless would not have been repaired by the time of our return. This meant that lengths of logs had to be carried both for ballast in crossing the two main river fords and as fill to drop into the ruts on the mudslide section. The chainsaw also had to return with the vehicles in case of the need for more wood.
Secondary Jungle Visited Three Times
It rained the first night (Thursday) and Friday afternoon we made it up the hill. Since 2012 it has become just a tangled mess up there, the old bulldozer tracks are barely visible and the tree roots across the ground hold pools of water making it treacherous.
The climb up to the top of the hill can be quite steep in places and with the rain it was very slippery and some assistance was needed in paces and the willing hands of the young men of the village gave that assistance. The hill height is around 420 feet and the start level is 150 feet, so it is a tough climb over 270 feet of elevation.
It rained the second night for three hours with lightning and thunder rolls and lashing rain from 12 p.m. to 3 a.m., and then more rain during that new day. June is supposed to be the “drier” month of the year. We went up the hill three times, it rained while we were in there.
Due to the available time for the Americans in the team, the rain, the rising rivers to cross and the vehicles to be got across the rivers, we had to consider getting out at an opportune time with the biggest obstacle, the Mevelo River, at a low point. We watched the Mevelo on a daily basis. The Mevelo went down a bit and we took the opportunity to get out on Monday, June 12. Seven hours later we were back in Kokopo.
“East New Britain Highway” is Atrocious
Back to the mudslide! Yes, the mudslide was still there and still about 100 meters long, but this time on the return, on an upslope. We had to remember that stretch for going back so we cut some logs the length of the HiLux tray and took two layers of 5-foot round logs back with us both as ballast for the river crossing and to patch up the road when we got to the mudslide. When we got there a big truck was bogged in, but luckily off to the side, so we gave them a shovel, then we filled in the deeper parts of one rut with the logs we carried and I went first with one wheel side in the rut and the other on the center “heap of slime,” and in H4 we all got through but it was close-run thing. All the villagers that were working on the road cheered! Most of the road is laterite where a bulldozer has shaved off the top soil and exposed the rock underneath but this section was just mud. The roads must be terrible on the HiLux suspension and most of the journey is in first and second gear with occasional third being used.
Where do we go from here?
It is obvious that we cannot use vehicles again until the roads improve and bridges are built, that means use and reliance on a helicopter again, for “in” and “out,” with additional expense.
The idea was that by using vehicles we could cut down the expense and carry as much as we liked to make the camp comfortable. We had also intended to go down to the Ip River where a World War II wreck had been reported about 10 years ago and to which no one has been to identify, so we had thought that we would do that, but the villagers told us that the coast track was impassable.
All the film taken will now be used to make a documentary concerning the search for the aircraft wreck seen in 1945, which I am convinced on the basis of the documentary evidence on the World War II map and the visual description by the Army veterans, is the elusive Electra. We shall have to wait and see what interest is generated by the documentary.
Queensland, Australia (June 20, 2017)
Billings’ next trip to East New Britain will be his eighteenth, if he indeed makes it, and if persistence means anything at all, perhaps he will finally locate the wrecked airplane he believes was Amelia Earhart’s bird. I wish him the best of luck, as he will surely need it. If you’d like to contribute to his cause, you can visit his website, Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project for details.
During the course of his early Earhart investigations, Fred Goerner, author of the classic 1966 bestseller, The Search for Amelia Earhart, wrote several letters to Leo Bellarts, the chief radioman aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca on July 2, 1937, who retired from the Coast Guard as a lieutenant in 1946. Most of Goerner’s letter of Nov. 30, 1961, below, was initially published in the July 1996 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, as was Bellarts’ reply of Dec. 15, 1961.
Many of the Goerner’s questions are still relevant today, especially since the American public has been fed a steady diet of disinformation for many decades by a U.S. media that hasn’t shown the slightest interest in learning the facts since Time magazine panned Search as a book that “barely hangs together” in its 1966 review that signaled the establishment’s aversion to the truth the KCBS newsman found on Saipan. Goerner died in 1994 at age 69, Bellarts in May 1974 at 66.
28 November 1961
1920 State St.
Mr. Fred Goerner,
San Francisco, Calif.
Dear Mr. Goerner,
I have just received a letter and an article from a San Diego paper relative to your attempt to establish identity of some bones and teeth you found on Saipan. Having a long time interest in the Earhart story I am curious just to know why you believe Earhart wound up on Saipan.
Last year I believe that you attempted to identify an airplane generator as belonging to the Earhart plane. I’m sure that if a search was made around Saipan that many planes could be found and parts by the thousands cold be located, but none from the Earhart plane.
My curiosity stems from the fact that I believe I was one of the very few people that heard the last message from the Earhart plane. I was the Chief Radioman on the USCG Itasca at Howland Island during her ill-fated trip. Having heard practically every transmission she made from about 0200 till her crash when she was very loud and clear, I can assure you that she crashed very near Howland Island. The only island near Howland that it would have been possible for her to land would have been Baker Island and she didn’t land there.
Considering the increase in her signal strength from her first to her last transmission there leaves no doubt in my mind that she now rests peacefully on the bottom of the sea, no farther than 100 miles from Howland. If you could have heard the last transmission, the frantic note and near hysteria in her voice you also would be convinced of her fate but not on Saipan.
I firmly believe that she died a hero in the public eye and that is the way I believe that she would like it to be.
Leo G. Bellarts
Lieut. USCG (Ret)
November 30, 1961
Leo G. Bellarts
Lieut. USCG (Ret)
1920 State Street
Dear Mr. Bellarts:
Your letter of the 28th just arrived, and I was delighted to receive it. I believe you may be able to answer a number of questions that have arisen from a thorough scrutiny of the official logs of the ITASCA and the Navy carrier, LEXINGTON. (Caps Goerner’s throughout.)
But, first, to answer your question: Why does CBS believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan?
Two expeditions to Saipan and three file cabinets filled with the most painstaking research concerning every aspect of the disappearance has given us very strong reasons to believe Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan for an indefinite period prior to the war. I might add that the Catholic Church authorities on Saipan and many of the Naval Officers at the Saipan facilities are also completely convinced. The Office of Naval Intelligence has admitted that their investigation of the testimony gathered from native Saipanese indicates that it cannot be discounted. Every attempt was made to puncture that testimony this last year, and in several cases it was impossible.
The main matter for conjecture is: How did Earhart and Noonan reach Saipan? Did they fly there in their Lockheed Electra, or were they taken to the Island by the Japanese after a landing in another area?
We have submitted the available information concerning the flight to a number of aviation experts familiar with that area of the Pacific, and all have said that it was physically possible for the plane to have flown to Saipan, but it certainly is not probable. The chances have been rated at one in a thousand to one in one hundred thousand.
The aircraft wreckage brought up from Tanapag Harbor during the expedition of June 1960 was almost an afterthought. Two native divers believed they knew where the wreckage of a twin-engine plane was in the harbor. We brought some of it to the surface with little hope it represented the Electra. The fact that a generator was a Japanese copy of the Bendix 50 amp which was carried on the Earhart craft gave hope for a brief time that it might be the proper one.
You are quite right in your assumption that the ocean floor surrounding Saipan is littered with wreckage, wreckage of every conceivable size and shape.
During my most recent trip to Saipan in September of this year, we further investigated the wreckage the generator was taken from, and definitely proved that the plane was Japanese and not Earhart’s Lockheed 10-E. A partially disintegrated name-plate on a direction finder had still legible Japanese markings.
The testimony about Earhart and Noonan being on the island, however, stood firm. The Navy had put two ONI men on the case, and their estimation was that the testimony from several reputable Saipanese in particular was irrefutable.
How then did Earhart and Noonan get to Saipan if they did not fly the Lockheed there. Commander Paul Bridwell, Commandant NavAd Saipan, came up with the answer. The pair had gone down in or near the Marshalls and had been brought to Saipan, then the military headquarters for the Mandates, by Japanese ship to Yap, and then a flight by Japanese Naval Seaplane. Bridwell said there was proof to this theory contained in the logs of four United States Logistic Vessels, THE GOLD STAR, THE BLACKHAWK, THE HENDERSON, and THE CHAUMOUNT, which had been plying the Pacific in 1938 and ’39 supplying the Far East Fleet. “Certain coded messages sent from Japanese vessels and shore installations,” said Bridwell, “were intercepted by these ships.”
The Japanese code was not broken until just before the war, so I gather these messages may not have been decoded until just recently. That’s the only reason I can imagine why these messages have not been brought to light before. (Editor’s note: At the time of this letter, Goerner lacked important information about U.S. code-breaking abilities in 1937. See pages 263-264 of Truth at Last, Second Edition, for more on this complex issue.)
December 10, 1961
As you can see, there has been considerable delay in the completion of this letter. Dr. [Theodore] McCown’s findings regarding the remains has touched off a chain reaction that has kept me away from my office until today.
To say that McCown’s findings were a disappointment is an understatement; however, it in no way changes our basic hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan. As Dr. McCown put it,”It doesn’t mean you weren’t on the right track. You may have missed the actual grave site by six inches. That’s the way it is with archeology.”
(Editor’s note: Dr. Theodore McCown was the University of California anthropologist who examined bones excavated by Goerner from a Saipan gravesite in 1961. See pages 224-225 of Truth at Last for more.)
Along with this letter, I am sending you our most recent press release which details many of the things I have already discussed.
Now, if I may, I would like to ask you several questions. As you were present on the ITASCA the morning of July 2, 1937, perhaps you can clarify some points that seem most enigmatic to us.
Why do many people cling to the theory that the Earhart radio was incapable of transmitting more than 50 to 100 miles when the last check-in with Lae, New Guinea was 785 miles out at 5:20 in the afternoon?
Why was “30 minutes of gas remaining” changed to read “but are running low on gas”?
Why do many people say the Earhart radio receiver was not functioning when one of the messages received by the ITASCA states, “We are receiving your signals, but they are too weak for a minimum”?
Why wasn’t Earhart alerted to the fact that a special direction finder had been set up aboard the ITASCA?
Why was a Lt. [Daniel A.] Cooper of the U.S. Army Air Forces aboard the ITASCA the morning of the disappearance?
Why is there a complete absence of any mention of the Coast Guard Vessel ONTARIO in the log of the ITASCA? The ONTARIO was a weather ship stationed at the half-way point of the flight. Didn’t the ONTARIO ever read the Earhart plane during the flight? If the ONTARIO didn’t read Earhart, why not? The flight plan would have taken the Electra fight over the ONTARIO.
Why wasn’t the emergency 3105 direction finder set up on Howland Island able to cut in the Earhart plane if the plane was as close to the island as everyone supposed?
Was there anything else beside “strength of signal” that lead those aboard the ITASCA to believe Earhart was within 50 to 100 miles of the vessel?
What was the first reaction of those aboard the ITASCA to “We are 157-337, running north and south”? Did they think it a radio bearing or a sun line? Certainly no one could have believed it a position that an experienced navigator such as Noonan would send if he knew where he was.
Why did the LEXINGTON base its search on the July 2 group of messages rather than the July 5 group? The July 5 group paint an entirely different picture, especially 0515: “200 miles” and 0545: “100 miles.” If the plane made 100 miles in 30 minutes, it’s quite obvious Earhart and Noonan figured their air speed at 200 miles per hour, which is far different than the 111 miles per hour the LEXINGTON assumed. The Electra was capable of 200 miles an hour top speed, but Earhart, conserving gas, would have been at cruise speed of 155. They must have picked up a tail wind, and the ITASCA log indicated the wind had shifted from the southeast.
I know these are a lot of questions, but there is so much that is inexplicable. Would you be so kind as to clarify some of these points for us? We will be most grateful.
Thank you so much for your time and interest.
Frederick A. Goerner
News Dept., KCBS Radio
San Francisco, California
In future posts, thanks to the generous contributions of Dave Bellarts, of Lakewood, Wash., son of Leo, we’ll continue this fascinating correspondence between history’s foremost Earhart investigator and arguably the most reliable eyewitness aboard Itasca when Amelia sent her final “official” message that fateful July morning.
Conclusion of Gray’s “Amelia Earhart and Radio”: Former PAA flight officer’s findings still fascinate
In the conclusion of Almon Gray’s “Amelia Earhart and Radio,” the former Pan American Airways radio flight officer examines further technical and other aspects of Amelia Earhart’s final flight, including the origin and effectiveness of the radio direction finder on Howland Island, some of the possible post-flight radio transmissions that may have originated from the Earhart Electra, and Fred Noonan’s alleged drinking problem as it may have affected the flight. As always, the real mystery is what transpired aboard the Electra in the hours before and after her last radio transmission, and the biggest question remains unanswered: Was Amelia actually attempting to reach Howland Island? If she was, then Gray’s conclusions remain highly relevant today.
THE HOWLAND ISLAND RADIO DIRECTION FINDER
Obviously Earhart had a misconception of the radio direction finder installed on Howland Island. She apparently envisaged it as being a PAA type Adcock high frequency system, or its functional equivalent, which would take bearings on her 3105 kHz signals and send them to her just as the PAA station at Mokapu Point had done during her flight from Oakland to Honolulu. Because of that she repeatedly asked Itasca to take bearings on 3105 kHz and transmitted signals upon which bearings were expected to be taken. It appears that there may have been some justification for her having that concept.
When the decision was made to fly easterly around the world, and the long Lae-Howland leg was being studied, Earhart and Noonan suggested to the Coast Guard that a radio direction finder be set up on Howland (“PLANE SUGGESTS DIRECTION FINDER BE SET UP ON ISLAND, IF PRACTICABLE”). According to the research of Capt. Laurance F. Safford, USN, it was at about this time that Mr. Richard B. Black, the Department of the Interior representative, who was to go to Howland in Itasca, conceived the idea of “borrowing” a so-called high frequency radio direction finder from the Navy to use on Howland Island. Black advised G.P. Putnam, Earhart’s husband and business manager, of his plans and advised him when the gear had been obtained and put aboard Itasca. No doubt Putnam passed this information along to Earhart.
In a message sent June 27 to Commander, San Francisco Division, USCG, the C.O. Itasca [Cdr. Warner K. Thompson]reported on his readiness for supporting the upcoming flight. One item was “DIRECTION FINDER INSTALLED ON HOWLAND.” This fact was reported to Mr. Putnam, then in San Francisco, and he in turn passed the news to Earhart, who was then at Darwin, Australia. While the Itasca message did not specifically say “High Frequency Direction Finder,” there apparently had been sufficient other information, probably via telephone from Putnam, to cause Earhart to believe that it was such a device. She likely assumed that the DF had been installed at Howland in response to the suggestion made earlier by Noonan and herself , and fully expected it to be a functional equivalent of a PAA-Adcock system.
According to Capt. Safford, who was in an excellent position to know, the direction finder station on Howland Island actually consisted of an aircraft type radio receiver and an aircraft type rotatable loop antenna which had been “hay-wired” together into a temporary DF installation. It operated off storage batteries borrowed from Itasca. The receiver and loop had been “moon-light requisitioned” (obtained by informal means) by Mr. Black and Lt. Daniel Cooper of the Army Air Corps, from a Navy patrol plane at Fleet Air Base, Pearl Harbor.
The equipment appears to have been a military version, or perhaps a twin, of the Bendix receiver and loop in the Earhart plane. At any rate, with a loop antenna, it certainly was not a high frequency direction finder and the probability of taking meaningful bearings with it on 3105 kHz over any significant distance, was practically nil. The Howland DF operator [Radioman 2nd Class Frank Cipriani] had only two opportunities to try taking a bearing on the plane, and in each case the plane’s transmission was so short that a really good attempt could not be made. Had the transmissions been sufficiently long the operator no doubt would have found that he could get no “minimum” and hence no bearing.
On July 3 (GMT date) an operator at public service radio station VKT, Nauru, sent the following “wire note” (an informal communication between operators) to RCA radio station KPH at San Francisco, with the request that it be passed to Itasca:
VOICE HEARD FAIRLY STRONG SIGS STRENGTH TO S3 [at] 0843 and 0854 GMT 48.31 METERS (i.e. 6216 kHz) SPEECH NOT INTERPRETED OWNING 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.”
Note that these signals were heard about 12-and-a-half hours after Itasca last heard the plane.
There is nothing that directly and positively connects these signals with the Earhart plane, however there is indirect evidence that warrants serious consideration:
(a) The frequency (6210 kHz) was right for it being the plane. It was not a commonly used frequency in that area.
(b) The Nauru operator reported good signal strength and was able to judge the tone or timbre of the speaker’s voice yet was unable to understand what the speaker was saying. He suggested the possibility of modulation problems. The operator who had checked the plane at Lae and the DF operator at Howland who was trying to take a radio bearing on the plane, both had noted similar symptoms and suggested possible modulation problems.
(c) The probability of there being more than one transmitter in the area exhibiting the same symptoms of over-modulation on the same frequencies at essentially the same time is very small.
It is this writer’s opinion that the signals intercepted by Nauru were in fact from the Earhart plane no longer in flight.
PAN AMERICAN AIRWAYS
Shortly after the Earhart plane became overdue at Howland, the Coast Guard requested PAA to use its communication and radio direction finding facilities in the Pacific areas to assist in the search for the plane and survivors. Instructions were immediately issued for the stations at Mokapu Point, Midway and Wake to monitor the plane’s frequencies as much as limited personnel would permit and be prepared to take radio bearings on any signals heard which might reasonably be believed to be coming from the plane. A special radio circuit was set up to permit intercommunication among the three stations. Numerous weak signals were heard but nothing of interest until 0948 July 5, GMT time and date. The following is extracted from a report made by R.M. Hansen, the Radio Operator in Charge at the Wake Island station:
At 0948 a phone signal of good intensity and well modulated by a voice but wavering badly suddenly came on 3105 kc. 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 QSA 2 (2 on a scale of 0 to 5) with the wavering more noticeable than ever. At 0952, it went off completely. At 1212 (GMT July 5) I opened the DF guard on 3105 kc. At 1223 a very unsteady voice modulated carrier was observed on 3105 kc approximately. This transmission lasted until 1236 GMT. 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 at a carrier strength of QSA5 (5 on a scale of 0 to 5) 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 those of 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 plane]. At this date I am still of this opinion.
Midway heard a signal having the same characteristics, and almost certainly the same station, at 0638 GMT July 5. A quick bearing of 201 degrees True was obtained, however the signal was not audible long enough to take a really good bearing and the 201 degree figure was labeled “approximate.”
Honolulu (Mokapu Point) also heard the “peculiar signal” on 3105 kHz several times. From 1523 to 1530 GMT July 4 an attempt was made to take a bearing on it, however due to weakness and shifting of the signal, only a rough bearing could be obtained. It was logged as 213 degrees, but it was implied that it was a doubtful bearing. Sometime between 0630 and 1225 GMT another bearing was attempted on the “peculiar signal.” 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 greatly inferior to those taken from Wake and Midway and are useful mainly as indications that the unknown station continued to function.
Not much attention was paid to these interceptions 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 of 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 kHz heard by Wake, Midway and Honolulu may very well have come from the Earhart plane, and there is good reason to believe that the radio bearing taken on those signals by Wake was accurate within a degree or so. The one from Midway may have had a somewhat larger error.
(Editor’s note: A number of radio operators, including several in the continental United States, reported hearing signals that they believed originated from Earhart and Noonan, and some have already been presented on this blog. Please see “Earhart’s ‘post-loss’ messages’ Real or fantasy?” and “Experts weigh in on Earhart’s ‘post-loss’ messages”.)
FREDERICK J. NOONAN
There has been much speculation as to whether or not Fred Noonan could send and receive International Morse code. 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. Second Class licenses of that vintage certify that the holder has been examined and passed the following elements:
(a) Knowledge of the general principles of electricity and of the theory of radio telegraphy and radiotelephony.
(b) Adjustment , operation and care of apparatus.
(c) Transmitting and sound reading at a speed of not less than sixteen words a minute Continental Morse in code groups and twenty words a minute in plain language.
(d) Use and care of storage battery or other auxiliary.
(e) Knowledge of international regulations and Acts of Congress to regulate radio communications.
Those writing about the Earhart disappearance have, in general, been very rough on Noonan because of his admitted problem with alcohol. In some cases much rougher than was justified by the facts. For example in one book it is related that the night before the departure from Lae for Howland, Noonan went on a binge and did not get to the airfield until just before the plane was due to take off, and even then was so intoxicated that he had to be helped aboard the plane. The implication being that he was largely responsible for the failure of the flight. The official report of Guinea Airways Ltd., at Lae, made in response to a request from the U.S. Government, paints quite a different picture. According to it the Lae wireless operator made attempts all throughout the day of June 30 to get time signals, requested by Earhart and Noonan, to permit Noonan to check his chronometer, but owing to local interference was unsuccessful that day. That indicates that Noonan spent most of June 30 at the radio station.
At about this point, Earhart decided to take off for Howland Island at 9:30 a.m. on July 1, subject to obtaining the time signal.
At 6:35 a.m. July 1st Earhart took the plane up on a 30-minute test hop after which the tanks were topped off and she was ready to go, except that a time signal had not yet been obtained. This day the difficulty was at the radio station which transmitted the signals. Extraordinary steps were taken to get a time signal but when one had not been obtained by 10:50 a.m. Earhart decided to postpone her departure until the next day, July 2. During the rest of the day constant watch was kept for the reception of time signals and finally at around 10:20 p.m. an excellent signal was received by Noonan which showed his chronometer to be three seconds slow. Noonan obviously had spent most of that day at the radio station.
On July 2 at 8:00 a.m. another time signal was received, this one from Saigon, and the chronometer checked the same as the previous night. Both Noonan and Earhart expressed their complete satisfaction and decided to leave at 10:00 a.m., which they did.
Only Noonan would have checked the chronometer, so the report seems to indicate clearly that Noonan was sober and in good shape at 8:00 a.m. and probably was that way when the plane took off.
From the standpoint of radio, Earhart’s decision to rely completely on radiotelephony, and her removal of the trailing antenna, showed poor judgment and introduced unnecessary and unjustifiable risks. However it cannot be denied that she got as far as Lae without trouble with what she had. It was her mistake in designating 7500 kHz as the homing frequency for Itasca that got her into deep trouble. Even that difficulty probably could have been overcome had she been able to communicate with Itasca and agree on a suitable homing frequency. Fate intervened, however, and something occurred in her receiving system which made it impossible for Earhart to hear any signals with her gear set up in the configuration she was accustomed to use for communications.
She did not understand the technical aspects of radio well enough to diagnose her problem and was not sufficiently familiar with the radio gear to know all the options available to her. She had been taught to shift the receiver to the loop antenna when she wanted to take a bearing, but probably no one had ever explained to her how the loop also could be used in carrying on communications. Had she been aware of that option and listened on the loop for Itasca‘s voice signals on 3105 kHz, no doubt she would have heard the ship and been able to establish two-way communications.
The probability is very high that the failure of the receiving system to receive signals when using the fixed antenna was due either to a defective feed line between the receiver unit and the “send/receive” relay in the transmitter, or a defect in that relay itself. The odds are about 95 to 5 that the relay was at fault. It is considered therefore that a failure of that relay was the one single thing most responsible for the failure of the Earhart flight.
If it is assumed that the “peculiar signals” intercepted by Nauru and the PAA stations at Wake and Midway were in fact from the Earhart plane then the following may be deduced from the radio signals:
(a) The landing was fairly successful. The plane did not nose over or break up, otherwise the radio could not have been used.
(b) The landing was not in the open sea. Had it been, enough salt water would have seeped in to enter the wiring and disable the radio transmitting gear in a relatively short time.
(c) Earhart survived the landing. She was heard by the Nauru operator long after the plane would have run out of gas.
(d) Noonan survived. A man’s voice was distinctly heard on the “peculiar signal” by Midway. It was unintelligible.
(e) Either Earhart or Noonan, or both, were alive and with the plane at least until 0948 July 5, 1937 GCT time and date. The “peculiar signals” were last heard then.
(f) The “peculiar signals” probably were coming from the eastern or southeastern part of the Marshall Islands. (End of Almon Gray’s “Amelia Earhart and Radio.”)
Bill Prymak’s note: Capt. Gray, USNR (Ret.) received his Commercial Radio Operator License in 1930, and went with Pan American in 1935, when they started the trans-Pacific service. He became Flight Radio Officer on China Clipper type aircraft, and later was promoted to Assistant Superintendent of Communication in 1937.
The AMELIA EARHART SOCIETY finds the above radio analysis of the last flight to be one of the finest pieces of work ever presented on this subject.
Editor’s note: We should remember that in considering this analysis of Earhart’s final flight, Almon Gray took the position that the fliers were actually trying to reach Howland Island, and that all their actions were directed toward that goal. If Amelia and Noonan were not trying to reach Howland, but were engaged in some sort of covert operation, which certainly cannot be ruled based on our limited knowledge of what transpired during those final hours, then many of Gray’s findings become largely irrelevant.
To anyone familiar with this blog, the late Bill Prymak needs no introduction. Prymak the founder and first president of the Amelia Earhart Society (AES) was a great researcher and good friend whose significant contributions to the repository of Earhart knowledge continue to resonate.
For those new to this blog, this page of posts will give you an idea about Prymak’s legacy, which included three trips to the Marshall Islands, where he interviewed Bilimon Amaron in 1989 and found a previously unknown witness on Enajet Island, Joro, whose knowledge of the July 1937 landing of Amelia Earhart and Electra NR 16020 off Barre Island was considerable.
As one might imagine, Prymak had some very definite opinions about what happened to Amelia Earhart, and he wasn’t shy about airing them when asked. Today I present a previously unpublished commentary, from February 2011, in which he looks at perhaps the most popular of the so-called “conspiracy theories” that have attached themselves to the Earhart phenomena. The opinions expressed in the following essay are not necessarily those of this blog’s owner, but they do make sense.
“A DISSECTION OF EARHART SPY THEORIES”
By Bill Prymak
I wish to put to rest the following spy theories that have been circulating around for so many years, to wit:
- Was she on a spy mission?
- What did the government want her to do?
- Was there a second Electra involved in her around-the-world flight?
- Was the engine changed at Bandoeng?
(To save space, I will hereafter call U.S. government intelligence “GI.”)
The Spy Mission
Did GI put surveillance cameras on board, in violation of her granted permission to fly over 14 countries if she possessed no cameras other than a hand-held?
If GI did install cameras, where? There are only six inches between the floorboards and the belly skin. No surveillance cameras circa 1937 existed to fit those dimensions. Besides, a camera-control panel would of necessity be in the cockpit or on Fred’s table — pretty obvious to customs or mechanics working the aircraft.
So what could she photograph on her 1,800-mile-flight Hawaii to Howland?? The nearest Japanese Mandated island, Mili Atoll, was 2,250 miles direct Hawaii to Mili, then another 800 miles back to Howland for her necessary landing there. Mili Atoll in 1937 had no military fortifications to photograph, and, in that time period, only Jaluit Atoll, some 100 more miles farther away, had something for the camera– the seaplane base at Emidj.
Kwajalein, 250 even miles farther, could not be considered in range for her aircraft. I have hydrographic maps of Mili and Majuro entitled SKETCH SURVEY FROM THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT CHART of 1928 — plenty of details, non-military of course, and certainly available to GI. This was much more detailed than what any aerial photos would show.
Another popular theory making the rounds: GI orders her to “get lost so U.S. planes can scour the area, including the Japanese Mandates, for much-needed intelligence information.” But everybody believing this loses sight of the fact that this order is a virtual death warrant! In the vast Pacific Ocean, there is very rarely a Captain Sully-Hudson River dead-calm water landing available, and no beaches, no flat, open land areas anywhere in range. Pacific open waters are nearly always rough, too rough for a safe airplane landing.
(Editor’s note: Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger III, 63, is a retired airline captain and aviation safety consultant. He was hailed as a national hero in the United States when he successfully executed an emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River off Manhattan, N.Y., after the aircraft was disabled by striking a flock of Canadian Geese during its initial climb out of LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. All 155 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft survived.)
Would Fred Noonan, Harry Manning and Amelia approve of such a PLAN? Would [her husband] George [Putnam] and Mother [Amy Otis] Earhart approve?
We can’t compare Capt. Sully to Amelia. He was fresh, beginning a new day, highly skilled while Amelia was some 18-plus hours in the air and dog tired — not a good candidate for a much-needed precision water landing, if they could find some flat water. I personally have compelling evidence of where she did land, but that issue is not within the province of this report.
And if the GI plan was to get her “lost” and scour the area with U.S. search planes, why wasn’t the USS Lexington deployed earlier to Hawaii instead of laying in shore leave mode on the west coast?
Outside of the usual request to international pilots to LRR — LOOK, RECORD, REPORT — not considered spying, I see no merit or need for AE being on a spy mission, and I will prove it in the next segment.
The Hawaii Crash
This event has engendered more hype, speculation and fantasy tales than any other aviation mystery. Let’s for the moment assume that she really was on a spy mission, totally planned and controlled by GI. First scenario: She gets to the airport on March 20, ready to go, when she receives a phone call from GI: ABORT, RENDER AIRCRAFT INOPERABLE. She is furious and shouts over the phone, “This is crazy!! We’ve planned this trip for months, have cached thousands of gallons fuel all over the world with spare parts, and now you tell me not to go?”
Bottom line: Obey orders, tell the press that the flight crew is unfit or the aircraft un-airworthy. She certainly would not have fired up the engines.
Second scenario: She fires up the engines, and while taxiing for takeoff, receives the same order to abort. So she ground loops the aircraft, rendering it un-airworthy. So much easier (and safer!) to run a wingtip into a truck, run a wheel into a ditch, or a dozen safe ways to inop [sic] the aircraft.
The above scenarios never happened. What proves this is the fact that both Amelia and George, after the crash, scratched, clawed, begged and borrowed the $30,000 to pay the repair bill. These efforts are well chronicled in various research books (see Elgen Long’s book, Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved, for details of their efforts.)
If this was a spy mission, George Putnam, ever the astute businessman, would have written to GI, stating, “It was your order to abort, causing the crash. Bill from Lockheed herewith attached. Please take care of it.”
What really happened is what Harry Manning stated: ”SHE SIMPLY JOCKEYED THE THROTTLES AND LOST IT.” A bad day like this happens to every good pilot once or twice in his/her lifetime. Happened to me once. Amelia Earhart was destined to have two bad days.
In conclusion I must add my personal experiences with Art Kennedy. I spent a week with him in Portugal, in 1992, he telling stories about his experiences in the aviation world. Art showed me test cell papers proving that AE had more than six hours reserve when she called near Howland — six hours plus if the engines were flown properly.
Art was a lonely man, and privately admitted that his manuscript, given to JoAnn Ridley (a sweet lady who died last year , and who knew nothing about aviation) was rife with bursts of imaginative stories, all to be included in their book [High Times: Keeping ’em Flying, 1992] to boost his recognition and sell copy. Some of his imaginative tidbits that ran wild:
1. Amelia suggested to him that she was on a spy mission
2. He helped Amelia adjust the broken landing gear before the CAA inspector arrived.
3. He stated that Lockheed engine installers Firman Grey & Carl Leipelt and a crew went to Bandoeng to install fresh engines. (See below.)
A Second Airplane Involved in the RTW Flight?
I can only state no such airplane ever existed, and I have absolute irrefutable photographic proof that ONLY ONE AIRCRAFT, NR 16020, was used for the entire flight. Discussion on this issue ends right here.
The Infamous Engine Changes (How Silly Can You Get?)
First, AE arrived at Bandoeng with less than 120 hours on engines that were overhauled to new factory specs rather than service limits (Art told me this) — engines barely broken in and good for some 500 hours. Did some brain trust at GI feel these engines were inadequate for the Lae takeoff? Did they claim that [Pratt 7 Whitney] S1H1 engines with 12:1 blowers [an aircraft engine compression ratio] instead of the typical 10:1 blowers would reduce the risk, thus sending out the order to change engines?
A chronology of this entire circus act blows the claim apart, to wit:
1. AE was on American soil until June 1. It is quite apparent that GI would have wanted these engines installed on U.S. soil by American technicians. So decision date on new engines had to have been made after June 1.
2. Art stated that bigger blowers alone (for more horsepower) would be very difficult to install in the field because of the complex internal changes on the engines. Further, bigger blowers meant bigger cowlings.
3. Everything and everybody had to be in Bandoeng by the third week of June, her estimated time of arrival. Those big engine crates could not fit and be carried in any known air carrier of the day, so they had to be shipped by tramp steamer. Pratt & Whitney engines from Hartford factory to Boston, catch a freighter to Lisbon, then through the Suez Canal, on to Singapore, then by mule or truck to Bandoeng. Run a time frame on the above and you see it is impossible to meet the schedule. And when and how did the new cowlings from Lockheed (West Coast) arrive at Bandoeng?
4. To clinch the fantasy, my very good friend Dave Kenyon, now living in Eugene Oregon, worked on her repair at the Lockheed factory, and ultimately rose to rank of vice-president of engineering. We spent many pleasant evening discussing Earhart and her final voyage, and every time the engine-change story came up, he made the same statement: “[Carl] Leipelt and Firman [Gray] could never have left for such a lengthy time as they were the only ones at Lockheed who installed, fine tuned and signed off on the engines coming off the production line. I believe they were the only ones with CAA certification to do this.” Ed Cooper and Art Kennedy certainly would have been called in to fill the gap. They never mentioned this issue. Art Kennedy’s imagination just out-finessed himself on this one.
To all the pundits out there who claim AE was on a spy mission, I ask the questions: What were her orders from GI? What were the GI agency’s mission objectives? I haven’t the slightest clue towards answering any of the above.
Let’s try, “Get lost, dump into the ocean, and a sub or surface vessel will pick you up.” Impossible. The precise navigation (GPS) tools required for such a rendezvous did not exist in 1937.
The GI (knowing how the government works) must have comprised a sizable group of men dedicated to successfully completing her “spy mission.” And yet there has never been a single peep out of anybody claiming to be part of this unique group. Amazing, when you consider the tabloid value (millions, in today’s dollars) that one could reap if he were part of this group, revealing a crucial part of America’s greatest aviation mystery. (End of Prymak analysis.)
The possible Truk Lagoon scenario
One possible Earhart-as-spy scenario not mentioned by Prymak has been suggested by some: Earhart overflying Truk Lagoon to observe “the number of airfields and extent of Japan’s fleet-servicing facilities in the Truk complex,” as Fred Goerner wrote in the closing pages of The Search for Amelia Earhart.
Before and during World War II, Truk Lagoon, now known as Chuuk Lagoon, part of Chuuk State within the Federated States of Micronesia, was the Japan’s main base in the South Pacific theatre, a heavily fortified base for Japanese operations against Allied forces in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, serving as the forward anchorage for the Japanese Imperial Fleet.
In 1937, U.S. intelligence would have been extremely interested in the status of this naval base, once known to Allied forces as Japan’s “Gibraltar of the Pacific,” and Amelia might have been asked to observe and possibly even take some photos with her small, hand-held Kodak camera. The Electra would have arrived over Truk at about 7 p.m. local time, with plenty of daylight left. Of course, we have no proof that Amelia attempted to perform such a mission, but her actions during the final flight suggest something very strange was afoot, and she had two meetings with top U.S. officials during April 1937, according to Margot DeCarie, her personal secretary. (See Truth at Last for more.)
As seen in the above map, found on the Mystery of Amelia Earhart webpage, created by William H. Stewart, a career military-historical cartographer and foreign-service officer in the U.S. State Department and former senior economist for the Northern Marianas, the distance from Lae to Truk is 1,022 statute miles, from Truk to Jaluit 1,223 statute miles, and from Jaluit to Howland (via Great Circle), 1,010 miles. While shorter, this route would require Earhart to be in Japanese airspace and over several populated islands in the Marshalls for a longer period of time, which would give the Japanese more time for interception should the flight be discovered. The total distance is 3,255 statute miles as compared to 2,556 miles when flying direct to Howland from Lae, and indeed pushes the range limits of the Electra, said to be 4,000 miles in the absence of headwinds.
“The only serious problem with such a supposition,” Stewart, the author of the 1993 book, Saipan in Flames: Operation Forager: The Turning Point in the Pacific War, wrote, “is that a position report received from Earhart while in flight occurred at 5:18 p. m. (Lae time) and indicated her position as “4.33 SOUTH 159.7 EAST HEIGHT 8000 FEET OVER CUMULUS CLOUDS WIND 23 KNOTS,” which would place the aircraft in the vicinity of Nukumanu Island, northeast of Bougainville and in the area where it should have been assuming the original flight plan was being followed. This fix would place the aircraft on a track from Lae to Howland Island some 742 nautical miles [854 statute miles] or about one-third the distance between the two points which are separated by 2,227 nautical miles [2,563 statute miles].
“This radioed position is far to the southeast of Truk and almost due south of Ponape (Senyavin Island, now Pohnpei) and north of Guadalcanal,” Stewart continued. “That the transmission was picked up in Lae is strange indeed, since the Electra’s radio range was said to be (although not confirmed by this researcher) not much more than 400 miles. If this was in fact true, how is it that the signal was picked up from almost twice the distance? Was it a hoax? Was it a deceptive position directed to confuse any Japanese radioman at Truk who might have been monitoring the much publicized flight path (presumed to be from Lae to Howland) and the radio frequency of 6210 KHz? If so, the report was received at Truk only a short time before the aircraft could have roared over the encircling reef at Truk to carry out its assignment of aerial espionage before turning east to fly toward Jaluit and thence southeast to Howland.”
Was Amelia Earhart on some kind of intelligence mission that went wrong? Goerner later changed his mind about the mission to Truk he proposed in Search, instead adopting the idea that Amelia had been asked to simply collect what was known as “white intelligence,” meaning that “she simply observed things during the course of her flight,” according to Goerner, who could hardly have been less specific. Goerner also changed his mind about the Mili Atoll landing scenario he proposed in Search, and made other serious misjudgments as well, so despite his great contributions to the Earhart saga, Goerner’s work is no longer the ultimate source for answers in this and other areas.
Like many things about the Earhart disappearance, the answers are buried deep within top secret, eyes-only federal archives, where only a scant few even know of their existence. Until the contents of these files are revealed to the public, the question of whether Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were lost while engaged in an intelligence mission for FDR will continue to be discussed and argued about by those who seek the truth.