Anyone who’s read extensively about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has seen various claims that, while in the Lockheed repair facility in Burbank, Calif., following the March 16, 1937 Hawaii crash on takeoff, the Electra underwent special modifications that would allow the plane to accommodate aerial reconnaissance cameras in order to best prepare it for a covert spy mission. Special cameras were allegedly installed, and new, more powerful power plants replaced the standard Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp S3H1, 600 hp engines. While it’s not the purpose of this post to present the various claims that have been made in this regard, I’ve not seen any substantive evidence to support these assertions.
An even more outrageous asseveration came in Joe Klaas’ 1970 bombshell, Amelia Earhart Lives, wherein his friend Joe Gervais said there was no record of what became of the Lockheed XC-35 Electra, the first successful enclosed-cabin, pressurized airplane, capable of altitudes up to 40,000 feet, and suggested it could have been used by Earhart during her last flight. Klaas then theorized that Earhart could have “switched” from her own Electra to the XC-35 to fly a photographic spy mission, and that Lockheed could have built two XC-35s, one of which Earhart and Noonan flew on their special mission. In fact, the only Lockheed XC-35 ever built, with commercial serial number 3105 and military serial number 36-353, was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1948, and has remained there until this day. For more on Klaas, Gervais and the XC-35, please click here.
The following letter appeared in the July 1998 Amelia Earhart Society Newsletter, from former Lockheed specialist David Kenyon to Amelia Earhart Society President Bill Prymak, and will not silence the fading echoes of the Earhart Electra conspiracy theorists. But Kenyon’s letter does buttress other credible evidence arguing against the spy cameras, souped-up engines and other alleged special “adjustments” Earhart’s Electra supposedly underwent in order to operate at a higher level on a covert mission, one that nonetheless wasn’t good enough to prevent her landing at Mili Atoll, where she was soon grabbed up by the Japanese military and taken to Saipan. (Boldface emphasis is mine throughout.)
Bill Prymak’s note: David Kenyon is our “person on scene” in the Lockheed factory in 1937 during the repairs to AE’s “ship,” as they called it then. We asked poignant question re: his tenure, rumors of a 2nd Earhart Electra 10E and a 2nd XC-35 (see note below letter), the skunks works and his role in the repair of Amelia’s crashed ship in Hawaii.
David H. Kenyon
2165 Greenview Street
Eugene, Oregon 97401-2393
July 13, 1998
Thanks for your letter of the 6th that I will now respond to in the order of your questions:
1. On January 4, 1937 I began my 40 year career with Lockheed Aircraft, retiring in 1977 as a Marketing Director.
My role as an observer of the Amelia Earhart Hawaiian accident repairs was very limited. At the time I was employed as an assembler apprentice in the Wing and Tail Department assembling the Model 10 wing spars and the Model 12 stabilizers.
I was not qualified to repair the AE empennage when it came to our department. I simply observed a lead man cutting and removing damaged Alclad skin for reconstruction of the frame in the jigs. I managed to secure a piece of the upper stabilizer’s skin which I still have. I don’t recall whether I saw the plane in the final assembly department later.
2. I recall being able to walk thru the various departments of the factory to visit friends and see what was going on during a lunch break as in those prewar days there really weren’t many secrets in the 1,000 employee work force. In 1937 the Model 10 hit a high of 44 planes built tapering off before the Model 12 and 14 planes were produced.
I really doubt that a covert Model 10E was built since the employees would have known about [it] given the above circumstances. No section of that small plant was hidden from casual view. If a second XC-35 were produced it certainly would have had to go thru most of the Model 10 assembly jigs. *
I remember being able to walk through the separate enclosed area where the XC-35 finishing work proceeded. The L.A. Times referred to it as a SECRET plane when they photographed it upon quiet roll out on our open ramp. To obtain a covert additional plane it would have been easier and less expensive to have bought a used plane from some other operator. However, after all these years it seems logical that some trace of the first plane would have surfaced.
3. The Lockheed Skunk Works probably did not come into existence until the XP-38 was constructed in 1939 in a closed area of the factory.
4. The XC-35 was the product of a one plane contract, see enclosed excerpts from Lockheed reports nos. 1650 and 9374 and Master Schedule chart delineating the single XC-35 dated 1963.
5. No unorthodox repairs could have been made to A.E’s plane since they would have to reflect conformance to existing blueprints and repair manuals. The enclosed copy of a Lockheed 3-3-37 blueprint clearly shows the 6 fuselage tank fillers. The enclosed photo depicts these openings as well. The photo on page 28 of your March 1989 Newsletter clearly shows a rectangular tank under the A.E. plane. So all the evidence seems to rule out a singular circular tank. (Editor’s note: I don’t have the March 1989 Newsletter, as it’s not among those in the Assemblage of AES Newsletters, which covers issues from Fall 1990 to June 2002, nor was the referenced “Lockheed 3-3-37 blueprint” included with Kenyon’s letter.)
6. During Dick Merrill’s EAL [Eastern Air Lines] Electra flight from London to New York with the coronation films in 1936, he may have utilized extra tanks.
7. I have no knowledge of the numbers painted on Electras delivered to Australia and New Zealand. Suggest writing to Pat Donovan, Lockheed Aircraft Owners Club, as he has some lists of current A/C.
Bill, I look forward to your visit this summer and given some advance notice can arrange to be on hand to extend full hospitality.
With best regards,
* From Wikipedia:
The Lockheed XC-35 is a twin-engine, experimental pressurized airplane. It was the second American aircraft to feature cabin pressurization. It was initially described as a “supercharged cabin” by the Army. The distinction of the world’s first pressurized aircraft goes to a heavily modified Engineering Division USD-9A which flew in the United States in 1921. The XC-35 was a development of the Lockheed Model 10 Electra that was designed to meet a 1935 request by the United States Army Air Corps for an aircraft with a pressurized cabin.
The XC-35 was delivered to Wright Field, Ohio in May 1937, made its first performance flight on August 5, and was involved in an extensive flight testing program for which the Army Air Corps was awarded the Collier Trophy. The lessons learned from the XC-35 played a key role in the development of the Boeing 307 Stratoliner and the B-29 Superfortress which was to be the first mass-produced pressurized aircraft.
The Air Corps brass were so confident in the new technology that they allowed the XC-35 to be used as an executive transport for Louis Johnson, the Assistant Secretary of War and future Secretary of Defense. The XC-35 was donated to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in 1948 and remains there in long-term storage.
We continue with Phase II, the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s response to questions about his unique theory, in this case a true “conspiracy theory” in the Earhart disappearance, the “Howland Island Fly-By.” Rafford’s thesis appeared in the March 1992 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Bill Prymak, AES founder and president is designated as “AES” throughout; Rafford’s answers are seen simply as “A.” (Boldface emphasis is mine throughout.)
PHASE II – THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS
AES – You believe that the mysterious voice transmissions heard for three days after Earhart’s disappearance were also pre-recorded?
A – Yes. These were interspersed with some very poorly transmitted radio code to simulate what listeners might expect Earhart’s sending to sound like.
AES – But, today we know that she had left her radio key back in Miami, right?
A – Yes. It was located in a locker at Pan Am weeks later.
AES – What would have been the purpose of these radio calls?
A – They would have lent credence to the theory that Earhart had survived and was calling for help. This in turn would justify the Navy’s vast search. I remember the public clamor to find her.
AES – Where was the transmitter that sent out the calls?
A – Our best evidence indicates that it was on Gardner Island in the Phoenix group. It is now called Nikumaroro. When plotted, bearings taken on the station by the Pan Am direction finding stations bracket the island. I illustrate the details on my chart, THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS. A search plane sent to investigate reported signs of recent habitation but saw no one on the island. However, this information was not released to the public at the time.
AES – Do you believe the same type transmitter was used for both the PBY and Gardner transmissions?
A – No. Radioman [2nd Class Frank] Cipriani, who handled the direction finder on Howland, reported the plane’s transmissions to be stable and on frequency. In contrast, the Gardner transmitter was slightly off frequency and very unstable. Also, to cover the Pacific as it did, higher power was required. My computer analysis puts the power at 100 watts or more.
AES – What sort of transmitter do you believe was set up on Gardner?
A – When Karl Pierson recently described what the signal sounded like, I was immediately reminded of the transmitter we flew to Liberia right after Pearl Harbor to support South Atlantic aeronautical communication. It was a 100 watt model that Pan Am used at outlying stations in the 1930s. We powered it with a one-cylinder gasoline generator that the operator had to kick start before going on the air.
Its stability was on a par with what Karl describes but it did not operate on radiotelephone. However, a simple modification could have been made that would allow it to be modulated enough to produce the speech quality reported by the various listeners, that is, “highly distorted.”
Karl also reported that when the transmitter was sending voice he could hear what appeared to be a gasoline engine running in the background, “ — but not an airplane engine.”
AES – Why do you believe that recordings of Earhart’s voice were used instead of announcements by another woman, either live or recorded?
A – Because three different individuals who knew Earhart’s voice identified it when they heard the transmissions. Two were reported aboard the Itasca when she supposedly flew by Howland. The third was radio engineer Karl Pierson in Los Angeles who listened to the voice during the nights following her disappearance. He and his colleagues had monitored her transmissions during her flight from Hawaii to San Francisco in 1935.
Of course, the Navy could have substituted a “sound alike” woman and trained her to simulate Earhart’s manner of speaking. But, the fewer people involved in a top-secret venture, the better. Having Earhart do the recordings herself before the flight would have been the best way to ensure secrecy.
AES – You say Earhart’s last two-way conversation was when she signed off with Harry Balfour seven hours into the flight. How can we be sure that all subsequent transmissions were not recordings?
A – We can’t be sure. Every one of her transmissions from that time on is suspect. Her contact with Balfour on 6210 khz advising that she was signing off with him and switching to 3105 may have been the last time Earhart was ever heard on a “live” radio.
AES – Why were certain transmissions clear while others were highly distorted?
A – It depended upon what the mission script called for at that particular time. In those cases where the plane passed specific information to Lae, Nauru and Howland, they were clear. Otherwise, they were weak or distorted. I believe this was deliberately intended to confuse the listeners.
AES – You say information was passed to Nauru?
A – Yes. T.H. Cude, Director of Police on Nauru, claimed that he heard Earhart say on 3105 that she had the lights of the island in sight. However, in the search report this is recorded as “lights in sight ahead.” Later, various investigators read the report and then made their own interpretations. Some concluded that the lights were those of the USS Ontario, on station midway between Lae and Howland waiting for her to over-fly. Others concluded they were the SS Myrtlebank, southwest of Nauru and due to arrive the following morning.
AES – Do you believe Earhart sent her Nauru sighting messages “live” or were they recordings transmitted by Naval Intelligence?
A – From the evidence we have I would hesitate to support either theory.
AES – But, you are suggesting that Earhart may never have come near Nauru?
A – Yes. She may well have been following another route to an unknown destination after she signed off with Harry Balfour at Lae.
AES – Then what would have been the purpose of these messages?
A – They would establish for the record that Earhart was apparently passing Nauru on schedule even though she may not have been anywhere in the area.
AES – You mean that if the Japanese were intercepting her radio transmissions this bit of disinformation — if it was disinformation — would lead them to believe that Earhart was actually following the flight plan that she had announced to the news media?
A – That’s as good a way of putting it as any. Incidentally, with the exception of Cude’s intercept, listeners on Nauru reported that even though the plane’s signals became increasingly strong as it apparently approached the island, they were never able to understand the words.
AES – On your chart, THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS, you show that twelve hours after the Itasca last heard the plane, listeners on Nauru heard a woman’s voice on 6210. But, again they could not understand what she said. What is your comment about this?
A – They also reported that although the voice sounded the same as the night before, this time they could hear “no hum of engines in the background.” I believe this transmission was the first in a series of covert signals that lasted three nights. However, Nauru was the only station to hear this transmission. This leads me to believe that other covert transmitters besides Gardner were involved in the operation after Earhart disappeared. They may have been located on planes, submarines or even uninhabited islands like Gardner.
AES – What was the purpose of these calls?
A – They were designed to convince listeners that Earhart was safely down somewhere. But, because they could not understand her words, the search team would not know where to look. As a result, they had no choice but to search the whole Central Pacific — exactly what the mission planners had intended to happen.
AES – Who in government do you believe knew about the secret nature of Earhart’s flight?
A – No doubt the President knew the details because she was a frequent guest at the White House. I suspect the plan originated with him.
Others who knew would be the Naval Intelligence team assigned to carry out the mission plans plus top people in the Department of the Interior that administered our Pacific Islands. I doubt that anyone in the Coast Guard knew.
AES – Why do you believe that the President had anything to do with the Earhart mission?
A – Because of her remark to Mark Walker, Pan Am pilot and Naval Reserve officer. Mark had been assigned to work with Earhart and Noonan on the Pacific phase of their flight. When he warned her of the dangers she replied that she had not proposed it. Someone high in government had personally asked her to undertake the mission.
AES – You mention that [Itasca Radioman 3rd Class] Bill Galten had his doubts about what was going on after his many calls to the plane were ignored. Why were he and others involved in the search not more outspoken about their doubts?
A – Because the Navy classified the logs and records.
AES – Why were they classified?
A – There were several reasons. Classifying them would not only keep the public from reviewing them and asking sensitive questions, but it would prevent those in the services who might have answers from revealing what they knew. World War II was imminent and we needed all the information about the Pacific islands that we could gather. But, of course, we could not reveal our information gathering activities to a potential enemy.
Next, where Earhart was concerned it was imperative for political reasons not to allow the public to suspect that their heroine might have lost her life while serving on a top secret government mission. Not only might this have cost Roosevelt the next election but it could have provided powerful anti-war factions in the United States with enough ammunition to seriously delay our preparations for the world wide conflict that was about to break out.
As incredible as it now seems in the light of history, over 50 percent of those polled in a national survey just before Pearl Harbor refused to believe America was in any danger of an attack from Japan!
AES – The Itasca’s logs and the Navy’s records were not declassified until twenty-five years later, right?
A – Yes, but the classification was only at the CONFIDENTIAL level. We have never been able to determine if there were any with a higher classification. But if there were I doubt that they exist today.
AES – Why do you say this?
A – Because, as a friend of mine with former Naval Intelligence connections puts it, “Poor Ollie North, his downfall came about because he had to keep records!”
AES – So, where do you believe Earhart finally landed?
A – I can only refer you to the host of theories that have been advanced through the years. They vary all the way from Earhart and Noonan simply getting lost and running out of gas near Howland to landing on a Japanese held island where they were taken prisoner.
But, one thing seems certain. Wherever they finally ended up it was not where the mission planners intended.
I doubt we will ever know for sure! (End of Rafford interview.)
Rafford’s comparison of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North’s ill-advised record-keeping during the Iran–Contra affair, a political scandal of the late 1980s, to the Earhart case is pure speculation and not a reliable assessment about the existence or non-existence of top-secret files on the Earhart disappearance.
We have strong evidence that suggests top-secret Earhart files still existed in the early 1960s, when the Kennedy administration actually allowed Fred Goerner and Ross Game to view them clandestinely. See my Dec. 20, 2019 post, “Game letter suggests possible Earhart burial site” for a discussion, or Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last (2nd Edition), pages 271, 272.
In ’85 letter, eyewitness describes Earhart’s takeoff, Insists Noonan “had no drink” before last flight
Bob Iredale, Socony-Vacuum Corp. manager at Lae, New Guinea, spent two days with Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan before the last leg of their world flight attempt in early July 1937. In this 1985 missive, he offers Fred Goerner a firsthand account of their last takeoff, plus his opinion about what happened later. The following letter appeared in the November 1998 issue of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
Victoria Aust. 3931
July 28, 1985
Dear Mr. Goerner,
Through good work by Australia Post, I received your letter 15 days after your post date of July 11. I am glad to be able to assist your research about Amelia Earhart, as I have read many views by writers, example, spying for the U.S. against Japanese in the Marianas, beheaded by the Japs, still alive in the U.S., etc., etc., all of which to me is a lot of sensationalist garbage.
C.K. Gamble was president of the Vacuum Oil Co., a subsidiary of U.S. Standard Vacuum, when he was a young man. Fred Haig, our Aviation officer, and I knew him quite well, then and later. Up until a year ago I chatted to him about Amelia many times and he recorded the views I’ll relate to you. Fred left the Planet over 12 months ago, hence no response to your letters. He was in his 80s.
Yes, I fueled the Lockheed and did it personally. Fred had arranged 20 x 44 gallon drums of Avgas 80 octane shipped out to us from California many months before. I can assure you all tanks were absolutely full — the wing tanks and those inside the fuselage. After she had done a test flight, I topped them up again before her final take-off. I think she took somewhere around 800 gallons all up. Fred Noonan was with me at the fueling and checked it out. He was also with me when we changed the engine oil, as was Amelia. I enclose a much faded photo, me in white, Fred in brown, and Amelia leaning on the trailing edge of the wing. [Photo not available.]
You are aware that because of an unfavorable weather forecast from Darwin (some 700 miles SW of Lae), of at least 2 days, Amelia decided on a two-day layover at Lae. She stayed with Eric Chater, General Manager of Guinea Airways, and Fred with Frank Howard and myself at Voco House. Frank and I shared quite a large bungalow as the two representatives of Vacuum Oil in N.G. He died, unfortunately, in 1962. As was our custom, we had a drink in the evening — 90 degrees F, and 95 percent humidity made it that way.
We asked Fred if he would join us the first night, and his comment was, “I’ve been 3 parts around the world without a drink and now we are here for a couple of days, I’ll have one. Have you a Vat 69?” I did happen to have one so the three of us knocked it off. He confessed to Amelia next morning he had a bit of a head, and her comment was, “Naughty boy, Freddie.” That was the only drink session we had, and to suggest he was inebriated before they took off is mischievous nonsense. I can assure you or anyone he had no drink for at least 24 hours before take-off.
We talked a lot about his experience as a Captain on the China Clippers flying from the West Coast to China, and he told us of his expertise in Astro-navigation, amongst other things. We all talked about ourselves, and he showed great interest in our life at Lae. He came around our little depot, where we stored drums of petrol, oil, and kerosene in the jungle to keep the sun off, etc. He told us how keen Amelia was to write a book about the flight, and the different people.
In the two days at Lae, she tried to learn pidgin English and talk to the [natives], and about her ability wherever they landed to take the cowls off the engines and do a Daily Inspection. A remarkable woman, and he has great admiration for her ability. He spent a lot of time with me in Guinea Airways hanger, and around the airfield, looking at the JU31’s, the tri-motored metal Junkers planes that flew our produce and the dredge up to Bulolo, how they were loaded with cranes and all that.
Their final take-off was something to see. We had a grass strip some 900/1000 yards long, one end the jungle, the other the sea. Amelia tucked the tail of the plane almost into the jungle, brakes on, engines full bore, and let go. They were still on the ground at the end of the strip. It took off, lowered toward the water some 30 feet below, and the props made ripples on the water. Gradually they gained height, and some 15 miles out, I guess they may have been at 200 feet. The radio operator at Guinea Airways kept contact by Morse for about 1,000 miles where they were on course at 10,000 feet, and got out of range.
In 1940, I joined the Australian Air Force as a pilot, trained in Canada, and operated in England with the RAF before being promoted to a Wing Commander, commanding an Australian Mosquito Squadron attached to the 2nd Tactical Air Force. I did 70 missions in all sorts of weather, awarded Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, French Croix de Guerre with Palm for blowing up a prison in France, and other operations for the French. I mention this only as that experience confirmed what I believe happened to Amelia. It is just another view.
The possibility is that they ran into bad weather, 10/10th cloud up to 30,000 feet at the equator, which negated Fred’s ability of Astro-navigation; he would have relied on DR navigation where wind can put you 50 miles off course, cloud base too low to get below it because the altimeter is all to hell if you do not know the barometric pressure, and to see a searchlight provided by a U.S. Cruiser under those circumstances would be impossible. My guess is they got to where Howland Island should have been in the dark, spent an hour looking for it, before having to ditch somewhere within a 50 mile radius of Howland. I find it hard to accept anything else.
I hope I have not bored you. If I can provide anything at all beyond these comments, do write. As long as I am above ground, I’ll reply.
P.S. Can I get your first book in Australia?
Doubtless Iredale could have obtained The Search for Amelia Earhart, Goerner’s only book, in Australia, though the shipping and handling charges might have been a bit stiff. He certainly needed to read it closely, considering his closing statement, “My guess is they got to where Howland Island should have been in the dark, spent an hour looking for it, before having to ditch somewhere within a 50 mile radius of Howland. I find it hard to accept anything else.”
Perhaps Iredale’s most important contribution in this letter is his up-close-and-personal account of drinking Vat 69 with Fred Noonan two nights before the doomed fliers took off, and his assurance to Goerner, that “he had no drink for at least 24 hours before take-off.”
For an extensive examination of the always-controversial issue of Noonan’s drinking, please see my Jan. 6, 2015 post, “Fred Noonan’s drinking: In search of the true story.”
I don’t believe I have Goerner’s reply to Iredale, but if anyone out there does, please let me know and I’ll be glad to post it.