Today we return to Capt. Calvin Pitts and his comprehensive analysis of Amelia Earhart’s last flight. We concluded Part I with clue No. 7: Position, which included Calvin’s observation that “At 8:43 a.m. (2013z), with the last transmission (was it?) from Amelia as shown on the Itasca log, it had been 20-plus hours since their takeoff from Lae at 10 a.m. local Lae time (0000z).”
Among his many achievements over a lifetime of aviation excellence, Calvin Pitts has become the first significant establishment figure to publicly embrace the truth in the Earhart disappearance, and we’re honored that he brought his considerable experience and talents to this blog and shared it with us. Without further delay, here’s Part II of Calvin’s analysis.
“Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY” Part II
By Capt. Calvin Pitts
8. Contingency Plan: HERE IS WHERE we zero in on the WHY of this so-called mystery, which is actually only a mass of confusion. The next couple of clues have to do with Amelia’s relationship with a top government bureaucrat, Eugene L. “Gene” (father of Gore Vidal), and the flight made to the area where she was forced to make a fatal decision. We call it “Area 13,” and when we get there, you’ll see why.
The answers to the following questions hold additional clues:
(1) Why was the failure in Honolulu of flight No. 1 so critical to the final outcome?
(2) After the Hawaii crack-up, did a military issue change the entire course of the flight?
(3) What caused the decision to reverse the direction of Flight No. 2 from west-toward-Howland to east-toward-Area 13? There is more here, it seems, than meets the eye.
4) From Area 13, why was the Contingency Plan ignored after being so carefully prepared in favor of an intentional heading toward another destination?
Gene Vidal was a standout individual in America in the 1930s. He was a respected graduate of West Point, a star athlete in various sports, the quarterback of their football team, and he was recognized as an outstanding aviator. He was a star in the heady world of Washington, the head of a new, growing department, the Bureau of Air Commerce (BAC). He was a friend of the president and he innovated new programs for aviation’s growth. He was also handsome and his picture was featured on TIME magazine. On top of those 12 outstanding attributes, Gene Vidal was deeply respected by the most famous woman in America. That’s No. 13, and that’s good luck, isn’t it?
Amelia also had great respect for George Putnam and his accomplishments. He supported her in everything she did. He was her fan as well as her husband. They were good partners in things they did together. They complimented the needs of each other, even though, at first, she reluctantly married him.
Amelia had captured the heart of America, or at least its attention. What lady wouldn’t be proud of that in those times? As friends, Amelia and Gene worked together in aviation pursuits. As mates, Amelia and George worked together in achieving her dreams.
George Putnam was a promoter and publisher, his company having published “WE,” by Charles Lindbergh. When Amelia needed personal help, including with her career, she turned to him.
Gene Vidal was a bureaucrat, aviator and director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, Washington, D.C., with political influence. When Amelia needed guidance and help in aviation matters, she went to Gene. All three of them were friends.
In preparation for Amelia’s world adventure, she and Gene spent much time with charts spread out on the floor, meticulously planning every detail of the world flight. One of those critical details was a “Contingency Plan.” Just. In. Case! “What happens, Amelia, IF you can’t find Howland?” (The words of their conversations are supplied by the author. The content of their work is supplied by the actors.)
As a Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), later Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) top government bureaucrat in the BAC, under Daniel Roper’s Department of Commerce (DOC), Eugene Vidal was extremely knowledgeable — West Point graduate, sports superstar, one of the best pilots in the country, TIME magazine feature personality — and a handy government man to have around.
Not only was Vidal West Point’s star, he was also the government’s star and a luminary, at least in his own mind. But he did not get along with major figures with whom he worked, and got crossed with his office partner, J. Carroll Cone, as well as his immediate boss, Daniel Roper, DOC secretary. And most significant of all, he got crossed with his ultimate boss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the heart and soul of the government. That, of course, takes talent, or at least a massive sense of self-importance.
But Vidal knew aviation. And he knew that a dear friend needed guidance in so great a challenge as a successful flight around the world, especially on that long leg across the open waters of the Pacific. What should Amelia do if she was unable to locate that postage-stamp, bird-infested land mass called Howland?
HOWLAND? What was it about this piece of land that was so strategic?
That decision, however, of locating a dot in the sea would never have been necessary if flight plan No. 1 had not failed. But it did, and the circumstances which followed determined the details which led to a sad tragedy. That needs to be explored.
However, because flight No. 2 is the flight which is known best, and is discussed most, we’ll follow it to “Area 13,” at which point we’ll pause and ask: What happened? What went wrong? Why did a flight conceived in innocence get hijacked and become so complicated as to become a flight into hell.
In the beginning, we could take things at face value. But afterward, the face was not what it seemed. More often than not, it was a false face. The government face, hidden for so long, left a long shadow, and was far uglier than the public was led to believe.
The leg of Flight No. 2 that was the most dangerous and most challenging was the one from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island. It was full of challenges, decisions, changes and surprises — a surprise that held a double-surprise.
The leg into and out of Australia was the site of a major radio problem with an easy solution. A fuse for the direction-finder receiver had blown, and needed to be fixed at Lae. It was a small thing, but it had major significance. If it blew again, the Electra would have the same problem going into Howland — namely, a DF steer that was essential would no longer be available
However, the Electra’s crew was already unable to receive Morse code messages from the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca at Howland, and the Navy’s USS Ontario tug which had been placed halfway between Lae and Howland.
One source says that both Amelia and Noonan were able to understand code, which is only partly true if the speed in sending means that the one receiving hears sounds but cannot interpret them.
Fred Noonan had a second-class radio license, and he had been communicating slowly in code en route from Darwin to Lae, according to Alan Vagg, the radio operator at Bulolo, 40 miles southwest of Lae. But Amelia did not really know Morse code, although she had been advised earlier by a close friend to spend time learning it.
This raises two difficult questions: (1) Why did they remove the Morse code key at the beginning of the flight, making it difficult if not impossible for Noonan to communicate by code, unless he had his own personal key? What was the purpose in removing it? (2) Why were the Ontario at sea and the Itasca at Howland totally uninformed that the multitude of Morse code messages they sent would go unanswered, because Fred could only understand code if it were keyed very slowly, and Amelia’s knowledge consisted of only a few letters? This was a critical issue.
“Upon enquiry Earhart and Noonan advised that they entirely depended on radio telephone reception as neither of them were able to read Morse at normal speed but could recognize an individual letter sent several times,” wrote Eric Chater, general manager of Guinea Airways Limited in a July 25, 1937 report. “This point was again mentioned by both of them later when two different sets at Lae were used for listening in for time signals.”
“Two different sets of keys?” How many knew that? Two? For what purpose?
Compounding this radio issue was a profound misunderstanding between Amelia and the Itasca regarding the important intricacies of frequency incompatibility and DF usage. That was a radio disconnection, to be sure.
Another issue that surfaced at Lae were telephone calls and telegraph messages between Amelia and both Gene and George. A telegram she sent from Lae, which delayed the departure by one day, contained the following message:
“Radio misunderstanding and Personnel Unfitness (stop) Probably will hold one day (stop) Have asked Black for Forecast for tomorrow (stop) You check meteorologist on job as FN (Noonan) must have star sights.”
When asked about the meaning of “personnel unfitness,” Gore Vidal, son of Gene Vidal said: “Well, just the night before the final flight, she reported in and they had a code phrase, ‘personnel problems,’ which meant Noonan was back drinking. And my father said, ‘Just stop it right now and come home,’ and G.P. agreed and said, ‘Come back, abort the flight, forget it, come home.’ And then she said, ‘Oh, no,’ and she said, ‘I think it’ll be all right,’ something like that. So you may put that down to invincible optimism or it may have been huge pessimism.”
When the Electra left on the morning of July 2 at 10:00 am local time, they were ill-equipped for the radio challenges ahead. On flight No. 1, Amelia had Harry Manning, a seagoing captain on vacation for purposes of helping that flight that ended in Honolulu. He was well-versed in radio usage and intricacies, but he bailed after the crack-up at Luke Field.
The greatest area of confusion for the observer is the neglect in getting the radio frequencies and usage clear in one’s understanding, as well as clearly communicating to other personnel such as those on the Itasca, the Ontario, Lae radio, Nauru radio, Tarawa radio in the Gilbert Islands, and Hawaii radio. Why were all these facilities not properly notified? What was the big secret? Why were they not in the communication loop?
The second area of confusion was the casual and strange way in which the radio calls and position reports were made, and the technique of using the radio properly for getting bearings.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the track of flight No. 2 as it relates to the Pacific crossing, noting the changes made due to weather and necessity. Two diversions to the initial plan added more than 100 miles to the flight, but it kept the fliers out of serious thunderstorms and it gave them a positive land fix at Nauru.
Lae is our point of origin. Howland is our destination. Unfortunately, Howland doesn’t remain our destination, for reasons that need to be explored.
But even at Lae, things did not go as planned. With a heavy fuel load, the Electra had no place to go but into the water of Huon Gulf if the takeoff had to be aborted. As it was, the Electra used up 97 percent of the dirt strip they called a runway, lifting a few inches before beginning to settle beyond the cliff.
As they rolled down the 3,000 feet of rough dirt at more than 35 percent over gross weight, they watched the performance of Lockheed’s modern design of what became a classic airplane. It has two great Pratt & Whitney Wasp 550 horsepower/600 horsepower (at takeoff) engines, but the wheels are still not leaving the ground as they neared the end of the 3,000 feet available. The fuel-heavy plane with 1,100-1,150 gallons flies into the air off the cliff above the Huon Gulf, and begins to settle, settle, settle until it was just a few feet above the water.
An incoming plane later describes what he sees. By the time the Electra stops its descent and settles into a slight climb of 30 feet per minute, the Electra is leaving behind a spray of water from the prop-wash of the spinning lifeline.
Amelia set up a rate of climb of 30 feet per minute, predetermined from the manual with input from Kelly Johnson, Lockheed’s later designer of the 9D Orion, the model 18 Lodestar, the PV-1 Ventura, the PV-2 Neptune, the PV-2V Harpoon (which I’ve flown to airshows), the P-38 Lightning, the TWA Constellation, the P-80 Shooting Star (my first Jet to witness at age 12), the F-104 Starfighter, the C-130 Hercules, the U-2, the SR-71 (which I’ve visited at Beale AFB), and the Electra 10 (which I’ve also flown), 40 in all.
Such a cruise climb was the most efficient. By 0115z (GMT) (11:15 a.m.), an hour later, Amelia let local radio operator Harry Balfour know she was still “climbing to 7,000 feet,” not the plan Kelly Johnson of Lockheed had laid out for her.
Due to severe thunderstorms resting above the original planned course, Noonan, with help from Balfour, decided to fly due east to the Solomon Islands. At Choiseul’s Mount Maetambe, weather permitting, they would turn northeast toward Nukumanu Atoll, sitting very near their original course. So not even the first leg was going as planned.
For the first seven hours, Harry Balfour was Amelia’s lifeline. He was the last to have two-way radio contact with the Electra. He also helped Amelia and Fred make a decision to go slightly north, a little out of their way, to use Nauru as a land-fix before the long eight-hour night flight to Howland from a known position.
Balfour and the mechanics had served the Electra crew well. But after Nukumanu at 0718z (5:18 p.m. Lae time), when Amelia changed frequencies from day (6210 kilocycles) to night (3105 kc), he never heard from her again. Balfour requested that she stay on a frequency where she was being heard, but he received no reply.
One can assume that with darkness coming on within an hour or so (it was now about 5:30 p.m.), she was changing the frequency early in order to establish contact with the USS Ontario, commanded by Navy Lt. Blakeslee. If they were diverting slightly north in order to get a land-fix over or near Nauru, she certainly wanted to inform him of that.
The Navy had sent this tug, now being used for minor assignments in Samoa, to serve as a floating radio and weather station for the Electra at a midpoint of that leg.
Unfortunately, what neither of them knew at that time was the agonizing fact that the Electra was not equipped for low-frequency broadcast, and the Ontario was not equipped for high-frequency.
The Ontario had stated that it would broadcast on 400 kc. The Electra was not equipped for this low frequency. Why didn’t they know about this incompatibility? Who was in charge of communication arrangements? They didn’t know for the same reason, perhaps, that the Itasca personnel were not aware of other frequency anomalies and DF limitations. Who went to sleep on those details?
Commander Thomson of the Itasca was not the only one who later blamed George Putnam for overlooking such details. But where was Vidal, or Noonan, or even Amelia? Somebody dropped the ball, and it fell with a fatal blow — unless there was already a bigger event in play.
After changing frequencies to one that the Ontario could not receive, it is safe to assume that Amelia made several voice calls. Morse code, of course, was already out of the picture.
(End of “Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY,” Part II )
We’ll conclude Calvin Pitts’ fascinating analysis in our next post. Once again, the opinions presented in this piece are Calvin’s, and are not necessarily shared by the editor. As always, your comments are welcome.