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.
Doug Mills initially contacted me in March 2010 via email, full of questions and enthusiasm for the Earhart story, having read my 2002 book written with Thomas E. Devine, the little-known With Our Own Eyes: Eyewitnesses to the Final Days of Amelia Earhart.
Doug, 55, lives in small-town Bellaire, in northern Michigan, works as a manager at the spectacular Shanty Creek Resort and regularly paddles his kayak on nearby Torch Lake, not far from Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan. He’s also an artist, and I think some of his Earhart-related work is worthy of posting here, in case anyone might be interested in purchasing any or all of these one-of-a-kind pieces at a very inexpensive price. They’re all framed in my office.
Doug Mills can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and will work with anyone interested. I won’t list prices here, but these pieces are far below what would be considered “market price” for such sketches. In other words, they are dirt cheap! He’s not set up for credit cards, but your check will be much appreciated. The sketches and plane below speak for themselves, are great conversation pieces and are worthy of your attention.
Today we move along to Part III of Capt. Calvin Pitts’ “Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY,” his studied analysis of Amelia Earhart’s final flight. We left Part II with Calvin’s description of the communication failures between the Navy tug USS Ontario and the ill-fated fliers.
“What neither of them knew at that time was the agonizing fact that the Electra was not equipped for low-frequency broadcast,” Calvin wrote, “and the Ontario was not equipped for high-frequency. . . . 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.”
We’re honored that Calvin has so embraced the truth in the Earhart disappearance that he’s spent countless hours working to explain the apparently inexplicable — how and why Amelia Earhart reached and landed at Mili Atoll on July 2, 1937. Here’s Part III, with even more to follow.
“Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY, Part III”
By Capt. Calvin Pitts
Although Amelia was obviously trying to make contact with the Ontario by radio, Lt. Blakeslee did not know that. By the same token, Amelia had to wonder why he would not answer.
This failure to communicate, however, worked into Amelia’s new plan. Since she had no way of letting the Ontario know they were en route, being without Morse code and having frequencies which were not compatible, now that he had been plying those waters for 10 days along her flight path, she knew it was useless to try to find and to overfly the unknown position of the Ontario in the thick darkness of a Pacific night.
Therefore, it now made even more sense to continue on to Nauru whose people had been alerted by Balfour that the Electra was probably coming. Although that had begun as a suggestion, no one yet knew that it had now become a decision. She needed to let the Ontario know — but how?
She had lost contact with Balfour, couldn’t make contact with the Ontario, and the Itasca had not yet entered the picture. Nauru, it was later learned, had a similar problem as the Ontario, and Tarawa had not broadcast anything. Amelia was good at making last-minute decisions. “Let’s press on to Nauru,” she might have said. “It’s a small diversion, and a great gain in getting a solid land-fix. I’ll explain later.”
The local chief of Nauru Island, or someone in authority, already had a long string of powerful spot lights set up for local mining purposes. He would turn them on with such brightness, 5,000 candlepower, that they could be seen for more than 34 miles at sea level, even more at altitude.
Finding a well-lit island was a sure thing. Finding a small ship in the dark ocean, which had no ETA for them, was doubtful. Further, as was later learned from the Ontario logs, the winds from the E-NE were blowing cumulus clouds into their area, which, by 1:00 a.m. were overcast with rain squalls. It is possible that earlier, a darkening sky to the east would have been further assurance that deviating slightly over Nauru was the right decision.
As the Electra approached the dark island now lit with bright lights, Nauru radio received a message at 10:36 p.m. from Amelia that said, “We see a ship (lights) ahead.”
Others have interpreted this as evidence that Amelia was still on course for the Ontario, and was saying that she had seen its lights. The conflict here is that Amelia flew close enough to Nauru for ground observers to state they had heard and seen the plane. How could Amelia see Nauru at the same time she saw the Ontario more than 100 miles away?
Amelia may have wondered if Noonan and Balfour were wrong about Nauru. But they weren’t. According to the log from a different ship coming from New Zealand south of them, they were en route to Nauru for mining business.Those shipmates of the MV Myrtlebank, a 5,150 ton freighter owned by a large shipping conglomerate, under the British flag, recorded their position as southwest of Nauru at about 10:30 pm on that date. The story of the Mrytlebank fits in well to resolve this confusion. It was undoubtedly this New Zealand ship, not the Ontario, that Amelia had seen.
MV Myrtlebank, a freighter owned by Bank Line Ltd., was chartered to a British Phosphate Commission at Nauru. As recorded later, around 10:30 p.m., third mate Syd Dowdeswell was “surprised to hear the sound of an aircraft approaching and lasting about a minute. He reported the incident to the captain who received it ‘with some skepticism’ because aircraft were virtually unknown in that part of the Pacific at that time. Neither Dowdeswell nor the captain knew about Earhart’s flight.”
Source: State Department telegram from Sydney, Australia dated July 3, 1937: “Amalgamated Wireless state information received that report from ‘Nauru’ was sent to Bolinas Radio ‘at . . . 6.54 PM Sydney time today on (6210 kHz), fairly strong signals, speech not intelligible, no hum of plane in background but voice similar that emitted from plane in flight last night between 4.30 and 9.30 P.M.’ Message from plane when at least 60 miles south of Nauru received 8.30 p.m., Sydney time, July 2 saying ‘A ship in sight ahead.’ Since identified as steamer Myrtle Bank (sic) which arrived Nauru daybreak today.”
“Unless Mr. T.H. Cude produced the actual radio log for that night, the contemporary written record (the State Dept. telegram) trumps his 20-plus-year-old recollection.”
This was most likely the ship about which Amelia Earhart said: “See ship (lights) ahead.” Most researchers state that she had spotted the USS Ontario, which had been ordered by the Navy to be stationed halfway between Lae and Howland for weather information via radio. No radio contact was ever made between Amelia’s Lockheed Electra 10E and the Ontario.
While it is possible that Amelia flew only close enough to Nauru to see the bright mining lights, it is more likely that a navigator like Noonan would want a firm land fix on time and exact location.
For this reason, in a re-creation of the flight path on Google Earth, which we have done, we posit the belief, in view of the silence from the Ontario, that having a known fix prior to heading out into the dark waters, overcast skies and rain squalls of the last half of the 2,556-mile (now 2,650-mile) trip to small Howland, it was the better part of wisdom to overfly Nauru.
Weather and radio issues were the motive behind Harry Balfour’s suggestion to use Nauru as an intermediate point rather than a small ship in a dark ocean. Thus, the Myrtlebank unwittingly became part of the history of a great world event.
Now, with the land mass of Nauru under them, Fred could begin the next eight hours from a known position. Balfour’s suggestion and Fred and Amelia’s decision was not a bad call, with apologies to the crew of the Ontario. Unfortunately, it was not until after the fact that the Ontario was notified of this. They headed back to Samoa with barely enough coal to make it home. Lt. Blakeslee said they were “scraping the bottom” for coal by the time they returned.
The details of the eight-hour flight from Nauru are contained in the Itasca log. In my own case, the Amelia story was interesting, but not compelling. However, it was not until I began to study in minute detail the Itasca logs of those last hours of the Electra’s flight, hour by hour, and visualizing it by means of Google Earth, that the interest turned to a passion.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED? DO WE HAVE ENOUGH EVIDENCE TO KNOW? IS THERE REALLY NO ANSWER TO WHAT HAS BEEN CONCEALED AS A “MYSTERY”?
In the reliving of what was once a mystery, things began to make sense, piece by piece. It was like being a detective who knew there were hidden pieces, but what were they, and where did they fit? For me, as the puzzle began to come together, the interest grew. There is really more to this story, much more, than appeared during the first reading.
The radio room positions and pages being logged contained valuable information. Reading the details created a picture in the imagination at one level, but with more and more evidence piling up, a different level began to emerge.
Can this story really be true? Credulity was giving way to the reality of evidence.
If you will follow the highlights of the Itasca logs, you may find yourself captivated, as I was. One thing that is not spoken at first, but becomes a message loud and clear, is the not-so-hidden narrative in those repeated, unanswered Morse code transmissions.
The radiomen thought they were helping Amelia and Fred, but with each unanswered Code message, they were really just talking to themselves. As they get more desperate, you keep wondering: Surely the Electra crew can at least “hear” the clicks and clacks, the dits and dahs, even if they don’t fully understand them.
Why don’t they at least acknowledge they hear even though understanding appears to be absent? Why the silence, the long silence into the dark night, the silence which leaves the Itasca crew bewildered, even “screaming,” as they later said, “into the mike?”
The position of the Electra, an “area,” not a fix, is our primary destination now because Howland was never seen. This makes Howland secondary for this exercise, mostly because that was not the position from which Amelia made her final and fatal decision.
There were at least two extremely dangerous elements involving Howland, and one strategic matter. Dangerous: 10,000 nesting and flying birds waiting to greet Mama big bird, and the extremely limited landing area of a 30 city-block by 10-block sand mass.
We delay our discussion about “strategic” since it deals with the government hijacking of a civilian plane, something controversial but which is worth waiting for. Stand by.
For now, we join Amelia and Fred for some details of their flight to “Area 13.” The purpose here is to locate, as best we can, that area from which Amelia made her final navigation decision.
That area encompasses a portion of ocean 200 miles by 200 miles. South to north, it begins about 100 miles north of Howland to at least 300 miles north. East to west, it begins with a NW line of 337 degrees and continues west parallel to that line for at least 200 miles.
There is a mountain of calculation behind that conclusion, but those details are for another venue. For now, for those interested in re-creating that historic flight, especially if you have Google Earth, follow the Itasca log in order to see Google Truth.
We designate this 200 by 200 miles as “Area 13” for the simple reason that their last known transmission not within sight of land which can be confirmed was at 2013z (GMT) (the famous 8:43 am call). Following this was nothing but silence for those on the ground.
After their long night of calling, waiting and consuming coffee, for the crew of Itasca and Howland Island, 8:43 a.m. was a special time. But 2013 GMT (8:43 a.m.) was also the 20-hour mark for the fliers, after their own, even more stressful all-nighter. Sadly, the two in the Electra, at 13 past 20 hours, were entirely on their own at 2013 — and here that sinister number “13” appears again.
The following routing and times are a compilation from several sources:
(1) Itasca Logs from the log-positions on the ship, a copy of which can be provided;
(2) Notes from Harry Balfour, local weather and radioman on site at Lae;
(3) Notes from L.G. Bellarts, Chief Radio operator, USS Itasca;
(4) The Search for Amelia Earhart, by Fred Goerner;
(5) Amelia Earhart: The Truth At Last, by Mike Campbell;
(6) David Billings, Australian flight engineer (numbers questionable), Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project;
(7) Thomas E. Devine, Vincent V. Loomis, and various other writings.
The intended course for the Electra was a direct line from Lae to Howland covering 2,556 statute miles. The actual track, however, was changed due to weather, in the first instance, and due to a change of decision in the second instance. Such contact never took place. Neither the Electra nor the Ontario saw nor heard from the other, for reasons which could have been avoided if each had known the frequencies and limitations of the other. This basic lack of communication plagued almost every radio and key which tried to communicate with the Electra.
If one has access to Google Earth, it is interesting to pin and to follow this flight by the hour. The average speeds and winds were derived from multiple sources, including weather forecasts and reports.
To generalize, the average ground speed going east was probably not above 150 mph, with a reported headwind of some 20 mph, which began at about 135-140 mph when the plane was heavy and struggling to climb.
In the beginning, with input from Lockheed engineers, Amelia made a slow (about 30 feet per minute) climb to 7,000 feet (contrary to the plan laid out by Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson), then to 10,000 feet (which should have been step-climbing to 4,000 to 7,000 to 10,000 feet toward the Solomons mountain), then descending to 8,000 feet depending upon winds, then to 10,000 feet reported, with various changes en route.
The remaining contingency fuel at 8:43 a.m. Howland time, to get the Electra back to the Gilbert Islands, as planned out carefully with the help of Gene Vidal (experienced aviator) and Kelly Johnson (experienced Lockheed engineer), has often been, in our opinion, mischaracterized and miscalculated. By all reasonable calculations, the Electra had about 20 hours of fuel PLUS at least four-plus hours of contingency fuel.
Then why did Amelia say she was almost out of fuel when making one of her last calls at 1912z (7:42 am)? Obviously, she was not because she made another call an hour later about the “157-337 (sun) line” at 2013z. Put yourself in that cockpit, totally fatigued after 20 hours of battling wind and weather and loss of sleep, compounded by 30 previous difficult days. It is easy to see four hours of fuel, after such exhaustion, being described as “running low.”
With the desperation of wanting to be on the ground, it would be quite normal to say “gas is running low” just to get someone’s attention. If one is a pilot, and has ever been “at wit’s end” in a tense situation, they have no problem not being a “literalist” with this statement. The subsequent facts, of course, substantiate this.
Wherever the Electra ended up, and we have a volume of evidence for that in a future posting, IT WAS NOT IN THE OCEAN NEAR HOWLAND. That was a government finding as accurate and as competent as the government’s success was against the Wright Brothers’ attempt to make the first fight.
For this leg of the Electra’s flight to its destination, our starting data point was Lae, New Guinea, and our terminal data point is not the elusive bird-infested Howland Island, but rather the area where they were often said to be “lost,” a place we have designated as Area 13. (A more detailed flight, by the hour with data from the Itasca logs, is available. Enjoy the trip.
Summary of track from Lae to Area 13 then to Mili Atoll (times are approximate):
(1) LAE to CHOISEUL, Solomon Islands – Total Miles: 670 / Total Time: 05:15 hours
(2) CHOISEUL to NUKUMANU Islands – Total Miles: 933 / Total Time: 07:18 hours
(3) NUKUMANU to NAURU Island – Total Miles: 1,515 / Total Time: 11:30 hours
(4) NAURU to 1745z (6:15 a.m. Howland) – Total Miles: 2,440 / Total Time: 17:45 hours
(5) 1745z to 1912z (7:12 a.m. Howland) – Total Miles: 2,635 / Total Time: 19:12 hours
(6) 1912z to 2013z (8:43 a.m. Howland) – Total Miles: 2.750 / Total Time: 20:13 hours
LAE to AREA 13: Total Miles : 2,750 (Including approaches) Time: About 20:13 hours
Fuel Remaining: About 4.5 to 5 hours
Distance from 2013z to Mili Atoll Marshall Islands = About 750 miles
Ground speed = 160 (true air speed) plus 15 mph (tailwind) = 175 mph
Time en route = About 4.3 hours
ETA at Mili Atoll, Marshall Islands = Noon to 12:30; Fuel remaining: 13 drops
The heading to the Gilberts would not have taken them to the Marshall Islands, with a heading difference of about 30 degrees. The decision to give up on Howland, and utilize the remaining contingency fuel was “intentional,” not merely intentional to turn back, but to turn toward the Marshalls where there was a strong radio beam, a runway, fuel — and Japanese soldiers who may or may not be impressed with the most famous female aviator in the world. Amelia and her exploits were known to be popular in Japan at that time. Although their mind was on war with China, maybe this charming pilot could tame them.
Unfortunately, we know THE END of the Amelia story, and it was not pretty. When she crossed into enemy territory, she apparently lost her charm with the war lords, and eventually her life. (End of Part III.)
Next up: Part IV of “Amelia Earhart: Disappearing Footprints in the Sky.” As always, your comments are welcome.
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.
Today we return to the early 1960s correspondence between KCBS radio newsman Fred Goerner and retired Coast Guard Lt. Leo Bellarts, who as the chief radioman aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, was on hand to hear Amelia Earhart’s last official messages on the morning of July 2, 1937, concluding with her last transmission at 8:43 a.m. Howland Island time. For Bellarts’ Nov. 28, 1961 letter to Goerner, posted Feb. 6, 2017, as well as the author’s reply, please click here. Bellarts Dec. 15, 1961 response to Goerner, posted April 24, 2017, can be seen here.
Many of 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 The Search for Amelia Earhart 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. (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
CBS Radio – A Division of Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc.
SHERATON – PALACE, SAN FRANCISCO 5, CALIFORNIA – YUKON 2-7000
December 20, 1961
Mr. Leo G. Bellarts
1920 State Street
Dear Mr. Bellarts,
Thank you very much for your letter with enclosures of the 15th. It was received with a good deal of interest by all of us who have been working on the Earhart story.
I’m sorry if I took on the proportions of a “quizmaster” to you. I think it must be the reportorial instinct. I learned long ago that if you don’t ask the questions, you very seldom get the answers.
First, let me answer several of your questions. As far as I know, there is absolutely no connection between CBS and Mrs. Studer; in fact, I have never met her, and I found the article you mentioned slightly on the irritating side. That article was the first time I was even aware of her existence.
As to George Palmer Putnam, I never had the opportunity to meet him. He died in January, 1950.
The only members of Amelia’s family I know personally are her mother and sister who live in West Medford, Massachusetts. The mother [Amy Otis Earhart] is now in her nineties, and her sister [Muriel Earhart Morrissey] teaches high school in West Medford.
I was glad to receive the information that Galten was a bona fide member of the Itasca’s crew; however, it leaves me even more at a loss to explain his remarks to the press to the effect that the Earhart [plane] was incapable was transmitting radio signals more than 50 to 75 miles, and that the seas were eight feet with fifteen feet between crests the day of the disappearance. The Itasca Log indicates as you have that the sea was calm and smooth.
You might be interested in Galten’s address: 50 Solano Street, Brisbane, California.
Galten has also stated that he actually copied the message, “30 minutes of gas remaining”; yet, your record of the messages and the July 5 transcript sent by the Itasca to ComFranDiv, San Francisco, indicates “but running low on gas.”
As you probably well know, there is a vast difference between 30 minutes of gas remaining and gas running low. Every pilot who has flown the Pacific Area will tell you if you are unsure of your position, are having difficulty in contacting your homing station and are down to four or five hours of gas — the gas indeed is “running low.”
We know as a positive fact that the Lockheed had sufficient gas for twenty-four to twenty-six hours aloft. The take-off time from Lae, New Guinea, was 10:30 a.m. at Lae, 12:30 p.m. at Howland. It was possible for the plane to have stayed aloft until 2:30 p.m. Howland time the following day. The July 2 transmission from the Itasca to San Francisco estimates 1200 maximum time [i.e. noon local time] aloft.
Why then the supposition that Earhart “went in” right after her last message at 0843?
It just isn’t true that Earhart and Noonan began their flight from Lae to Howland with just enough fuel to reach Howland and no more. They were fully aware of the navigational hazards of the flight. The planning for that 2,556-mile flight is contained in Amelia’s notes which were shipped back to the United States from Lae. She planned her ETA at Howland just after daybreak. Daylight was absolutely necessary to locate that tiny speck. She had figured her fuel consumption to give her at least six additional hours to make a landfall if Noonan’s navigational abilities did not bring the plane dead center to Howland.
Is the supposition based on the fact that her voice sounded frantic when she radioed the last message, “We are 157-337, running north and south. Wait listening on 6210”? If she were “going in” at that time, why would she ask the ITASCA to wait on 6210? (Caps Goerner’s throughout.)
Your comment that she simply forgot to include the reference point in the final message seems to be negated by the fact the she included “running north and south.” If Noonan had been able to give her a reference point, there would have been no reason for running north and south courses. They would have known their exact position and in which direction to fly.
The variance in the two groups of messages sent to San Francisco by the ITASCA is not the result of “faulty press reports.” I’m going to have my copies of the Coast Guard Log photostatted and sent along to you. The amazing discrepancies are clear and incontestable.
Your quotes from TIME magazine are “faulty press reports.” TIME is wrong that no position reports were received after Earhart’s departure from Lae. The Coast Guard Log indicated a check-in 785 miles out from Lae with a full position report. TIME was also mistaken in the number of messages received by the ITASCA from the plane. It varies from your own list.
Yes, I was aware that the COLORADO refueled the ITASCA. This is indicated in the Navy’s official report of the search. The Navy report indicates that the COLORADO, on a naval training cruise in the Honolulu vicinity with a group of reservists and University Presidents [sic] in observance when it was ordered to assist in the search and refuel [of] the ITASCA and the SWAN.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to resort to another list of questions. There is so much that appears to be unanswered in this entire vacation. I think you are as interested in this as I am, or I wouldn’t bother you.
Was the signal strength of Earhart A3 S5 on all the messages from the 0615 “About two hundred miles out” to the final 0843 message? In your list A3 S5 is not listed for 0615,0645, 0742 and 0800.
Many radio operators have told us that in the South Pacific, particularly near the equator, a voice signal will come in from any distance so strongly that the person appears to be in the next room, then, a few minutes later, it cannot be raised at all even when the transmission station is only a few miles away. Was this your experience while in the South Pacific?
Did the ITASCA make any contact with Lae, New Guinea to set up radio frequencies before her final take-off?
Did the ITASCA contact Lae to determine the actual time of the take-off?
Was the ITASCA aware of the gas capacity and range of the plane?
If the ITASCA arranged frequencies with Earhart at Lae, or at least firmed them up, why didn’t the ITASCA know that Noonan could not use cw [sic, i.e., Morse Code] on 500 kcs because of a lack of a trailing antenna?
The “Organization of Radio Personnel” Photostat indicates that in the event of a casualty the ITASCA was to block out any other station attempting to communicate information. What other station was near the ITASCA that might transmit information contrary to fact? When the plane was lost, did the ITASCA block out any other transmission of information?
Do you know of the whereabouts of [RM2 Frank] Ciprianti [sic, Cipriani is correct], [RM3 Thomas] O’Hare, [RM3 Gilbert E.] Thompson, Lt. Cmdr. F.T. Kenner, Lt. (j.g.) W.I. Stanston or Ensign R.L. Mellen?
This is aside from the Earhart matter, but is certainly of interest. What was the eventual fate of the ITASCA, ONTARIO, and SWAN?
In closing, Mr. Bellarts, let me say that we sincerely appreciate the opportunity the [sic] with you. Let me assure you that we will keep your confidence, and will in no way quote you without your permission.
I, personally, have been working on this investigation for nearly two years. It has nothing to do with any stamp that might be issued with her image, or some nebulous entry into a hall of fame. This is a news story, and we intend to pursue every possible lead until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. I [sic] happy to say we have the blessings of both Amelia’s mother and sister. They have suspected for many years that the disappearance was not as cut and dried as portions of our military have indicated, but no one, including that military, has ever put together a concerted effort to tie together the loose ends.
I believe with all my heart that Earhart and Noonan were on Saipan. I saw the testimony gathered by the Monsignor and the Fathers. I know the witnesses were telling the truth. There was no reason for them to lie, and such a story could never have been invented by simple natives without the appearance of serious discrepancies.
However, I believe with you that Earhart and Noonan never flew their plane to Saipan. They must have been brought to the island by the Japanese.
The search for Earhart has been a joke for years. I think that’s because the military has dogmatically maintained that the pair went down close to Howland; yet, that contention appears to be based solely on the belief that the strength of signals before the last received transmission indicated the ship was probably within two hundred miles of the ITASCA. Where did they fly on the four to five hours of gas we know remained?
Mr. Bellarts, if you know anything that has not been made public that will shed more light on this enigma, please give us the information. If not to CBS, to Amelia’s sister:
Mrs. Albert Morrissey
1 Vernon Street
West Medford. Mass.
No one, certainly not CBS, has the idea of castigating individuals, the Coast Guard, the Navy or the Air Force or even Japan for something that happened so long ago. The important thing is to settle this matter once and for all, and bring a modicum of peace to the individuals involved.
Earhart and Noonan fought their battle against the elements. If they later lost their lives to the aggrandizing philosophy of a nation bent on the conquest of the Pacific, the great victory is still theirs. Their story should be told, and they should receive their nation’s gratitude and a decent burial.
Would you ask less for your own?
Best wishes for a merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
I’ll be looking forward to your next communication.
San Francisco 5,
California (End of Goerner letter.)
I have more of the fascinating correspondence between Fred Goerner and Leo Bellarts, two of the most interesting people in the entire Earhart saga, and will post more at a future date.