Tag Archives: Howland Island

Almon Gray’s “Amelia Didn’t Know Radio,” Part II

We continue with Part II of Almon Gray’s comprehensive analysis of Amelia Earhart’s radio communications and lack of same during her final flight.  Bill Prymak, Amelia Earhart Society founder and president, has called Gray’s analysis of Earhart’s radio problems during her last flight “one of the finest pieces of work ever presented on this subject.”

 “Amelia Didn’t Know Radio,” Part II
by Almon Gray

Precisely what happened next remains unknown, but it appears that Earhart conferred with a local aeronautical communication specialist to get information she could use to base a reply to [Richard] Black.  A plan was developed that fulfilled her requirements with a minimum of receiver tuning on her part.  The Ontario and the Itasca were to transmit on the same frequency but at different times, and each would transmit a distinctive Morse identification signal.  The Ontario’s identifier was N and the Itasca’s was A.” 

(These were the characters used to identify the quadrants at the four-course radio ranges, then the principal navigation aid in the United States.  Hence, Earhart was familiar with them.)

In 1937 it was still common to describe radio emissions in wavelengths expressed in meters, rather than in frequencies expressed in cycles per second.  It seems apparent that the specialist did this during his discussions with Earhart and that he suggested that the ships transmit beacon signals on wavelengths as follows:

Ontario 750 meters (400 kcs)
Swan 900 meters (333 kcs)
Itasca 750 meters (400 kcs)

On Howland Island Adm. Richard Black supervised construction of the air strip for Amelia Earhart’s scheduled refueling stop, and later arranged for a special high frequency direction finder to be set up on Howland.  Black was in the radio room of the USCG Itasca as he listened to Earhart’s last known radio transmission indicating that she was low on fuel and was searching for Howland.

These were excellent choices.  All were allocated internationally for aeronautical radio navigation and were ideal for use with the direction finder in the Earhart plane.

Unfortunately, Earhart did not understand the relationship between wavelength and frequency nor how to convert from one to the other.  Consequently, when she replied to Black on 27 June, she confused the figures and unwittingly specified incorrect frequencies for the Swan and the Itasca; she was correct with the Ontario.

In the case of the Swan, she apparently confused the wavelength and frequency figures, and specified that the Swan transmit on 900 kcs (rather than 333 kcs).  This was a bad error in that 900 kcs was in the broadcast band and not available for aeronautical use.  It also was inferior to the intended frequency of 333 kcs for DF purposes.  It was not necessarily devastating, however, and fair bearings probably could have been taken on it with the aircraft DF.

In the Itasca’s case, however, it was to have grave consequences when she again apparently reversed the numbers and told Black to use 7.50 mcs (rather than 400 kcs) on the Itasca.  The 7.50 mcs frequency was so high that there was practically no possibility of obtaining usable radio bearings on it with the aircraft DF.

Following is the text of Earhart’s reply to Black, sent the day before she left Bandoeng for Koepang and Darwin:

From: Earhart via RCA Manila & NPM Navy Radio Honolulu
To: Itasca (Black) June 27, 1937 [Java Date; it was 26 June on Howland east of the International Date Line]


Had normal air-to-surface communications existed with the Itasca as Earhart approached Howland, the homing problem could almost certainly have been solved quickly.  The ship could have told her to home on 500 kcs, the frequency already being transmitted (in addition to 7.50 mcs), and she should have been able to get bearings that would have led her to the ship. Unfortunately, she was unable to hear signals from the Itasca on 3105 kcs, although the ship was hearing her well.  It was thus impossible for the Itasca and Earhart to coordinate their actions.

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland Island on July 2, 1937 to help Amelia Earhart find the island and land safely at the airstrip that had been prepared there for her Lockheed Electra 10E.

THE AIR-TO-SURFACE COMMUNICATION PROBLEM: A report by Guinea Airways Ltd. shows that Earhart’s radio gear was checked at Lae by one of its wireless operators, H.J. Balfour, and found satisfactory.  Good two-way communication was maintained during a 30-minute test hop at Lae, although a roughness in the transmitted voice signal made Earhart difficult to understand.  Balfour told her that her speech might be more intelligible if she spoke in a higher pitch while transmitting.

After the flight left Lae for Howland, two-way communication with Lae was maintained until about 0720 2 July Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) [now Universal Coordinated Time], when she shifted to her 3105 kcs night frequency.  Several times throughout the night she was heard broadcasting at the prearranged times by stations on Nauru Island and the Itasca, but little of her transmissions were intelligible.  Nauru, and later the Itasca, called her numerous nines, but there is no indication that she heard any of the calls.  At 1515 GMT, the Itasca picked up Earhart calling to say she would listen on 3105 kcs on the hour and half-hour.  At 1744 GMT she asked the Itasca for a bearing, to be taken then and given to her on the hour.  She then whistled into the microphone on 3105 kcs to create a signal on which the bearing could be taken.  The DF operator on Howland heard this signal but was unable to get a bearing.  He remarked that the signal had very little carrier and seemed over-modulated.  The plane made no response to numerous calls from the Itasca at this time.

At 1815 GMT Earhart again asked the Itasca for a bearing.  She wanted it taken then and reported to her in a half hour (at 1845 GMT), and she whistled into the microphone to provide a signal; she said they were about 100 miles out.  Again the Howland DF heard her signal but was unable to get a hearing, and again Earhart made no response to numerous calls from the Itasca.  At 1912 GMT, Earhart transmitted the following to the Itasca on voice radio:


The Itasca was on the correct frequency and putting out strong signals at the time — even San Francisco picked them up.  In turn, the aircraft’s signals were very strong when the Itasca picked up her transmission; it was obvious that the aircraft’s fixed antenna and its feeder to the transmitter were still intact.  Thus Earhart’s transmission BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIOclearly indicates that her receiving system had failed, probably early in the flight.  Beyond that there was no clue as to the nature of the failure — but the clue was not long in coming.

View of group posed in front of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10-E Electra (NR 16020) at Lae, New Guinea, July 1937.  Second and fourth from left are identified as Mr. and Mrs. Joubert (manager of Bulolo Gold Dredging (BGD) and his wife), while Mrs. Chater (wife of the Manager of Guinea Airways) is seen third from left.  Amelia Earhart is third from right, and Fred Noonan is at far right.

After twice failing to obtain a bearing from the Howland DF on 3105 kcs, Earhart tried to home on the Itasca radio beacon using the aircraft’s direction finder.  At 1925 GMT she broadcast to the Itasca:


By 7500 she was referring to 7500 kcs, the radio beacon frequency she had specified for the Itasca.  The ship complied immediately and transmitted the specified beacon signal — Morse Aon 7500 kcs.  The transmitter had no voice capability, so it was impossible to talk to the plane on that frequency.  Earhart responded at once on 3105 kcs, saying:


This was followed by a series of long dashes.  No bearing was taken and there was no reply to the Itasca’s subsequent transmission.

Earhart obviously picked up the Itasca’s 7500 kcs beacon signals on the aircraft’s loop antenna, because she reported being “Unable to get a minimum,” (the indication of a bearing) and she would not have expected to get a minimum except with a loop antenna.  That she heard the signal indicates her receiver was functioning on at least one band.  It was uncommon for only a single band to fail; usually, if one failed, they all failed, and so it is quite likely that the receiver was also functioning on the frequency band containing 3105 kcs.  Under existing conditions, Earhart should have been able to hear both signals on the loop and on the fixed antenna.  She did hear 7500 kcs on the loop, where signals went directly from loop to receiver, but she did not hear 3105 kcs on the fixed antenna, where the incoming signals had to pass through the send-receive relay before reaching the receiver.  It is probable, therefore, that the relay had been damaged by lightning or static discharge so that the contacts were not closing properly on the receive side, thus leaving the receiver without an antenna.

No more requests for a bearing were heard.  At 2013 G.MT Earhart came up on 3105 kcs, gave a line of position, and said she was shifting to 6210 kcs; that was the last time the Itasca heard signals from the plane.

Had Earhart been more familiar with her radio gear and manipulated the antenna selector switch on the receiver to transmit on the fixed antenna, but receive on the loop, she probably would have established two-way communication with Itasca.  She apparently did not attempt it.

End of Part II.


Howland Island as seen by Literary Digest in 1937

Today we present a historical retrospective of Howland Island that appeared in the February 1999 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, with the headline,The Story of Howland Island: by the Literary Digest, September 18, 1937.”

The Literary Digest was an American general interest magazine published by Funk and Wagnalls.  Founded by Isaac Kaufmann Funk in 1890, it eventually merged with two similar weekly magazines, Public Opinion and Current OpinionBoldface emphasis mine throughout.

During those anxious weeks of late June and early July of this summer when the eyes of the whole world were following the fruitless search for Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Frank [sic]Noonan, the name of Howland Island often appeared in the newspapers.  To the average newspaper reader, it was vaguely “one of those islands in the Pacific.”

The Government House on Howland Island during the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project.  Photo taken Jan. 23, 1937.

This pinpoint in the Pacific — this Lima bean of an island in the Largest of oceans — has a story as bizarre, as adventurous, as ironic, as contradictory as anything in the early novels of H. G. Wells.  Imagine a sandpit a mile and a half long and half a mile wide, nowhere more than fifteen feet above sea level, and frequently hidden in the surf’s white foam, almost directly on the Equator, nearly 2,000 miles south of Honolulu and 2.400 miles from New Zealand, with nothing but guano, birds, pigweed, rats, burning sun — and the best runways and approaches of any landing field in the world!

The history of Howland Island is brief.  In fact, as far as its present importance goes, it may be said to be only a little more than two years old.  For it was two years ago that the United States Department of Commerce took formal possession of Howland Island, together with two other tiny Pacific islands — Baker Island, forty miles to the south across the equator, and Jarvis Island, more than one thousand miles to the east.  Howland and Baker Islands lie not only almost exactly on the Equator, but are close to the International Date Line meridian.

It is true.  Howland Island was known before as a rich source of guano.  In 1842, Captain George E. Necker of New Bedford, searching for guano deposits, came upon Howland Island and reported its existence, and for thirty some years afterwards the island was visited, much to the annoyance of the thousands of birds — booby, frigate, and tern — that breed there, for its profitable, if unsavory yield.  With the decline of this industry, due to more efficient means of producing fertilizer, interest in the island died and only a few rough graves are left to mark where New England seamen used to land.

With the development of air commerce, however, the situation of Howland Island on a direct air route between Hawaii and Australia, and possibly between the United States and New Zealand, became obvious to both England and the United States, and almost simultaneously the two countries raced to get possession of the tiny scraps of sand and coral as a base for air commerce or national defense — or both.  The United States won the race (by a few days) and in April 1935, the US. Coast Guard Cutter ltasca slipped down from Honolulu to land colonists on each of the three line islands— Howland, Baker and Jarvis.  The colonists were boys from the Kamehameha School in Hawaii — four boys to each island — and their job was to take and keep possession for the United States.  Since then relays of Hawaiian schoolboys have lived there, making meteorological observations and maintaining title for the United States.  The first expedition was kept secret, and not until nearly eight months later did the news leak out that the three little islands had been colonized and were undisputedly American territory.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane (earlier known as the USCGC William J. Duane) was a cutter in the U.S. Coast Guard.  Her keel was laid on May 1, 1935 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Philadelphia, Penn.  She was launched on June 3, 1936 as a search and rescue and law enforcement vessel.  After fitting out, she departed the Philadelphia Navy Yard on October 16, 1936 and arrived at Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 24.  She was then assigned to temporary duty in Honolulu, and arrived there on December 9, 1936, to participate in the U.S. colonization efforts of the Line Islands in the Pacific.

On the thirteenth of May in the following year, Howland, Baker and Jarvis islands were placed under the Department of the Interior: a few weeks later, an appropriation was made for their administration, and on Jan. 8, 1937, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter William J. Duane sailed from Honolulu equipped with men and materials to build an airport on Howland Island under the direction of Robert L. Campbell, the airport expert of the Bureau of Air Commerce.

The expedition was one of those rarities — a triumph of inter-departmental cooperation.  From the Army came Captain H. A. Meyer, Procurement Officer, and Lieutenant Charles F. Brown, Air Corps Observer, together with several others.  From the Navy came Lieutenant Charles L. Lee and David H. Ellsworth, Naval Photographer.  The Department of the Interior contributed You Fai Lure and Bak Sung Kim, student aerologists and radio operators, and laborers as well.

The Department of the Interior, the Army Air Corps, the Navy, and the Works Progress Administration in Hawaii supplied the materials, which included two five-ton tractors, a farm-type harrow, a concrete and steel roller, matlocks, axes, plows, cane knives, a field kitchen, flood lamps, radio transmitting and receiving apparatus, and food and water, together with many other items.

The appalling hazards of the job ahead began with the problem of landing.  There is nothing resembling a harbor at Howland Island, and there are plenty of jagged reefs and heavy swells.  A large boat can’t get within a quarter of a mile of the place.  Small boats and pontoons are the only means of getting ashore. It requires little imagination to picture the difficulties of surf-riding a tractor-laden pontoon without mishap.  Further complications presented by this remarkably inhospitable isle are the poisonous sea urchins, seaweed, and coral that infest its waters, scars from which many members of the crew will carry for the rest of their lives.

Howland itself is a kind of nightmare.  A rim that is six to eight feet higher than the center makes the island into an oblong bowl of sandy soil with outcroppings of coral and everywhere malodorous mounds of guano.  (Thirty thousand tons of it is the estimate, which is a large amount for a space that is half a mile by a mile and a half!)  The only native vegetation is pigweed, a tough coarse plant, and a few stunted leafless kou trees, although the colonists have planted a few trees.  Wildlife is represented by thousands of birds that continually do fly in great clouds by night as well as by day.  These birds, incidentally, present the greatest danger to the aviator because of their vast numbers and the fact that they are constantly on the wing.  The only way to disperse them is by shotgun fire.

A look at the teeming wildlife on Howland Island, so overpopulated with “10,000 frigates, 8,000 boobies (albatrosses), and 14,000 terns,” according to Army Lt. Daniel A. Cooper, writing in July 1937, that many doubted that Amelia Earhart really intended to land there when she disappeared on July 2, 1937.

Two harmless reptiles, the Gecko lizard and the snake-eyed skink, cause little trouble — but the rats!  The loathsome creatures swarm over the island, literally by the thousands.  Five hundred to a thousand rats a night were killed by the crew in the following ingenious manner: An oil drum was sunk into the ground, half filled with water with a liberal sprinkling of cracker crumbs, and by morning it was filled to the top with drowned rats.  An appetizing before breakfast ceremony was the pouring of a libation of gasoline over the whole business and setting fire to it.  But in spite of this wholesale slaughter there were always more rats.  They were everywhere.  More than once a man woke up at night to find a rat on his face, licking his lips for particles of food.

To add to the horrors of the working conditions, the smell from the guano was ever present — an intolerable stench made even worse by the tropical sun.  Moreover, the guano dust was so poisonous that men had to bathe several times a day prevent dangerous boils.  No rain lays this dust or cools the parched earth, for a strange phenomenon of the island is its lack of rainfall in a region where one would expect rain almost daily.  Observers say that rain squalls approaching the island split in two before they reach it, and rain will be seen beating on the ocean on all sides while none falls on the island itself.  The only explanation offered for this eccentricity is that possibly it is caused by a column of heated air rising from the hot sand.

Despite the savage natural handicaps of the place, there is some slight evidence of South Sea Islander occupation.  There are marks of digging and remains of low flat mounds which may have been the foundations for primitive huts.  Traces of footpaths remain, and in 1862 fragments of a canoe, a few bits of bamboo, a blue bead, and a human skeleton were discovered — all that was left to tell of a lonely tragedy.

The waters surrounding Howland Island abound not only with poisonous seaweed and coral, but with edible tropical fish which can be caught with spears.  It is clear, however, that without proper equipment, life could not be supported there more than a day or two.  The heat, the tack of water, and the ferocious rats are a deadly triumvirate.

The three runways built in the face of such formidable handicaps were made of guano, sand and coral. These materials, packed hard, have all the characteristics of pavement.  One runway is 5,200 feet long, another is 3.023 feet long, and a third measures 2,439 feet.  Each of them is 150 feet wide.  Fifteen thousand cubic feet of soil had to be moved in the course of the construction.

The small lighthouse was also built in 1937 but was doomed to a short life.  Sadly, history had other plans for Earhart, and she never reached the island. It is thought that she most likely crashed in the waters just north of Howland Island.  The island’s short history as a settled colony ended with heavy bombing from Japanese aircraft during WWII.  The station has been inactive since 1942 – the structure is now considered a “day beacon.”  The island is now a national wildlife refuge.

Ironically enough, the airport was rushed to completion in order that Amelia Earhart might land on it in the course of what proved to be, tragically, her last flight.  She was scheduled to reach Howland in March, but after her crack-up in Honolulu she changed her route and flew the other way around the island.  The very person for whom the airport was finished under such hardships never reached it.

Howland Island was linked with Miss Earhart’s name some months later when it was the center of the seventeen-day search for the lost fliers conducted by planes and ships of the United States Navy.  During that time four thousand men had an opportunity to familiarize themselves with nearly a quarter of a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, vast areas of which had never before been flown over by naval planes.

If it seems odd to think that only land planes can land on this ocean airport, you are reminded that there are strong arguments in-favor of fast land planes instead of the heavier and slower sea planes for a possible air service to the Antipodes — one of the strongest arguments being the lack of possible airports for refueling en route.  To be sure Pan American uses giant amphibians on her Honolulu to Manila route, but the mid-ocean airports along the way, on Midway and Wake lands, are very different affairs from what might be done on the line islands.  Midway and Wake both have central lagoons of sheltered water in which flying boats can land, but no seaplane could come to rest in the savage surf that beats on Howland, Baker and Jarvis.

Meanwhile these three steppingstones — neglected for years, and now, suddenly, solicitously cherished by the United States — stand waiting.  Whether or not they will ever prove practical as airports is still problematical.  (Two of them — Howland and Baker — are so near each other that there seems little chance that both would be needed.)  It may be that their ancient inhabitants, the birds, will prove too deadly a hazard for propellers’ whirling blades.  Perhaps their tiny size will ever render them too difficult as targets.  (End of “The Story of Howland Island: by the Literary Digest, September 18, 1937.”)

Among the great ironies of the Earhart saga is that Amelia’s failure to find Howland Island ended the U.S. military’s hopes that the three islands could be used for retaliatory or reconnaissance purposes . . . and the crisscrossing Howland runways again became a refuge for birds, Fred Goerner wrote in The Search for Amelia Earhart“The abandonment of the islands as possible air bases was only one of the prices military aviation paid prior to the war for the loss of Amelia and Fred.  When the Army attempted to demonstrate that land planes could fly over great stretches of ocean to bomb a target or accomplish photo-reconnaissance missions, skeptics pointed to the Howland Island failure.  Whether or not Jarvis, Baker, and Howland could have provided a striking force sufficient to hamper the Japanese will never been known.

A cruel postscript came four years later, when, after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese land-based warplanes bombed the runways and strafed the lighthouse at Howland, killing or wounding several Hawaiian personnel assigned there.  On the lighthouse, a plaque honoring Amelia was shattered by Japanese machine-gun bullets.

No aircraft has ever landed on Howland, and all attempts at habitation were abandoned after 1944, according to Wikipedia.

Rafford and Horner on the bogus Howland log

Today we take a look at the Howland Island radio log through the eyes of two of history’s most accomplished and respected Earhart researchers, Paul Rafford Jr. and Dave Horner.  The questions raised by the multiple discrepancies between the two sets of radio logs associated with the Earhart flight, the radio room of the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca and the one kept on Howland Island, are disturbing to say the least, and open doors to a wide range of justifiable speculation about what was really going on during those critical hours in the morning of July 2, 1937.  

The following article appeared in the March 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.  Boldface and italic emphasis mine unless noted. 

“The Cipriani/Howland Island Radio Log: Fact or Fiction?”
by Paul Rafford Jr., Jan. 25, 1998

In 1994, while looking for a friend’s address in the Radio Amateur Call Book, former Naval Officer and retired radio engineer John P. Riley suddenly caught sight of a familiar name, Yau Fai Lum.  This had been the name of the radio operator on Howland Island during Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated flight.  Could the Yau Fai Lum listed in the call book be the same one? — He was!  And as a result, John’s discovery set in motion an exchange of correspondence with Lum that now challenges the credibility of the Coast Guard’s Earhart files.

Howland was one of the Pacific islands occupied by the United States during the 1930s using civilian personnel under contract to the Department of Interior.  In addition to sustaining America’s claim to the islands, the colonists collected weather information and radioed it to Honolulu.  In order to keep expenses to a minimum, the Department used adventurous young amateur radio operators and their equipment to man the weather network, rather than professionals.

Yau Fai Lum, undated.  Courtesy of Paul Rafford Jr.

By chance, three of these radio operators were on Howland at the time Earhart was to arrive.  Yau Fai Lum was the operator assigned to Howland, while Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau were traveling aboard the Itasca, en route either to or from their assignments on Baker and Jarvis.  They were sent ashore to help prepare for Earhart’s arrival.  [Coast Guard] Radioman [2nd Class] Frank Cipriani, ashore from the Itasca, was assigned to operate the high frequency direction finder.

According to the Itasca’s report and radio logs, after the ship departed in search of Earhart, Cipriani, Leong, and Lau remained on the island with Lum.  Under Cipriani’s direction, they would maintain a watch on her frequencies and use the direction finder to obtain bearings, if possible.  Except during periods of battery charging, contact would be made with the Itasca every few hours.

Copies of the Howland radio log, allegedly kept by Cipriani and the Interior Department radio operators, can be found in the National Archives.  The entries reflect bona fide activities that would be expected to occur, such as watch changes, battery charging periods, attempts at direction finding, and exchanges of communication with the Itasca.  However, there is one obvious error.  Items that we know happened on July 2 carried a July 3 dateline.

After locating Lum, Riley exchanged correspondence with him for several months. Although suffering from the infirmities of old age, Lum’s mind was clear and memory good.  But, to Riley’s amazement, he completely denied having taken any part in keeping radio watches for Cipriani.  In fact, Lum denied ever having met him.

When Riley pointed out his difficulty in believing that the two men could have lived together on Howland for two weeks without meeting, Lum emphatically declared that Cipriani had not been on the island during that period.  But he did not deny that Cipriani could have been on the island for brief periods before Earhart’s disappearance.  He pointed out that any work Cipriani did would have been in the Coast Guard’s own radio shack, some distance from Lum’s station at Government House.  He writes, “I did not interfere with their duties and stayed out of the way.”

A close-up look at the Howland Island camp, taken Jan. 23, 1937, that was equipped with a shower for Amelia Earhart that she never enjoyed.  The Coast Guard built an outdoor shower with water supplied by a 50 gallon drum mounted on top of a 10-foot-high platform.  (National Archives.)

Henry Lau was now deceased, but Lum was able to put Riley in touch with Leong. He verified what Lum had claimed, and wrote the following:

Sept. 4, 1994
“No idea who wrote the false log.  I stand no radio watch on Howland IslandCipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”

By law, radio operators must sign their names when going on and off watch. However, Lum’s first name, Yau, is repeatedly misspelled ’Yat’.  His comment is, “If I really wrote that log, how come I misspelled my own name?”

If, as it appears, the Howland log is a fraud, then what about the authenticity of the Itasca’s log?  In order to check it, those entries in the Howland log referring to contacts with the Itasca were compared with the Itasca’s log entries.  In nearly all cases where the Howland log indicates a contact with the Itasca, there is a corresponding entry in the Itasca’s log.  So, if the Howland log is a forgery, then at least some of the entries in the Itasca’s log are forgeries.

Sixty years later, which are we to believe: the word of two old gentlemen who have no reason to bear false witness: — or our Government’s questionable records?  I prefer to believe the two elderly gentlemen.

But, we must question, if the log is false why would our Government have engaged in such a surreptitious effort to make it appear that Earhart’s frequency was monitored with a direction finder on Howland for ten days after her disappearance?  But if true, why classify it for 25 years?  (End of Rafford’s comments.  Rafford passed away in December 2016 at 97.)

Even more comprehensively than Rafford, Dave Horner, and author and former AES member who’s still with us, examines this complex situation and devotes his entire Chapter 6, “The Howland Direction Finder,” in his fine 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma (Pelican Publishing Co.), to a comprehensive look at the Howland Island direction finder, the personnel assigned to Howland Island and the serious questions the phony Howland Island radio log raised and continues to raise about Earhart’s final flight.  

“Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?”  Radio room of USCG Cutter Tahoe, sister ship to Itasca, circa 1937.  Three radio logs were maintained during the flight, at positions 1 and 2 in the Itasca radio room, and one on Howland Island, where the Navy’s high-frequency direction finder had been set up.  Aboard Itasca, Chief Radioman Leo G. Bellarts supervised Gilbert E. Thompson, Thomas J. O’Hare and William L. Galten, all third-class radiomen, (meaning they were qualified and “rated” to perform their jobs).  Many years later, Galten told Paul Rafford Jr., a former Pan Am Radio flight officer, “That woman never intended to land on Howland Island.”

In his wide-ranging chapter, Horner expands on the information Rafford referenced in his AES Newsletters story from radio propagation expert John P. Riley Jr.’s 2000 story, The Earhart Tragedy: Old Mystery, New Hypothesis,which appeared in the August 2000 issue of Naval History Magazine (available by subscription only).  Other sources Horner cites are 1994 and 1995 letters from Yau Fai Lum to John Riley, and Rafford himself.  None of it puts Cmdr. Warner Thompson in a favorable light.

Horner begins this lengthy, complex chapter by stating that the “July 29 [actually July 19] 1937 report “Earhart Flight” [Radio transcripts, Earhart flight] by Cmdr. Warner K. Thompson, Itasca’s commanding officer “raised more questions than it answered.” 

This is a huge understatement, and the confusing situation among personnel on Howland Island, as well as the capabilities of the direction finder placed there to assist in helping Earhart find a safe landing on Howland, doesn’t easily lend itself to a complete treatment here, given the limitations of this blog and its editor, who has never possessed or claimed any significant degree of technical acumen. 

Unlike some, Horner held Rafford in some esteem, calling the former NASA specialist “always a gentleman,” and drew from his work throughout Chapter 6 of The Earhart Enigma.

This whole affair of the Howland DF log didn’t get messy until Yau Fai Lum claimed years later that Cipriani did not remain on Howland but returned to the ship,”  Horner wrote.  All of this surfaced in the early 1990s, when Lum told Earhart researcher and author Paul Rafford and John Riley, both contemporary radio experts, that he had never even met Cipriani.”  Horner continued:

Rafford was stunned.  “Never met Cipriani?  According to the log of the Itasca you were on that flyspeck of an island for over two weeks with him.  How could you possibly not have met him in all of that time?”

Lum responded directly and to the point.  Cipriani was only on Howland Island the evening before and early morning of Earhart’s anticipated arrival.

. . . Rafford continued his questions of Lum:  There are daily direction finding reports written until the search was over.  Your name is there, along with Cipriani’s. [Ah Kin] Leong, and [Henry] Lau.  You all stood FD watches.  Your name is right there in black and white!  How can you deny this?

Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the radio team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca during the final flight of Amelia Earhart.  He has said that “One or two things should never be published as long as anyone on the Itasca remains alive.”  

Lum illustrated this disparity with one immeasurable comment: If I signed or typed the log, how could I misspell my own name?  Yat instead of Yau [Italics Horner’s.]  Our names as well as our call signs are typed, not signed by us.  It is a counterfeit!”

Horner called the above an almost unbelievable development.  The Itasca report from Commander Thompson placed Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau ashore on Howland Island in order to assist Cipriani staff the high-frequency DF.  But Lum asserted, ‘That is a false report, full of –.’ ”  Lum explained that neither he nor any of the radio operators on Howland were trained or capable of operating the high frequency direction finder — Cipriani was the only one there who was trained to operative the HF/DF. 

All this should be disturbing to anyone who has put any faith in the official Itasca Radio Logs, Itasca Cruise Report or “Radio transcripts, Earhart flight,all of which were produced by or under the auspices and responsibility of Cmdr. Thompson.  

Big questions have never been answered, to wit: Who tampered with the Itasca and Howland Island logs, and why?  Just as disturbingly, what other changes were made to the Itasca and Howland logs — what might have been added, subtracted or in any way made to misrepresent the truth about Earhart’s final flight and the hours immediately after her last message at 0843 Howland Island time?

See my March 31, 2015 post, Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?as you further consider what really occurred in the final hours of the Earhart flight, as well as how and why these strange, irregular occurrences have affected the entire official face of the Earhart disappearance. 

In a 1973 interview with crashed-and-sank author Elgen Long, former Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts said, “One or two things should never be published as long as anyone on the Itasca remains alive.”  What could Bellarts have meant?

For anyone who’s interested in further studying the Howland Island direction finder and all that it entailed, I strongly recommend The Earhart Enigma, available in used, inexpensive copies on Amazon, as well as new. 

Rafford’s questions about Earhart comms conclusion

We continue with the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s Amelia Earhart – Some Unanswered Questions About Her Radio Communication and Direction Finding”  This analysis appeared in the September 1993 issue of the AES Newsletters.  Boldface emphasis mine throughout; underline emphasis in original AES Newsletters version.

Amelia Earhart – Some Unanswered Questions About Her Radio Communication and Direction Finding”  (Part II of two.)
by Paul Rafford Jr.

June 22, 1993

Why was the Howland direction finder never able to get bearings on Earhart?

The reasons here are several fold.  Primarily, it was because Earhart never stayed on the air long enough for an operator to take a bearing.  But, even if she had stayed on longer, the combination of her low transmitting power with the inadequacy of the jerry-rigged aircraft DF on Howland, would have limited its range to less than 50 miles.  In other words, on a clear day she could have seen the island before the island could have taken a bearing on her.

The questions that arise out of this fiasco are:

1) Why did whoever organized the project of setting up the direction finder on Howland not know of its extreme limitation?

2) Why did Earhart, supposedly a consultant to the government on airborne direction finders, never stay on the air more than seven or eight seconds?

Why did Earhart ask for 7500 kHz [kilohertz] in order to take bearings on the Itasca, considering it could not be used with her direction finder?

The Coast Guard Cutter Itasca was anchored off Howland Island on July 2, 1937 to help Amelia Earhart find the island and land safely at the airstrip that had been prepared there for her Lockheed Electra 10E.

Supposedly, “7500” came about through Earhart’s ignorance of the two different designations for radio channels.  It has been theorized that she confused 750.0 meters with 7500 kHz.  Of course, 750.0 meters is 400 kHz, a bona fide beacon frequency, while 7500 kHz is 40 meters.

It would appear that not only did she get meters and kilocycles mixed up but she overlooked the decimal point.

Bob Lieson, a former co-worker of mine had done a stint on Howland Island as radio operator shortly after Earhart’s disappearance.  I asked him if the Itasca might have used 7500 kHz for any other purpose than to send dashes for Earhart. Oh yes, he replied, “We used 40 meters for contact with the Coast Guard cutters when they were standing off shore.”

This brings up two questions:

1) Could it have been that Earhart was not confusing meters and kilocycles but knew ahead of time that 7500 kHz was the Itasca’s link with Howland so would be available on call?

2) Why would Noonan, both a navigator and radio operator, let Earhart make the potentially fatal mistake of trying to take bearings on 7500?

Coast Guard Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts led the radio team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca during the final flight of Amelia Earhart.

Why did Earhart not seize on the one occasion where she heard the Itasca and knew it was hearing her, to try and establish communication with the crew?

This is the most incredible part of the Earhart saga.  At 1928 GMT she announced, Go ahead on 7500 kilocycles.”  Then, at 1933 GMT she announced, We received your signal but unable to get a minimum.”  Supposedly, she is hopelessly lost and about to run out of gas.  Now, after searching for Howland for over an hour, for the first time she is hearing the Itasca and knows the ship is hearing her.  Does she breathe a giant sigh of relief because she has finally made contact with the crew?  Of course they are using code but Noonan is a radio operator and can copy code while replying to the ship by voice on 3105 kHz.

No!  Instead of desperately trying to keep in contact, Earhart is not heard from for over forty minutes.  When she returns to the air it is only to make one brief, last transmission.  She declares she is flying north and south on a line of position 157-337 and will switch to 6210.  The Itasca never hears her again.

The Mysterious Post-Flight Radio Transmissions

What was the source or sources of the mysterious signals heard on Earhart’s frequencies that began just hours after her disappearance and lasted for several days?

During the hours and days immediately following Earhart’s disappearance, various listeners around the Pacific heard mysterious signals on her frequencies.

Ten hours after the Itasca last heard her, the crew of the HMS Achilles intercepted an exchange of signals between a radiotelephone station and a radiotelegraph station on 3105 khz.  The telephone station requested, “Give us a few dashes if you get us.”  The telegraph station replied with several long dashes.  The telephone station then announced, “KHAQQ, KHAQQ.”  (Earhart’s call letters).

Believing they were hearing the plane safely down somewhere, the Achilles sent the U.S. Navy a message to that effect.  However, in its reply, the Navy denied this possibility.

Two hours later, Nauru Island heard the highly distorted voice of a woman calling on 6210 khz.  They reported that, although they could not understand the words, the voice sounded similar to Earhart’s when she had passed by the island the night before.  However, this time there was “– no hum of engines in the background.”

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

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Karl Pierson and a group of his radio engineering colleagues set up a listening watch on Earhart’s frequencies.  During the early morning hours of July 3rd, they heard SOS calls on 6210 kHz both voice and telegraph.  Of particular interest was the fact that the voice was a woman’s.  However, neither call included enough information to identify the plane’s position or status.

The Pan Am stations at Wake, Midway and Honolulu managed to pick up a number of weak, unstable radio signals on Earhart’s frequencies and take a few bearings.  But, the stations never identified themselves or transmitted any useful information.

Despite his failure to get bearings earlier, the Howland operator got a bearing on a fairly strong station shortly after midnight on July 5th.  It indicated the transmitter was either north northwest or south southeast of Howland.  But, again there was no identification or useful information from the station.

The question that arises here is, were the distress calls heard by Karl Pierson and his group authentic?  If they were, why did the calls not include more information?  If they were not, who would have sent them and why?

Earhart’s “post-loss messages”: Real or fantasy?and Experts weigh in on Earhart’s “post-loss” messages.”

Paul Rafford’s “Howland Island Fly-By”: Phase I

We return to the work of the late Paul Rafford Jr., the last survivor of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society of Researchers, who passed away on Dec. 10, 2016 at 97.  (Boldface emphasis mine throughout.)

Readers of this blog are familiar with Rafford’s fascinating work.  His public introduction came in Vincent V. Loomis’ 1985 bookAmelia Earhart: The Final Story, in which he discussed his current ideas about the Electra’s radio capabilities and Amelia’s bizarre actions during the final flight.  Rafford’s 2006 book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, wasn’t a commercial success, but presents invaluable information unavailable anywhere else.

I’ve written three lengthy pieces that brought new focus on his important contributions to the modern search for Amelia Earhart: “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change : Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga; “Rafford’s ‘Earhart Deception’ presents intriguing possibilities; and Rafford’s ‘Enigma’ brings true mystery into focus: What was Earhart really doing in final hours?

Paul Rafford Jr., circa early 1940s, who worked at Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, was among the foremost experts on radio transmission capabilities during the late 1930s.

Prymak’s interview of Rafford about his “Howland Island Fly-By theory appeared in the March 1992 issue of the AES Newsletters, and was presented in two parts, Phase I and Phase II.  Following is Phase I, presented nearly exactly as it appeared in the original, with photos added by this editor.  Prymak is designated as “AES” throughout, Rafford’s answers are designated simply as “A.”

Phase I of the question-and-answer interview was preceded by the following biographical information.

Paul Rafford Jr.: THE MAN

In 1940, Paul Rafford Jr. joined Pan Am as a Flight Radio Officer on the flying boat Clippers.  As a result, he is well acquainted with the radio equipment and operating procedures of the Earhart era.  After joining the company he met Pan Am people and others who either knew Earhart and Noonan or had a part in their flight preparations.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, under Pan Am’s contract with the Air Force, he worked as a Communications Manager on the Astronaut Recovery Team.  His specialty was the analysis and forecasting of radio communication with the ships and planes supporting the astronaut landings.

It was while at his console in Mission Control that he became impressed with the parallels between the Navy’s astronaut search and recovery operations in the mid-Pacific and its vast search for Amelia Earhart in the same area thirty years before.  As a result, he decided to apply space-age, computer aided investigative techniques to the problem of tracking down Earhart’s whereabouts when last heard from.

In the following question and answer session he presents his theory that Earhart may never have come anywhere near Howland Island.  Instead, what the Itasca’s crew really heard were recordings of her voice made weeks beforehand, transmitted by a Navy plane to simulate her supposed efforts to find it.



The theory presented herein represents
a major digression from the commonly
held belief that Earhart was in the vicinity
of Howland Island when her voice
was last heard on the air.

It proposes that the radio calls intercepted
by the Itasca were actually recorded
by Earhart before she left the
United States, to be played back at the
appropriate time later on by another

Paul Rafford Jr.
December 7, 1991


Bill Prymak, a veteran pilot with more than 6,500 hours in private aircraft since 1960, interviewed Paul Rafford Jr. for this article.  Prymak and Rafford were among the most significant contributors to the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, but Rafford’s “Howland Island Fly-By,” while still retaining the Marshall Island-Saipan truth, is perhaps the most unique of all the alternative scenarios proposed by researchers.



AES – So, you now suggest that Earhart never flew anywhere near Howland Island and you doubt that she ever intended to land there?

A – Yes, and I quote my friend Bill Galten, radio operator aboard the Itasca standing off shore, “That woman never intended to land on Howland.”

AES – But, don’t the Itasca’s logs contradict this?

A – No.  If you study the logs carefully you will note that Earhart never called the Itasca directly or replied to any of its many calls.  Her method of operating as observed by the ship was to suddenly come on the air for seven or eight seconds with a brief message.  Then, she would be silent for anywhere up to a half hour or more before breaking in with another message.

The Itasca’s report states that two-way contact was never established.  All of the transmissions received by the ship could have been recorded weeks beforehand for playback by another plane.  It could just as well have been a PBY flying out of Canton Island.

AES – How were the recordings played back to make them sound authentic?

A – By following a carefully planned script.  On my chart, THE SIMULATED HOWLAND ISLAND FLY-BY, I show the flight track I propose the PBY would have followed.  At 1415, 1515 and 1623 GMT, the plane could have transmitted the first three recordings while sitting on the lagoon at Canton.  They would simulate Earhart approaching Howland before sunrise.  Then, at dawn the PBY could have taken off and headed toward Howland, transmitting the remainder of the recordings as directed by the script.

AES – But, the year was 1937 and PBYs didn’t carry radiotelephone?

A – True, but small, low power radio telephone transmitters for short distance communication by aircraft were available.  I particularly remember the ten watt model we carried on the Pan Am flying boat Clippers.  It would have been ideal for the Earhart fly-by simulation.  The operator would simply start the playback machine and hold the radio mike up to the earphone to transmit the recordings.

AES – But, weren’t recording and playback equipment very primitive and bulky back then?

A – By modern standards yes, but not too bulky or primitive to be operated aboard a PBY.

AES – What evidence do you have that Canton Island might have been used as the base for the PBY that transmitted the Howland Island fly-by messages?

A look at the teeming wildlife on Howland Island, so overpopulated with “10,000 frigates, 8,000 boobies (albatrosses), and 14,000 terns,” according to Army Lt. Daniel A. Cooper, writing in July 1937, that many doubted that Amelia Earhart really intended to land there when she disappeared on July 2, 1937.

A – We know that the Navy had hosted a scientific party to observe a solar eclipse on Canton a month before Earhart’s flight.  Aviation fuel, a radio station and supplies could have been left behind for the PBY operation.

AES – Isn’t there an exception to your claim that Earhart never replied to any of the Itasca’s calls?  What about her request for the ship to transmit on 7500 kilocycles followed five minutes later by her statement that she had received the signal but was unable to get a bearing?

A – This apparent exchange of communication between the plane and ship could have been planned well in advance by the mission script writers.  Earhart would request 7500 khz from the Itasca.  Then, five minutes later she would announce that she had tuned it in but was unable to get a bearing.  This would later explain to investigators why she could not find Howland.

AES – But, suppose the Itasca had not been able to come up on 7500, what would the PBY crew have done then?

A – They could have substituted another recording in which Earhart would be heard saying that she was unable to pick up the ship.  However, it didn’t matter either way because the end result would be the same.  Earhart’s failure to find Howland would be blamed on radio navigation.

Incidentally, no aircraft direction finder can take a bearing on 7500 khz.  The Itasca’s crew knew this but without two-way communication with Earhart could not point out her supposed mistake and suggest a frequency where she could get bearings.

Today, we have every reason to believe that Earhart must have known that she couldn’t get a bearing on 7500 khz.  Previously, she had been an adviser to the government on aircraft direction finders.  Then, just prior to her departure from Lae, Harry Balfour, the local radio operator, had reviewed the operation of her d/f with her, particularly with reference to taking bearings on ships.

AES – Wouldn’t Noonan have known that she couldn’t take bearings on 7500?

A – Definitely!  We radio operators worked very closely with our navigators back then and they knew what could or could not be done using radio direction finders.

This was the official flight plan, 2,556 statute miles from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island.  The 337-157 line of position, or sun line, passed through the Phoenix Islands, near Gardner Island, now known as Nikumaroro, and the popular theory, though completely false, is in part attributable to this phenomena.

Playing a recording of Earhart asking for that frequency was just a ploy to make it appear to the Coast Guard that she was ignorant about the basics of radio navigation.  What better way to explain why she got lost?

AES – But later, wouldn’t some of Earhart’s aviator friends have pointed out that she very well knew she couldn’t get bearings on 7500 khz?

A – Yes.  And I believe that this is one of the reasons why the logs and search report had to be classified for 25 years.

AES – What about the Howland Island direction finder, it never got a bearing either.  What went wrong there?

A – The Howland direction finder was still another ploy to make it appear that Earhart’s failure to find Howland was due to radio navigation.  The unit was an aircraft model, specially modified to take bearings on 3105 khz while Earhart was supposedly approaching the island.  Its range was very limited, particularly when taking bearings on airplanes using fixed antennas.  However, to further ensure that Howland couldn’t get a bearing, transmission from the plane never lasted more than seven or eight seconds, far too short for an operator to get a bearing.

AES – Why was it important for Howland not to get bearings on the plane?

A – Because they would have shown it to be approaching from the southeast and not from the west.  This would have been a dead giveaway that the plane was not Earhart’s.

AES – Why was it necessary for Earhart to appear to get lost?

A – To touch off one of the world’s greatest air/sea searches.  It would give the Navy an opportunity to make a vast survey of the Central Pacific, an area where the latitudes and longitudes of some of the islands had not been corrected on its charts since the early explorers first stumbled across them.

The storm clouds of World War II were fast gathering and our government needed all the intelligence information it could get.  The searches would also give the Navy an opportunity to exercise its forces in an urgent, war-like situation without upsetting powerful pacifist groups in the U.S.

AES – Where would she finally be found?

A – Probably on some secluded island but not before the Navy had completed its survey.  (End of Phase I.)

As is evident in the foregoing, Paul Rafford developed a unique, full-blown “Earhart Deception” theory, that’s compelling in its concept, execution and audacity.  In our next post, Bill Prymak’s interview with Rafford will continue with Phase II of the “Howland Island Fly-By.”

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