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 she 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?
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?
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.”
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?
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 book, Amelia 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?”
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 AMELIA EARHART
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
“PHASE I — THE HOWLAND ISLAND FLY-BY”
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 – 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.
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.”
Today we begin where we left off — with the confusing concept (to most non-aviation types anyway, including your editor) of the “azimuth” and its application to the last flight of Amelia Earhart. Let’s take another look at the azimuth, as explained by our resident aviation expert, Calvin Pitts.
Calvin Pitts: It is easy to see why the non-navigator would find this Wikipedia drawing confusing. TRY THIS: Replace the N with E (for East). Go to the back of the picture 90 degrees on the horizontal plane beneath the word “Zenith,” and place the N.orth on the same plane as E.ast.
The Electra is flying East toward the rising sun. The direction from the “Observer” toward the E.ast, is 90 degrees from the N.orth on the horizontal plane.
On July 2, 1937, the crest of the sun broke above the eastern horizon at 6:15 Howland time. The Observer would be looking 23 degrees to his left when he first spots the sun at 67 degrees (90 – 23 = 67). That difference of 67 degrees from North (000 or 360) is called the “azimuth” on the horizon.
That azimuth, 67 degrees on the horizontal plane, is used to calculate a “sun line” overhead for navigational purposes. In this case, that imaginary “line” is perpendicular, or 90 degrees to the horizontal azimuth (90 + 67 = 157 or 157 + 180 = 337) (157/337 degrees) to an altitude overhead, and is called a “Line of Position (LOP).” That position defines the line on which the plane is flying, but it provides no “point” on that line. What it does is to define “directional” information, i.e. the plane is either flying NW or SE.
As the sun rises, it is moving toward the North on the horizontal plane. After 1+02 hours on that morning, it’s “azimuth” was now 66 degrees to the horizontal plane. There at that point, since there is no longer an azimuth of 67 degrees, correspondingly, there was no longer a 157/337 line of position. Since the azimuth changes, so does the LOP. It is now only an imaginary line. If the pilot chooses to fly a “heading” of 337 or 157 degrees, that’s fine. But to call it a “line of position” is a misnomer.
Hence, Earhart’s call at 8:43 a.m., 1.5 hrs after the 67 azimuth disappeared, referencing a “line of 157/337” confuses the ears which hear it. Did she mean a “line of position,” which no longer existed, or did she mean a “heading on an imaginary line running NW and SE”? No one can answer that question.
Unfortunately, the position she gave had no meaning for those on the cutter or elsewhere, because it failed to give the all-important reference point for computing her bearing. What the figures meant, and why they were incomplete, can only be guessed.”
(And there are some reasonable guesses available.)
An important point that should be noted is that the plane (sic) direction finder evidently was not working as well as it should for she could not cut in on the agreed frequencies.
“Agreed frequencies” was precisely the problem. There was no agreement, nor understanding of what those frequencies were meant to be. Earhart believed that she had made it clear through Richard Black and husband George Putnam, but somehow, somebody dropped the ball. Frequency incompatibility was the major problem on this leg of the flight.
Another fact that is perhaps of significance is that when Miss Earhart reported half-hour fuel — the Itasca estimated that she should have about four hours’ fuel supply.
Itasca had it right in that she had four to five hours of “contingency fuel” remaining.
It is probable that she barely had gas enough to reach Howland, although she thought she was there at 11:20 a.m. (wrong time) when she circled (wrong assumption) trying to pick up land.
Calvin: After studying, not just reading this book, Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday: The Facts Without the Fiction, I am of the opinion it should be renamed with a subtitle: “The Facts are exceeded only by the Fiction.” It is literally filled with non-facts, a statement which can be substantiated by evidence. Other than its fiction, its facts are interesting and well-written. But by the time you wade through its fiction, you begin to wonder about its facts.
Conclusive proof then exists that the Earhart plane landed safely, or at least that its occupants and its radio apparatus were unharmed, somewhere on land in the South Pacific. If on an island, where and why were they not found?
There is proof that the Electra contacted the coral-covered ground without death to the crew. There is reasonable cause to believe that they made one or more radio calls while the battery still lasted. But more importantly, there is “conclusive proof” that we have known the why and the where for longer than the public has been led to believe.
There are two schools of thought about the disappearance of the Earhart plane. Each cannot be right.
Indeed, they are not. No greater misrepresentation could be made. There may be only two “elementary-schools” of thought, but there are “university-schools” where thought is generated by factual evidence which is substantial for anyone who has been awakened to the biased agenda of the Establishment, which, more often than not, is the Government’s answer to undesirable truth.
One is that the plane was lost at sea. The other is represented by this memorandum.
As to the first, is it not perfectly natural that even those closest and among the most dear to the missing flyers, with the evidence of the Navy search of the sea close to Howland Island, would prefer to think that the flight had come to an end — to avoid the lifelong torture of a question in their minds? (Creating facts to avoid a painful reality? Is that the way history is recorded?) The facts (sic) as related have been to intrude such a question. No comfort, then, could come from, and the mind would seek to shut them out, in favor of the peace that comes from resignation (also known as self-deception).
In an effort to reconstruct what might have happened, let us review the possibilities. We know that the Earhart plane was lost. (To whom? A non-fact.) The navigation had gone wrong. It is likely, even, that it was hundreds of miles (Not likely. A non-fact.) from the sea area near Howland which the Navy searched, and from the Gilbert group.
With little gas left (Proof? A non-fact.) and after circling (a non-fact) the area beneath them, what would experienced fliers do? No doubt they had passed many islands on the course behind them. Any pilot, under the circumstances, probably would have gone back to one of them and landed, relying on their radio and on searching parties for rescue.
Not if she had a minor mission-agenda which precluded that. This “buried” fact is the subject of a possible later posting, “My Earhart Scenario.”
THAT RESCUE NEVER CAME BECAUSE NO ADEQUATE SEARCH HAS EVER BEEN MADE.
Compiled from notes and copied in August 1939. Recopied from original February 2, 1948. (End of E.H. Dimity’s “Grounds for Earhart Search.”)
Editor’s close to Part II: The study of the alleged Earhart post-loss messages is one fraught with endless speculation and individual interpretation, even by the real radio experts who have written and pronounced publicly on the topic. I have no expertise in this area, and so have no problem presenting others’ work as clearly and objectively as I can. The statements and opinions are those of E.H. Dimity, presented for your consideration, education and entertainment, and are not necessarily shared by the editor.
Calvin Pitts: The “post-loss messages” are an unnecessary cloud over an already-difficult story, which is challenging and exciting on its own merit without a venture into hoax-land. It is possible that one or two of those messages were valid, but to give them credibility-without-proof is to weaken the greater truth which can, and should be allowed to stand on its own legs. Distraction is precisely the thing that feeds the Government’s Establishment gorilla. Other than this, it was a privilege to read what someone had to say in 1939.
P.S. There is a CAVEAT here: This critique addresses the misstatements relating to the official Itasca crew logs of AE’s Lea-Howland flight. The log used here is presented as “official.” However, suppose a scenario like this: A crewman made a personal copy in the interest of preserving history. Reading it, he notices an omission which should have been included. Knowing that the weather was “Overcast” for an extended period, he adds this missing word for the sake of clarity. His motive is good, but he has just corrupted the official record. He should have noted this on his copy, but he did not. His well-intended corrupt copy now gets copied and passed on.
We can’t say such a thing did not happen. But to our knowledge, there is no evidence that it did. Thus, our comments are based upon this copy of the log that was used. Additionally, there were other intercepts of Earhart’s transmissions that were heard by stations like Nauru which were not heard by the Itasca. Any additional sources such as this must be added to the story, properly identified. There were weather reports, correspondence, personal conversations, and after-the-fact interviews of various “players.” While they cannot be part of the Itasca records, they are additional and sometimes useful material. (End of “Calvin Pitts weighs in.”)
“There had to have been a copy [of the logs available] before this because Dimity makes too many references to its times,” Calvin wrote in an email. “What did he use in 1939?”
“Was he writing from Hawaii using that time zone?” Calvin continued. “Some of his information is 3.5 hours off, some four hours, some 1.5 hours out of sync with other known events, and at least one time was accurate. The 3.5 hour discrepancy could be answered, perhaps by looking at the time differences between Howland and Hawaii. And then, at 7:42 a.m., he strangely gets the time accurate. The inconsistencies in the errors are bizarre. Even Paul Briand in 1960 made many references to the logs, with times and recorded events.
“These question aside, Dimity’s ‘all-over-the-map’ times need to be red-flagged. Where was he living in 1939 when he wrote this? And what were his sources? What was his professional career? Another interesting page in the Earhart Saga.”
Editor’s final close: First, I want express my deep thanks and appreciation to Calvin Pitts for his passion and selfless efforts, and for another significant contribution to the Earhart record. We are truly blessed to have him as a friend.
At the end of the day, it does appear that Dimity did not have the official logs of the Itasca to reference in his treatise, nor did Paul Briand Jr. in 1960. But when were they released? I can’t find any record of the Itasca flight logs’ public release except references to Leo Bellarts’ sons, Leo Jr. and Dave, turning over the three pages of his father’s original Earhart flight log in 1975. In a Sept. 1, 2008 article titled, “KHAQQ CALLING ITASCA . . . “ in Wings over Kansas, we find:
Chief Bellarts kept the first three pages of the Earhart Flight Log plus other messages and pertinent information under lock and key. Upon arriving at his homeport (San Diego, Calif.) Chief Bellarts removed these documents thinking that there would be some type of investigation by higher authority and he would be called to testify. But this never happened. Thus, these papers, including the three pages of the original Earhart Flight Log, remained in his possession until his death in 1974. His two sons, Leo Jr. and David Bellarts donated these papers and other items concerning Amelia Earhart in 1975 to the National Archives in Washington D.C.
To read the entire story, please click here.
Since Dimity never mentioned his sources for his numerous citations of the log entrees, and it seems he could not have had the official logs, he probably relied on many news reports and other sources from the original search in July 1937, which naturally would have been inaccurate and “all over the map,” as Calvin says. If anyone out there can shed some light on this little mystery — i.e. when were the official logs released, if not 1975? — please let us know.
With the recent publication of E.H. “Elmer” Dimity’s 1939 analysis of Amelia Earhart’s last flight, I’ve been gently reminded that, as an editor, I could have done a far better job of reviewing Dimity’s article. I’ve never been particularly drawn to the Itasca flight logs and have never claimed any expertise about them, as for me, they provide more confusion than clarity. But I can still proofread and compare times and statements attributed to them.
This I failed to do, in large part because I assumed that Bill Prymak, the editor of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, had done this already, before presenting Dimity’s work, or that Prymak would have made some kind of a disclaimer to accompany it. He did neither, and my own disclaimer following Part II, in light of Calvin Pitts’ stunning findings, should have been far more emphatic. I broke a journalism rule — never assume anything — that I’ve always done my best to obey, until now.
Regular readers of this blog are familiar with Calvin, best known for his 1981 world flight, when he and two co-pilots commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Wiley Post-Harold Gatty World Flight in 1931. The 1981 flight was sponsored in part by the Oklahoma Air & Space Museum to honor the Oklahoma aviator Post. Calvin has already graced us with his impressive five-part analysis of Amelia Earhart’s last flight. To review this extremely erudite work, please click here for Part I, from Aug. 18, 2018.
Our focus today is a striking example of a difficult exercise in attention to detail, and an object lesson in the old axiom, “Never assume anything.” We appreciate Calvin taking the time to set the record straight. With his learned disputation below, in addition to his previous contributions, Calvin has established himself as the reigning expert on the Itasca-Earhart flight logs, if not her entire final flight, at least in my opinion. Without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Calvin, who has many important things to tell us:
First, I want to thank Mike Campbell for his passion and dedication to The Amelia Story. SHE — and history — have had no better friend.
I also appreciate Mike’s ability to dig up “forgotten” history. As a lover of history’s great moments, I am always fascinated by the experiences of others. Also, as one who has made a 1981 RTW flight in a single-engine plane, passing over some of AE’s ’37 flight paths from — India – Singapore – Indonesia – Australia – New Guinea – Solomon Islands, Tarawa and within a few miles of Howland — I was drawn to this story, and to this blog’s record of it.
Recently, I was fascinated by the publishing of Dimity’s 1937-1939 insights into the details of AE’s flight. However, upon reading it, I spotted some errors. Ironically, I was at that very time re-studying the Itasca Logs as I re-lived some of the details and emotions of the most famous leg of any flight. I had the Itasca details in front of me as I read.
Because it is easy to unconsciously rewrite and revise the historical record, I felt an unwelcomed desire to share some errors which were in Dimity’s interesting account. I shared my thoughts privately with Mike, and he, in turn, asked me to make them public. I’ve had a long aviation career, and have no desire to add to it. At 85, I’m retired in a log house on a small river with more nature-sights than anyone could deserve. I’ve no yearning for controversy. But Mike asked, so here are some observations. If you spot errors in my response, please make them known. Only one set of words are sacred, but these at hand do not qualify.
Calvin Pitts’ analysis of:
“Grounds for a Possible Search for Amelia Earhart” (First of two parts)
by E.H. “Elmer” Dimity, August 1939
(Editor’s note: To make it easier to understand and track the narrative, Dimity’s words will be in red, Calvin Pitts’ in black, with boldface emphasis mine throughout.)
At 3:15 [a.m.] in the morning after her takeoff Miss Earhart broadcast “cloudy weather,” and again, an hour later, she told the Itasca that it was “overcast,” and asked the cutter to signal her on the hour and half hour.
I am sitting here reading Dimity’s Part II of the “Grounds for Earhart’s Search” with a copy of the Itasca LOGS on the screen in front of me. My challenges to Dimity’s reproduction of the Itasca Earhart flight logs are based, not upon prejudice, but upon the actual records compiled and copied from those 1937 Logs.
At 3:15 a.m. Howland time, times recorded by the crew of the Itasca, there is no such record of “cloudy weather.”
From position 2/Page 2: At 3:15 am, Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts records: “3:15-3:18, Nothing heard from Earhart.”
Position 1/Page 1: At 3:14 am, Thomas J. O’Hare, Radioman 3rd class records: “Tuned to 3105 for Earhart,” with no additional comment. Seven minutes later at 3:21 am, he records: “Earhart not heard.”
Position 2/Page 2: However, at 3:45 a.m., not 4:15 a.m., Bellarts records: “Earhart heard on the phone: WILL LISTEN ON THE HOUR AND HALF ON 3105.”
Position 1/Page 1: At the same time, 3:45 a.m., O’Hare records: “Heard Earhart plane on 3105.” That was it. No reference to “overcast,” and no request for a signal.
However, in his book, Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday (2003), Laurance Safford copies Bellarts’ statement, except that he adds the word “Overcast.” The word “overcast” is not in the Itasca log at that time.
Position 2/page 2: According to the log’s record, it was not until 4:53 a.m., more than 1.5 hours later, that the phrase “PARTLY CLOUDY” appears.
Earlier, at 2:45 a.m., Safford quotes a statement by author Don Dwiggins about 30 years later: “Heard Earhart plane on 3105, but unreadable through static . . . however, Bellarts caught “Cloudy and Overcast.”
Yet, Bellarts, who was guarding Position 2/Page 2 made no such statement on his report. The statement, “unreadable through static” was recorded by Bellarts at 2:45, but that was it.
Bellarts was also the one who recorded, an hour later at 3:45: “Will listen on the hour and the half on 3105.” These issues are very minor to most readers. But to those at the time, where minutes count for survival, the devil was in the details.
Also, there is the historical and professional matter of credibility. If one is not accurate, within reasonable expectations, of quoting their sources correctly, then the loss of credibility results in the loss of confidence by their readers.
More than an hour later, at 4:42 a.m., the Earhart plane indicated for the first time that it might be off course, and made its first futile plea for aid in learning its position. The plane asked, “Want beatings (sic) on 3105 KC on the hour. Will whistle into the microphone.”
At 4:42 a.m., which is a very precise time, there is nothing recorded at any station. But we can bracket an answer. Bellarts records the following at 4:30 a.m.: “Broadcast weather by Morse code.” His next entry, at 4:42 a.m., is an empty line.
At 4:53 a.m., Bellarts states, “Heard Earhart [say] ‘Partly Cloudy.‘ ”
Also, Position 1/Page 2 of this record states: “4:40 a.m. – Do you hear Earhart on 3105? . . . Yes, but can’t make her out.” Five minutes later at 4:45 a.m. (with no 4:42 notation at this position): “Tuned to Earhart, Hearing nothing.” There is no recorded statement here from her about being off-course or whistling.
Half an hour passed (5:12 a.m.), and Miss Earhart again said, “Please take a beating on us and report in half hour will make noise into the microphone. About 100 miles out.” Miss Earhart apparently thought she was 100 miles from Howland Island.
5:12 a.m.? At neither position is there a posting at 5:12. At 5:15, one says, “Earhart not heard.” And the other, at 5:13 says, “Tuned to 3105 for Earhart signals. Nothing yet.”
The above “about 100 miles out” message was sent at 6:45 am, about 1.5 hours later.
The Itasca could not give her any bearing, because its direction finder could not work on her wavelength. An hour later, at 7:42 a.m., Miss Earhart said, “We must be on you but cannot see you. Gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”
Strangely, even amazingly, sandwiched between numerous bogus times, 7:42 am IS correct.
This was a little more than 15 hours after the takeoff.
Would you believe that, more than 19 hours after takeoff, this call was made? Here, there are four unaccounted-for hours in Dimity’s record-keeping.
The ship carried 1,150 gallons (sic) of gas, enough for about 17 hours in the air under normal conditions.*
Would you believe “more than 24 hours” of flight time, a seven-plus hour discrepancy?
* AES calculates 24-25 hours. — (Whoever AES is, this is more realistic and accurate.) Editor’s note: AES is The Amelia Earhart Society, almost certainly Bill Prymak’s estimate.
Perhaps the plane had encountered heavier weather earlier, or in just bucking the headbands had used more gas than anticipated. At any rate, Miss Earhart must have flown about 1,300 miles from the point of her first known position, when she first said her gas was running low.
An interesting question: When was her first known position? And measured by what evidence? 1,300 statute miles from the transmission at 7:42 a.m./1912 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT and z, for Zulu, are the same) would put her about halfway between Nukumanu Atoll and Nauru. If Nukumanu was her first or last known position at 5:18 p.m. Lae/0718 GMT/ 7:48 p.m. (Howland, the previous day), then that is roughly 1,600 statute miles, not 1,300.
This distance, with perfect navigation, should have taken her to Howland Island, and that without doubt is the reason she said, “We must be on you.” If the plane had hit its mark, why could she not see the island or the Itasca (Having such a flight under my belt, I could offer several reasons) with a clear sky and unlimited visibility? Even a smoke screen laid down by the cutter to help guide her evidently escaped her view. It is impossible that she was where she thought she was — near Howland.
Although Miss Earhart reported at 11:13 a.m. that she had fuel left for another half hour in the air, the contact was poor and no landfall position was heard.
At 11:13 a.m., the Navy ships and Itasca had been searching the ocean for some two hours or more. The “last known” message from Earhart was at 8:43 a.m./2013z when she said, “We are on the line 157/337.” The message “fuel for another half hour” was made at 7:40 a.m./1910z, some 3.5 hours before Dimity’s “11:13 a.m.” time.
This particular time discrepancy possibly could be corrected by adjusting it to a new time zone in Hawaii, but that would destroy the other record-keeping. At no place in this Itasca log saga were they talking in terms of U.S.A. times. The Itasca crews were recording Howland local time. If someone has proof otherwise, it should be provided, and it will alter the story.
Fifteen minutes later (11:28 a.m.) she said, “We are circling, but cannot see island. Cannot hear you,” and asked for aid in getting her bearings. This plea she repeated five minutes later (11:33 a.m.).
This “circling” reference was made at 7:58 a.m., some 3.5 hours earlier. However, something which is often missed is the fact that the word “CIRCLING” is in doubt even within the footnotes of this log itself. It is listed as “an unknown item.” It was a word they did not hear clearly. It could have been, “We are listening.” No one knows.
It will be recalled that at 11:12 a.m., Miss Earhart said she had only a half-hour’s fuel left, but an hour later, at 12:13 p.m., she called the Itasca to report, “We are in line of position 157 dash 337. Will repeat this message on 6210 KC. We are running north and south.”
This “line 157/337” radio call, NOT a “line of position” call, was made, as already stated, at “8:43 a.m./2013z” and NOT at “12:13.” Somehow Dimity has a discrepancy here of some 3.5 hours from the Itasca logs.
The “157/337 line of position” is not only NOT what she said, but it is inaccurate for any researcher who understands basic navigation. The LOP of 157/337 existed only as long as the sun’s azimuth remained 67 degrees.
As the sun rose above the horizon, its azimuth changed 1+02 hours after sunrise (6:15 a.m. Howland time on July 2, 1937.) That meant that at 7:17 am, there was no longer a 67 degree azimuth by which to determine a “157/337” line of position (LOP). It simply no longer existed. It lasted only an hour-plus. After that, she could only fly a heading of 157 or 337 degrees.
(Editor’s Note: As a non-aviation type, I’m lost when Calvin starts using terms such as azimuth. For others like myself and for what it’s worth, Wikipedia (image above) defines azimuth as an angular measurement in a spherical coordinate system. The vector from an observer (origin) to a point of interest is projected perpendicularly onto a reference plane; the angle between the projected vector and a reference vector on the reference plane is called the azimuth. Calvin will provide clarity in Part II.
(End Part I)
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.