Tag Archives: Itasca

Calvin Pitts rips Dimity’s Earhart flight analysis

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.

Calvin Pitts in 1981, with The Spirit of Winnie Mae and the thermos Amelia Earhart carried with her on her solo Atlantic Crossing in 1932.  The thermos was on loan from Jimmie Mattern, Wiley Post’s competitor who flew The Century of Progress Vega in an attempt to beat Wiley in the 1933 solo round-the-world race, but Mattern crashed in Siberia.  Calvin brought Amelia’s thermos along with him on his own successful world flight in 1981. 

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 upforgottenhistory.  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.

Copy of an original page from Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts of the Itasca showing the entry of the now-famous 2013z / 8:43 am call, “We are on the line 157-337, will repeat message . . .”

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 overcastis 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 CLOUDYappears.

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 caughtCloudy 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.

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!”

The aboveabout 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 believemore 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.).

Thiscirclingreference was made at 7:58 a.m., some 3.5 hours earlier.  However, something which is often missed is the fact that the word CIRCLINGis 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 positionis 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 azimuthFor 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)

 

 

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Grounds for a Possible Search for Amelia Earhart: E.H. Dimity’s 1939 argument for new search, Part I

The author of today’s disputation, E.H. “Elmer” Dimity, was a parachute manufacturer during the late 1930s who knew Amelia and established an Amelia Earhart Foundation following her disappearance in hopes of organizing a new search.  Though not a well-known figure in Earhart lore, Dimity owned the only autographed souvenir envelope, or stamped flight cover, known to have survived Earhart’s 1937 round-the-world flight, because it actually didn’t accompany her in her Electra.

The Sept. 13, 1991 New York Times, Auctions Section, page 00015, in a brief titled Airmail, explains:

On March 17, 1937, when Earhart left Oakland, Calif., on her first attempt to circle the globe, the envelope was in one of the mail packages aboard her plane.  The plane’s landing gear gave way in Honolulu, and when the plane was sent back to Oakland for repairs, the mail was returned with it. Before Earhart left again on May 21, the damaged mail packages were re-wrapped under the direction of the Post Office.  It was then, Elmer Dimity reported later, that he removed the envelope as part of a joke he planned to play when Earhart returned.  He said he had hoped to meet her with the envelope in hand, saying the mail had arrived before she did.

Mr. Dimity sold the envelope in the 1960’s on behalf of the Amelia Earhart Foundation to a dealer,said Scott R. Trepel, a Christie’s consultant, who organized the auction house’s sale.  The collector who bought the envelope from that dealer is the unidentified seller of the Earhart memento, which is to be sold with an affidavit from Mr. Dimity. Christie’s estimates that the envelope will bring $20,000 to $30,000.

Close-up view of Amelia Earhart receiving the last package of flight covers from Nellie G. Donohoe, Oakland Postmaster.  At left is Paul Mantz, Earhart’s co-pilot as far as Honolulu. Behind Mrs. Donohoe is E. H. Dimity, ca. March 17, 1937.

In perhaps the best Earhart biography, The Sound of Wings (1989), author Mary Lovell discusses Dimity and his ineffective foundation briefly, but for now we turn our attention to his 1939 paper, “Grounds for a Possible Search for Amelia Earhart,” which appeared in the August 1994 issue of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.

“Grounds for a Possible Search for Amelia Earhart” (Part I of Two)
by E.H. Dimity, August 1939

Walter McMenamy was thoroughly familiar with Miss Earhart’s voice.  He knew it perfectly, could detect it when others heard but a jumble of sound. This was proven during earlier flights.  His familiarity with the Earhart voice began in January 1935, when Miss Earhart made her solo flight to the mainland.  During this flight, McMenamy was the only radio receiver in constant touch with her ship, working with station KFI in Los Angeles which was broadcasting to her plane. His work on this flight brought warm and written recognition from both the station and Miss Earhart.  His set, built for experimentation in a laboratory, was the only one which reported her position through this flight, bringing in the signals when the equipment of the station itself could not do so.

The hope that Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Capt. [sic] Fred Noonan may be found alive on some tiny island in the South Pacific is a thrilling hope, one that awakens sentiment in the American public who knew her as the heroine of the skies, and particularly strikes a sentimental chord in those who knew her before her disappearance.

There would be sadness in the thought, too, for she has been given up, long since. The hope would appear to be vain, born of wistful thinking.  But there are cold, indisputable facts which have never been made public, and which must demonstrate to anyone of open mind that no sufficient search was ever made for Miss Earhart and Capt. Noonan, and that either they are now alive on land in the lonely, untraveled nowhere of their disappearance, or have died since, praying that they would be found.

It is the purpose of this brief memorandum to state these facts, in their order and without elaboration, and to let them argue the case for a new search.

The “Round-the-World Flight” cover made famous by Amelia Earhart.  All the originals save one disappeared with the Earhart plane on July 2, 1937.  (Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.)

Before offering the evidence, however, it might be well to list those who believe that either Miss Earhart may be found alive, or that evidence to solve the mystery may be found, and that a new search should be made as soon as possible.

This group includes the following:

Amelia Earhart’s mother,  who has made an intimate study of the data and believes steadfastly that her daughter will be found.

Clarence A. Williams, pilot and navigator who charted Miss Earhart’s course around the world.

Paul Mantz, Miss Earhart’s flying instructor and friend, who accompanied her on her flight to Honolulu.

Margot DeCarie, Amelia Earhart’s secretary.

E.H. Dimity,  longtime friend of Miss Earhart, who took care of many details for her in planning her flights, and who once refused to let her pilot his plane because she was just learning to fly then.  Mr. Dimity established, and is the President of the Amelia Earhart Foundation [now defunct], in Oakland, Calif.

Walter McMenamy, radio expert who was in constant touch with her by air on her solo flight from Honolulu to the mainland, and who probably saved her life by quick thinking on that occasion, when she was flying off her course.  McMenamy also helped guide by radio the first Clipper ship flight to Honolulu.  He charted Miss Earhart’s radio course around the world, and heard her last signals.  [Editor’s note:  Pure speculation. See my April 30, 2014 post,Earhart’s ‘post-loss messages’: Real or fantasy?]

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.

The reader, perhaps surprised at the suggestion that there may be good reasons for believing Miss Earhart still alive, no doubt will have many questions in his mind, which this memorandum will seek to answer.  Some of these questions are:

1.  Didn’t Navy and Coast Guard search the area where she might have gone down, completely and fruitlessly?

2.  If she landed on an island, how could Miss Earhart and Capt. Noonan be alive now, without food or water?

3.  If they are still alive, why have they not been heard from?

The first important fact to be recorded was known to only a few at the time of Miss Earhart’s flight and disappearance, has never been made generally know to the public, and is of tremendous importance.  This fact is that Miss Earhart’s plane and radio equipment were such that the plane could broadcast only from the air or while on land.  The plane could not have broadcast from water. This is proven not only by the testimony of those who helped in the flight preparations, but by the Lockheed factory which made the plane, and by the radio experts who installed the equipment.  The radio transmitter had to be powered by the motor generator, which would be submerged and inactive in the water.

The importance of this fact is, briefly, that it can be proven beyond doubt that the Earhart plane DID broadcast radio signals many hours after it had to be down somewhere, and the plane must have been on land.

The third fact is that radio signals were received from the Earhart plane days after it had landed.  These signals were heard in various parts of the world, by several radio operators, including ships at sea, government stations, and her radio contact man, Walter McMenamy.  Proof of this is in official records and affidavits.  These signals, and the time they were heard, will be described later.

These facts can and will be proven, and they lead directly to the conclusion that the Earhart plane landed in a place not searched, and must be still there with its occupants alive or dead.  Their last radio signal had a decided ripple or sputter, which any radio expert recognizes immediately as evidence that the power was failing.

Immediately two questions arise.  First, what chance could they have for survival on a tiny, deserted island, with little food and no water? History provides an answer.  There are many cases on record where persons shipwrecked, stranded, and believed lost were found years later, alive, in this same area where the Earhart plane landed.  One party, without food, lived on fish, shellfish, and bird’s eggs, and captured rainwater for drinking.  A monotonous diet, but they survived and were rescued from an island which appeared to be incapable of sustaining life.

The second question is: If they were safe, why have they not been picked up, or heard from?  There is a single answer to this.  Their course took them over a sea area strewn with hundreds of islands, which had never been seen from the air, and parts of which have never been visited by civilized man.  Hundreds of miles from the steamer lanes, thousands from communication.  Many of the islands, on their course have never been charted, and appear on no map.

Amelia with Bendix Corporation representative Cyril Remmlein, and the now-infamous direction finding loop that may or may not have failed her during the final flight.  (Photo courtesy Albert Bresnik, taken from Earhart’s Flight Into Yesterday, by Laurance Safford, Robert Payne and Cameron Warren.)

What could anyone do but wait, and pray for rescue?

To complete the story, let’s review the events of the disappearance and search point by point.

Miss Earhart and Capt. Noonan had an excellent aircraft, a Lockheed Electra, powered with two 550-horsepower motors and equipped with the latest instruments devised.  They cruised at an average speed of 150 mph.  At no time during the flight, even when their gas supply was running low and they were lost, did they report any trouble of any kind, with the motor or otherwise.  No wreckage of the plane has ever been sighted or found, no evidence of an explosion or a sudden crash into the sea caused by faulty motors.

The two left Miami, Florida, on their flight around the world June 1, 1937.  The first leg of the trip to South America was completed without difficulty.  On their flight 1,900 miles across the South Atlantic to Africa, it was reported that the plane’s radio did not function properly, but the span was successfully accomplished.  The trip then took them across Africa and to India.  In the Bay of  Bengal, the plane encountered a monsoon which forced it close to the water, but their objective was won, and the fliers safely reached Lae, British New Guinea.

At Lae they drew breath for the most difficult leg of the trip, one never before attempted.  This was a 2,570- [exactly 2,556] mile flight from Lae to Howland Island, a distance greater than from Los Angeles to New York, over a lonely, poorly charted sea.  The navigation must be perfect, for they were aiming at a pinpoint in the ocean, tiny Howland Island less than two miles square and 20 feet above sea level at its highest point.  Their aim, at such a distance, must be flawless.

Few navigators would stake their lives, as Capt. Noonan did, on such a gamble.

Navigators say that even with the gentle prevailing winds that were blowing at the time, a drift of ten degrees off course in such a distance might easily occur, even with the most expert navigation.

If the plane did drift, from its last know bearing, it might have come down somewhere in a triangle stretching nearly 1,500 miles long and about 500 miles wide at its base.  This fateful triangle includes nearly a million square miles and hundreds of unexplored islands, and only a small part of it has ever been searched for the missing pair.

Miss Earhart and Capt. Noonan took off from Lae on the morning of July 1, Pacific Standard Time [10 a.m., July 2, Lae Time].  The first 500 miles of their flight took them over sea and islands fairly well known, where they could take bearings without difficulty. Shortly after 5 p.m., they reported they were 725 miles out, and directly on course.  Although regular broadcasts were heard from the plane hours later, this was the last position definitely reported, and our triangle starts from the 800-mile mark, for these reasons.

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!”

The last 1,000 miles of the flight were the most difficult.  There were no landmarks to aid in navigation, and the slightest drift off course could take them miles from their destination.

Stationed at Howland Island to aid the flight was the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, to keep in radio contact with the ship and to advise on weather.  Miss Earhart’s radio could transmit on two wave lengths, 3105 kilocycles and 6210 kilocycles.  There was only one thing wrong with the arrangements, and this mistake may be the cause, perhaps, for the disaster.

Although the Itasca had a radio direction finder which would show the course of signals it received, and thus make it possible to give bearings to a lost plane, the direction finder could not work on the Earhart wavelengths.

Miss Earhart, in the last desperate hours of her flight, asked the Itasca again and again to give her a report on her position.  Evidently she did not know the Itasca was not equipped with a direction finder which could aid her.

An ironic comment can be made here of the flight preparations at Lae.  During the earlier part of her trip, Miss Earhart’s plane was equipped with a trailing antenna.”  This wire trailing under the plane made it possible for the plane to broadcast on the regular ship wavelength of 500 meters (kc).  With the trailing antennae, she could have transmitted signals on that wavelength, and the Itasca direction finder, tuned to this frequency, could have reported her position in the air.  But, for mysterious reasons, Miss Earhart left the trailing antennae at Lae [most say Miami].  Then she canceled, irrevocably, her chance to learn from the Itasca or other ships where she was, lost in the skies seeking tiny Howland Island.  The Itasca direction finder could not help her

(End of Part I)

 

Earhart’s “Disappearing Footprints,” Part III

Today we move along to Part III of Capt. Calvin Pitts’ “Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY,” his studied analysis of Amelia Earhart’s final flight.  We left Part II with Calvin’s description of the communication failures between the Navy tug USS Ontario and the ill-fated fliers.

“What neither of them knew at that time was the agonizing fact that the Electra was not equipped for low-frequency broadcast,” Calvin wrote, “and the Ontario was not equipped for high-frequency. . . . After changing frequencies to one that the Ontario could not receive, it is safe to assume that Amelia made several voice calls.  Morse code, of course, was already out of the picture.” 

We’re honored that Calvin has so embraced the truth in the Earhart disappearance that he’s spent countless hours working to explain the apparently inexplicable — how and why Amelia Earhart reached and landed at Mili Atoll on July 2, 1937.  Here’s Part III, with even more to follow. 

Amelia Earhart: DISAPPEARING FOOTPRINTS IN THE SKY, Part III
By Capt. Calvin Pitts

Although Amelia was obviously trying to make contact with the Ontario by radio, Lt. Blakeslee did not know that.  By the same token, Amelia had to wonder why he would not answer.

USS Ontario (AT-13), was a Navy tug servicing the Samoa area, but assigned to the Earhart flight twice as a mid-point weather and radio station for assistance.

This failure to communicate, however, worked into Amelia’s new plan.  Since she had no way of letting the Ontario know they were en route, being without Morse code and having frequencies which were not compatible, now that he had been plying those waters for 10 days along her flight path, she knew it was useless to try to find and to overfly the unknown position of the Ontario in the thick darkness of a Pacific night.

Therefore, it now made even more sense to continue on to Nauru whose people had been alerted by Balfour that the Electra was probably coming.  Although that had begun as a suggestion, no one yet knew that it had now become a decision.  She needed to let the Ontario know — but how?

She had lost contact with Balfour, couldn’t make contact with the Ontario, and the Itasca had not yet entered the picture.  Nauru, it was later learned, had a similar problem as the Ontario, and Tarawa had not broadcast anything.  Amelia was good at making last-minute decisions. “Let’s press on to Nauru,” she might have said.  “It’s a small diversion, and a great gain in getting a solid land-fix.  I’ll explain later.”

The local chief of Nauru Island, or someone in authority, already had a long string of powerful spot lights set up for local mining purposes. He would turn them on with such brightness, 5,000 candlepower, that they could be seen for more than 34 miles at sea level, even more at altitude.

Finding a well-lit island was a sure thing.  Finding a small ship in the dark ocean, which had no ETA for them, was doubtful.  Further, as was later learned from the Ontario logs, the winds from the E-NE were blowing cumulus clouds into their area, which, by 1:00 a.m., were overcast with rain squalls.  It is possible that earlier, a darkening sky to the east would have been further assurance that deviating slightly over Nauru was the right decision.

As the Electra approached the dark island now lit with bright lights, Nauru radio received a message at 10:36 p.m. from Amelia that said, “We see a ship (lights) ahead.”

Others have interpreted this as evidence that Amelia was still on course for the Ontario, and was saying that she had seen its lights.  The conflict here is that Amelia flew close enough to Nauru for ground observers to state they had heard and seen the plane.  How could Amelia see Nauru at the same time she saw the Ontario more than 100 miles away?

Amelia may have wondered if Noonan and Balfour were wrong about Nauru.  But they weren’t.  According to the log from a different ship coming from New Zealand south of them, they were en route to Nauru for mining business.Those shipmates of the MV Myrtlebank, a 5,150 ton freighter owned by a large shipping conglomerate, under the British flag, recorded their position as southwest of Nauru at about 10:30 pm on that date.  The story of the Mrytlebank fits in well to resolve this confusion.   It was undoubtedly this New Zealand ship, not the Ontario, that Amelia had seen.

MV Myrtlebank, a freighter owned by Bank Line Ltd., was chartered to a British Phosphate Commission at Nauru.  As recorded later, around 10:30 p.m., third mate Syd Dowdeswell was “surprised to hear the sound of an aircraft approaching and lasting about a minute.  He reported the incident to the captain who received it ‘with some skepticism’ because aircraft were virtually unknown in that part of the Pacific at that time.  Neither Dowdeswell nor the captain knew about Earhart’s flight.”

Source: State Department telegram from Sydney, Australia dated July 3, 1937:Amalgamated Wireless state information received that report fromNauru was sent to Bolinas Radioat . . . 6.54 PM Sydney time today on (6210 kHz), fairly strong signals, speech not intelligible, no hum of plane in background but voice similar that emitted from plane in flight last night between 4.30 and 9.30 P.M.  Message from plane when at least 60 miles south of Nauru received 8.30 p.m., Sydney time, July 2 sayingA ship in sight ahead.’  Since identified as steamer Myrtle Bank (sic) which arrived Nauru daybreak today.

Unless Mr. T.H. Cude produced the actual radio log for that night, the contemporary written record (the State Dept. telegram) trumps his 20-plus-year-old recollection.

The MV MYRTLEBANK of the BANK LINE Limited was about 60 nautical miles southwest of Nauru Island when it entered the pages of history.  Amelia Earhart said, “See ship (lights) ahead.” This was most likely that ship since the Ontario would have been 80 to 100 miles away.  Nauru, the destination of this ship, was lit with powerful mining lights.  At Nauru Island, the Electra would be eight-plus hours from “Area 13,” or 2013z (8:43 am) 150-plus miles from Howland Island.

This was most likely the ship about which Amelia Earhart said: See ship (lights) ahead.  Most researchers state that she had spotted the USS Ontario, which had been ordered by the Navy to be stationed halfway between Lae and Howland for weather information via radio.  No radio contact was ever made between Amelia’s Lockheed Electra 10E and the Ontario.

While it is possible that Amelia flew only close enough to Nauru to see the bright mining lights, it is more likely that a navigator like Noonan would want a firm land fix on time and exact location.

For this reason, in a re-creation of the flight path on Google Earth, which we have done, we posit the belief, in view of the silence from the Ontario, that having a known fix prior to heading out into the dark waters, overcast skies and rain squalls of the last half of the 2,556-mile (now 2,650-mile) trip to small Howland, it was the better part of wisdom to overfly Nauru.

Weather and radio issues were the motive behind Harry Balfour’s suggestion to use Nauru as an intermediate point rather than a small ship in a dark ocean.  Thus, the Myrtlebank unwittingly became part of the history of a great world event.

Now, with the land mass of Nauru under them, Fred could begin the next eight hours from a known position.  Balfour’s suggestion and Fred and Amelia’s decision was not a bad call, with apologies to the crew of the Ontario.  Unfortunately, it was not until after the fact that the Ontario was notified of this.  They headed back to Samoa with barely enough coal to make it home.  Lt. Blakeslee said they were scraping the bottom for coal by the time they returned.

The details of the eight-hour flight from Nauru are contained in the Itasca log.  In my own case, the Amelia story was interesting, but not compelling.  However, it was not until I began to study in minute detail the Itasca logs of those last hours of the Electra’s flight, hour by hour, and visualizing it by means of Google Earth, that the interest turned to a passion.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?  DO WE HAVE ENOUGH EVIDENCE TO KNOW?  IS THERE REALLY NO ANSWER TO WHAT HAS BEEN CONCEALED AS A “MYSTERY”?

In the reliving of what was once a mystery, things began to make sense, piece by piece.  It was like being a detective who knew there were hidden pieces, but what were they, and where did they fit?  For me, as the puzzle began to come together, the interest grew.  There is really more to this story, much more, than appeared during the first reading.

Itasca Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts and three other Coast Guard radiomen worked in vain to bring Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan and the Electra to a safe landing at Howland Island.  Photo courtesy Dave Bellarts.

The radio room positions and pages being logged contained valuable information.  Reading the details created a picture in the imagination at one level, but with more and more evidence piling up, a different level began to emerge. 

Can this story really be true?  Credulity was giving way to the reality of evidence.

If you will follow the highlights of the Itasca logs, you may find yourself captivated, as I was.  One thing that is not spoken at first, but becomes a message loud and clear, is the not-so-hidden narrative in those repeated, unanswered Morse code transmissions.

The radiomen thought they were helping Amelia and Fred, but with each unanswered Code message, they were really just talking to themselves.  As they get more desperate, you keep wondering: Surely the Electra crew can at least hear the clicks and clacks, the dits and dahs, even if they don’t fully understand them.

Why don’t they at least acknowledge they hear even though understanding appears to be absent?  Why the silence, the long silence into the dark night, the silence which leaves the Itasca crew bewildered, even “screaming,” as they later said, “into the mike?”

The 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 position of the Electra, an area, not a fix, is our primary destination now because Howland was never seen.  This makes Howland secondary for this exercise, mostly because that was not the position from which Amelia made her final and fatal decision.

There were at least two extremely dangerous elements involving Howland, and one strategic matter.  Dangerous:  10,000 nesting and flying birds waiting to greet Mama big bird, and the extremely limited landing area of a 30 city-block by 10-block sand mass.

We delay our discussion about strategic since it deals with the government hijacking of a civilian plane, something controversial but which is worth waiting for.  Stand by.

For now, we join Amelia and Fred for some details of their flight to Area 13.  The purpose here is to locate, as best we can, that area from which Amelia made her final navigation decision.

That area encompasses a portion of ocean 200 miles by 200 miles.  South to north, it begins about 100 miles north of Howland to at least 300 miles north.  East to west, it begins with a NW line of 337 degrees and continues west parallel to that line for at least 200 miles.

There is a mountain of calculation behind that conclusion, but those details are for another venue.  For now, for those interested in re-creating that historic flight, especially if you have Google Earth, follow the Itasca log in order to see Google Truth.

We designate this 200 by 200 miles as “Area 13” for the simple reason that their last known transmission not within sight of land which can be confirmed was at 2013z (GMT) (the famous 8:43 am call).  Following this was nothing but silence for those on the ground.

After their long night of calling, waiting and consuming coffee, for the crew of Itasca and Howland Island, 8:43 a.m. was a special time.  But 2013 GMT (8:43 a.m.) was also the 20-hour mark for the fliers, after their own, even more stressful all-nighter.  Sadly, the two in the Electra, at 13 past 20 hours, were entirely on their own at 2013 — and here that sinister number “13” appears again.

 

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 professionally 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.”

The following routing and times are a compilation from several sources —

(1) Itasca  Logs from the log-positions on the ship, a copy of which can be provided;
(2) Notes from Harry Balfour, local weather and radioman on site at Lae;
(3) Notes from  L.G. Bellarts, Chief Radio operator, USS Itasca;
(4) The Search for Amelia Earhart, by Fred Goerner;
(5) Amelia Earhart: The Truth At Last, by Mike Campbell;
(6) David Billings, Australian flight engineer (numbers questionable),  Earhart Lockheed Electra Search Project;
(7) Thomas E. Devine, Vincent V. Loomis, and various other writings.

The intended course for the Electra was a direct line from Lae to Howland covering 2,556 statute miles.  The actual track, however, was changed due to weather, in the first instance, and due to a change of decision in the second instance.  Such contact never took place.  Neither the Electra nor the Ontario saw nor heard from the other, for reasons which could have been avoided if each had known the frequencies and limitations of the other.  This basic lack of communication plagued almost every radio and key which tried to communicate with the Electra.   

If one has access to Google Earth, it is interesting to pin and to follow this flight by the hour.  The average speeds and winds were derived from multiple sources, including weather forecasts and reports. 

To generalize, the average ground speed going east was probably not above 150 mph, with a reported headwind of some 20 mph, which began at about 135-140 mph when the plane was heavy and struggling to climb.

In the beginning, with input from Lockheed engineers, Amelia made a slow (about 30 feet per minute) climb to 7,000 feet (contrary to the plan laid out by Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson), then to 10,000 feet (which should have been step-climbing to 4,000 to 7,000 to 10,000 feet toward the Solomons mountain), then descending to 8,000 feet depending upon winds, then to 10,000 feet reported, with various changes en route.

The remaining contingency fuel at 8:43 a.m. Howland time, to get the Electra back to the Gilbert Islands, as planned out carefully with the help of Gene Vidal (experienced aviator) and Kelly Johnson (experienced Lockheed engineer), has often been, in our opinion, mischaracterized and miscalculated.  By all reasonable calculations, the Electra had about 20 hours of fuel PLUS at least four-plus hours of contingency fuel.

July 2, 1937:  Amelia Earhart, leaving Lae, New Guinea, frustrated and fatigued from a month of pressure, problems, and critical decisions on a long world flight, and unprepared for the Radio issues ahead, unprepared, that is, unless there was a bigger plan in play.

Then why did Amelia say she was almost out of fuel when making one of her last calls at 1912z (7:42 am)?Obviously, she was not because she made another call an hour later about the “157-337 (sun) line” at 2013z. Put yourself in that cockpit, totally fatigued after 20 hours of battling wind and weather and loss of sleep, compounded by 30 previous difficult days.  It is easy to see four hours of fuel, after such exhaustion, being described as “running low.”

With the desperation of wanting to be on the ground, it would be quite normal to say “gas is running low” just to get someone’s attention.  If one is a pilot, and has ever been “at wit’s end” in a tense situation, they have no problem not being a “literalist” with this statement.  The subsequent facts, of course, substantiate this.

A view of Howland Island that Amelia Earhart never enjoyed. Note the runway outline many years later, a destination which became a ghost.  In the far distance to the left, under thick clouds at 8:13 a.m. local time, was “Area 13.” 

Wherever the Electra ended up, and we have a volume of evidence for that in a future posting, IT WAS NOT IN THE OCEAN NEAR HOWLAND.  That was a government finding as accurate and as competent as the government’s success was against the Wright Brothers attempt to make the first fight.

For this leg of the Electra’s flight to its destination, our starting data point was Lae, New Guinea, and our terminal data point is not the elusive bird-infested Howland Island, but rather the area where they were often said to be lost, a place we have designated as Area 13.  (A more detailed flight, by the hour with data from the Itasca logs, is available. Enjoy the trip.

Summary of track from Lae to Area 13 then to Mili Atoll (times are approximate):

(1) LAE to  CHOISEUL, Solomon Islands – Total Miles: 670 / Total Time: 05:15 hours
(2) CHOISEUL to  NUKUMANU Islands – Total Miles:  933 / Total Time: 07:18 hours
(3) NUKUMANU  to  NAURU Island – Total Miles: 1,515 / Total Time: 11:30 hours
(4) NAURU  to 1745z (6:15 a.m.
Howland) – Total Miles: 2,440 / Total Time: 17:45 hours
(5) 1745z  to  1912z  (7:12 a.m.
Howland) – Total Miles: 2,635 / Total Time: 19:12 hours
(6) 1912z to 20
13z  (8:43 a.m. Howland) – Total Miles: 2.750 / Total Time: 20:13 hours 

LAE  to AREA 13: Total Miles : 2,750 (Including approaches) Time:  About 20:13 hours

Fuel Remaining: About 4.5 to 5 hours

Distance from 2013z to Mili Atoll Marshall Islands = About 750 miles
Ground speed = 160 (true air speed) plus 15 mph (tailwind) = 175 mph
Time en route = About 4.3 hours

ETA at Mili Atoll, Marshall Islands = Noon to 12:30; Fuel remaining: 13 drops

NOTE that from a spot about 200 mi NW of Howland (Area 13) to the Gilberts is not the same heading as to the Marshall’s Mili Atoll. The Gilberts are the three small islands below Mili Atoll.  The “Contingency Plan” was to return to the Gilberts and land on a beach among friendly people.  Instead, they made an “intentional” decision to pick up a different heading toward the Marshalls whose strong Japanese radio at Jaluit they could hear.  Compare the two different headings from Area 13 to the Gilberts and to the Marshalls.  The difference is about 30 degrees.  THEY ARE NOT THE SAME.  Did they make an honest mistake, or an intentional decision?

The heading to the Gilberts would not have taken them to the Marshall Islands, with a heading difference of about 30 degrees.  The decision to give up on Howland, and utilize the remaining contingency fuel was “intentional,” not merely intentional to turn back, but to turn toward the Marshalls where there was a strong radio beam, a runway, fuel — and Japanese soldiers who may or may not be impressed with the most famous female aviator in the world.  Amelia and her exploits were known to be popular in Japan at that time.  Although their mind was on war with China, maybe this charming pilot could tame them.

Unfortunately, we know THE END of the Amelia story, and it was not pretty.  When she crossed into enemy territory, she apparently lost her charm with the war lords, and eventually her life. (End of Part III.)

Next up: Part IV of “Amelia Earhart: Disappearing Footprints in the Sky.”  As always, your comments are welcome. 

Earhart’s “post-loss messages”: Real or fantasy?

Among the most misunderstood themes surrounding the search for Amelia Earhart is that of the so-called “post-loss” messages that were allegedly received in the days following Amelia’s last official message on July 2 to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. These various messages, received both in voice and code by a variety of people, were heard mainly in the central Pacific Ocean area and the West Coast of the United States. Practically since the day of her loss, inquiring minds have asked whether these messages sent by Amelia Earhart, were they the products of the overheated imaginations of earnest ham-radio operators, or were they outright hoaxes? 

While working on Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last between June 2007 and April 2010, I looked into this complex issue as best I could – as a most emphatically non-technical expert on the state of 1930s short-wave radio propagation equipment, capabilities and techniques. The result of my ad hoc study was a lengthy, 11,000-plus word chapter, “The Search and the Radio Signals,” that later had to be cut out of the book because the manuscript was too long to present a publisher. 

Simply trying to read and understand the technical analysis that’s available is a nightmare for a layman not familiar with the scientific terminology that accompanies such discussions. And though these posts will barely scratch the surface of this almost inscrutable subject and represent only an unschooled layman’s perspective, I feel it’s important to revisit these messages, if only for posterity and the scant few who might be interested.

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

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

I’ll try to present the most well-known of the post-loss messages, in some sort of timely order, so that readers can become familiar with some of the key people who were involved in this controversy. Later, we’ll consider what several radio experts have to say about the validity of these messages. No true unanimity or even consensus about whether any of the messages was legitimate has ever been reached among Earhart experts, but the sheer volume of these messages demands that they not be forgotten.

Twelve-and-a-half hours after Amelia’s last message to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, a radio operator at Nauru, which had not been asked to assist in the Earhart flight, sent a “wire note” to KPH, an RCA short-wave station in San Francisco, requesting that it be sent to Itasca:

“VOICE HEARD FAIRLY STRONG SIGS STRENGTH TO S3 0843 0854 GMT 48.31 METERS (6210 KHz) SPEECH NOT INTERPRETED OWING BAD MODULATION OR SPEAKER SHOUTING INTO MICROPHONE BUT VOICE SIMILAR TO THAT EMITTED FROM PLANE IN FLIGHT LAST NIGHT WITH EXCEPTION NO HUM ON PLANE IN BACKGROUND.”

Commander Warner K. Thompson, Itasca skipper, included this message in his report without comment, but Almon Gray, a former Navy reserve captain and Pan Am Airways China Clipper flight officer, believed the signals, sent on 6210 kc and received at Nauru at 9:31, 9:43 and 9:54 p.m. July 2 (Howland time), merited “serious consideration,” for several reasons, beginning with the fact that 6210 was the correct frequency for the Earhart plane, and that “it was not a commonly used frequency in that area,” Gray wrote.

The McMenamy and Pierson reports

Just before midnight July 2 (Pacific time), the Associated Press reported that amateur radio operators Walter McMenamy and Carl Pierson, both of Los Angeles, claimed to have heard radio signals on frequencies known to have been used by Amelia:

Walter McMenamy said he picked up weak signals on 6210 kilocycles at 6 P.M. (10 P.M. eastern daylight time) and heard the letters “L-a-t” which he took to mean latitude. The letters were followed by indecipherable figures. The signals continued for some time.  Mr. McMenamy expressed belief they came from a portable transmitter. He received other signals from a Coast Guard boat, presumably the cutter Itasca, requesting listeners to “stand by and listen on all frequencies.”

At 8 P.M. (midnight Eastern daylight time), Carl Pierson, chief engineer of the Paterson Radio Corporation, picked up similarly weak signals on 3105 kilocycles, Miss Earhart’s daytime frequency. He said they were erratic and indecipherable.

United Press reported that “the powerful Los Angeles amateur station had been hearing code S O S signals all night. This morning what appeared to be a radioed position of the plane was picked up. ‘It was a 179 and what sounded like 1.6,’ said McMenamy. “If that meant latitude and longitude, we calculate it would be somewhere 300 or 400 miles off the coast of Howland Island.”

McMenamy and Pierson reported hearing more signals on 3105 kc on the morning of July 6 that they believed came from Amelia, but could not make out the indistinct words. The San Francisco Division forwarded McMenamy’s position in its message to Itasca as “QUOTE 179 WITH 1 POINT SIX IN DOUBT UNQUOTE POSITION GIVEN AS QUOTE SOUTHWEST HOWLAND ISLAND.” Since Itasca was erroneously told in an earlier message that the Electa “could probably use its emergency transmitter [in fact, it had no such equipement] on water,” Thompson wrote that “this information could not be ignored” and proceeded to the “westward of the report area and searched 2000 square miles on July 4 without result.”

Both Pierson and McMenamy had met Amelia and monitored her messages during the 1935 flight from Honolulu to Oakland, thus their claims of recognizing her voice carried a degree of credibility. The pair had a new “rig and tower at Santa Paula in Southern California where they thought reception was the best,” wrote Fred Goerner, who interviewed them in the late 1960s.

Unfortunately, McMenamy appears to have fallen victim to the brief notoriety he enjoyed. following his alleged receptions. “Walter McMenamy is a ding-a-ling,” Goerner told Fred Hooven in a 1971 letter. … “McMenamy claims AE flew directly to an island and landed on time. They broadcast from the island for several days, and they were picked up by the U.S. Navy. Noonan, he says, ‘is probably still living.’ He says he saw Noonan in 1949 or 1950. That he had changed his name and was ‘still with Navy intelligence.’ AE, he adds was alive until November 6, 1945, when she was killed in a headon [sic] crash of a pair of Navy planes near Guadalcanal. He said he got his info regarding AE from the FBI.”

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 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.

Karl Pierson was “an entirely different story,” Goerner continued. “A quiet, brilliant former radio engineer, he is now in charge of several research projects at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute at La Jolla, California, and he lives in San Diego. He says he is convinced the messages he and McMenamy received in 1937 in the days following the disappearance actually came from AE. He apologized for McMenamy by saying that McMenamy has ‘gone around the bend.’ Pierson says what puzzles him to this day is the attitude of the Navy toward the messages they received. He says he still feels the Navy did everything it could to discredit the amateur radio operators who reported possible Earhart messages. Pierson addes that he had a very close relationship with AE at the time of her 1935 Honolulu-Oakland flight, and that he monitored her radio transmissions during that entire flight with great success.”

McMenamy and Pierson were soon joined by more amateur operators in the continental United States claiming they heard Amelia’s distress calls on their shortwave radios. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 16-year-old Dana Randolph had designed a new antenna to enhance long-distance reception and was listening during the morning of July 4 when he heard, “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on reef south of the equator. Station KH9QQ.” [sic] The transmission quickly faded, but Randolph and his father were directed to a local Commerce Department radio operator, whose investigation revealed that the reception was made at about 16,000 kc, a harmonic of 3105.

In messages to Itasca about the Rock Springs report, the Coast Guard’s San Francico Division said “this information may be authentic as signals from midpacific and orient often heard inland when not audible on coast” and “investigation reveals signals heard near sixteen megacycles thought to be from khaqq.” Earlier on the morning of July 4. Ray Mahoney, of Cincinnati, claimed he heard a message similar to the one reported by Dana Randolph. “The signals were weak,” Mahoney told the Associated Press. “About all I could make out were the call letters of plane and apparently it had hit a reef or was near a reef.” The AP report didn’t specify the frequency of Mahoney’s receptions.

George Angus, a Pan American Airways communications official in Hawaii, was notified about 2 a.m. on July 3 that the Earhart plane was missing, and he immediately set up watches at PAA’s radio stations on Midway Island, Mokapu (Honolulu) and Wake Island on 3105 kc and 6210 kc. Angus also arranged a plan with Honolulu’s two commercial radio stations, KGU and KGMB, whereby they would interrupt regular programming to make special broadcasts to Amelia, asking her to respond if she heard them. Immediately after KGU broke into its programming at July 3 at 10:30 p.m. local time, asking her to respond on 500, 3105 or 6210 kc, Mokapu station KNBF reported “a faint carrier on 3105 kc.” About four hours later, PAA station KNBI Wake Island, heard an “intermittent phone of rather wobby characteristics” on 3105 kc, and Midway Island’s station KNBH reported hearing a “weak, wobbly signal which sounded like a phone” on 3105.

The following night, Angus was at the Mokapu station when KGMB broke into its programming at 8 p.m. local time, asking Amelia to send four long dashes on 3105. Angus and K.C. Ambler, a PAA communications supervisor, immediately and distinctly heard four long dashes on 3105. After Angus called KGMB and asked them to repeat their request to Amelia, “only two dashes were heard and the second dash trailed off to a weak signal as though the power supply on the transmitter had failed,” Angus wrote in his report. The first four dashes were heard by the San Francisco Coast Guard station, Navy Radio Wailupe, KNBF (Mokapu), KNBH (Midway took bearing of 201, labeled “approximate”), Baker and Howland Islands, and the battleship USS Colorado (BB-45), soon to join the Earhart search. San Francisco heard the dashes on 3105 for the next six hours at twenty minute intervals, along with “unintelligable voice.” During the same time frame, Baker and Howland Islands heard a “weak carrier ‘NRUI [Itasca’s call letters] from KHAQQ.’”

The 281 Message

Early July 5, Itasca was notified by the Hawaiian Section of the latest possible reception from the Earhart plane:

8005 FOLLOWING COPIED NAVY RADIO WAILUPE 1130 TO 1230 GMT QUOTE 281 NORTH HOWLAND CALL KHAQQ BEYOND NORTH DON’T HOLD WITH US MUCH LONGER ABOVE WATER SHUT OFF UNQUOTE KEYED TRANSMISSION EXTREMELY POOR KEYING BEHIND CARRIER FRAGMENTARY PHRASES BUT COPIES BY THREE OPERATORS 0242

This was the notorious “281 message,” a continuing source of speculation among researchers who have assigned a variety of interpretations to the number 281 that differ from that taken by Thompson and the Coast Guard. The message, sent in poorly keyed code on 3105 kc, was heard by three operators at the Navy’s HF/DF station at Wailupe and by the British steamer SS Moorby, 370 miles north of Howland Island, as well as in California by Charles Miguel of Oakland. Miguel reported hearing “281 … north … Howland … Can’t hold out much longer … drifting … above water … motor sinking … on sand bank 225 miles from Howland.”

Thompson believed it “was probably a faked message originating in the Hawaiian Islands,” and labeled the Oakland reception “clearly fraudulant.” The Itasca was 200 miles west of Howland when it was informed of the message, “searching down the 4 authenticated amateur reports,” according to Thompson, who wrote that it contained “useless information but the report required immediate check up.”

The message was immediately interpreted to mean the Electra was “281 miles north of Howland.” Itasca arrived at the position by dusk, and as USS Swan and SS Moorby approached the area later that night, two Itasca lookouts and the officer of the deck saw “a distinct flare to the northward. It came up from and settled down to the horizon,” Thompson wrote. Itasca headed toward the light and called Amelia, asking her to send up another flare. Moorby had not seen the flares, but Swan reported lights and considered them meteors, and Howland Island, 280- miles distant, also reported “flares to the northeast and burned three drums of gasoline.” The “flares” were a meteor shower, Thompson concluded, but commercial radio stations had apparently been monitoring Itasca, resulting in a “deluge of commercial requests.” An irritated Thompson wrote that the “whole incident illustrates the extent to which ITASCA was being monitored by commercial concerns desiring to ‘scoop’ others. There is a need to control such matters and the release of such traffic to the press by commercial stations is a violation of law, it is believed.”

As Itasca steamed northward to investigate the “281 message,” San Francisco Division sent information that “changed the whole search problems and virtually eliminated all intercepted radio traffic ideas (unless the plane was on land),” according to Thompson:

8005 OPINION OF TECHNICAL AIDES HERE THAT EARHART PLANE WILL BE FOUND ON ORIGINAL LINE OF POSITION WHICH INDICATED POSITION THROUGH HOWLAND ISLAND AND PHOENIX GROUP PERIOD RADIO TECHNICIANS FAMILIAR WITH RADIO EQUIPMENT ON PLANE ALL STATE DEFINITELY THAT PLANE RADIO COULD NOT FUNCTION NOW IF IN WATER AND ONLY IF MOTOR FOR POWER PERIOD NO FEARS FELT FOR SAFETY OF PLANE ON WATER PROVIDED TANKS HOLD AS LOCKHEED ENGINEERS CALCULATE 5000 POUNDS POSITIVE BUOYANCY WITH PLANE WEIGHT 800 1525

“Until this time the Itasca had considered plane had emergency radio capable of transmitting on water,” Thompson wrote. Although this message corrected misinformation San Francisco provided Itasca on July 2 about the Electra’s radio capabilities – “plane may attempt to use radio on water as radio supply was battery and antenna could be used on top of wing” – it perpetuated the false idea that the plane might be still afloat after three days in the water.

Fred Goerner reported that Joe Gurr told him the Electra “was absolutely capable of putting out a radio signal whether on the surface of the water, or on a reef or island. He says he installed an emergency battery in the cockpit, and as long as the top of the plane was above water, a signal could be sent through the antenna on the top of the plane. He also says that it was possible that Earhart’s signals might have been heard in the U.S. and not heard by vessels in the immediate Pacific area because of skip characteristics.”

Most others disagree, and insist that once in the water, the Electra would have been incapable of transmitting for a very simple reason: “Seawater would have short-circuited her electrical system,” Paul Rafford Jr. wrote.

Fred Hooven, the brilliant engineer whose inventions included the modern aircraft radio direction finder, a short-range radar set for World War II bombers, and the first successful heart-lung machine, thoroughly analyzed the post-loss transmissions during his longtime collaboration with Fred Goerner. “I have only two points of very minor disagreement with Gurr — one of which concerns the ability to transmit while in the water,” Hooven told Goerner in a 1982 letter. “I have no doubt that some possibility existed of the transmitter operating with the plane in the water but am quite certain that the battery would not have provided the current to operate it for as much as an hour. So that it is impossible to suppose that the signals that were heard over three days could have been transmitted from a floating plane. It is for that reason that I absolutely agree with Lockheed’s verdict that there was no way for the plane to transmit from the water without the opportunity to run an engine to charge the battery.”

The Electra’s potential flotation time is also unclear. San Francisco Division’s statement that “no fears felt for safety of plane on water” on the third day after a possible water landing was clearly erroneous. In 1998, researcher Bill Prymak, a pilot and engineer whose work in the Marshall Islands is presented in Truth at Last, studied the problem, plotting the Electra’s center of gravity from Lockheed documents and blueprints of the plane. Prymak said he “came to the conclusion that within seconds of a no-damage (a miracle in itself) water landing, the nose would immediately tilt down into the water at a 50 degree angle. For the empty cabin tanks to become buoyancy-effective they would have to be totally submerged, at which point the plane might float for a short while, but the cockpit would be nearly submerged even before the wing tank vents began filling with water. … There were no radio transmissions from Earhart’s plane if it was in the water.”

Prymak estimates the Electra would be completely submerged within an hour or so. Paul Rafford agrees, and writes, “had Earhart ditched, the Electra would have sunk shortly thereafter. An Electra that ditched off Cape Cod a few years later sank in a matter of minutes.”

Other alleged messages were reported in the days following Amelia’s loss, some more believable than others, but I have no desire to tax readers further than has already been done. In my next post, we’ll take at more of what Hooven and other radio experts believed about their possible validity.

 

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