Tag Archives: Joe Gurr

Goerner’s interviews with radio expert Joe Gurr

Between 1970 and 1987, on at least two occasions and possibly more, Fred Goerner interviewed Joseph Gurr, a flight dispatcher for United Airlines in 1937 and a radio expert who “volunteered” to help Amelia Earhart with her new Electra’s recently installed radio equipment at some unspecified date prior to her first world flight attempt in March 1937.  

Earhart researcher and Amelia Earhart Society member Cam Warren compiled the following excerpts of the Goerner-Gurr interviews, and the following article appeared in the February 1999 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters.    This is the first of three parts.

Joseph Gurr was a flight dispatcher for United Airlines, Burbank, in 1937.   Station Manager John Kimball was his boss and, according to Gurr, he was “a distant cousin” of Amelia.  Kimball was also a good friend of Paul Mantz.

Earhart had just returned from New York with her new airplane, where Bell Labs had worked on the radio equipment.  However, Amelia had not been able to communicate with anyone, nor pick up the radio ranges on the trip.  Gurr had radio experience, so volunteered I had a day off, I think the next day, and I went out there in the morning and found all sorts of little simple things like somebody forgot to connect the antenna lead, and the receiver didn’t work.  I connected it and it worked.  Then I thought if that is the way it is, maybe I’d better check the whole thing over.  It was probably all O.K. except for simple things.”

This was a couple of months before the first attempt — the abortive flight to Honolulu.  Gurr met Harry Manning, and got to know him quite well.  He was a ham radio operator — he knew the code.  Obviously, he was a navigator of the first order.  He was the captain of a very fine ship [and] he was a gentleman of the first order.

In the only photo of Joseph Gurr I have in my files, we see Amelia with Gurr at Burbank, Calif., before her second world flight attempt in June 1937.  Interviewed by Fred Goerner in 1984, Gurr said he had constructed a new top-side antenna on Earhart’s Electra that could be used in a forced landing as long as the storage batteries and transmitter remained above water.  Other experts disagree.

He was very thorough — as an example [Earhart’s] safety equipment.  I will never forget the day he rolled all of it out on the apron.   All the safety gear they were going to use; life-rails and all the various things we had in those days.  A kite — we even flew the kite.  The fellows in the hangar thought that was pretty silly. . . . This man was steeped in safety as the captain of his ship, and he was testing this gear out.   I’ll never forget that — and I helped him.  I was taking gear out of the airplane and going through it with a fine-tooth comb. 

For an antenna, [she] had this trailing wire.  I’ve had some experience with trailing wires. In those days, a nice long wire was very efficient. . . . [But] there were difficulties. . . . You forgot to roll the thing in, you come in for a landing [and] you wrap it around power wires.  Or the weight, the big lead weight there on the bottom, would fall off and kilt Mr. Jones’ cow.  We had all sorts of problems. . . The airlines . . . wouldn’t use it.  I questioned [that antenna] right away and they told me that is the best thing they have on the airplane.  I let it go.

Paul Mantz, accompanied by Gurr and Manning, made numerous test flights with the Electra, frequently traveling as much as 500 miles out to sea.  Gurr was impressed with Manning’s navigation:  “There was no question about it — with a man like that on board, you didn’t have to have a radio.  In those days, radio wasn’t very reliable.”  But Manning was capable with electronics too, experimenting with the trailing wire antenna, running it in and out until he found the length that provided the best performance.  “There wasn’t much power [available from the Western Electric transmitter, but] it could still get out 50-100 miles.”

The first attempt by Earhart, the east-west course, saw her ground-loop the plane in Honolulu. The Electra was returned to Lockheed for a rebuild.  Gurr stated: “I took all the radio gear out and took it home.  All that was involved there was to check it out.  I just simply went through everything with a fine-tooth comb.  I made quite a splash about their antenna system.  The [Lockheed] had an antenna that was about 2 inches off the fuselage.  Obviously, you are not going to radiate much power that way.  I went to work to put a stub up forward at least 18 inches high.  As long as the airplane was in the factory, they didn’t want to do it.  In order to do that, they would have to do a lot of engineering work and would have to be beefed up under the skin.  [We] had quite a bit of discussion.  [If] you get that antenna off the fuselage, and build a V-type antenna, put a lot of wire out there, run a wire to each tail fin, why then we don’t have to rely on that reel.  Then, we could tune the transmitter to that antenna.”

This photo of Josephine Blanco Akiyama with Amelia Earhart’s technical advisor Paul Mantz appeared in the June 1, 1960 issue of the San Mateo Times, with the following caption: “CLUES TO Amelia Earhart’s fate were examined in San Mateo yesterday by famed pilot Paul Mantz, Miss Earhart’s technical advisor. In photo at left, Mantz examines documents with Mrs. Josephine Blanco Akiyama, whose exclusive story in The Times broke the case wide open last week.

Goerner then showed Gurr a copy of a letter from J. W. Gross, then president of Lockheed, in regard to the original radio equipment that had been installed on AE’s Electra.  Gurr said, “This is rather accurate.  I know that receiver and Western Electric transmitter.  This Bendix — now that was nothing more than a radio direction finder.  This particular receiver had one feature that was rather new; that was it operated on more than one bank of frequencies.  The old ranges were on [200] to 400 kc and the airlines had receivers that just tuned that.  In this case, it not only had that particular band but it also had other [higher] frequencies, which was a very good thing.  Then, and I tried to put that point over, she could tune in a broadcast station at night in Honolulu, [and home in on it].  It was a sensitive receiver.  It was a good one.

The radio compass, as he said, was installed elsewhere.  It was not installed at Lockheed. None of this gear was installed at Lockheed as far as I know.  Unless it was installed before she went east and came back again.  Now that is possible.  I know that Bell Labs in New York worked on it. The transmitter?  About 50 watts. You could get that.

Fred: You said you had some changes made.  You had the trailing antenna removed and the V-antenna put in.  I showed you the repair orders from Lockheed that have your name on them.

Gurr: “Yeah. This V-antenna.  The purpose of that was so we would have an auxiliary receiving antenna in case she lost the one up above.  They felt that, this is so much wire, if something should break, this way we have two [antennas].  So they installed that V-antenna underneath, which was similar to what we were using in the airlines.”

Fred: “You really didn’t need the trailing antenna at that point?

Gurr: “No.  In fact, having had airline experience, I just did away with it.” [Seventeen years later — 1987, Gurr denied removing the trailing wire.  When Fred said “. . . there are people who swear up and down that it was removed in Miami.”  Gurr replied: “Yeah, that is probably more true.”]  (Italics TAL editor’s.)

Fred: “There have been those who said that Amelia had the trailing antenna removed because it was too much trouble for her to reel it in and out.  Actually she didn’t need it.  You had advised her that she didn’t need it.

Gurr: “’I didn’t think it was a good idea.  For one thing, it was too hard to make work. The other thing is, they were mechanically very unreliable.  If you were planning a long flight as Amelia was, I wouldn’t depend on any trailing wire

Fred Goerner, circa mid-1960s, behind the microphone at KCBS in San Francisco.

Fred then quoted from yet another Lockheed work order: Install necessary reinforcing for Bendix Radio loop compass. . .

Gurr: “Oh yeah, this is beginning to ring a bell.  We had radio compasses but this was no radio compass [does he mean, “not only a radio compass”?]  This particular Bendix radio receiver [RA-1 or prototype, perhaps].  I seem to feel that the thing was delivered to us, that we installed it.  It was something special, delivered from the Navy Dept.  It was a very sensitive device, but otherwise it was just a loop antenna.  This Bendix to me, at the time, was the slickest piece of gear that she had on board.  This was the thing that would take her around the world.  All she needed to do was use 400 kc.”

Fred: She kept asking, during the flight, for signals to be sent on 7500 kc.

Gurr: She could receive that on the Bendix.  In the daytime, 7500 kc would be good — it would give her several hundred miles, sometimes even more than that.  At night, under certain conditions, it is quite terrific.”  (End of Part I.)


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