More has been written about Amelia Earhart’s final flight and the hours immediately preceding and following it than any other aspect of her disappearance. With the 85th anniversary of Amelia’s last flight now in our rear-views, we hear from Harry Balfour, the radio operator at Lae, New Guinea, officially the last person to carry on a two-way conversation with the doomed flier.
The following letter appeared in the July 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. I don’t have Joe Gervais’ letter that elicited this response from Balfour. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
“A Letter to Joe Gervais from Harry Balfour, Radio Operator at Lae, New Guinea July 1937″
March 4, 1961
Dear Captain Gervais,
I received your letter and the log copy of the Itaska [sic] upon my arrival at Cairns. Both are very interesting, BUT THE LOG IS CONFLICTING. I feel I must give you a picture of the radio setup at Lae and what took place before and after AE arrived at Lae.
The radio equipment [on Lae] was composed of two transmitters, one of 300 watts phone fed into a dipole antenna cut to 3 megacycles [3000 kilocycles or kcs]. This transmitter was remotely controlled from an operating position in the cargo store on the airstrip and was normally operated by the cargo superintendent (Mr. Farnham) for the purpose of getting cargo information from Salamoa, Wau, and Bulolo on phone usually on 6540 kcs; a separate receiving antenna was swung between the hangar and the cargo store.
The second radio transmitter was in the cargo store for the purpose of receiving early morning weather reports from inland, and for communication with Rabaul and Salamoa coast stations which sent and received all our commercial traffic. All AE’s weather reports were received over this circuit from stations on her route, and weather forecast and past weather from Howland. This transmitter was both phone and key, power one kilowatt. The company had one Lockheed and one 5AT Ford fitted with radio. The three Junkers G31 and the Junkers W34 were open cockpit machines, and therefore were not fitted with radio although plans were, I understand, that these machines were to be fitted by the previous manager. But when Eric Chater took over the management he was not so progressive. Although he was a pilot, he had never, to my knowledge, flew a radio equipped aircraft, nor had any other of the pilots in the company.
I had two jobs at Lae: Radio Operator in Charge, and Electrician in charge. Our power supply was a diesel electric generator 3 phase 50 cycle AC 150 kw. This power was more than adequate for the day and night load at Lae. I was also Flight Engineer at weekends occasionally.
We received messages of AE progress from Java onwards to Lae. A message was finally received from Darwin, giving information that she had finally taken off for Lae and giving her estimated ETA. I called the aircraft on 6540, but received no reply at any time, but that was explained later; she had no knowledge that we were equipped for aeronautical communication. On arrival, she was met by all the necessary big shots and plans were made to give them both a great social round-up. She acknowledged the welcome, and was very nice to everybody, and was photographed quite a lot by an amateur photographer, T. O’Dea, who was a part-time manager of Stephens Aircraft Co., a pilot, and a publicity seeker also. But at that time he was not in the employ of Guinea Airways. AE eventually snubbed him; she disliked him.
AE and Fred eventually settled into the hotel at Lae and would not see anyone, but sent a message that she particularly wanted to see me. I went down to the hotel and she wanted all the weather, plus her private messages that had stacked up for her. I went over all these with her in detail, and she asked me if I could come to the hotel every day and bring the weather reports, and any other traffic for her. Fred trotted around quite a bit, I cannot remember everywhere he went, but AE was so enthusiastic over the flight that she did not want to go anywhere or be entertained by the local ladies (much to the anger of the local ladies)! She never even dressed like a woman while she was in Lae.
She had her hair cut short like a man, and wore trousers and checked shirt, and from a short distance looked like a slim, freckled-faced youth. But to talk to, she was very charming and seemed to take in all that was said to her. She was an excellent pilot, and won the respect of our pilots for the way she handled the Lockheed.
I made arrangements to keep the station open for long periods in the evening in case any extra traffic came in via Rabaul. She was very grateful for the extra service, but the management did not like it. However, it was on my own time, and I felt that anything I could do was my business, and that the radio communication was going to be an important factor in the flight. I was anxious to prove to AE that my transmit could (under normal conditions) hold communication with her to the end of her flight (modulation was always very clear on phone). She seemed to be very happy and relieved to know this. The only thing was that it took 15 to 20 minutes to change frequency to 3 megacycles. It meant that I would have to walk to the station, change coils, tune, and walk back to the control room. This I explained, and if she wanted to go to the night frequency she was to allow me that time before coming on again. I was not happy about it because I had never ever used 3 mcs — only for testing with our own Lockheed.
Now comes a very interesting part. During one of our conferences between AE, Fred and myself at the hotel, I was explaining to them how they could make use of shipping along the route, and that I could arrange that she could communicate with ships in range. Also that Rabaul and Nauru could warn ships and keep a lookout for them on 500 kcs or give them weather en route. It was then they both admitted that THEY COULD NOT READ MORSE * and were only able to pick out an individual letter!
* (Prymak note) AES DOES NOT BUY THIS. . . BALFOUR OBVIOUSLY HAD PERSONAL SELF-AGGRANDIZING MOTIVES TO SPREAD THIS LIE. . . . SEE PG. 6 FOR FRED NOONAN’S TRUE MORSE CODE CAPABILITY.
And the night before the flight, they were seriously thinking of making an offer to take me with them. She asked me if I would go along if they decided they could manage with the extra weight. I said that I would consult my wife about it, and let her know later in the evening. However, my wife thought it would be all right. I told AE, and she decided later that I would be of more use to the flight by looking after her interests at this end at the radio station. Furthermore, they would have to sacrifice gas load. I still maintained that a radio operator would have been more use than the extra gas, and that handling a fully loaded machine in any weather is a full-time job unless there are adequate radio facilities along the route. Before she had arrived at this decision she informed me that they were going to arrive in the US [sic] on the 4th of July, if all went well, and that it would be the National Holiday, and that if I had to lose my job by coming with them, she would see that I got a job with PAA.
Apart from the test flight which I mentioned in my letter to you, I checked her DF on the ground. But only two points were checked 000 degrees and 090 degrees, with Salamoa radio station on 500 kcs. The plane at that time was not loaded. Fred was quite happy about it. AE was around the aircraft quite a lot during the day, watching our mechanics going over her engines, and asking quite a lot of questions. I do not recollect what was done to her machine mechanically. That part of the job was in charge of a chap by the name of Herman Hotz, who was an excellent mechanic and a thorough tradesman in every way. The mechanic in charge, or Chief Engineer, was Ted Finn, also a very capable man. Mr. Chater did not like her about the workshop, but he never got around to telling her. He did not appear to go out of his way to help, but only to do the necessary things and no more — or the things HE considered ought to be done. Mr. Chater seemed to consider that the flight was a bit of a nuisance, and that they were upsetting the routine of the company, and that is where I tangled with him.
My own personal opinion about the flight was that it was not particularly hazardous, because she had a good machine, good radio, a navigator who was an ex PAA man, with radio assistance at both ends, plenty of fuel, and up-to-date weather reports with an excellent forecast before take-off. I have since flown with Quantas many trips 3,600 miles non-stop, carrying mail and passengers on twin engine Catalinas through Japanese occupied territory from Perth to Ceylon — 29 to 30 hours from take-off to landing. I would consider our conditions almost similar to hers — just a flying gas tank. But we had to put up with radio silence. I did remark to AE one day, looking inside the fuselage, that even if she had to ditch, that enormous cylindrical gas tank that she carried inside would keep them afloat. I doubt it would ever sink — that is if it did not break up on landing.
Now with regard to the airmail covers, I have no reason to doubt that they were on the inside. I did notice a couple of bags or sacks in the tail end. They were not very big, but I don’t know what they contained.
The items she left with me were: radio facilities, books, personal telegrams, pistol and ammunition, a spare jacket, and clip board. These items are all scattered; I don’t remember what happened to the jacket, the radio facilities book with her notes, and telegrams. As far as I know, they are still in Sydney. I have not seen them for a long time. I did not have time to try and get them in Sydney as our stay was too short, and also my wife and I have been separated now for some years. She still has them — also photos. With regard to the log, I have written Mr. [Jim] Collopy, who may be able to dig it up from the archives at civil aviation headquarters in Melbourne. He was at that time Govt. Aircraft Inspector, living in Salamoa, but more about that when I see you. My log and my report was handed over to Mr. Chater, and it was shortly after that I had a big disagreement with the management, resigned, and went to sea until I joined Quantas. I did criticize the company in my report for not allowing me more time in which to carry out further checks on her radio equipment, and that I was told to close the station after 8 P.M. the day of her take-off. We had no means of taking any radio bearings at Lae, but I felt that if I had stayed on all night, I may have been able to pick up something or QSO [contact] the Itasca.
My last schedule with her was at either 7:15 or 7:45 PM Lae time, in which she reported everything O.K. and on course at 7,500 feet — and she would change to 3105 [kcs] for next schedule. In the meantime, I rushed home and had something to eat and drove back to the strip as soon as possible. Without my log I cannot remember whether it was 7:15 of 7:45 that I last contacted her on 6210/6540 [kcs], but she was loud and clear. I particularly asked her not to change frequency because there was no need to do that. Communication up to that time was excellent, and during the day people working in the cargo store could hear her over the loud speaker.
My opinion why she wanted to change frequency was to try and contact the Itasca, thinking that the night frequency was better. I did hear her voice through the static, but unable to distinguish any sense from the signal. In fact I could not even say if it was her. The signal I received may have been from the Itasca. It was a night of fairly heavy static for phone operation, but a radio operator using Morse could have gotten through.
With regard to AE’s papers, I could obtain them, or you could, as they are of no use to anyone else but you. If you do go to Australia, you certainly could get them. I will fix that up.
Yours very sincerely,
Regarding Bill Prymak’s note that readers should “SEE PG. 6 FOR FRED NOONAN’S TRUE MORSE CODE CAPABILITY,“ he’s referencing a 1988 letter from Alan Vagg, a radio operator at Bulolo, New Guinea, 40 miles southwest of Lae, to Fred Goerner, in which he makes some confusing, even conflicting statements, the truth of which remains fuzzy. In writing about this letter in Truth at Last, I made the mistake of omitting a key sentence, which I will include now.
On page 46 of Truth at Last (2nd Edition), I wrote:
Although most researchers believe the Electra carried no telegraph key on its flight to Howland Island — a reasonable assumption based on Earhart’s own statements — we cannot be certain. Noonan could have kept a telegraph key for emergency use without telling anyone. Alan Vagg, the radio operator at Bulolo, forty miles southwest of Lae, claimed he had radiotelegraph communication with Noonan during the Electra’s flight from Darwin, Australia, to Lae. In a 1988 letter to Fred Goerner, Vagg said he “was impressed with the quality of Noonan’s Morse. Slow but very clear and easy to read. This is based on the first contact made with the plane when I contacted it on its flight to Lae from Darwin. This was done following an instruction from our Head Office in Sydney to endeavor to contact them.“
The foregoing could easily influence the reader to believe that Noonan used Morse code to communicate with Alan Vagg during his approach to Lae, but I inadvertently omitted statements by Vagg in the same letter to Goerner that might contradict his assertion about Noonan’s Morse usage.
“Re the Amelia Earhart case,” Vagg wrote in the second paragraph, “I found the copies of correspondence that you sent of great interest, and realize that it is quite possible that I was wrong in stating that Morse was used. I am surprised that Balfour did not mention that we both worked in it together, and took alternate turns to work the aircraft throughout the day.”
Much later in Vagg’s letter, he returned to the subject of Noonan’s alleged Morse usage:
As Harry and myself were communicating with each other frequently during the day in question and taking it in turns to work the aircraft, we could have been constantly changing from voice to aircraft and Morse between stations, which was normal. This and the time lapse could account for my mis-statement [sic] re the methods of communication.
Others were more familiar with Noonan’s radio capabilities, including Almon Gray, who, with the possible exception of Paul Rafford Jr., was qualified to discuss Amelia Earhart’s radio arrangements and behavior. In Gray’s “Amelia Earhart and Radio” his lengthy analysis that first appeared in the June 1993 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, he wrote in part:
From personal observation the writer knows that as of late 1935 Noonan could send and receive plain language at slow speeds, around eight to 10 words per minute. Recent research by Noonan biographer Michael A. Lang has revealed that circa 1931 Noonan held a Second Class Commercial Radio Operator license issued by the Radio Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Second Class licenses of that vintage certify that the holder has been examined and passed the following elements:
. . . (c) Transmitting and sound reading at a speed of not less than sixteen words a minute Continental Morse in code groups and twenty words a minute in plain language. (Italics mine.)
So much for Noonan’s alleged Morse code usage during the world flight attempt, for what it’s worth. For many more discussions by experts on various aspects of the final flight, please click here.
In ’85 letter, eyewitness describes Earhart’s takeoff, Insists Noonan “had no drink” before last flight
Bob Iredale, Socony-Vacuum Corp. manager at Lae, New Guinea, spent two days with Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan before the last leg of their world flight attempt in early July 1937. In this 1985 missive, he offers Fred Goerner a firsthand account of their last takeoff, plus his opinion about what happened later. The following letter appeared in the November 1998 issue of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface emphasis mine throughout.
Victoria Aust. 3931
July 28, 1985
Dear Mr. Goerner,
Through good work by Australia Post, I received your letter 15 days after your post date of July 11. I am glad to be able to assist your research about Amelia Earhart, as I have read many views by writers, example, spying for the U.S. against Japanese in the Marianas, beheaded by the Japs, still alive in the U.S., etc., etc., all of which to me is a lot of sensationalist garbage.
C.K. Gamble was president of the Vacuum Oil Co., a subsidiary of U.S. Standard Vacuum, when he was a young man. Fred Haig, our Aviation officer, and I knew him quite well, then and later. Up until a year ago I chatted to him about Amelia many times and he recorded the views I’ll relate to you. Fred left the Planet over 12 months ago, hence no response to your letters. He was in his 80s.
Yes, I fueled the Lockheed and did it personally. Fred had arranged 20 x 44 gallon drums of Avgas 80 octane shipped out to us from California many months before. I can assure you all tanks were absolutely full — the wing tanks and those inside the fuselage. After she had done a test flight, I topped them up again before her final take-off. I think she took somewhere around 800 gallons all up. Fred Noonan was with me at the fueling and checked it out. He was also with me when we changed the engine oil, as was Amelia. I enclose a much faded photo, me in white, Fred in brown, and Amelia leaning on the trailing edge of the wing. [Photo not available.]
You are aware that because of an unfavorable weather forecast from Darwin (some 700 miles SW of Lae), of at least 2 days, Amelia decided on a two-day layover at Lae. She stayed with Eric Chater, General Manager of Guinea Airways, and Fred with Frank Howard and myself at Voco House. Frank and I shared quite a large bungalow as the two representatives of Vacuum Oil in N.G. He died, unfortunately, in 1962. As was our custom, we had a drink in the evening — 90 degrees F, and 95 percent humidity made it that way.
We asked Fred if he would join us the first night, and his comment was, “I’ve been 3 parts around the world without a drink and now we are here for a couple of days, I’ll have one. Have you a Vat 69?” I did happen to have one so the three of us knocked it off. He confessed to Amelia next morning he had a bit of a head, and her comment was, “Naughty boy, Freddie.” That was the only drink session we had, and to suggest he was inebriated before they took off is mischievous nonsense. I can assure you or anyone he had no drink for at least 24 hours before take-off.
We talked a lot about his experience as a Captain on the China Clippers flying from the West Coast to China, and he told us of his expertise in Astro-navigation, amongst other things. We all talked about ourselves, and he showed great interest in our life at Lae. He came around our little depot, where we stored drums of petrol, oil, and kerosene in the jungle to keep the sun off, etc. He told us how keen Amelia was to write a book about the flight, and the different people.
In the two days at Lae, she tried to learn pidgin English and talk to the [natives], and about her ability wherever they landed to take the cowls off the engines and do a Daily Inspection. A remarkable woman, and he has great admiration for her ability. He spent a lot of time with me in Guinea Airways hanger, and around the airfield, looking at the JU31’s, the tri-motored metal Junkers planes that flew our produce and the dredge up to Bulolo, how they were loaded with cranes and all that.
Their final take-off was something to see. We had a grass strip some 900/1000 yards long, one end the jungle, the other the sea. Amelia tucked the tail of the plane almost into the jungle, brakes on, engines full bore, and let go. They were still on the ground at the end of the strip. It took off, lowered toward the water some 30 feet below, and the props made ripples on the water. Gradually they gained height, and some 15 miles out, I guess they may have been at 200 feet. The radio operator at Guinea Airways kept contact by Morse for about 1,000 miles where they were on course at 10,000 feet, and got out of range.
In 1940, I joined the Australian Air Force as a pilot, trained in Canada, and operated in England with the RAF before being promoted to a Wing Commander, commanding an Australian Mosquito Squadron attached to the 2nd Tactical Air Force. I did 70 missions in all sorts of weather, awarded Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, French Croix de Guerre with Palm for blowing up a prison in France, and other operations for the French. I mention this only as that experience confirmed what I believe happened to Amelia. It is just another view.
The possibility is that they ran into bad weather, 10/10th cloud up to 30,000 feet at the equator, which negated Fred’s ability of Astro-navigation; he would have relied on DR navigation where wind can put you 50 miles off course, cloud base too low to get below it because the altimeter is all to hell if you do not know the barometric pressure, and to see a searchlight provided by a U.S. Cruiser under those circumstances would be impossible. My guess is they got to where Howland Island should have been in the dark, spent an hour looking for it, before having to ditch somewhere within a 50 mile radius of Howland. I find it hard to accept anything else.
I hope I have not bored you. If I can provide anything at all beyond these comments, do write. As long as I am above ground, I’ll reply.
P.S. Can I get your first book in Australia?
Doubtless Iredale could have obtained The Search for Amelia Earhart, Goerner’s only book, in Australia, though the shipping and handling charges might have been a bit stiff. He certainly needed to read it closely, considering his closing statement, “My guess is they got to where Howland Island should have been in the dark, spent an hour looking for it, before having to ditch somewhere within a 50 mile radius of Howland. I find it hard to accept anything else.”
Perhaps Iredale’s most important contribution in this letter is his up-close-and-personal account of drinking Vat 69 with Fred Noonan two nights before the doomed fliers took off, and his assurance to Goerner, that “he had no drink for at least 24 hours before take-off.”
For an extensive examination of the always-controversial issue of Noonan’s drinking, please see my Jan. 6, 2015 post, “Fred Noonan’s drinking: In search of the true story.”
I don’t believe I have Goerner’s reply to Iredale, but if anyone out there does, please let me know and I’ll be glad to post it.