In my last post we briefly looked at the mostly forgotten, sketchy biography of the multi-talented mariner and aviator Fred Noonan up until the time of Amelia Earhart’s March 20, 1937 Luke Field, Hawaii crash on takeoff on the second leg of her first world-flight attempt. Noonan’s fateful decision to stay with Amelia as her sole navigator throughout her next world flight attempt came after her first choice, Harry Manning, quickly withdrew from the team following the near-disastrous Luke Field debacle. The unfortunate mishap, which could have been much worse in terms of injuries or loss of life, did little to bolster Amelia’s reputation as a pilot, despite the official verdict that the ground loop was an unavoidable accident.
Fifty-two years later, Fred Goerner told a Pennsylvania television executive, “It is not correct to blame a tire blowout for the [Luke Field] incident. Harry Manning was in the right hand co-pilot’s seat on the attempted Honolulu takeoff. Manning wrote to me and then told me in tape recordings that the crash was the result of Earhart’s jockeying the throttles on takeoff as she was having trouble controlling the takeoff. The blown tire was a result rather than a cause. Manning said, ‘One second I was looking at the hangars, the next second the water. I was ready to die. It was phenomenal that none of us was injured. She simply lost it. That’s all. I decided then and there that was it for me. I’d been ready to leave anyway because of [George Palmer] Putnam. ’ ”
Manning was likely referring to the publisher’s micro-management of his famous wife’s publicity campaign for the world flight, and his tyrannical insistence that the spotlight remain focused only on Amelia, as if she were the only person in the Electra. Putnam imposed the same conditions on Noonan, but Fred needed the flight so badly, and so filled with promise did the great opportunity appear that he readily accepted the overbearing Putnam’s demands without complaint.
But as we continue our focus on Fred Noonan, we won’t further analyze Amelia’s questionable performance at Luke Field or second guess the decision that cost Noonan his life. Fairly or not, Noonan will always be remembered as the problem drinker who Amelia Earhart trusted with her own life, if he’s remembered at all. By hearing from those who knew Noonan or were close to those who did, and from others who have carefully studied the matter, perhaps we can get a better answer to the questions that will probably never be completely put to rest: Was Noonan an alcoholic, and if so, how bad was his drinking? Most importantly, did Noonan’s drinking have any negative effects on the final, ill-fated flight that terminated at Mili Atoll?
We began with the late Almon Gray, a Navy Reserve captain and Pan American Airways China Clipper flight officer, who flew with Noonan in the 1930s and later brilliantly analyzed Earhart’s radio problems. “Fred obviously was sober at 8 a.m. [July 2],” Gray wrote of his former colleague, “and with all the rush of getting ready to take off he would not have had an opportunity to get drunk before 10 a.m. without someone of the Airways staff knowing about it. I am very confident that Fred was sober and in all respects capable of performing his duties on the Lae-Howland flight.”
Another man who knew Noonan well, at least on the professional level, was Captain Marius Lodeesen, the legendary Pan American Airlines pilot and former naval aviator. In Captain Lodi Speaking: Saying Goodbye to an Era (Paladwr Press, 2004, the second edition of his 1984 book), Lodeesen briefly addressed Noonan’s drinking. Recalling his first meeting with Noonan at Alameda Airport in Oakland, Calif., as the Dutch immigrant began his “adventure of Pan American’s Pacific Service” in 1933, Lodeesen described him as “tall and slender and looking a little like movie star James Stewart,” and said he and Noonan “operated on the same UHF band.”
“Much has been made of Noonan’s drinking,” Lodeesen wrote. “He has been accused of being an alcoholic. He wasn’t one, at least not then.” Later in his page-long narrative, however, the “Flying Dutchman,” as Lodeesen was known, wrote that “his drinking did become an issue” and concluded that Noonan was “of a gentle nature and addicted to drink,” implying though not actually stating that Noonan “found himself out of a job” as a result.
TIGHAR’s Ric Gillespie, well known as “an internationally recognized authority on the Earhart disappearance whose writings have appeared in the Naval Institute’s Proceedingsand Naval Historyand in LIFE Magazine,” according to his Amazon.com profile, has blamed Fred Goerner for fueling the public’s perception of Noonan as a drunk. “The stories about Noonan’s drinking seem to have begun in 1966 with the publication of The Search for Amelia Earhart by Frederick Goerner and are totally without documentary support,” Gillespie declaims on his TIGHAR site. “It is one of the tragedies of the Earhart Legend that an aviation pioneer whose contributions to modern air travel are considerably greater than Earhart’s, is primarily remembered as Amelia Earhart’s drunken navigator.”
But what precisely is this “documentary support” Gillespie says is so lacking in Noonan’s case? Is this just another of his weasel phrases, such as “consistent with,” which we’ve seen can apply to virtually anything that “might have come” or “could have come” from the Earhart plane or even Amelia or Fred themselves, too-clever-by-half dodges that provide convenient escape hatches should the thrust of his latest contention prove to be false, as is virtually always the case?
In fact, Goerner wrote little about Noonan’s drinking. I may have missed something in my quick review of Goerner’s 1966 bestseller, but I found only two relevant passages. On page 30 of the first edition of Search we find this:
“Fred Noonan was a talented and handsome man. Only one major flaw disturbed the image. He could drink a bottle of whiskey in the afternoon, and get through the better part of another in the evening. ‘Boozer,’ ‘drunk,’ ‘lush’ – are hard words, and none of them fit Fred. He was hooked on liquor, yet somehow he always managed to function. He fought his adversary with courage and conviction, but sometimes he lost, and those defeats were costly. One of them caused Pan American to let him go.”
Goerner didn’t elaborate on the “defeat” that caused Pan American “to let him go.” His only other reference to Noonan and booze came on page 33, where he wrote that after Noonan and Mary B. Martinelli were married in Yuma, Arizona, in late March 1937, “their car smashed head-on into another automobile on a highway near Fresno. The investigating police officer cited Fred for driving in the wrong lane. A notation at the bottom of the traffic ticker said: ‘No injuries. Driver had been drinking.’” We’re left to wonder why Noonan wasn’t arrested if he caused such a potentially deadly accident while drinking, but this is all Goerner wrote.
Scottish researcher Jackie Ferrari, about as close to a Noonan biographer as this observer knows, claims Noonan was “let go” at Pan Am in late 1936 as a result of his heavy drinking, although no official announcement was made. “He simply disappeared from the payroll,” Ferrari writes, so that the image-conscious PAA would “not lose face by admitting they had employed Fred when he was in this state.”
Noonan’s life had come undone, Ferrari wrote in her Jackie Ferrari’s Blog on Fred J Noonan, and he was “almost suicidal, according to his friend Marius Lodeesen. There are others who say that something had gone wrong in his life. His marriage was finished and his career effectively ended.” Noonan remarried shortly before leaving for the world flight with Earhart, and the timing of the incredible opportunity seemingly could not have been more fortuitous for the 44-year-old navigator.
In her blog post, titled, The Cincinnati Division, Ferrari, who also owns the Fred Noonan Society Yahoo! discussion group, was adamant about why Noonan lost his job at Pan Am. “Fred Noonan was ‘let go‘ at the end of 1936 for drinking,” she wrote. “He was in the words of a fellow crew member sent to the Cincinnati Division. I am assured by a former PAA navigator that that was the euphemism for ‘getting the boot.‘ What is my evidence for this and how credible it that evidence?
“In the archives of PAA, in Miami,” Ferrari continued, “there exists a series of transcribed interviews between John Leslie, a former PAA executive and several crew from the pioneering days of the Clippers. Two of that crew flew with Fred. They are Victor Wright and Harry Canaday. Both, but particularly Wright tell in no uncertain terms what happened.“ Ferrari goes on:
Fred developed a severe drink problem after Acapulco where the Clipper stopped during its transfer across country from Miami to Alameda. He suddenly found fame according to Wright and it went to his head. Before this he had been “rock steady” with no sign of a “crackup.” He “did a beautiful piece of work.” Then in Acapulco everyone was shaking his hand. Overnight he became a celebrity, invited to all the parties where he regaled the company with seafaring tales. H e was very much in demand and the partying habit continued in Honolulu, Wake, Guam and Manila.
One day he had to be sought out by Wright, who had to get into some “interesting situations” and proceeded to sober him up before his flight. This resulted in a fall in the bathtub which knocked out his front teeth [in Honolulu]. Canada navigated on the way back. One might say that this was “normal behavior” for the aviators of the time. Maybe for some, but not for PAA. Andre Priester, Pan Am’s chief engineer, was known to instantly dismiss anyone under the influence of alcohol. It is a measure of the esteem in which Fred was held that he was tolerated for almost two years.
Wright says that the “Old Man” covered up for Fred. Was that Ed Musick? Or Priester? Or Juan Trippe, Pan Am’s president? They knew he did a faultless job and he was indispensable for the proving flights. But by the time regular passenger carrying service was set up and other navigators were trained his value waned and he became a liability. The company carried very high class personages from heads of state to movie stars.
It simply would not do for them to see the plane’s navigator carried aboard comatose. He had to go. But according to Wright, PAA could not lose face by admitting they had employed Fred when he was in this state. They had too much to lose so he simply disappeared from the payroll. That is why there is no official record of him having been dismissed.
For more of Ferrari on Noonan, please click here.
Earhart biographer Mary Lovell, whose 1989 book, The Sound of Wings, is among the better-known accounts of Amelia’s incredible life, flatly disagreed with Ferrari’s contentions, at least in the 1989 edition of her book. Lovell wrote that Noonan was not dismissed from Pan Am because of his drinking, but “because as a navigator and not a pilot, he could go no further in the company ranks. He had recently married and felt that his navigator’s salary was insufficient for his new needs; he was then 44 years old and wanted to make a new start.” Lovell based this statement on a 1988 interview she had with Elgen and Marie Long.
Later in her book, Lovell wrote, “The stories of his heavy drinking seem too widely based to have no foundation; his contemporaries in the aircraft scene in California all ‘knew’ about this problem of Noonan’s. . . . Noonan was a heavy drinker not an alcoholic but it is ironic that Amelia should once again place her trust, and the success of her flight, in the hands of a man with a reputation as a drinker.” I always wonder how those untrained in clinical diagnosis of alcoholism and far removed in time and place from the subject under discussion can so blithely pass judgment on the status of another individual’s drinking habits.
“A great deal of emphasis has been placed on reports of Fred Noonan getting drunk on the night of their arrival at Lae [June 29] after an argument with Amelia,” Lovell also wrote in The Sound of Wings, citing Ann H. Pellegreno’s 1971 book World Flight as her source. “These reports vary in description and reliable witnesses who were present that night do agree that he got ‘very drunk’ but only after Amelia and Noonan had already taken the decision not to fly on the following day.” In fact, they didn’t fly until the third day, July 2, after Noonan’s June 29 “bender.”
Next, Lovell again turned to her 1988 interview with Elgen and Marie Long, who tell us the following about Noonan’s drinking at Lae:
The argument that caused Noonan to get drunk was over nothing very much. AE had been invited to a dinner party. Noonan was not personally invited though I think this was merely an oversight. Anyway he came down to the bar of the Cecil Hotel to find Eric Chaters [sic] and Jim Collopy all smartened up and ready to go for drinks. When asked if he was going Fred said, “No, but AE is . . . ” leaving no doubt that he was disgruntled, and when asked what he’d have to drink he said “whiskey.” The other guys were all drinking beer but he stayed on whiskey and got very drunk. Next day AE watched him like a hawk to make sure he didn’t drink again.
Twenty years later, in Lovell’s 2009 St. Martin’s Press reprint edition of The Sound of Wings, in a new entry, she quotes Noonan’s boss during his days with Pan Am’s transpacific operations, Clarence L. Shildhauer:
Noonan developed a bad habit of going on a bender and getting lost among Manila’s whorehouses. Before takeoff he’d have to be hunted down and ”poured” aboard the airplane. . . . Noonan was given several warnings about his behavior because, as [his boss] reasonably pointed out, ”it would not inspire confidence among the customers if they were to see the navigator being carried aboard in Manila.”
“Noonan did not wait to be fired, however; he resigned,” Lovell concluded in her 2009 edition, which, at the end, is really not much different from “being let go” without the attendant publicity, fuss and paperwork, is it?
Photos taken just before takeoff at Lae, New Guinea’s primitive airstrip reveal what appears to be a fit and sober Noonan. In a 1985 letter to Fred Goerner, Bob Iredale, a Vacuum Oil Company representative at Lae, offered eyewitness evidence that Noonan was not drunk or hung over on the morning of July 2, an allegation that still lingers. During the fliers’ first night at Lae, Iredale invited Noonan, who was staying with him and fellow Vacuum employee Frank Howard in a large bungalow known as “Voco House,” to join them in their customary evening drink. “I’ve been 3 parts around the world without a drink and now we are here for a couple of days,” Iredale recalled Noonan saying. “I’ll have one. Have you a Vat 69.”
The next morning, Noonan “confessed to Amelia” that he “had a bit of a head and her comment was, ‘Naughty boy, Freddie,’” Iredale wrote. “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 taking off.”
But Lae radio operator Harry Balfour’s 1970 letter to former Itasca Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts, who led the cutter’s 1937 radio crew in its desperate attempts to establish contact with Amelia, tells a different story. “Noonan did not arrive back in Lae until the morning of the takeoff,” Balfour wrote, “and he could not have done any flight planning and also he had been up in the hills at Bulolo – all the time hitting the bottle and she also knew that I had a navigator’s ticket.” Balfour’s claim that he “was asked if I would have liked to go along with her [Amelia] and that was the night before the takeoff” — though he didn’t specify by name who made the strange request — may indicate a tendency to exaggerate.
Alan Vagg, the radio operator at Bulolo, which was 40 miles from Lae, in an interview in Tokyo sometime before publication of the Joe Klaas’ infamous 1970 tome, Amelia Earhart Lives, told Joe Gervais a story that seemed to support Balfour’s contentions that Noonan was busy getting drunk on the evening of July 1. According to Klaas, Vagg told Gervais that Noonan and Jim Collopy, district superintendent of the Australian civil aviation agency in New Guinea, had “hit it off from the first meeting [June 29] and while there had one hell of a good time” while the fliers awaited their last takeoff.
“At 7:30 A.M. on the day of their takeoff from Lae, Jim and Fred had just returned to the local hotel after being out all night living it up,” Vagg told Gervais. “At 8:15 Amelia Earhart arrived at the hotel and knocked on Fred’s door. Jim answered because Fred was asleep.” Thus, according to Vagg as told to Joe Gervais, “Noonan had an absolute maximum of forty-five minutes to sleep off a night-long fling.”
Vincent V. Loomis, in his 1985 book Amelia Earhart: The Final Story, is among those who reported Amelia’s alleged statement to Putnam in a June 26 phone conversation from Bandoeng, Indonesia, as told by Putnam to his friend Van Campen Heilner. According to Heilner, Amelia began the conversation with the remark, “He’s hitting the bottle again and I don’t even know where he’s getting it!” Loomis also echoed Harry Balfour’s questionable story of Noonan’s reckless behavior on the eve of the final flight:
On the evening of July 1, the night before the takeoff from Lae, the two fliers were to retire early, but Fred decided to spend the time drinking with his friends. The next morning, July 2, Fred made it back to his hotel room only 45 minutes before Amelia came pounding on his door to announce they would take off in a couple of hours. According to his drinking cronies of the previous night, Fred had complained of the strenuous pace set for him by Amelia, and found that as good a reason as any for seeking the comforts of the bottle.
So who are we to believe, Balfour via his letter to Chief Leo Bellarts and Vagg via Joe Gervais, or our own eyes, as we consider the photo, as well as a 37-second YouTube video of Amelia and Fred boarding the Electra on July 2, taken just before the pair left Lae, with Noonan appearing especially chipper and well?
It need not come to that. Balfour’s recollection of Noonan’s whereabouts on the evening of July 1 simply cannot be trusted or verified, and is directly contradicted by more than one source. At the request of William Miller, U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce, Eric Chater, general manager of Guinea Airways at Lae, wrote a July 25, 1937 letter detailing events as he recalled them during the American fliers’ stay at Lae.
“At 10.20 p.m. [July 1] a message was heard from all Australian coastal stations requesting all shipping to keep silence for a period of ten minutes during the transmission of the Adelaide time signal which was being awaited by Miss Earhart,” Chater wrote. “Complete silence prevailed during this period and a perfect time signal was received by Captain Noonan, and the machine chronometer was found to be three seconds slow.”
“It was difficult for Noonan to be in two places at the same time, in the radio shack at Lae and at the same time at Bulolo which is 40 miles away from Lae, there were no roads so the only way in and out was by air,” researcher Gary LaPook wrote in an April 24, 2012 message to the Earhart Yahoo! Online discussion group. “Did they fly at night through the mountains in New Guinea in 1937?
“On the night before their departure,” LaPook continued, “Collopy is quoted by [Ann] Pellegreno at page 194 [of her 1971 book, World Flight]. ‘Both were in bed early that night.’ At page 192 [Elgen] Long [author of Amelia Earhart: The Mystery Solved] also states that after the time check they returned to their hotel and were in bed by 11:00 p.m., July 1. ‘The clerk knocked on their doors at 5:30 Friday morning, July 2,’ Long wrote. ‘Collopy was having morning tea with Fred when Amelia came down.’”
Finally, in a taped 1988 interview with Fred Goerner at his home in Australia and reported in Dave Horner’s 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma, Vagg said neither Noonan nor Amelia visited Bulolo while they were at Lae. “While at Lae,” Horner wrote, “Amelia stayed with the family of Eric Chater, general manager of Guinea Airways at Lase, while Noonan stayed at the hotel there, Voco House, with Iredale and Frank Howard of Vacuum Oil Company.”
I hope the preceding is enough to satisfy the curiosity of those who might have wondered, from time to time, what Fred Noonan was really up to in the days and hours before the final flight. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Fred Noonan was a drunk who was guilty of irresponsible, even fatally bad judgment on the eve of the most important flight of his life, or whether he behaved as any other responsible professional would have done when facing such a daunting challenge, regardless of his drinking history.
I have no doubt, based on the personal accounts and other evidence we’ve just seen, that Noonan was sober, alert and fit when the Electra left Lae at 10 a.m., July 2, just as I’m certain that he would never have consciously put Amelia at risk. Of course, those who disagree are free to do so, and it certainly won’t be the last time in the Earhart saga that compelling evidence and common sense came out on the short end.
I’ll start today’s post by citing a few numbers that some might find quite amazing. Do a search for “Amelia Earhart” on Amazon.com, and you will receive exactly 2,208 results, as of Dec. 23, 2014. This doesn’t mean that all 2,208 books are written solely about Amelia Earhart. She might only be prominently mentioned in many, but it’s certain that many hundreds, if not well over 1,000 of these books, are indeed written about Amelia Earhart, a true American original and one of our greatest all-time citizens.
We should also note that well over 99 percent of the Earhart books on Amazon are biographies, novels or fictional works based loosely on her remarkable life. Less than a dozen of these 2,186 books actually attempt to explain Amelia’s disappearance, and only a handful are written and presented in a professional way. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with these books, so I won’t name them here.
But if you do the same search on Amazon for Fred Noonan, Amelia’s navigator during their world-flight attempt up to and including their unsuccessful Lae-to-Howland leg, you’ll find just 142 results. Of these books, none were written solely about him. I repeat: Not one single biography has ever been written about Fred Noonan.
Surely, if only based on his brief professional relationship with Amelia, he deserved at least one biography. But when you consider his extremely impressive accomplishments as a mariner and later as one of the world’s most accomplished navigators, you can come to only one sad conclusion: History has treated Fred Noonan very badly.
Frederick Joseph Noonan was born April 4, 1893 in Cook County, Ill.; we know little about his parents or childhood. In The Search for Amelia Earhart, Fred Goerner wrote that Noonan attended public schools in Chicago as a boy, then a private military academy and the London Nautical College, “but at fifteen, his restlessness drove him to the sea.” Goerner claimed that Noonan joined the Royal Navy during World War I, but I’ve seen nothing to support that, as all other sources say Noonan worked on Merchant ships. Goerner also wrote that during the war “on one trip from London to Montreal, he helped rescue five French soldiers adrift on an ice floe. On another, he was credited with saving the crew of a floundering Portuguese fishing schooner.”
His seafaring life began sometime in his mid- to late-teen years; maritime records indicate that he was an ordinary seaman on the British barque Hecla, probably bound for South America, sometime before 1910, when we know he was an able-bodied seaman aboard the ill-fated British bark Crompton, which wrecked off the southwest Irish coast in November 1910.
He continued working in the Merchant Marine throughout World War I. Serving as an officer on ammunition ships, his wartime service is reputed to have included billets on three vessels that were sunk from under him by U-boats, though in my online searches I’ve found nothing detailing these incidents. A twist of fate saved Noonan from likely losing his life aboard the British cargo ship SS Cairnhill in 1917, when he missed the ship’s departure after being on board for just two days. Cairnhill was “captured and scuttled by U55 (Underwater Boat 55) when 160 miles NW of Fastnet on passage New York for Le Havre, sunk by bombs and her captain was taken as a prisoner,” according to one source.
During his 22-year maritime career as a merchant sailor and officer, he sailed around Cape Horn seven times (three times under sail) and earned a master’s license for oceangoing ships of unlimited tonnage, as well as a license as a Mississippi River pilot, but again, no evidence can be found that he ever piloted a Mississippi riverboat. Noonan married Josephine Sullivan in 1927 at Jackson, Miss. After a honeymoon in Cuba, they settled in New Orleans. Noonan was 34 years old, Josephine, 26.
By the late 1920s Noonan began looking skyward, and he earned a “limited commercial pilot’s license” in 1930, on which he listed his occupation as “aviator.” During the early 1930s, he worked for Pan American World Airways as a navigation instructor in Miami and an airport manager in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, eventually assuming the duties of inspector for all of the company’s airports.
In March 1935, Noonan was the navigator on the first Pan Am Sikorsky S-42 clipper at San Francisco Bay. In April he navigated the historic round-trip China Clipper flight between San Francisco and Honolulu piloted by Ed Musick (who was featured on the cover of Time magazine that year). Noonan was subsequently responsible for mapping Pan Am’s clipper routes across the Pacific Ocean, participating in many flights to Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and Hong Kong. In addition to more modern navigational tools, Noonan as a licensed sea captain was known for carrying a ship’s sextant on these flights.
At some point toward the end of 1936, Noonan lost his job with Pan Am, and in in March 1937 he divorced his wife, Josie, in Mexico; two weeks later he married Mary Beatrice Martinelli (nee Passadori) of Oakland, Calif. After Amelia’s Luke Field accident on March 20, Harry Manning, her first choice as navigator, opted out of the world flight entirely, leaving the navigator’s job wide open for Noonan.
“Earhart’s crack-up in Honolulu is a classic example of how minor events can change world history,” Paul Rafford, Jr., a former navigator-radio operator for PAA in the early 1940s, wrote in his 2006 book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio. “Had she not lost control and ground looped during takeoff, Earhart would have left navigator Fred Noonan at Howland and radio operator Captain Harry Manning in Australia. Then, she would have proceeded around the world alone. Fate decreed otherwise. Although Harry Manning had left the flight crew and gone back to his ship, Noonan would now accompany Earhart for the entire trip around the world. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, the route was changed to west to east instead of east to west.”
Fred Noonan was a respected and accomplished professional, but as a condition of his agreement with the publicity obsessed George Putnam, he kept an extremely low profile during the world flight, never spoke on the radio and was rarely featured in the press. Thus his lasting notoriety in the Earhart saga has been the lingering question of his drinking, and whether it might have adversely affected the final flight. A few more details on Noonan’s career can be found elsewhere, but henceforth we’ll focus on the question of his alleged drinking problem and whether it might have affected his performance during the final flight, which, unfortunately, has been his lasting legacy.
We’ll next hear from a few notables who actually knew Fred Noonan, and foremost among these must be former Navy Capt. Almon Gray, who was a Navy Reserve lieutenant when World War II was declared and retired in 1968 as Chief of Future Plans in the National Communications System. During the mid-1930s, Gray helped build the bases to support the first Pan Am trans-Pacific air service and was first officer-in-charge of the PAA radio station on Wake Island.
After the San Francisco-Hong Kong air route was opened in late 1935, Gray was a radio officer in the China Clipper and her sister flying boats. Later he was assistant superintendent of communications for PAA’s Pacific Division. He flew many trips with Fred Noonan and got to know him well. He even consulted with Amelia, offering her the full resources of the Pan American radio facilities, then in position in the Pacific, for her upcoming final flight, but to his amazement, chagrin and disappointment, she strangely refused such help.
Gray wrote several important articles on the Earhart radio problem that appeared in Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters, including “Amelia Didn’t Know Radio,” which appeared in the November-December 1993 issue of the prestigious U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings magazine. Following is Gray’s poignant reminiscence of Noonan, which appeared in the November 1994 AES Newsletter.
“Fred Noonan as I Knew Him”
It was at Wake Island in August, 1935, that I first met Fred Noonan. I had helped construct the PAA radio communication and direction finding stations there and, at the time, was in charge of them. Fred was the navigator in Capt. Rod Sullivan’s crew, which had brought the first survey flight to Wake, using a Sikorsky S-42 Flying Boat. He was very interested in the radio direction finding and meteorological capabilities of the station and spent considerable time with me and my assistant, viewing and discussing our facilities. I found him to be polite and soft spoken, but very businesslike and obviously very well versed in those matters.
Fred also was the navigator of the survey flight to Guam in October. I boarded the plane at Wake on its return trip and flew to Honolulu in it. That was my first flight with Fred. When I reached Alameda I was checked out as Flight Radio Officer. At this time most of the flights being made were for training purposes and I frequently was crewman on flights where Fred was training navigators or pilots. In that way I got to know him quite well. I was not married at the time so had no social contact with him or his wife. As a fellow crew member he was a very fine person with whom to work. I never saw him get excited but he could act very fast when necessary.
I recall one night while returning from a long training flight we were making a landing on San Francisco Bay through a thin layer of fog, and flew an S-42 right into the water. We hit so hard that the hull was bent till the nose was pointing up about 30 degrees. Almost before I could get straightened up in my seat, Fred was down in the bilges stuffing blankets, pillows and anything else he could find into the cracks of the hull through which the water was pouring. I am sure that had he not acted so swiftly, the plane would have sunk.
While we were laying over at Honolulu or Manila he was pretty much of a loner. If the crew had to make an obligatory appearance as a unit Fred would be there and be sober. However after that he would take off on his own and would not be seen around the hotel again until just before it was time for the crew to leave for the plane. He would be sober but it would be apparent that he had a king sized hangover. Once aboard the plane he would have something to eat and drink some coffee and soon things would be normal. He never, to my knowledge, drank on the plane, or came aboard in such a condition that he could not effectively navigate.
The official reports submitted by New Guinea Airways, the outfit that serviced Earhart’s plane at Lae, show that Fred got a time-tick and rechecked his chronometers at 8 a.m. of the day they left Lae. At that time he and Earhart told the Airways people that everything was ready, and set 10 a.m. as their departure time. Fred obviously was sober at 8 a.m. and with all the rush of getting ready to take off he would not have had an opportunity to get drunk before 10 a.m. without someone of the Airways staff knowing about it.
I am very confident that Fred was sober and in all respects capable of performing his duties on the Lae-Howland flight. He could not however perform miracles. Unless he could see the heavenly bodies he could not use celestial navigation. Radio navigation did not work. That left him only Dead Reckoning, and without current and comprehensive weather reports, DR over a considerable period of time is a risky business. I am confident that Fred did as well for Earhart as anyone could have done under the circumstances that existed. (End of Almon Gray comments.)
Almon Gray passed away on Sept. 26, 1994 in Blue Hill, Maine. In my next post we’ll hear more those who knew Fred Noonan, and perhaps we can come to some well-educated conclusions about Noonan’s reputation as a hard-drinking member of the Golden Age of Aviation.