Conclusion of Rafford on radio in AE “Mystery”
Today we present the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s fascinating and thought-provoking analysis of Amelia Earhart’s final flight, “Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery,” previously unpublished. Rafford sent this gem to the Amelia Earhart Society’s online forum in 2008, too late for admission to the AES Newsletters.
Conclusion of “Amateur radio’s part in the Amelia Earhart Mystery”
by Paul Rafford Jr.
Government records claim that after the shore party was hastily called back to Itasca, four radio operators remained behind to man the Howland direction finder. They were Yau Fai Lum, Henry Lau, Frank Cipriani and Ah Kin Leong. The latter three were part of the shore party while Lum was the resident radio operator. Supposedly, they operated the station for nearly two weeks, keeping nightly vigil on 3105 kHz. Their logs can be found in the government’s Earhart files.
However, close inspection of the records shows that Cipriani signed off with Itasca at 0802 July 2, stating “No signals on 3105 and impossible to work.” The shore party was ordered to return at 0826 and arrived aboard Itasca at 0912. There is no evidence indicating that Cipriani and the others were told to remain behind. No reference to the group appears in the records until July 5. At 0001 a message is allegedly received by K6GNW from Itasca. It orders the Chinese boys to assist Cipriani in manning the direction finder during Itasca’s search. Are we to believe that Cipriani and the others, having made a last-minute decision on their own to stay on Howland are now, three days later being pressed into service to man the direction finder?
When John Riley questioned Lum, he was vehement in declaring that Cipriani, Leong and Lau had returned to the ship as soon as word was received that it was about to leave on a search for the missing flyers. In a letter to Riley dated September 4, 1994 Ah Kin Leong backs up Lum. He declares, “No idea who wrote the false log. Stood no watches on Howland Island. Cipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”
In October 1994, Lum wrote Riley as follows, “This letter from Ah Kin Leong proves that I am right and Captain Thompson’s report is not accurate. If we were watch standers we would have spoken to Cipriani at least 16 times when we change shifts in monitoring Earhart. This never happened. I have never seen the CG equipment nor did Cipriani ever come over to look at my equipment. I stand by my previous statement, ‘The radio report is false!’ ”
In his answer to Lum, Riley sums up the situation as follows: “Unfortunately, if the Itasca log is partly fraudulent, it means that all research since Earhart disappeared, whether conducted by Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, or by private parties, has been based on deliberate misinformation put out by a few. The radio logs of the Itasca are the most fundamental, most primary, of reference material. Nothing else compares. They supposedly tell us what is known of this tragedy.” If, as it appears, the Howland logs are forgeries, what would have been gained by such a subterfuge and who would have directed it?
[See my March 30, 2022 post, “Rafford and Horner on the bogus Howland log” for the full story on Yau Fai Lum’s claim that challenged the veracity of the Howland radio log, and thus the Coast Guard’s version of the final hours of the Earhart flight.]
Exactly three years after Earhart and Noonan disappeared, I joined Pan American Airways as a flight radio officer. I soon met several people who were involved one way or another in the mystery and/or knew Fred Noonan. My first boss, Harry Drake had shared bachelor quarters with Fred in Miami during the mid-1930’s. Later, Harry was the station manager at Caripito, Venezuela where the flyers spent their second night. He offered to collect the latest weather forecasts along the route they would follow the next day. Earhart rebuffed him with, “I don’t need that! I got it all back in California.”
“The latest weather?” Harry mused to himself. Nevertheless, he sat up all night collecting the weather as promised. But to no avail! Just as he pulled into the airport parking lot he heard the roar of her engines as she took off. The thought struck him, “I wonder if I’ll ever see Fred alive again?”
My first assignment with Pan Am was on the training plane flying with John Ray, instrument flight instructor. John had been moonlighting an aviation radio service business when he was contracted to remove Earhart’s trailing antenna. She had just arrived from California at the start of her round-the-world flight. Her explanation to reporters was that she had it removed to save weight and the bother of reeling it out and in. But the weight saving would be little more than a gallon of gas, while Noonan was familiar with the operation of trailing antennas aboard our Pan Am planes.
For years I wondered why Earhart would have discarded her trailing antenna. I even built a model of her plane on a scale of 9 to 1, transmitting on a frequency 9 times 3105 kHz. I equipped it with both a trailing antenna and a fixed antenna. I discovered that transmissions on 3105 kHz with the small, fixed antenna would have been 20 dB (decibels), weaker than with a quarter wave trailing antenna. To check the experimentally derived measurements, I referred to the antenna formulas in my engineering hand books. After working the equations, I found the theoretical values very closely matched my experimental values. Earhart’s fixed antenna radiated only one-half watt on 3105 kHz.
During World War II, I discussed the Earhart disappearance with our Miami radio engineer, Charlie Winter. He had offered Earhart the services of the Pan Am direction finding net in the Pacific if she would carry a Pan Am frequency. She rejected his offer with a terse, ”I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.” Charlie wasn’t offering to send the positions back to her. He was merely offering a flight following service in case of an emergency. But Earhart would have none of it! Why? Didn’t she want anyone to know where she was?
Also during World War II, I met Bill Galten after he came to work for Pan Am. He had been the Itasca radio operator assigned to contact Earhart. Despite his more than fifty calls on all his frequencies, she never answered him. Her method of operating was to suddenly come on 3105 kHz. without a call-up, deliver a brief message and be off, all in less than ten seconds. [Navy] Radioman Cipriani, manning the portable direction finder on Howland, never had a chance to get a bearing.
Bill Galten expressed his opinion to me, “Paul, that woman never intended to land on Howland!” There were several reasons. Chief among them was the bird problem. Howland, the tip of an extinct underwater volcano, was the home of thousands of sea birds, many as large as turkeys. They found its runways an ideal nesting spot.
Yau Fai Lum wrote me how he had watched an attempt to disburse the birds by setting off a dynamite charge the day before Earhart’s expected arrival. “The birds leaped in the air, fluttered around for about ten seconds and then settled right back down again.” Because of the bird problem, Howland’s runways were never used except in emergencies. Today, the island is a bird sanctuary. Visitors, such as ham DX-peditions, must be accompanied by U.S. Government officials. For a DX-pedition, how far away from the rest of the world can you get than the intersection of the equator and the International Date Line?
While working for Pan Am in Miami I had known Bob Thibert when he was head of Pan Am’s electronic overhaul shops during the 1970’s. But it was not until the early 1990s that I learned he had installed and calibrated a radio direction finding loop on Earhart’s plane the day before she left Miami. But pictures of the plane arriving at Miami from California show that it already had a loop. What was going on here! When I queried Bob he was quite surprised. No, he hadn’t seen any evidence that a loop might have been installed previously.
I realized we must be dealing with two different planes, but why the great secrecy? And where could that second plane have come from? Also, Thibert was surprised to learn that John Ray had worked on Earhart’s plane before he did. Why hadn’t Pan Am’s radio shop removed the trailing antenna at the same time it performed the other work?
It was not until just recently that I got some answers. The publisher of my book, AMELIA EARHART’S RADIO, Douglas Westfall of the Paragon Agency (SpecialBooks.com) uncovered some interesting historical facts. Less than a month before Earhart and Noonan left Miami, a sister ship of their Electra, the Daily Express had flown round trip between New York and London. It carried pictures of the Hindenburg disaster to London and returned with pictures of King George’s coronation. It was billed as the first commercial flight to fly the Atlantic.
Pictures show the Daily Express had no radio loop or trailing antenna during the London flight. I maintain it was secretly swapped with Earhart’s Electra after John Ray removed the trailing antenna. Earhart didn’t want a trailing antenna but she did need a direction finding loop. This is where Bob Thibert came into the picture. As he told me, the morning before she left Miami his boss handed him a new loop and told him to install and calibrate it immediately.
But why swap the original plane for the Daily Express? There were two reasons. Primarily it had 100 gallons greater fuel capacity and had already flown round trip between New York and London, non-stop each way. Secondly, on Earhart’s first attempt to circle the globe she had cracked up at Honolulu. Although Lockheed had repaired her plane, it was no longer a factory fresh model. By contrast, the Daily Express was a proven flyer. But why all the secrecy?
There is evidence that Earhart finally came down in the Marshall Islands, occupied by Japan. She could have reached them without Noonan’s help by homing in on the high-power AM broadcasting station on Jaluit with her loop. After over heading it she could have followed a bearing from it to the only land plane field in the Marshall Islands, Roi Namur. But legend has it that she was forced down by a carrier-based fighter pilot before she could reach it. In any case it was a very inappropriate time for an American to land in the Marshalls — Japan went to war with China just five days later!
Fast forward to 2004. Little had I realized that my fellow engineer on the Space Program, James Raymond Knighton, W4BCX would later work on Roi Namur when I delivered my Earhart speech to our Pan Am Management Club. Later, he provided me with a fascinating story:
I was on Kwajelein from 1999 to 2001, living on Kwajelein Island but working on Roi-Namur, which is 50 miles north of Kwajalein. I flew back and forth each day to work.
One day during lunch I was walking around Roi and I happened across an old Marshallese who was very friendly. He was back visiting Roi after a long time. He was very talky and spoke pretty good English. He was excited because he was born on Roi-Namur and lived there during the Japanese occupation and the capture by the Marines in 1944. Of course I was interested in his story of how it was living under the Japanese and the invasion. I was very inquisitive and he was happy to talk about old times.
Then he said he saw Amelia Earhart on Roi when he was a young boy. It was the first white woman he had ever seen and he could not get over her blond hair. Basically, he told me that Earhart crashed on the Marshall Island of Mili. The Japanese had gotten her and brought her to Roi, the only place that transport planes could land.
Sadly, John Riley joined silent keys before we had a chance to work together in writing this article. However, he had already shared his files with me so at least I have been able to work with his notes as well as my own.
Paul Rafford Jr., July 23, 2008 (End of Rafford article.)
Rafford, among the last of the original members of Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society, passed away on Dec. 10, 2016 at age 97.
Rafford and Horner on the bogus Howland log
Today we take a look at the Howland Island radio log through the eyes of two of history’s most accomplished and respected Earhart researchers, Paul Rafford Jr. and Dave Horner. The questions raised by the multiple discrepancies between the two sets of radio logs associated with the Earhart flight, the radio room of the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca and the one kept on Howland Island, are disturbing to say the least, and open doors to a wide range of justifiable speculation about what was really going on during those critical hours in the morning of July 2, 1937.
The following article appeared in the March 1998 edition of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Boldface and italic emphasis mine unless noted.
“The Cipriani/Howland Island Radio Log: Fact or Fiction?”
by Paul Rafford Jr., Jan. 25, 1998
In 1994, while looking for a friend’s address in the Radio Amateur Call Book, former Naval Officer and retired radio engineer John P. Riley suddenly caught sight of a familiar name, Yau Fai Lum. This had been the name of the radio operator on Howland Island during Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated flight. Could the Yau Fai Lum listed in the call book be the same one? — He was! And as a result, John’s discovery set in motion an exchange of correspondence with Lum that now challenges the credibility of the Coast Guard’s Earhart files.
Howland was one of the Pacific islands occupied by the United States during the 1930s using civilian personnel under contract to the Department of Interior. In addition to sustaining America’s claim to the islands, the “colonists“ collected weather information and radioed it to Honolulu. In order to keep expenses to a minimum, the Department used adventurous young amateur radio operators and their equipment to man the weather network, rather than professionals.
By chance, three of these radio operators were on Howland at the time Earhart was to arrive. Yau Fai Lum was the operator assigned to Howland, while Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau were traveling aboard the Itasca, en route either to or from their assignments on Baker and Jarvis. They were sent ashore to help prepare for Earhart’s arrival. [Coast Guard] Radioman [2nd Class] Frank Cipriani, ashore from the Itasca, was assigned to operate the high frequency direction finder.
According to the Itasca’s report and radio logs, after the ship departed in search of Earhart, Cipriani, Leong, and Lau remained on the island with Lum. Under Cipriani’s direction, they would maintain a watch on her frequencies and use the direction finder to obtain bearings, if possible. Except during periods of battery charging, contact would be made with the Itasca every few hours.
Copies of the Howland radio log, allegedly kept by Cipriani and the Interior Department radio operators, can be found in the National Archives. The entries reflect bona fide activities that would be expected to occur, such as watch changes, battery charging periods, attempts at direction finding, and exchanges of communication with the Itasca. However, there is one obvious error. Items that we know happened on July 2 carried a July 3 dateline.
After locating Lum, Riley exchanged correspondence with him for several months. Although suffering from the infirmities of old age, Lum’s mind was clear and memory good. But, to Riley’s amazement, he completely denied having taken any part in keeping radio watches for Cipriani. In fact, Lum denied ever having met him.
When Riley pointed out his difficulty in believing that the two men could have lived together on Howland for two weeks without meeting, Lum emphatically declared that Cipriani had not been on the island during that period. But he did not deny that Cipriani could have been on the island for brief periods before Earhart’s disappearance. He pointed out that any work Cipriani did would have been in the Coast Guard’s own radio shack, some distance from Lum’s station at Government House. He writes, “I did not interfere with their duties and stayed out of the way.”
Henry Lau was now deceased, but Lum was able to put Riley in touch with Leong. He verified what Lum had claimed, and wrote the following:
Sept. 4, 1994
“No idea who wrote the false log. I stand no radio watch on Howland Island. Cipriani, Henry Lau and me were on the Coast Guard cutter Itasca when it left Howland Island looking for Earhart.”
By law, radio operators must sign their names when going on and off watch. However, Lum’s first name, Yau, is repeatedly misspelled ’Yat’. His comment is, “If I really wrote that log, how come I misspelled my own name?”
If, as it appears, the Howland log is a fraud, then what about the authenticity of the Itasca’s log? In order to check it, those entries in the Howland log referring to contacts with the Itasca were compared with the Itasca’s log entries. In nearly all cases where the Howland log indicates a contact with the Itasca, there is a corresponding entry in the Itasca’s log. So, if the Howland log is a forgery, then at least some of the entries in the Itasca’s log are forgeries.
Sixty years later, which are we to believe: the word of two old gentlemen who have no reason to bear false witness: — or our Government’s questionable records? I prefer to believe the two elderly gentlemen.
But, we must question, if the log is false why would our Government have engaged in such a surreptitious effort to make it appear that Earhart’s frequency was monitored with a direction finder on Howland for ten days after her disappearance? But if true, why classify it for 25 years? (End of Rafford’s comments. Rafford passed away in December 2016 at 97.)
Even more comprehensively than Rafford, Dave Horner, and author and former AES member who’s still with us, examines this complex situation and devotes his entire Chapter 6, “The Howland Direction Finder,” in his fine 2013 book, The Earhart Enigma (Pelican Publishing Co.), to a comprehensive look at the Howland Island direction finder, the personnel assigned to Howland Island and the serious questions the phony Howland Island radio log raised and continues to raise about Earhart’s final flight.
In his wide-ranging chapter, Horner expands on the information Rafford referenced in his AES Newsletters story from radio propagation expert John P. Riley Jr.’s 2000 story, “The Earhart Tragedy: Old Mystery, New Hypothesis,” which appeared in the August 2000 issue of Naval History Magazine (available by subscription only). Other sources Horner cites are 1994 and 1995 letters from Yau Fai Lum to John Riley, and Rafford himself. None of it puts Cmdr. Warner Thompson in a favorable light.
Horner begins this lengthy, complex chapter by stating that the “July 29 [actually July 19] 1937 report “Earhart Flight” [Radio transcripts, Earhart flight] by Cmdr. Warner K. Thompson, Itasca’s commanding officer “raised more questions than it answered.”
This is a huge understatement, and the confusing situation among personnel on Howland Island, as well as the capabilities of the direction finder placed there to assist in helping Earhart find a safe landing on Howland, doesn’t easily lend itself to a complete treatment here, given the limitations of this blog and its editor, who has never possessed or claimed any significant degree of technical acumen.
Unlike some, Horner held Rafford in some esteem, calling the former NASA specialist “always a gentleman,” and drew from his work throughout Chapter 6 of The Earhart Enigma.
“This whole affair of the Howland DF log didn’t get messy until Yau Fai Lum claimed years later that Cipriani did not remain on Howland but returned to the ship,” Horner wrote. “All of this surfaced in the early 1990s, when Lum told Earhart researcher and author Paul Rafford and John Riley, both contemporary radio experts, that he had never even met Cipriani.” Horner continued:
Rafford was stunned. “Never met Cipriani? According to the log of the Itasca you were on that flyspeck of an island for over two weeks with him. How could you possibly not have met him in all of that time?”
Lum responded directly and to the point. Cipriani was only on Howland Island the evening before and early morning of Earhart’s anticipated arrival.
. . . Rafford continued his questions of Lum: “There are daily direction finding reports written until the search was over. Your name is there, along with Cipriani’s. [Ah Kin] Leong, and [Henry] Lau. You all stood FD watches. Your name is right there in black and white! How can you deny this?”
Lum illustrated this disparity with one immeasurable comment: If I signed or typed the log, how could I misspell my own name? Yat instead of Yau [Italics Horner’s.] Our names as well as our call signs are typed, not signed by us. It is a counterfeit!”
Horner called the above “an almost unbelievable development. The Itasca report from Commander Thompson placed Ah Kin Leong and Henry Lau ashore on Howland Island in order to assist Cipriani staff the high-frequency DF. But Lum asserted, ‘That is a false report, full of –.’ ” Lum explained that neither he nor any of the radio operators on Howland were trained or capable of operating the high frequency direction finder — Cipriani was the only one there who was trained to operative the HF/DF.
All this should be disturbing to anyone who has put any faith in the official Itasca Radio Logs, Itasca Cruise Report or “Radio transcripts, Earhart flight,” all of which were produced by or under the auspices and responsibility of Cmdr. Thompson.
Big questions have never been answered, to wit: Who tampered with the Itasca and Howland Island logs, and why? Just as disturbingly, what other changes were made to the Itasca and Howland logs — what might have been added, subtracted or in any way made to misrepresent the truth about Earhart’s final flight and the hours immediately after her last message at 0843 Howland Island time?
See my March 31, 2015 post, “Amelia Earhart and the Morgenthau Connection: What did FDR’s treasury secretary really know?” as you further consider what really occurred in the final hours of the Earhart flight, as well as how and why these strange, irregular occurrences have affected the entire official face of the Earhart disappearance.
In a 1973 interview with crashed-and-sank author Elgen Long, former Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts said, “One or two things should never be published as long as anyone on the Itasca remains alive.” What could Bellarts have meant?
For anyone who’s interested in further studying the Howland Island direction finder and all that it entailed, I strongly recommend The Earhart Enigma, available in used, inexpensive copies on Amazon, as well as new.
Rafford’s questions about Earhart comms conclusion
We continue with the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s “Amelia Earhart – Some Unanswered Questions About Her Radio Communication and Direction Finding” This analysis appeared in the September 1993 issue of the AES Newsletters. Boldface emphasis mine throughout; underline emphasis in original AES Newsletters version.
“Amelia Earhart – Some Unanswered Questions About Her Radio Communication and Direction Finding” (Part II of two.)
by Paul Rafford Jr.
June 22, 1993
Why was the Howland direction finder never able to get bearings on Earhart?
The reasons here are several fold. Primarily, it was because Earhart never stayed on the air long enough for an operator to take a bearing. But, even if she had stayed on longer, the combination of her low transmitting power with the inadequacy of the jerry-rigged aircraft DF on Howland, would have limited its range to less than 50 miles. In other words, on a clear day she could have seen the island before the island could have taken a bearing on her.
The questions that arise out of this fiasco are:
1) Why did whoever organized the project of setting up the direction finder on Howland not know of its extreme limitation?
2) Why did Earhart, supposedly a consultant to the government on airborne direction finders, never stay on the air more than seven or eight seconds?
Why did Earhart ask for 7500 kHz [kilohertz] in order to take bearings on the Itasca, considering it could not be used with her direction finder?
Supposedly, “7500” came about through Earhart’s ignorance of the two different designations for radio channels. It has been theorized that she confused 750.0 meters with 7500 kHz. Of course, 750.0 meters is 400 kHz, a bona fide beacon frequency, while 7500 kHz is 40 meters.
It would appear that not only did she get meters and kilocycles mixed up but she overlooked the decimal point.
Bob Lieson, a former co-worker of mine had done a stint on Howland Island as radio operator shortly after Earhart’s disappearance. I asked him if the Itasca might have used 7500 kHz for any other purpose than to send dashes for Earhart. “Oh yes,” he replied, “We used 40 meters for contact with the Coast Guard cutters when they were standing off shore.”
This brings up two questions:
1) Could it have been that Earhart was not confusing meters and kilocycles but knew ahead of time that 7500 kHz was the Itasca’s link with Howland so would be available on call?
2) Why would Noonan, both a navigator and radio operator, let Earhart make the potentially fatal mistake of trying to take bearings on 7500?
Why did Earhart not seize on the one occasion where she heard the Itasca and knew it was hearing her, to try and establish communication with the crew?
This is the most incredible part of the Earhart saga. At 1928 GMT she announced, “Go ahead on 7500 kilocycles.” Then, at 1933 GMT she announced, “We received your signal but unable to get a minimum.” Supposedly, she is hopelessly lost and about to run out of gas. Now, after searching for Howland for over an hour, for the first time she is hearing the Itasca and knows the ship is hearing her. Does she breathe a giant sigh of relief because she has finally made contact with the crew? Of course they are using code but Noonan is a radio operator and can copy code while replying to the ship by voice on 3105 kHz.
No! Instead of desperately trying to keep in contact, Earhart is not heard from for over forty minutes. When she returns to the air it is only to make one brief, last transmission. She declares she is flying north and south on a line of position 157-337 and will switch to 6210. The Itasca never hears her again.
The Mysterious Post-Flight Radio Transmissions
What was the source or sources of the mysterious signals heard on Earhart’s frequencies that began just hours after her disappearance and lasted for several days?
During the hours and days immediately following Earhart’s disappearance, various listeners around the Pacific heard mysterious signals on her frequencies.
Ten hours after the Itasca last heard her, the crew of the HMS Achilles intercepted an exchange of signals between a radiotelephone station and a radiotelegraph station on 3105 khz. The telephone station requested, “Give us a few dashes if you get us.” The telegraph station replied with several long dashes. The telephone station then announced, “KHAQQ, KHAQQ.” (Earhart’s call letters).
Believing they were hearing the plane safely down somewhere, the Achilles sent the U.S. Navy a message to that effect. However, in its reply, the Navy denied this possibility.
Two hours later, Nauru Island heard the highly distorted voice of a woman calling on 6210 khz. They reported that, although they could not understand the words, the voice sounded similar to Earhart’s when she had passed by the island the night before. However, this time there was “– no hum of engines in the background.”
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Karl Pierson and a group of his radio engineering colleagues set up a listening watch on Earhart’s frequencies. During the early morning hours of July 3rd, they heard SOS calls on 6210 kHz both voice and telegraph. Of particular interest was the fact that the voice was a woman’s. However, neither call included enough information to identify the plane’s position or status.
The Pan Am stations at Wake, Midway and Honolulu managed to pick up a number of weak, unstable radio signals on Earhart’s frequencies and take a few bearings. But, the stations never identified themselves or transmitted any useful information.
Despite his failure to get bearings earlier, the Howland operator got a bearing on a fairly strong station shortly after midnight on July 5th. It indicated the transmitter was either north northwest or south southeast of Howland. But, again there was no identification or useful information from the station.
The question that arises here is, were the distress calls heard by Karl Pierson and his group authentic? If they were, why did the calls not include more information? If they were not, who would have sent them and why?
, “Earhart’s “post-loss messages”: Real or fantasy?” and “Experts weigh in on Earhart’s “post-loss” messages.”
Rafford asks tough questions about Earhart comms
Readers of this blog are familiar with Paul Rafford Jr.’s fascinating and imaginative contributions to Earhart research. Rafford passed away in December 2016 at 97, but some of his ideas about Amelia Earhart’s final days and hours are still alive and well. He was a valued contributor to the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters between 1989 and 2000, expounding his theories about radio deceptions and plane switches, some of the most creative possibilities ever advanced to explain what could have happened during those final hours of July 2, 1937, before and after Amelia’s last officially recognized message was heard at 8:44 a.m., Howland Island Time.
We’ve seen three lengthy pieces on this blog already, basically re-presentations of Rafford’s work as found in Bill Prymak’s Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters: “The Case for the Earhart Miami Plane Change”: Another unique Rafford gift to Earhart saga”; “Rafford’s ‘Earhart Deception’ presents intriguing possibilities”; and “Rafford’s ” ‘Enigma’ brings true mystery into focus: What was Earhart really doing in final hours?”
The following analysis by Rafford Jr. appeared in the September 1993 issue of the AES Newsletters, and is the first of two parts. Boldface emphasis mine throughout; underline emphasis in original AES Newsletters version.
“Amelia Earhart – Some Unanswered Questions About Her Radio Communication and Direction Finding” (Part I of two.)
by Paul Rafford Jr.,
June 22, 1993
“The Miami Layover”
Why did Earhart refuse Pan Am’s offer of direction finding help on her second attempt to circle the globe?
During her layover in Miami; Pan Am radio engineer, Charlie Winter, conferred with Amelia about her forthcoming trip. She would no longer have 500 khz. in her transmitter, so why not carry a Pan Am frequency in its place., to be used with the airline’s Pacific direction finding network?
To his surprise, she immediately dismissed the suggestion with a contemptuous comment, “I don’t need that! I’ve got a navigator to tell me where I am.”
Why did Pan Am install a new loop on the Electra at Miami when all earlier pictures of the plane show that it already had one?
On the morning before Earhart’s departure from Miami, Pan Am radio technician Bob Thiebert was given a radio loop by his boss and told to install it on the plane immediately. Bob mounted it and connected it to the receiver that had already been installed. He then had the plane swung through 360° while he took bearings on a nearby broadcast station and prepared a calibration curve.
Page 215 of the book, Amelia, My Courageous Sister (1987), shows a news photo of Earhart, Noonan and two friends standing in front of the Electra. The caption advises that it was taken on May 31, 1937. An accompanying newspaper clipping comments:
“Mechanics today completed the adjustment of navigation instruments to guide Amelia Earhart down a well-worn aerial lane to South America on her eastward flight around the world. The aviatrix expected to take off at dawn tomorrow for San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1033 miles away.”
The new loop appears on top of the plane while a mechanic appears in the background below, crouched over his tool box. — Bob Thiebert?
After Bob told me his story, several questions came to mind. The Electra already had a loop and the pictures of the Honolulu crackup show no damage to it or the surrounding area. Then, a newsreel picture purporting to show Earhart arriving in Miami clearly shows a loop on the plane. Why install a new one?
I asked Bob if he had seen any evidence of where and how any previous loops had been mounted. We know that there were at least two other loops installed on the Electra at one time or another after Earhart took delivery.
Bob was quite surprised to hear this and replied that he found no evidence that any other loop had ever been installed. If there had been he would have seen where their mounting holes had been. But, he declared, he had seen nothing to indicate this possibility.
Why, just before Earhart’s departure on her round-the-world flight did Pan Am mechanics in Miami make the same changes to her fixed antenna that had already been made by Joe Gurr in California just few weeks before?
Two days before Earhart’s departure, Pan Am radio technician Lynn Michaelfelder was sent out to the Electra, “. . . to fix a problem with the transmitter.” Apparently there was some concern about the limited transmitting range of the fixed antenna.
He lengthened the antenna wires by moving the mast forward and by bringing the feed line down through the lower right side of the fuselage instead of through the roof. Imagine my surprise when I came across Joe Gurr’s letter of May 3, 1982, to Fred Goerner. In it he describes making these same changes in California, just a few weeks earlier.
Lae to Howland
Why did Earhart refuse the offer of Harry Balfour, the Lae radio operator, to stay in communication with her until she made contact with the Itasca?
It was standard operating procedure in those days for an aircraft on a long ocean crossing to stay in contact with the station behind it until reaching the mid-point of the flight. There, the plane would turn its “radio guard” over to the station ahead. Although Balfour was not obligated to offer this service to Earhart, he did so anyway.
But, to his chagrin, when Earhart was approximately one third of the way toward Howland, against his advice because he was still receiving her very well, she signed off with him at sunset and switched from 6210 khz. to 3105 khz. She explained that she had to try and make contact with the Itasca. He never heard her again and she never again engaged any station in two-way conversation.
There was no technical reason for Earhart to have to sign off with Lae before attempting to contact the Itasca. She could have returned to 6210 at periodic intervals to confirm to Balfour that her flight was proceeding normally, or advise him if it wasn’t. Then, after establishing contact with the Itasca she could have said goodbye to him.
Why did Earhart never stay on the air more than seven or eight seconds at a time when she was in the vicinity of Howland Island?
While Earhart followed standard airline type operating procedures during her contacts with Balfour, when in the vicinity of Howland her procedures were anything but standard. She never called the ship directly or answered any of its many calls. Instead, she would suddenly come on the air without a call-up, deliver her message, and then go off until she had another message. The Navy’s report states that communication between Earhart and the Itasca was “never really established.”
The Navy’s report also states that she never stayed on the air more than seven or eight seconds at a time. This includes the transmissions she was supposedly making so the Howland direction finder could take bearings. Even under the best of conditions, back then a DF operator required at least 30 seconds to go through all the procedures required in taking a bearing after a station might suddenly come on the air without warning. Later, Radioman [2nd Class Frank] Cipriani, operating the Howland DF, complained that she never stayed on the air long enough for him to get a bearing.
Bill Galten, the Itasca radio operator on duty at the Earhart radio watch told me during World War II of his efforts to contact Earhart and of her peculiar operating procedures. On one occasion she suddenly came on the air, announcing, “Give me the weather! I’ve got to have the weather.” But, she failed to advise what frequency she would be listening to or if she wanted the weather to be sent on voice or telegraph. In desperation, Bill sent it on both of his voice frequencies and then his telegraph frequencies. He never received an acknowledgment. Later, based on his futile attempt to get in radio contact with Earhart, Bill gave me his personal opinion: “That woman never intended to land on Howland!” (End of Part I.)
Paul Rafford’s “Howland Island Fly-By”: Phase II
We continue with Phase II, the conclusion of Paul Rafford Jr.’s response to questions about his unique theory, in this case a true “conspiracy theory” in the Earhart disappearance, the “Howland Island Fly-By.” Rafford’s thesis appeared in the March 1992 issue of the Amelia Earhart Society Newsletters. Bill Prymak, AES founder and president is designated as “AES” throughout; Rafford’s answers are seen simply as “A.” (Boldface emphasis is mine throughout.)
PHASE II – THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS
AES – You believe that the mysterious voice transmissions heard for three days after Earhart’s disappearance were also pre-recorded?
A – Yes. These were interspersed with some very poorly transmitted radio code to simulate what listeners might expect Earhart’s sending to sound like.
AES – But, today we know that she had left her radio key back in Miami, right?
A – Yes. It was located in a locker at Pan Am weeks later.
AES – What would have been the purpose of these radio calls?
A – They would have lent credence to the theory that Earhart had survived and was calling for help. This in turn would justify the Navy’s vast search. I remember the public clamor to find her.
AES – Where was the transmitter that sent out the calls?
A – Our best evidence indicates that it was on Gardner Island in the Phoenix group. It is now called Nikumaroro. When plotted, bearings taken on the station by the Pan Am direction finding stations bracket the island. I illustrate the details on my chart, THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS. A search plane sent to investigate reported signs of recent habitation but saw no one on the island. However, this information was not released to the public at the time.
AES – Do you believe the same type transmitter was used for both the PBY and Gardner transmissions?
A – No. Radioman [2nd Class Frank] Cipriani, who handled the direction finder on Howland, reported the plane’s transmissions to be stable and on frequency. In contrast, the Gardner transmitter was slightly off frequency and very unstable. Also, to cover the Pacific as it did, higher power was required. My computer analysis puts the power at 100 watts or more.
AES – What sort of transmitter do you believe was set up on Gardner?
A – When Karl Pierson recently described what the signal sounded like, I was immediately reminded of the transmitter we flew to Liberia right after Pearl Harbor to support South Atlantic aeronautical communication. It was a 100 watt model that Pan Am used at outlying stations in the 1930s. We powered it with a one-cylinder gasoline generator that the operator had to kick start before going on the air.
Its stability was on a par with what Karl describes but it did not operate on radiotelephone. However, a simple modification could have been made that would allow it to be modulated enough to produce the speech quality reported by the various listeners, that is, “highly distorted.”
Karl also reported that when the transmitter was sending voice he could hear what appeared to be a gasoline engine running in the background, “ — but not an airplane engine.”
AES – Why do you believe that recordings of Earhart’s voice were used instead of announcements by another woman, either live or recorded?
A – Because three different individuals who knew Earhart’s voice identified it when they heard the transmissions. Two were reported aboard the Itasca when she supposedly flew by Howland. The third was radio engineer Karl Pierson in Los Angeles who listened to the voice during the nights following her disappearance. He and his colleagues had monitored her transmissions during her flight from Hawaii to San Francisco in 1935.
Of course, the Navy could have substituted a “sound alike” woman and trained her to simulate Earhart’s manner of speaking. But, the fewer people involved in a top-secret venture, the better. Having Earhart do the recordings herself before the flight would have been the best way to ensure secrecy.
AES – You say Earhart’s last two-way conversation was when she signed off with Harry Balfour seven hours into the flight. How can we be sure that all subsequent transmissions were not recordings?
A – We can’t be sure. Every one of her transmissions from that time on is suspect. Her contact with Balfour on 6210 khz advising that she was signing off with him and switching to 3105 may have been the last time Earhart was ever heard on a “live” radio.
AES – Why were certain transmissions clear while others were highly distorted?
A – It depended upon what the mission script called for at that particular time. In those cases where the plane passed specific information to Lae, Nauru and Howland, they were clear. Otherwise, they were weak or distorted. I believe this was deliberately intended to confuse the listeners.
AES – You say information was passed to Nauru?
A – Yes. T.H. Cude, Director of Police on Nauru, claimed that he heard Earhart say on 3105 that she had the lights of the island in sight. However, in the search report this is recorded as “lights in sight ahead.” Later, various investigators read the report and then made their own interpretations. Some concluded that the lights were those of the USS Ontario, on station midway between Lae and Howland waiting for her to over-fly. Others concluded they were the SS Myrtlebank, southwest of Nauru and due to arrive the following morning.
AES – Do you believe Earhart sent her Nauru sighting messages “live” or were they recordings transmitted by Naval Intelligence?
A – From the evidence we have I would hesitate to support either theory.
AES – But, you are suggesting that Earhart may never have come near Nauru?
A – Yes. She may well have been following another route to an unknown destination after she signed off with Harry Balfour at Lae.
AES – Then what would have been the purpose of these messages?
A – They would establish for the record that Earhart was apparently passing Nauru on schedule even though she may not have been anywhere in the area.
AES – You mean that if the Japanese were intercepting her radio transmissions this bit of disinformation — if it was disinformation — would lead them to believe that Earhart was actually following the flight plan that she had announced to the news media?
A – That’s as good a way of putting it as any. Incidentally, with the exception of Cude’s intercept, listeners on Nauru reported that even though the plane’s signals became increasingly strong as it apparently approached the island, they were never able to understand the words.
AES – On your chart, THE MYSTERIOUS RADIO CALLS, you show that twelve hours after the Itasca last heard the plane, listeners on Nauru heard a woman’s voice on 6210. But, again they could not understand what she said. What is your comment about this?
A – They also reported that although the voice sounded the same as the night before, this time they could hear “no hum of engines in the background.” I believe this transmission was the first in a series of covert signals that lasted three nights. However, Nauru was the only station to hear this transmission. This leads me to believe that other covert transmitters besides Gardner were involved in the operation after Earhart disappeared. They may have been located on planes, submarines or even uninhabited islands like Gardner.
AES – What was the purpose of these calls?
A – They were designed to convince listeners that Earhart was safely down somewhere. But, because they could not understand her words, the search team would not know where to look. As a result, they had no choice but to search the whole Central Pacific — exactly what the mission planners had intended to happen.
AES – Who in government do you believe knew about the secret nature of Earhart’s flight?
A – No doubt the President knew the details because she was a frequent guest at the White House. I suspect the plan originated with him.
Others who knew would be the Naval Intelligence team assigned to carry out the mission plans plus top people in the Department of the Interior that administered our Pacific Islands. I doubt that anyone in the Coast Guard knew.
AES – Why do you believe that the President had anything to do with the Earhart mission?
A – Because of her remark to Mark Walker, Pan Am pilot and Naval Reserve officer. Mark had been assigned to work with Earhart and Noonan on the Pacific phase of their flight. When he warned her of the dangers she replied that she had not proposed it. Someone high in government had personally asked her to undertake the mission.
AES – You mention that [Itasca Radioman 3rd Class] Bill Galten had his doubts about what was going on after his many calls to the plane were ignored. Why were he and others involved in the search not more outspoken about their doubts?
A – Because the Navy classified the logs and records.
AES – Why were they classified?
A – There were several reasons. Classifying them would not only keep the public from reviewing them and asking sensitive questions, but it would prevent those in the services who might have answers from revealing what they knew. World War II was imminent and we needed all the information about the Pacific islands that we could gather. But, of course, we could not reveal our information gathering activities to a potential enemy.
Next, where Earhart was concerned it was imperative for political reasons not to allow the public to suspect that their heroine might have lost her life while serving on a top secret government mission. Not only might this have cost Roosevelt the next election but it could have provided powerful anti-war factions in the United States with enough ammunition to seriously delay our preparations for the world wide conflict that was about to break out.
As incredible as it now seems in the light of history, over 50 percent of those polled in a national survey just before Pearl Harbor refused to believe America was in any danger of an attack from Japan!
AES – The Itasca’s logs and the Navy’s records were not declassified until twenty-five years later, right?
A – Yes, but the classification was only at the CONFIDENTIAL level. We have never been able to determine if there were any with a higher classification. But if there were I doubt that they exist today.
AES – Why do you say this?
A – Because, as a friend of mine with former Naval Intelligence connections puts it, “Poor Ollie North, his downfall came about because he had to keep records!”
AES – So, where do you believe Earhart finally landed?
A – I can only refer you to the host of theories that have been advanced through the years. They vary all the way from Earhart and Noonan simply getting lost and running out of gas near Howland to landing on a Japanese held island where they were taken prisoner.
But, one thing seems certain. Wherever they finally ended up it was not where the mission planners intended.
I doubt we will ever know for sure! (End of Rafford interview.)
Rafford’s comparison of Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North’s ill-advised record-keeping during the Iran–Contra affair, a political scandal of the late 1980s, to the Earhart case is pure speculation and not a reliable assessment about the existence or non-existence of top-secret files on the Earhart disappearance.
We have strong evidence that suggests top-secret Earhart files still existed in the early 1960s, when the Kennedy administration actually allowed Fred Goerner and Ross Game to view them clandestinely. See my Dec. 20, 2019 post, “Game letter suggests possible Earhart burial site” for a discussion, or Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last (2nd Edition), pages 271, 272.