Tag Archives: post-loss messages from Earhart
In my last post, several of Amelia Earhart’s best-known “post-loss messages” were discussed briefly; the information was taken from a chapter in the original manuscript of Truth at Last that had to be deleted during the publication process. The receptions included the report from a Nauru radio operator, who claimed to have heard a “voice similar to that emitted from [Earhart] plane” 12-and-a-half hours after Earhart’s last message to Itasca.
Walter McMenamy and Karl Pierson, Los Angeles amateur shortwave operators, both claimed to have heard SOS signals and other messages on frequencies 6210 and 3105, the two main wavelengths used by Earhart. From Rock Springs, Wyoming, came the report of Dana Randolph, the 16-year-old operator who claimed to have heard, on the morning of July 4, “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on reef south of the equator. Station KH9QQ” [sic] on 16,000 kc, a harmonic of 3105.
Various signals including long dashes were heard in response to requests sent by Pan American Airways radio stations on Midway Island, Mokapu (Honolulu, KGMB) and Wake Island on 3105 kc and 6210 kc. Also noted was the controversial “281 message,” heard by operators at the Navy’s HF/DF station at Wailupe and the British steamer SS Moorby, 370 miles north of Howland island, and in California by Charles Miguel of Oakland, and reported by the Coast Guard’s Hawaiian Section to the cutter Itasca early July 5. Miguel reported hearing “281 … north … Howland … Can’t hold out much longer … drifting … above water … motor sinking … on sand bank 225 miles from Howland.”
Several other alleged messages were also reported by various parties, and some were outrageous or bizarre enough as to be easily classified as hoaxes. The reports presented here, in this writer’s opinion, are representative of the most credible of the alleged post-loss messages.
Commander Warner K. Thompson, Itasca skipper, included the Nauru message in his report without comment, but Almon Gray, a former Navy reserve captain and Pan Am Airways China Clipper flight officer, believed the signals, sent on 6210 kc and received at Nauru at 9:31, 9:43 and 9:54 p.m. July 2 (Howland time), merited “serious consideration. . . . The Nauru operator reported good signal strength and was able to judge the tone or timbre of the speaker’s voice yet was unable to understand what the speaker was saying,” Gray wrote. “He suggested the possibility of modulation problems.”
Gray noted that Harry Balfour, the Lae radio operator, as well as the “DF operator on Howland who was trying to take a radio bearing on the plane” had both reported similar symptoms and suggested possible modulation problems. According to Gray, the probability that “more than one transmitter in the area would exhibit the same symptoms of over-modulation on the same frequency at essentially the same time is very small. It is the writer’s opinion that the signals intercepted by Nauru were in fact from the Earhart plane no longer in flight.”
Paul Rafford, Jr., author of Amelia Earhart’s Radio (Paragon Agency, 2006), flew with PAA as a flight radio officer from 1940 to 1946, and worked in the Manned Spaceflight Program from 1963 until his retirement in 1988 disagrees the messages could have been sent by Amelia. “Reference the very unsteady voice modulated carrier described by Hansen,” Rafford said in a January 2006 e-mail. “This immediately tells me that the signals could not have come from Earhart’s plane. Her transmitter was crystal controlled whereas ‘unsteady carrier’ indicates that the ‘voice modulated’ (radiotelephone) signal was not crystal controlled. Prior to crystal control, when voice was applied to a radio transmitter it could result in an unsteady carrier. However, this also suggests that the signal came from a naval or military transmitter. These services were slower to adopt crystal control than the civilian services. It was a matter of Depression era funding for new equipment.”
In his little-known book, Amelia Earhart’s Radio, Rafford was less technical when assessing the reliability of the signals that followed the KGMB announcement, depicting the receptions as an “outright hoax,” and insisting the claims didn’t pass the common sense test. “Would anyone believe that Earhart was running down her batteries by listening to music and news from KGMB instead of calling for help?” Rafford wrote.
U.S. Government confiscates PAA intercepts
Mrs. Ellen Belotti, George Angus’ secretary in 1937, contacted Fred Goerner in 1971 about the reports from the three PAA HF/DF stations she had retained under somewhat unusual and suspicious circumstances. “One day several U.S. Navy officers who identified themselves as from the Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence appeared at the office (PAN AM) and confiscated all of the reports dealing with Earhart,” Goerner wrote in a 1971 letter to Fred Hooven. “She says the Pan Am people were warned at the time not to discuss the matter with anyone, and that the reports were to be considered secret and any copies of the reports were to be destroyed. Mrs. Belotti says she decided not to destroy her copies of the reports because she believed the Navy did not have the right to require that of Pan Am. She also felt a fair shake was not being given to her idol, Amelia.”
In 1979, Goerner told radio technician Joe Gurr, hired by Lockheed to work on the Electra’s radio at Oakland prior to the first world flight attempt, that he traced the PAA intercepts seized by the Navy in July 1937 to the Navy Security Group in Washington, D.C. The records are “in effect part of NSA [National Security Agency] and the records of radio intelligence are beyond the purview of the Freedom of Information Law [sic],” Goerner wrote. “I have also learned that the FCC conducted a full investigation into the radio receptions believed received from AE by amateur radio operators. The records of this investigation were also turned over to U.S. Naval Intelligence Communications and are considered also to be beyond the Freedom of Information Law. There’s something wrong there, isn’t there, Joe? What in God’s name is worth classifying after 42 years?” To this researcher’s knowledge, the PAA intercepts remain classified.
Navy, Coast Guard skippers unanimous in rejecting messages
Capt. J.S. Dowell’s “Report of Earhart Search,” of July 20, 1937, is a sometimes confusing summary of the Lexington Group’s two-week involvement in the mission. Dowell’s report begins with a 10-page segment labeled “Estimates and Decision,” replete with several subsections. Nowhere in Dowell’s report can a heading labeled “Conclusions” be found, and the statement commonly accepted as such — “That at about 2030 [GMT, 9 a.m. Howland time] the plane landed on the sea to the northwest of Howland Island, within 120 miles of the island” – is presented in this opening section under seven other “Probable Actions of Plane,” before any narrative or summary of the search itself.
More germane to this discussion was the DESRON2 commander’s apparent willingness to consider the legitimacy of several of the “post loss” radio receptions. Under “Possibilities Arising from Rumour and Reports,” Dowell listed 10 reported messages, including Walter McNemay’s July 3 reception, which he noted was given credibility by the Coast Guard; the “281 message”; Dana Randolph’s Rock Springs, Wyoming reception; and KGMB Hawaii’s test announcement that received dashes in response to its request.
Captain Leigh Noyes, Lexington’s commander, had no such inclinations, and in his nine-page summary of the carrier’s actions, “Report of Earhart Search Operations 3-18 July 1937,” Noyes’ comments, later echoed by other official sources, left no doubt where he stood on the idea that any of the transmissions could have originated from NR 16020.
“Numerous radio messages were reported to have been received by various agencies, particularly amateur radio operators, which purported to give information received directly from the plane after it landed,” Noyes wrote. “Many of these messages were in conflict and many of them were unquestionably false. None could be positively verified. These messages were a serious handicap to the progress of the search, especially before the arrival of the Lexington Group.”
Commander Thompson was equally convinced that none of the broadcasts received after Amelia’s “line of position” message at 8:43 a.m., July 3, came from the Electra. The Itasca commander’s 106-page report, “Radio Transcripts – Earhart Flight,” of July 19, 1937, is the chronological record of more than 500 official messages received and sent by Itasca from June 9, when it received orders to assist in the flight, to July 16, when the cutter was released from the search by the Navy. The report contains far more than official communications, however. Thompson freely inserted his comments and complaints wherever he felt appropriate throughout the document, and in his zeal to represent Itasca as blameless for the Earhart loss, some of his statements have been shown to be inaccurate and possibly dishonest.
For example, Thompson claimed that Itasca had been repeatedly attempting to contact Amelia since 10 a.m., July 3, and that the signals sent by Itasca “as picked up by other units are steadily reported as possible signals from other sources. A careful check of the ITASCA radio logs shows that in most cases the signals were originated by ITASCA.”
As Ric Gillespie points out in Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance, this statement is “patently untrue. A careful check of Itasca’s radio logs shows that not one of the purported receptions from the plane corresponds with a transmission by the cutter. In fact, Itasca’s own radio operators logged more unexplained signals on Earhart’s frequency – forty-four in all – than any other station.” Gillespie notes that as reports of distress calls came in to the cutter from various outside sources in the first several days of the search, Itasca “shared virtually no information about what its own radio operators were hearing.”
Thompson also declined to report that on the night of July 4, the Howland Island operator said that he “heard Earhart call Itasca” and that “Baker heard Earhart QSA 4 [strength 4 of 5] R7 [readability 7 of 9] last night at 8:20 p.m.” Nothing is noted in the Howland log for July 4, however, except the notation “charging batteries all day.” Thompson did not include the Itasca or Howland Island radio logs in his report, but Chief Radioman Leo Bellarts and Radioman 3rd Class Thomas O’Hare kept their original logs and donated them to the National Archives in the early 1970s. Bellarts’ son, Dave, has also provided copies to many researchers, including this one.
Thompson denied that any possible transmissions from the Electra had been received by Itasca, Swan, Howland or Baker Island, basing this claim on speculation that these units “were closest to the signals,” as if he knew where the broadcasts were originating. “None of these units heard the apparently faked messages,” Thompson wrote. … “Throughout, ITASCA opinion was that if the plane was down some of these units would get the traffic.” He then questioned the content of messages that were reported, without naming the sources, because “ITASCA was of the opinion that the traffic would consist of some useful information and not just call signs and dashes. Both Earhart and Noonan could use code. Why should a plane in distress waste time on repeated calls or on making special signals. If the plane was using battery the carrier signals were out of all proportion to the length of time the battery could stand up.”
In his 16-point summary, Thompson continued to dismiss the idea that messages could have been sent by the Electra, depicting the stateside amateur reports as “all probably criminally false.” Moreover, he incorrectly stated that “the only interceptions were by amateurs, with the exception of one Wailupe interception” and concluded it it was “extremely doubtful that Earhart ever sent signals after 0846, 2 July.” As for the Electra, “ITASCA’s original estimate after three (3) weeks of search problem still appears correct, that the plane went down to the northwest of Howland,” Thompson wrote.
The commanding officer of USS Colorado, Capt. Wilhelm L. Friedell, essentially agreed with Thompson. “The broadcasting stations and the ITASCA continued to send messages to the [Earhart] plane,” Friedell wrote in his July 13, 1937 search report to the Fourteenth Naval District. “On the night of 3 And 4 July no signals were heard on the plane frequency by the ITASCA or COLORADO, but reports were received from Wyoming, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Australia and other points that signals, and in some cases voice reports, had been received from the plane. … There was no doubt that many stations were calling the Earhart plane on the plane’s frequency, some by voice and others by signals. All of these added to the confusion and doubtfulness of the authenticity of the reports.”
Other expert opinions vary
Were any of the intercepted messages sent by the lost fliers? It’s impossible to be sure, but any fair and objective consideration certainly must include more than the flatly dismissive verdicts of the Navy and Coast Guard. Although George Angus, the Pan Am official who directed the Earhart watch in the Pacific area, didn’t share the enthusiasm expressed by R.M. Hansen, the operator in charge at Wake Island, who said he was “positive” that a bearing of 215 he took on a “very unsteady voice-modulated carrier . . . was KHAQQ [Earhart],” Angus didn’t rule out the possibility that one or more transmissions had come from the Electra.
“All of the above information was turned over to the Coast Guard officials at Honolulu with emphasis being made at the time that there was nothing definite in what we had heard because of no identifying signals of any nature being received,” Angus wrote in his July 10, 1937 report, later seized by U.S. Navy Intelligence agents after it was sent to the Pan Am communications center in Alemeda, California. “While it would appear there may have been some connection between the dashes and the KGMB broadcast, we could not state definitely that the signals were from the Earhart plane.”
Almon Gray wrote at length about the Nauru receptions reported 12-and-a-half hours after Amelia’s last message, concluding that “the signals intercepted by Nauru were in fact from the Earhart plane no longer in flight.” Moroever, Gray believed that the “peculiar signals” intercepted by the PAA stations at Wake, Midway, and Honolulu “may very well have come from the Earhart plane.”
Fred Goerner based his opinion on years of experience gathering news and dealing with people rather than technical expertise, and was convinced of the validity of some of the receptions. Writing to Fred Hooven in 1970, Goerner addressed the various amateur operator claims of receptions from the Electra. “The messages were publicly discredited by the Navy and the amateur operators were branded as cranks,” Goerner wrote. “I have contacted a number of those operators within the last couple of years, and I believe the messages they received were bona fide. The men I have talked to are all dedicated and responsible amateurs who were very upset at the official attitudes in 1937. Several of them have accused the Navy of having asked the editors of QST and other radio magazines not to print the letters of protest they wrote.”
Paul Rafford Jr., who recently celebrated his 95th birthday, says he “never saw eye to eye” with Gray, and puts little stock in the post-loss receptions. In 1981, Rafford built a nine-to-one scale model of the Electra, and ran tests to determine the difference in transmitting efficiency between a trailing antenna and the Electra’s fixed “V” antenna, based on his knowledge of its parameters and characteristics. “Measurements with the model, confirmed by mathematical formulas, show that the trailing antenna would have radiated almost all of the 50 watts supplied to it by the transmitter,” Rafford writes. “By contrast, her fixed antenna transmitted only ½ watt on 3105 kHz.” In April 2009, I asked Rafford if he thought any of the messages could have come from the Electra.
“Personally, I don’t go along with any so called post loss messages,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Some of them are outright bogus and none of them provide any useful information as to her whereabouts. In any case she would have to be down on land, undamaged, in order to put out a useful signal. It would be virtually impossible for her to be heard on 3105 for more than 200 miles by day and 100 by night. On 6210 she might be able to be heard out to 500 miles by day and 1000 by night, but most of the intercepts were on 3105.”
After more than 15 years of studying data from the Pan Am intercepts and other alleged radio receptions, Fred Hooven, the noted engineer and inventor who spent his last years as a Dartmouth University professor, besides working with Fred Goerner on the Earhart case, presented his paper, “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” at the Amelia Earhart Symposium at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., in June 1982.
Citing the bearings on the signals reported by the three Pan Am radio stations and the Howland Island high-frequency direction finder supplied by the Navy, Hooven announced it was “undeniable” that the transmissions had originated from the downed fliers. “Five bearings were taken on the weak, wavering signal reported on the frequency used by the Earhart plane,” Hooven wrote, “and four of them, plus the 157-337 position line of the last message all intersected in the general area of the Phoenix Group. This constitutes positive evidence of the presence of a transmitter in that area which could only have been that of the downed plane. No hypothesis purporting to explain the events of the last flight can be credited that does not offer a plausible explanation of these signals, and why they originated along the plane’s announced position line at the only location, except for Baker and Howland, where there was land.”
“Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight”: Birth of the Nikumaroro theory
“Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” is more than an erudite analysis of the alleged post-loss radio intercepts. Hooven studied everything available about the ill-fated flight, and saved his most damning criticism for George Palmer Putnam, “who promoted the flight in the first place,” and characterized Putnam’s role as its “most tragic aspect. It was his responsibility to see that the flight was properly administered,” Hooven wrote that “Miss Earhart had the best equipment and the proper instruction in its use, that the best possible logistic arrangements had been made, and above all that the most complete provisions possible had been made for the safety of the flight, and for the organizations of rescue operations, especially for the hazardous over-water flights.”
Hooven was convinced that “Putnam failed completely” to fulfill his responsibilities to Amelia, leaving “important management details to her,” and failing to sufficiently fund the required support operations. “He consistently showed interest only in the promotional aspects of the flight,” Hooven continued, noting that Putnam’s last messages to his wife “were exhortations to her to reach the United States by July Fourth in order to meet appearance commitments he had made for her.”
Hooven’s paper was a milestone in Earhart research, possibly the first academic, objective analysis of the post-flight intercepts, and firmly established him as the progenitor of the McKean-Gardner Island landing theory – which became popularized by Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR and the mainstream media as the “Nikumaroro hypothesis” during the past 25 years. In his conclusion, Hooven not only emphasized his conviction that Almon Gray’s “peculiar signals” were sent by the Electra, but he embraced Fred Goerner’s belief that Amelia and Noonan met their ends on Saipan, in Japanese custody.
“The evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that has been presented here,” Hooven wrote, “that the flyers landed in the Phoenix area, probably on McKean or Gardner, that they transmitted signals from there during the next three days, that they were removed by the Japanese, who either removed or destroyed their plane, that they were taken to Saipan, where they died sometime before the end of 1937, and that the U.S. Government knew about their fate, but for reasons of foreign relations and military secrecy were not able to make that knowledge public. We hope that one day records will be found or released that will reveal the truth about the fate of the flyers. Meanwhile the memory of a brave and gracious lady remains bright after forty five years.”
Hooven reportedly changed his theory that the Electra landed in the Phoenix Islands area – from which has sprung so much confusion and misinformation through the TIGHAR-Nikumaroro hypothesis that so dominates media coverage – and returned to Fred Goerner’s original Mili Atoll-landing scenario. Several researchers, including the late Ron Reuther and Rollin Reineck, and the still-living Bill Prymak and Ron Bright, agree that Hooven indeed changed his mind.
“I should have also mentioned that Fred Hooven, after making original conclusions that Earhart came down SE of Howland, thus influencing Goerner to concur, later recalculated and changed his conclusions and determined that AE/FN came down close to Mili,” Reuther wrote in an email to me shortly before his death in 2007. “I strongly believe Goerner would have reassessed his position and very likely would have agreed with Hooven’s final conclusion – near Mili,” if Hooven hadn’t passed away in 1985.
One possible post-loss message remains to be considered, perhaps the most controversial of all. We’ll take a look at it in the next post.
Among the most misunderstood themes surrounding the search for Amelia Earhart is that of the so-called “post-loss” messages that were allegedly received in the days following Amelia’s last official message on July 2 to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. These messages, received both in voice and code by a variety of people, were heard mainly in the central Pacific Ocean area and the West Coast of the United States. Practically since the day of her loss, inquiring minds have asked whether these messages sent by Amelia Earhart, were they the products of the overheated imaginations of earnest ham-radio operators, or were they outright hoaxes?
While working on Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last between June 2007 and April 2010, I looked into this complex issue as best I could – as a most emphatically non-technical expert on the state of 1930s short-wave radio propagation equipment, capabilities and techniques. The result of my ad hoc study was a lengthy, 11,000-plus word chapter, “The Search and the Radio Signals,” that later had to be cut out of the book because the manuscript was too long to present a publisher.
Simply trying to read and understand the technical analysis that’s available is a nightmare for a layman not familiar with the scientific terminology that accompanies such discussions. And though these posts will barely scratch the surface of this almost inscrutable subject and represent only an unschooled layman’s perspective, I feel it’s important to revisit these messages, if only for posterity and the scant few who might be interested.
I’ll try to present the most well-known of the post-loss messages, in some sort of timely order, so that readers can become familiar with some of the key people who were involved in this controversy. Later, we’ll consider what several radio experts have to say about the validity of these messages. No true unanimity or even consensus about whether any of the messages was legitimate has ever been reached among Earhart experts, but the sheer volume of these messages demands that they not be forgotten.
Twelve-and-a-half hours after Amelia’s last message to the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, a radio operator at Nauru, which had not been asked to assist in the Earhart flight, sent a “wire note” to KPH, an RCA short-wave station in San Francisco, requesting that it be sent to Itasca:
“VOICE HEARD FAIRLY STRONG SIGS STRENGTH TO S3 0843 0854 GMT 48.31 METERS (6210 KHz) SPEECH NOT INTERPRETED OWING BAD MODULATION OR SPEAKER SHOUTING INTO MICROPHONE BUT VOICE SIMILAR TO THAT EMITTED FROM PLANE IN FLIGHT LAST NIGHT WITH EXCEPTION NO HUM ON PLANE IN BACKGROUND.”
Commander Warner K. Thompson, Itasca skipper, included this message in his report without comment, but Almon Gray, a former Navy reserve captain and Pan Am Airways China Clipper flight officer, believed the signals, sent on 6210 kc and received at Nauru at 9:31, 9:43 and 9:54 p.m. July 2 (Howland time), merited “serious consideration,” for several reasons, beginning with the fact that 6210 was the correct frequency for the Earhart plane, and that “it was not a commonly used frequency in that area,” Gray wrote.
The McMenamy and Pierson reports
Just before midnight July 2 (Pacific time), the Associated Press reported that amateur radio operators Walter McMenamy and Carl Pierson, both of Los Angeles, claimed to have heard radio signals on frequencies known to have been used by Amelia:
Walter McMenamy said he picked up weak signals on 6210 kilocycles at 6 P.M. (10 P.M. eastern daylight time) and heard the letters “L-a-t” which he took to mean latitude. The letters were followed by indecipherable figures. The signals continued for some time. Mr. McMenamy expressed belief they came from a portable transmitter. He received other signals from a Coast Guard boat, presumably the cutter Itasca, requesting listeners to “stand by and listen on all frequencies.”
At 8 P.M. (midnight Eastern daylight time), Carl Pierson, chief engineer of the Paterson Radio Corporation, picked up similarly weak signals on 3105 kilocycles, Miss Earhart’s daytime frequency. He said they were erratic and indecipherable.
United Press reported that “the powerful Los Angeles amateur station had been hearing code S O S signals all night. This morning what appeared to be a radioed position of the plane was picked up. ‘It was a 179 and what sounded like 1.6,’ said McMenamy. “If that meant latitude and longitude, we calculate it would be somewhere 300 or 400 miles off the coast of Howland Island.”
McMenamy and Pierson reported hearing more signals on 3105 kc on the morning of July 6 that they believed came from Amelia, but could not make out the indistinct words. The San Francisco Division forwarded McMenamy’s position in its message to Itasca as “QUOTE 179 WITH 1 POINT SIX IN DOUBT UNQUOTE POSITION GIVEN AS QUOTE SOUTHWEST HOWLAND ISLAND.” Since Itasca was erroneously told in an earlier message that the Electa “could probably use its emergency transmitter [in fact, it had no such equipment] on water,” Thompson wrote that “this information could not be ignored” and proceeded to the “westward of the report area and searched 2000 square miles on July 4 without result.”
Both Pierson and McMenamy had met Amelia and monitored her messages during the 1935 flight from Honolulu to Oakland, thus their claims of recognizing her voice carried a degree of credibility. The pair had a new “rig and tower at Santa Paula in Southern California where they thought reception was the best,” wrote Fred Goerner, who interviewed them in the late 1960s.
Unfortunately, McMenamy appears to have fallen victim to the brief notoriety he enjoyed. following his alleged receptions. “Walter McMenamy is a ding-a-ling,” Goerner told Fred Hooven in a 1971 letter. … “McMenamy claims AE flew directly to an island and landed on time. They broadcast from the island for several days, and they were picked up by the U.S. Navy. Noonan, he says, ‘is probably still living.’ He says he saw Noonan in 1949 or 1950. That he had changed his name and was ‘still with Navy intelligence.’ AE, he adds was alive until November 6, 1945, when she was killed in a headon [sic] crash of a pair of Navy planes near Guadalcanal. He said he got his info regarding AE from the FBI.”
Karl Pierson was “an entirely different story,” Goerner continued. “A quiet, brilliant former radio engineer, he is now in charge of several research projects at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute at La Jolla, California, and he lives in San Diego. He says he is convinced the messages he and McMenamy received in 1937 in the days following the disappearance actually came from AE. He apologized for McMenamy by saying that McMenamy has ‘gone around the bend.’ Pierson says what puzzles him to this day is the attitude of the Navy toward the messages they received. He says he still feels the Navy did everything it could to discredit the amateur radio operators who reported possible Earhart messages. Pierson adds that he had a very close relationship with AE at the time of her 1935 Honolulu-Oakland flight, and that he monitored her radio transmissions during that entire flight with great success.”
McMenamy and Pierson were soon joined by more amateur operators in the continental United States claiming they heard Amelia’s distress calls on their shortwave radios. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 16-year-old Dana Randolph had designed a new antenna to enhance long-distance reception and was listening during the morning of July 4 when he heard, “This is Amelia Earhart. Ship is on reef south of the equator. Station KH9QQ.” [sic] The transmission quickly faded, but Randolph and his father were directed to a local Commerce Department radio operator, whose investigation revealed that the reception was made at about 16,000 kc, a harmonic of 3105.
In messages to Itasca about the Rock Springs report, the Coast Guard’s San Francisco Division said “this information may be authentic as signals from midpacific [sic] and orient often heard inland when not audible on coast” and “investigation reveals signals heard near sixteen megacycles thought to be from khaqq.” Earlier on the morning of July 4, Ray Mahoney, of Cincinnati, claimed he heard a message similar to the one reported by Dana Randolph. “The signals were weak,” Mahoney told the Associated Press. “About all I could make out were the call letters of plane and apparently it had hit a reef or was near a reef.” The AP report didn’t specify the frequency of Mahoney’s receptions.
George Angus, a Pan American Airways communications official in Hawaii, was notified about 2 a.m. on July 3 that the Earhart plane was missing, and he immediately set up watches at PAA’s radio stations on Midway Island, Mokapu (Honolulu) and Wake Island on 3105 kc and 6210 kc. Angus also arranged a plan with Honolulu’s two commercial radio stations, KGU and KGMB, whereby they would interrupt regular programming to make special broadcasts to Amelia, asking her to respond if she heard them. Immediately after KGU broke into its programming at July 3 at 10:30 p.m. local time, asking her to respond on 500, 3105 or 6210 kc, Mokapu station KNBF reported “a faint carrier on 3105 kc.” About four hours later, PAA station KNBI Wake Island, heard an “intermittent phone of rather wobbly characteristics” on 3105 kc, and Midway Island’s station KNBH reported hearing a “weak, wobbly signal which sounded like a phone” on 3105.
The following night, Angus was at the Mokapu station when KGMB broke into its programming at 8 p.m. local time, asking Amelia to send four long dashes on 3105. Angus and K.C. Ambler, a PAA communications supervisor, immediately and distinctly heard four long dashes on 3105. After Angus called KGMB and asked them to repeat their request to Amelia, “only two dashes were heard and the second dash trailed off to a weak signal as though the power supply on the transmitter had failed,” Angus wrote in his report. The first four dashes were heard by the San Francisco Coast Guard station, Navy Radio Wailupe, KNBF (Mokapu), KNBH (Midway took bearing of 201, labeled “approximate”), Baker and Howland Islands, and the battleship USS Colorado (BB-45), soon to join the Earhart search. San Francisco heard the dashes on 3105 for the next six hours at twenty minute intervals, along with “unintelligible voice.” During the same time frame, Baker and Howland Islands heard a “weak carrier ‘NRUI [Itasca’s call letters] from KHAQQ.’”
The 281 Message
Early July 5, Itasca was notified by the Hawaiian Section of the latest possible reception from the Earhart plane:
8005 FOLLOWING COPIED NAVY RADIO WAILUPE 1130 TO 1230 GMT QUOTE 281 NORTH HOWLAND CALL KHAQQ BEYOND NORTH DON’T HOLD WITH US MUCH LONGER ABOVE WATER SHUT OFF UNQUOTE KEYED TRANSMISSION EXTREMELY POOR KEYING BEHIND CARRIER FRAGMENTARY PHRASES BUT COPIES BY THREE OPERATORS 0242
This was the notorious “281 message,” a continuing source of speculation among researchers who have assigned a variety of interpretations to the number 281 that differ from that taken by Thompson and the Coast Guard. The message, sent in poorly keyed code on 3105 kc, was heard by three operators at the Navy’s HF/DF station at Wailupe and by the British steamer SS Moorby, 370 miles north of Howland Island, as well as in California by Charles Miguel of Oakland. Miguel reported hearing “281 … north … Howland … Can’t hold out much longer … drifting … above water … motor sinking … on sand bank 225 miles from Howland.”
Thompson believed it “was probably a faked message originating in the Hawaiian Islands,” and labeled the Oakland reception “clearly fraudulent.” The Itasca was 200 miles west of Howland when it was informed of the message, “searching down the 4 authenticated amateur reports,” according to Thompson, who wrote that it contained “useless information but the report required immediate check up.”
The message was immediately interpreted to mean the Electra was “281 miles north of Howland.” Itasca arrived at the position by dusk, and as USS Swan and SS Moorby approached the area later that night, two Itasca lookouts and the officer of the deck saw “a distinct flare to the northward. It came up from and settled down to the horizon,” Thompson wrote. Itasca headed toward the light and called Amelia, asking her to send up another flare. Moorby had not seen the flares, but Swan reported lights and considered them meteors, and Howland Island, 280-miles distant, also reported “flares to the northeast and burned three drums of gasoline.” The “flares” were a meteor shower, Thompson concluded, but commercial radio stations had apparently been monitoring Itasca, resulting in a “deluge of commercial requests.” An irritated Thompson wrote that the “whole incident illustrates the extent to which ITASCA was being monitored by commercial concerns desiring to ‘scoop’ others. There is a need to control such matters and the release of such traffic to the press by commercial stations is a violation of law, it is believed.”
As Itasca steamed northward to investigate the “281 message,” San Francisco Division sent information that “changed the whole search problems and virtually eliminated all intercepted radio traffic ideas (unless the plane was on land),” according to Thompson:
8005 OPINION OF TECHNICAL AIDES HERE THAT EARHART PLANE WILL BE FOUND ON ORIGINAL LINE OF POSITION WHICH INDICATED POSITION THROUGH HOWLAND ISLAND AND PHOENIX GROUP PERIOD RADIO TECHNICIANS FAMILIAR WITH RADIO EQUIPMENT ON PLANE ALL STATE DEFINITELY THAT PLANE RADIO COULD NOT FUNCTION NOW IF IN WATER AND ONLY IF MOTOR FOR POWER PERIOD NO FEARS FELT FOR SAFETY OF PLANE ON WATER PROVIDED TANKS HOLD AS LOCKHEED ENGINEERS CALCULATE 5000 POUNDS POSITIVE BUOYANCY WITH PLANE WEIGHT 800 1525
“Until this time the Itasca had considered plane had emergency radio capable of transmitting on water,” Thompson wrote. Although this message corrected misinformation San Francisco provided Itasca on July 2 about the Electra’s radio capabilities – “plane may attempt to use radio on water as radio supply was battery and antenna could be used on top of wing” – it perpetuated the false idea that the plane might be still afloat after three days in the water.
Fred Goerner reported that Joe Gurr told him the Electra “was absolutely capable of putting out a radio signal whether on the surface of the water, or on a reef or island. He says he installed an emergency battery in the cockpit, and as long as the top of the plane was above water, a signal could be sent through the antenna on the top of the plane. He also says that it was possible that Earhart’s signals might have been heard in the U.S. and not heard by vessels in the immediate Pacific area because of skip characteristics.”
Most others disagree, and insist that once in the water, the Electra would have been incapable of transmitting for a very simple reason: “Seawater would have short-circuited her electrical system,” Paul Rafford Jr. wrote.
Fred Hooven, the brilliant engineer whose inventions included the modern aircraft radio direction finder, a short-range radar set for World War II bombers, and the first successful heart-lung machine, thoroughly analyzed the post-loss transmissions during his longtime collaboration with Fred Goerner. “I have only two points of very minor disagreement with Gurr — one of which concerns the ability to transmit while in the water,” Hooven told Goerner in a 1982 letter. “I have no doubt that some possibility existed of the transmitter operating with the plane in the water but am quite certain that the battery would not have provided the current to operate it for as much as an hour. So that it is impossible to suppose that the signals that were heard over three days could have been transmitted from a floating plane. It is for that reason that I absolutely agree with Lockheed’s verdict that there was no way for the plane to transmit from the water without the opportunity to run an engine to charge the battery.”
The Electra’s potential flotation time is also unclear. San Francisco Division’s statement that “no fears felt for safety of plane on water” on the third day after a possible water landing was clearly erroneous. In 1998, researcher Bill Prymak, a pilot and engineer whose work in the Marshall Islands is presented in Truth at Last, studied the problem, plotting the Electra’s center of gravity from Lockheed documents and blueprints of the plane. Prymak said he “came to the conclusion that within seconds of a no-damage (a miracle in itself) water landing, the nose would immediately tilt down into the water at a 50 degree angle. For the empty cabin tanks to become buoyancy-effective they would have to be totally submerged, at which point the plane might float for a short while, but the cockpit would be nearly submerged even before the wing tank vents began filling with water. . . . There were no radio transmissions from Earhart’s plane if it was in the water.”
Prymak estimates the Electra would be completely submerged within an hour or so. Paul Rafford Jr. agrees, and writes, “had Earhart ditched, the Electra would have sunk shortly thereafter. An Electra that ditched off Cape Cod a few years later sank in a matter of minutes.”
Other alleged messages were reported in the days following Amelia’s loss, some more believable than others, but I have no desire to tax readers further than has already been done. In my next post, we’ll take at more of what Hooven and other radio experts believed about their possible validity.