Forum artHighlights From the Forum

March 11 through 17, 1999

Subject: Recorded Tide data for Nikumaroro
Date: 3/11/99
From: Randy Jacobson

Extrapolation of a week's worth of tide data (high and low tide only) back 60 years won't work. Here is an excerpt of an early report I gave TIGHAR from 1992 regarding tides:

Tidal information was calculated for Canton Island (2°49′S, 171°43′W) based upon a yearly record obtained at Canton during 1949/1950 by the Sea Level Center at the University of Hawaii. Frequency analysis of 68 tidal components were calculated (amplitude and phase), nodal corrections were applied, and extrapolated backwards in time to July, 1937 Tidal extrapolations beyond 10 years becomes dubious (G. Mitchum, pers. comm., 1992), but an estimate of the calculations can be computed by analysis of 1986-1987 records and extrapolating back to 1949-1950 and comparing the records. The results are included in the Appendix, and indicate a reasonable fit to the data.

Without tidal records on Nikumaroro or Canton during 1937, this method of extrapolation is considered the best possible method to estimate tides (G. Mitchum, B. Parker, pers. comm., 1992). The mean sea level was 1.3719 meters, and maximum possible tide is 2.289924 m; the minimum possible tide is 0.453835 m (calculated by adding and subtracting all tidal components, regardless of phase). The maximum predicted tide during July, 1937 is at 1827 GMT on July 8 at 1.934 m; the minimum predicted tide was at 1150 GMT on July 8 at 0.800 m.

To predict what the tides would be at Nikamaroro would require information regarding the propagation speeds of all tidal components from Canton to Nikamaroro. Since the two islands are only 200 miles apart, it is a reasonable assumption to dismiss these differences. Tidal amplitudes also vary with distance, so it may only be safe to infer gross general trends for Nikumaroro. Thus, it is safe to say that on July 8, the day before the Navy overflight, the tidal range was at a maximum, about 1.1 m. Earhart has been estimated to land on Nikamaroro at 11 a.m. local time on July 2 (approx. 2300 GMT July 2, 1937). At Canton, the tide is estimated to be 1.429 m, about 2 hours before high tide of 1.690 m. With such a high tide, it is likely that most of the reef flat at Nikamaroro was submerged, and Earhart may have tried to ditch the plane in the lagoon. On July 9, 1937, Lt. John O. Lambrecht and others flew over McKean, Nikamaroro, and Carondelet Reef, leaving the USS Colorado at 0700 (local), and returning at 1045 (local; Lt. Short's letter, Gillespie, 1991b). Based upon this information, it is likely that the overflight of Nikumaroro occurred at approximately 0900 local (2100 GMT), at which time the tide was 1.664 m, just after high tide. A picture taken during this flight confirms the high tide (R. Gillespie, pers. comm., 1992).

In short, one needs a long time series to extrapolate. On the other hand, if there are tide tables from 1937 for Pago Pago, it would be interesting to compare. I suspect tide experts would not predict a good match over 60 years worth of time, based upon a couple weeks worth of data.

From Ric

Slipping from science to hangar flying - I wonder how much water could be standing on the reef flat and still permit a relatively safe landing in a Lockheed 10? I've landed a Skyhawk on a flooded runway with probably four inches of standing water. It wasn't much fun, and it was rather spectacular to watch, but it worked out okay.

The tires of an Electra are big. The specs call for 35x15-6 tires. How much water could you land in and not flip over?

Subject: Wreck Photo
Date: 3/11/99
From: Mark Cameron

Aside from photos and film taken of the 10E on the second trip, how much detail do we have on the post-Hawaii crash version of the aircraft? My impression is that the 10E was a limited production aircraft (possibly only 1?) (please correct me if wrong about that) and the likelihood exists that non-standard repairs were made that could explain changes in rivit hole patterns, stringers, skin patches, etc. This could explain details in the Wreck photo that seem to be out of place, and possibly the famous piece of skin found at Niku that won't fit any known L10 but seems to be from one. Obviously the aircraft was modified to suit the needs of the flight, are there any records that tell us what mods were made? There seems to be some confusion about the nav table and equipment, how the fuel tanks were restrained, and the hookup for the 2 batteries. My real concern here is that a great deal of debate exists over a photo of an aircraft that may (or not) be the 10E but there seems to be much we don't know about the modified version of the thing.

LTM Mark J. Cameron

From Ric

You're right. There is a LOT we don't know about the airplane as it was configured for the second world flight attempt. The dearth of information is due to two factors:

1. The wreck in Hawaii that ended the first attempt was a major embarrassment for Amelia. The complete openess which characterized her preparations for the first attempt were replaced by almost paranoid secrecy (which, of course, has since fanned the flames of conspiracy theories).

2. The repairs were carried out under intense pressure and pestering from AE personally. We have the repair orders, but from close examination of later photos we know that they weren't followed very closely. There was some major beefing up of the landing gear attach points which are documented in new engineering drawings that needed Bureau of Air Commerce approval. It seems safe to assume that the repairs were carried out according to accepted standards but that leaves a lot of room for variations.

Subject: Navigational Accuracy
Date 3/11/99
From: Tom Van Hare

Ric wrote:

> does seem that FN was well aware of the off-set technique. Did he use it at Howland? We
> have no evidence that he did, but
> neither do we have proof that he did not. Sort of throws the
> question into the realm of opinion, don't it?

As one who is involved in research every day, I am really not quite willing to go out on the limb of opinion -- at least not without a lot of data to support it.

So, as I discussed with Ric yesterday by phone, we're now involved in a long term effort to discuss Pan Am navigation technique and Fred Noonan with former Pan Am aviators and navigators. Although we've just begun, we have already some very interesting information. First off the mark is some very interesting stuff from Capt. Banning. Banning joined Pan Am in 1941 and his stories therefore are technically hearsay. However, he made it clear that these things were discussed on numerous occassions with those who knew Fred Noonan personally and quite well and were all true.

In addition, Banning was trained in the same exact navigation techniques that Fred Noonan and Harold Gatty had pioneered for Pan Am, including radio bearings, sun lines, aim off navigation, etc. It is worth noting that celestial bearings were in use right up into the 1960s as the primary navigational system for Pan Am's operations and, in the words of Capt. Banning, "They didn't change almost at all, except for things like automatic averaging and the new drift sight that we got in, I think it was 1941 -- that was from Captain Gray."

So, here are a few of the better quotes:

I remember that word was Fred Noonan was one of the navigators who was most distrustful of radio bearings. The early ones were very difficult to use and interpret. And as a result, he was inclined to be very skeptical. On one occasion, at the transmitting station, water got into the transmitter grounding and it really distorted the signal. If Noonan had believed the radio bearing they would have flown into the hills and crashed, but he didn't trust them, instead basing the position on straight celestial navigation. Well, they lived; after that you learn to distrust radio bearings. One of the copilots who was with him on that flight is still alive..."

And also this regarding the taking of bearings and reliability:

With that kind of gear, the needle swings all over the place and you take a kind of an average of the various swings to work out the real bearing to the station. The radio operator would provide the navigator with the bearing information, but then the navigator would often just ignore it if the celestial or sun lines were good.

And then this regarding aim off:

We called it riding down a sun line. You offset to one side or another and then try to approach it with the sunrise. You get on the track with the sun line. Fred Noonan developed that, you know. They used to use that in ships. He was a master mariner in the First World War for the British Navy, I think. You would plot a line of position through the island and then you would do aim off, taking constant sun shots as you go, staying on the line. Once the sun rises, you are stuck with only the sun. Unless you had an awfully good fix shortly before sunrise you'd use aim off. If you drifted off too much, you could pass on by an island and miss it. So the fastest and safest way to find it would be to aim off. Fred Noonan would always aim off, you see, because it was his technique -- he developed that procedure. Everyone knew that he designed it.

More to come....

Thomas Van Hare

Subject: Landing on a Wet Surface
Date: 3/12/99
From: Tom Van Hare

One thought that comes to mind would be whether Amelia and Fred would have elected to land on the reef flat if it had even a few inches of water on top. As one who has done a lot of over water flying, I can tell you that judging water depth (looks like only one inch, there Fred, let's do it) is quite difficult (turned out to be a foot deep...).

So before we start querying hydroplaning experts (there is a fairly simple formula for this stuff, by the way, which I cannot seem to recall off the top of my head right now), perhaps it would warrant a discussion about whether seeing water on the reef flat would have made them think twice about landing there and they might have gone for the beach after all. If it is to be the water and reef flat, would they have considered it more like a ditching (gear up) than a landing (gear down)?

Thomas Van Hare

From Ric

The question of gear up or gear down must, I think, take into account the context of this particular flight. For a military or commercial pilot, or even an owner/pilot who has hull insurance, the decision can be made purely along lines of safety. That was not the case for Earhart. A wheels up landing would:

  1. Irrevocably end her world flight.
  2. Almost certainly result in the total loss of her airplane.

In short, it would in all likelihood write an ignominious end to her career. Would Purdue buy her another Electra after she wrecked this one twice? The era of pioneering long distance flights was rapidly drawing to a close and, in fact, it could be argued that her 'Round the World at the Equator flight was pretty contrived. Earhart is reported to have confessed "I think I have one more long distance flight left in me." In truth, there was nothing much left to be done that she was capable of doing, and she knew that.

A wheels down landing would preserve the possibility of rescue, refueling, and continuation of the flight which would have been made all the more marketable by the drama of her near-stranding on a desert island.

In short, I think she would land this airplane wheels-down if there was even a remote chance that such a landing could be successful.

LTM, Ric

Subject: FN post landing position fixing/Norwich wreck
Date: 3/12/99
From: Dave Porter

In last week's discussion of the 281 message, someone asked if FN could've fixed his position post landing and simply sent something like "on Gardner in Phoenix Group". You responded that the newest chart available to FN would have been 1932 (?) and that on that chart, Gardner didn't look anything like it did from the air. My question is two-fold.

1. Wouldn't FN have had enough confidence in his own skills to conclude that if his nav. measurements showed him to be as such and such position (excuse my overly technical language)of latitude and longitude, and the chart showed Gardner at that location, then he must indeed be on Gardner and the chart was simply wrong regarding how Gardner was supposed to look? and

2. Was the 1929 (?) Norwich City wreck on the 1932 chart, or did FN know of the wreck as an identifying feature of Gardner (a useful thing for over water fliers to know about) and either way, couldn't FN have used the wreck to confirm that his calculations were indeed correct and he was on Gardner?

I found the discussion of the 281 message to be fascinating and educational, and I hate to play devil's advocate, but is seems to me that FN would've had more than enough information available to fix his location as Gardner, and if a post landing message was sent, it could've been a far simpler one than any of the various 281 interpretations.

I freely admit that I'm a total amateur in these matters, and I've been involved in this for only a few weeks. I will gladly accept correction from those of you who through your skills and long term dedication have brought the investigation this far.

LTM, Dave Porter

From Ric

The currently available map of Gardner, if he had it, was based on an 1872 survey. The Norwich City went aground in 1929.

Why didn't the transmissions say, "We're on Gardner Island. That's Gardner - GardnerGardnerGardner." ? Remember that we may have only a fraction of what was transmitted. Most of what was heard was only faint carrier wave. There could have been lots and lots of content that never got through. For all we know Fred resorted to trying to describe the island's position only after no one responded to GardnerGardnerGardnerGardner.

Or maybe there were no authentic messages. All we can do is look at what we've got. It's usually a mistake to look at a few puzzle pieces and say "this can't be a picture of X because this doesn't fit my image of what X should look like."

LTM, Ric

Subject: Landing on a Wet Surface
Date: 3/12/99
From: Skeet Gifford

It's called hydroplaning in the airplane biz, and can occur with a deceptively small amount of moisture (film and War Story at 11:00).

New and recapped tires are deeply grooved, but the tire is serviceable right down to the first ply (cord). The grooves really don't have anything to do with a crosswind landing, since the wheels have a comparatively small influence on where the airplane goes. The aerodynamic controls do that, right down to taxi speed.

Snow, sand and standing water produce a deceleration in proportion to the depth. Soft gravel is used to stop run-away trucks in the Colorado high country. With a tail-dragger, at some point, the deceleration would overcome elevator aerodynamic forces and the static moment--and the airplane is three point: aluminum nose and two main gear. Hope you were wearing your shoulder harness!

Skeet Gifford, 1371BC

From Ric

I guess the question is at what point is the water too deep to get a Lockheed 10 down without nosing over?

Subject: Landing on a Wet Surface
Date: 3/13/99
From: Jon Watson, Vern Klein

It's probably not relevant, but hydroplaning is caused by depth of water, tread on the tires, speed and tire pressure. The Air Force found that by increasing tire pressure on their B-52's (being landed with full loads - not politically correct to jettison a nuke) when they were landing on rain soaked runways, they were able to avoid or minimize hydroplaning.


From Vern 2124

Whether or not Amelia landed on the reef flat at Niku may have been more a matter of the percieved situation than of the reality as we now know it. We don't yet have a first hand report on what the reef flat looks like from the air, especially when there's some water on it. Do we know what other reef flats look like from the air?

Amelia was a landlubber and she was certainly not familiar with reef flats. Fred was a seafaring type from way back but was he familiar with reef flats? I wonder if they would have percieved the reef flat, perhaps under a foot or so of water, as a place to land an airplane? Would either of them have imagined that it was a possible place to put the plane down? They were looking at a strange region surrounding a small island, with a lagoon in the middle of it. Was this something that would support an airplane? What was it anyway?

I think Amelia would have much preferred to try to set the plane down on dry land. Even if the beach was short on space and sloping, I think she would have tried it. I don't know what Fred might have advised. He too may well have felt pretty dubious about that reef flat.

I also find it hard to believe that they would have elected to land in the lagoon. That too was an unknown situation. Why would either of them choose to land the plane in water if there was some dry land available?

I think Amelia put the plane down on the beach... probably with wheels down.

Fantasizing... Maybe Amelia accomplished the most difficult landing of her life. Maybe the plane didn't nose over. Maybe they could run the starboard engine. Maybe some of the reported radio signals were real...

Subject: Another Niku Mystery
Date: 3/14/99
From: Ric Gillespie

One of the things I love about about my job is that I never know when something new and bizarre is going to pop up.

The other day I got a phone call from a Mr. Dan Skellie, about 70 years old, from Toledo, OH. Mr. Skellie had seen a couple of the TV documentaries about our work and had called me up to tell me about an incident that he thought I might find interesting.

He said that in January 1947 he was in the Coast Guard serving aboard the cutter Buttonwood. They sailed out of Honolulu for Canton Island, crossing the equator on Jan, 9th (he has his "shellback" certificate). From Canton they went to Howland and Baker to "dismantle lighthouses." He said that he and most of the shore party had to wait on the beach while an officer and some senior NCOs did whatever they did. It was real hot. At Howland they came back with a really thick piece of glass. (My guess is that it was the lens from the light - the only really valuable part of a lighthouse.)

They returned to Canton and then went to Gardner Island where they dropped off an officer who had been with them since Hawaii but was not attached to the ship. Mr. Skellie doesn't recall the officer's name or exact rank but he was junior to the ship's CO who was a Lieutenant-Commander, so this guy was either a Lt, a jg, or an Ensign. Nobody in the enlisted crew knew for sure what this guy was about, but the scuttlebut was that he had screwed up big-time back in Groton (CG headquarters in Connecticut) and was to do 6 months disciplinary duty at a 2-man radar site on Gardner. Anyway, they left the guy on Gardner and continued down to Pago Pago, then returned directly to Hawaii. End of story.

This is rather strange. As far we know, there never was any kind of "radar site" on Gardner and the wartime Loran station was disassembled and packed up in 1946. I can't imagine any reason for the Coast Guard to put anyone on Gardner in January of 1947. (I thought that marooning as punishment went out with keel hauling.) Put one officer ashore and leave? That sounds crazy. We need to look at the log of the Buttonwood and see what really happened. If the story is at all accurate we should be able to get the guy's name, find out if he's still alive, and maybe learn what was going on.

Last year we (meaning mostly Ron Dawson) successfully chased down the visits to Gardner by USS Swan in 1942 and were able to determine that this, in all likelihood, was not the source of the story told by former residents about "white men in a government ship" who came to take pictures of the airplane wreck. The time frame for this alleged visit by Buttonwood matches more closely the time when the Wreck Photo is purported to have been taken.

Let's see what we can find out. (Don't you just love this stuff?)
LTM, Ric

Subject: 281 Message
Date: 3/17/99
From: Amanda Dunham

Something has been bothering me about the 281 message: why would Amelia & Fred, who've used voice communication (however unsuccessfully) during the flight, then switch to keyed messages for help??? Especially if they weren't that skilled at it and they knew battery power was a serious issue?

Maybe they'd lost their voices after yelling over the engine noise for 20 hours or so... Is that a reasonable guess - was it that loud in the Electra cockpit?

Or would dehydration make you lose your voice after a day or so on Niku?

Are there any known instances of them keying messages during previous legs of the world flight?

Love to Mother (who can't use her radio if she loses the remote...)
Amanda Dunham

From Ric

If NR16020 was anything like Linda Finch's ersatz 10E (and there's every reason to think that it was), it was one loud mother. Most of the noise from a propeller-driven airplane comes not from the engine but from the propellers, specifically the tips of the propellers. In the Electra, those prop tips are just outside the cockpit windows and less than a hand's width away. Finch used a hi-tech noise-cancelling headset. The Electra utterly defeated it.

The North American T-6 trainer uses essentially the same engine and prop as the Electra. A T-6 on takeoff has been called the most efficient device ever created by man for turning gasoline into decibels. The noise level in the cockpit of a Lockheed 10E had to be like riding between two T-6s in close formation.

At cruise power the noise wouldn't be nearly as bad, and we know that AE routinely stuffed cotton in her ears, but still, 20 to 24 hours of constant hammering could very well have left both she and Noonan hearing impaired during the last hours of the flight and for a time afterward. I don't think that this is "the key to the mystery", but it probably was a contributing factor.

I'd be surprised if yelling over the engine noise left them hoarse for days. They seem to have done much of their communicating by passing scribbled notes. That would make sense whether they were sitting side by side in the cockpit or if Fred was in back working with charts (we don't know if they brought the famous bamboo note-passing pole along on the second attempt).

I've never heard of dehydration making someone hoarse, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. I just don't know.

To my way of thinking, the most likely reason for them to use code in the 281 message is the realization that code carries much, much farther than voice. I'm sure that our radio experts can quote chapter and verse on this, but when you're trying to get through with very marginal condition, code is definitely the way to go. The more credible of the earlier reports of possible post-loss transmission describe "unintelligible voice." I suspect that they did try voice and only turned to code in desperation.

Love to mother,

Subject: 10s, 12s and 54s
Date: 3/17/99
From: Robert Klaus

Weighing in with another unsupported opinion on the wreck photo.

First, could it be a model 12?

Second, having spent some time ruining my eyes staring at Simon's excellent site, I noticed something. The wreck photo has a couple of small features on the upper surface of the nose, just to the right of centerline. I took these at first to be damage, but on closer examination the forward one looks too regular. It could be a round access hole with a removable cover detached at one edge, and swung partially out of the way. The photo of the Ki-54 fuselage in Beijing shows a small round feature at the same point.

Did 16020 have a similar feature? I can't tell from the pictures I have.

Also, do either the Beijing, or the Australian fuselages have the wing center section remaining, to compare? Are there any photos of Ki-54s being built, or damaged which show the wing carry through structure. I know you have the drawing, which does not show the lightening holes, but that does not prove that none of the Ki-54s had them.

I'm not trying to prove that the photo is not 16020. It would be wonderful to find and verify that kind of evidence of a landing on ground. I just don't want too much of TIGHAR's reputation invested in evidence which might later be discredited. People will remember mistakes and frauds, and ignore the real evidence you have found.

LTM, Robert Klaus

From Ric

I'm quite satisfied that it's not a 12. That was one of the first possibilities we investigated and, I believe, is discussed in the TIGHAR Tracks articles on the website. Short answer - the prop length to cowling diameter ratio is wrong for a 12.

I know the roundish-looking hole you're talking about. I don't know what it is. There's no cover or inpsection plate in that location on the Lockheed 10s we've looked at and I don't have a photo from the correct angle or of sufficient detail to be sure about NR16020. I don't remember seeing one in the photo of the Beijing Ki-54 either - but I could have missed it. There is no such feature on the Australian Ki-54 fuselage.

I'm afraid I can't buy the argument that some Ki-54's may have had lightening holes in the forward wing spar. That's a major structural component. It's important to understand that the wing and center section construction of the Lockheed 10 and the Tachikawa Ki-54 are about as different as fish 'n chips are from sashimi. The Lockheed was built around one massive "shear beam" that looks like a chunk of the Brooklyn Bridge running from the outside edge of one engine nacelle, through the cabin (passengers had to climb over it) and out to the far side of the other nacelle. The shear beam carried all the load. Other structures in the center section, such as the panel with big lightening holes that ran along just behind the inboard leading edge, were relatively delicate.

The Japanese airplane, by contrast, had a wing built around two conventional and rather beefy spars. The wing is attached to the fuselage with pins at the base of each spar. The engineering drawings show the spars to be solid, which is to be expected. The forward spar runs just behind the leading edge in the inboard wing section. No structure with lightening holes is shown.

In short, take the wings off a Ki-54 and you're left with just a fuselage. There is no centersection per se. Take the wings off a Lockheed 10 and you're left with a centersection made up of engines, inboard wing sections and fuselage.

We realize that the only way to ever know for sure whether or not the Wreck Photo shows NR16020 is to find the wreckage of Earhart's plane and see if it looks anything like the Wreck Photo. Until then, it's a great subject for debate.

LTM, Ric

Subject: Navigation Plan B
Date: 3/17/99
From: Phil Tanner

I've been trying to get to grips with the forum archive over recent days and I'm struggling on one point of logic. Someone posted recently to the effect that anyone with any knowledge of aerial navigation in the 30s would expect FN to have had a plan in reserve to cover not finding Howland. While we can't read minds 60 years on, it makes perfect sense. It also makes perfect sense that this is what he did and that a landing on Nikumaroro was the outcome. It's also abundantly clear that he/they would have been trying to communicate their intention once they had to resort to this plan B, but they couldn't be heard.

What escapes me is why the authorities seem not to have known in advance precisely what this fallback position would have been and acted accordingly. Can anyone square this circle

Phil Tanner 2276

From Ric

You bring up a good point. It always seems odd to us today that Earhart and Noonan flew around the world in 1937 almost entirely on their own. They had made arrangements for fuel to be available at various locations but other than that they just sort of headed on out. They didn't file any flight plans (nobody did in those days) and they don't seem to have discussed their contingency plans with anybody. On the occasions when we know they wired ahead to coordinate about radio frequencies, things usually got screwed up. Eric Chater, Earhart's host in New Guinea, mentions no discussion of any Plan B. It's as if AE and FN figured that it was all up to them and therfore, nobody's business but their own.

LTM, Ric

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