Forum artHighlights From the Forum

October 3 through 9, 1999

Subject: Azimuth Circle/Sextant Boxes
Date: 10/6/99
From: Michael Real

In a previous post 1999-07-19, Vern requested information on azimuth circles, which could indirectly relate to the search for the mysterious sextant box numbering system.

You wrote: "I've seen photos of azimuth circles but I'm not sure what they are or how they are used.........Does anyone know exactly what these things are and how they are used?"

I have plenty of photographs which I can scan for you of different types used over the centuries, but as you have probably seen a modern version attached to naval warships, I can furnish you with the following explanation of how they are used:

An azimuth circle is usually a term applied to a sighting arrangement which is fitted to a magnetic compass to enable bearings to be taken on distant objects. Its purposes were to obtain a bearing of a fixed point for navigation purposes, or to check the reading of the compass against a known bearing in order to find the magnetic variation, or to measure the relative bearing of another ship for station-keeping purposes. The sighting arrangements in some versions allowed bearings of stars to be taken.

An azimuth compass would have such a sighting arrangement incorporated in it. In other types, a navigational compass might be supplied with an azimuth ring for use when required.

With respect to the sextant box mystery: in light of the 2 surveys undertaken by the New Zealanders, as well as the scientific expeditions launched by the British and the U.S.A. for the solar eclipse observations during this period , there must be a possibility that the mysterious box could have been incorrectly identified as a sextant box, rather than a survey instrument box used for levels or theodolites or an azimuth circle/compass. Survey instruments of many types were almost universally stored in similar wooden boxes of a similar size up until the 1970's, particularly levels. Could Gallagher and others have made a fundamental identification error?- although the Pensacola box with a similar numbering system could suggest otherwise.

For the record, our faculty at the University of Tasmania has two sextants of a German manufacture, C. Plath of Hamburg 39, (1972), box dimensions of 310 millimetres x 310 millimetres x 200 millimetres. They differ from the Pensacola box by having a "skinny lid" rather than the box being split - in - half by the lid.

If you require images of various azimuth circle types, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Michael Real

Subject: Call for Volunteers
Date: 10/7/99
From: Ric Gillespie

This summer's field work on Nikumaroro and in Fiji has enabled us to refine our hypothesis that the Electra was landed safely on the reef at Niku, sent radio distress calls for two to three days, and was then destroyed by the surf leaving its crew quite literally "marooned on a desert island." Emily Sikuli may have given us the crucial missing piece of the puzzle - the exact spot where the Earhart/Noonan world flight ended. The forensic imaging work now underway at Photek could replace anecdote with contemporaneous photographic evidence of aircraft wreckage on the reef at Niku at a time when only one aircraft was unaccounted for in the Central Pacific. (see The Carpenter's Daughter)

With increased suspicion that at least some of the alleged post-loss radio signals may have been genuine, it has become apparent that we need to take another look at what was reportedly heard. No in-depth analysis of the various reports has been done since Randy Jacobson's excellent compilation of all of the official message traffic was made available on CD (see Earhart Project CD). Most of the suspected post-loss transmissions were passed along to the searchers and thus are among the 3,000 and some messages cataloged on the CD, but they've never been systematically dug out and categorized so that a full evaluation can be made. We'll also need to seek out messages reported in other sources (such as period newspaper accounts) that may not have made it into the official record.

This is a call for volunteers for a TIGHAR research project the end product of which will be a documented chronology of all reported transmissions received in the days following the disappearance that were alleged or suspected of emanating from the lost aircraft. If you would like to volunteer for this project you need to be:

  • a member of TIGHAR (or willing to become a member).
  • willing to equip yourself with the necessary research material if you don't already have them. (The CD is $100).
  • willing to work with other volunteers to establish a format for the chronology and a division of labor for the research.

I'll appoint a team leader from among those who volunteer and periodically pass along research results and needs to the forum. Who would like to help?


Subject: William Stewart and AE
Date: 10/7/99
From: Richard Johnson

I was reading an article written by William Stewart who claims that Fred Noonan, in a reply to Navy Lt. Commander P.V.H. Weems on May 11, 1935, wrote about certain equipment for the planned flight. Noonan stated, "for reasons which I am certain you understand, we are not permitted to discuss the particulars of the flight for dissemination among the general public." Stewart uses this as a basis for his espionage theory. Are you familiar with this letter and exactly what is it in reference to? Why would Noonan write Weems in the first place? I realize this is a bit off topic but if anyone would know the truth here it would be you. Thanks for your time!

Richard Johnson

From Ric

Well, similarly thin threads have been used to support spy theories. (For example: the Morgenthau transcript and the "love to mother" telegram). The letter appeared as an article in the the May 1938 issue of Popular Aviation under the title "A Letter From Fred Noonan to Lieut.-Comm. P.V.H Weems" with the introduction:

Lieutenant-Commander Weems was a personal friend of the late Fred Noonan. It was at the Weems navigation school that Noonan gained much of the knowledge that later was to be responsible for the many colorful transoceanic flights in which he participated.

The statement seems rather odd given Fred's long career as a master mariner. I don't think we've ever seen any paper that indicates that Fred actually attended Weems' school but it would not be surprising if Phil Weems and Fred Noonan were acquainted.

First of all, in the 1935 letter Fred is talking about the Pan Am survey flight to Hawaii, not the Earhart flight. (He wasn't even involved with Earhart until March of 1937.) His comment about not being permitted to discuss the particulars of the flight is perfectly in line with Pan American's corporate policies at that time. Transoceanic commercial aviation was in its infancy and was the subject of intense competition for international routes and landing rights. Pan Am was extremely proprietary about the techniques and procedures it had developed.


Subject: Re: William Stewart and AE
Date: 10/8/99
From: Jerry Hamilton

Boy, is this ever an example of somebody stretching the facts beyond reason! Ric is correct about the PanAm context. Noonan wrote Weems on May 11, 1935. In mid-April the first exploratory Clipper flight to Hawaii and back was completed. Understand that this was a trial of the first leg of what was to become the Clipper Manila service which eventually went Alameda (an island in the San Francisco Bay) to Hawaii to Midway to Wake to Guam to Manila. The Clipper and crew, including FN, had only arrived on the West Coast from Miami at the end of March. So this was an historical undertaking.

Noonan wrote Weems in reply to a "congratulatory letter" he had received from Weems on April 1. One assumes the congratulations was for being the lead navigator for the new Pan American Clipper west coast operation. Noonan says in the letter introduction that he considers Weems, "...the foremost authority on the subject of aerial navigation,..." and that he knows he would be interested in the recently completed Hawaiian flight. He then goes on to describe in considerable detail the navigation equipment and methods used for the flight. He concludes the letter by saying he, "...would appreciate further communication with you upon any navigation matters which might be of mutual interest."

Noonan uses the general disclaimer quoted by Stewart at the very beginning of the letter. He is writing only a week after the Hawaiian exploratory flight. The first Manila flight will not take place until November. As an employee of a company just beginning development of the first transPacific air service, with some risk involved, it makes sense that he make a cautionary statement to Weems. The fact that he goes into chapter and verse about the navigation aspects of the flight indicate he is not hiding anything.

We have not been able to document that Noonan attended the Weems Navigation Academy. It is very clear, however, that they were in professional contact and, probably, friends. We do know that later in the same year Noonan received further correspondence and books from Weems.

How anything in Noonan's letter to Weems can be turned into a conspiracy is way beyond my poor little pea brain.

blue skies, -jerry

Subject: Inquests
Date: 10/8/99
From: Phil Tanner

Big news here in the UK is the London train crash. I live five minutes' walk from the station which was the last stop for the bigger of the two trains. It struck me that to get to the bottom of it the authorities will have to apply exactly the same thought processes as the Earhart Project.

Of more relevance: Any death in unexplained circumstances here is formally considered at a coroner's inquest, which returns a verdict of death by accident, natural causes, unlawful killing or misadventure (which implies that the victim didn't take all the steps s/he should to ensure personal safety), or an open verdict if no cause is clear. The great majority are formalities and bigger cases are dealt with by a jury. Inquests are also held when UK citizens die abroad in unexplained circumstances, so if I went to Niku and impaled myself on a piece of aircraft wreckage the inquest would be held here in Reading, and I believe they also serve the purpose of pronouncing people dead who have been missing for a certain number of years.

My question is: Does the US have an equivalent system (or do individual states), and if so were inquests held on Earhart or Noonan? And if they were, what documentation did they turn up?

Phil Tanner 2276

From Ric

An excellent question. Here's what Mary Lovell (The Sound of Wings, pages 307 and 308) has to say on the subject:

In September 1938 .... George (Putnam) made it clear that he intended to try to establish proof of Amelia's death in order to have the will probated and to administrate the Estate in the manner in which Amelia had wished. To establish the necessary proof for the court, he wrote to Admiral Leahy who had commanded the search for Amelia, and through him obtained a sworn affidavit from Leigh Noyes, captain of the U.S.S. Lexington, on the scope and results of the search. It ended, 'No trace of either the Amelia Earhart plane or of its occupants was found.'...Armed with the necessary statements from Richard B. Black and Captain Leigh Noyes...and in the company of his employee Charles 'Cap' Palmer, George went to Los Angeles city hall to file evidence - all, it seemed likely, that there ever would be - of Amelia's death. it was accepted by the court and the will was duly probated.

I imagine that Fred's widow went through a similar procedure, but it seems apparent that no in-depth investigation was carried out in either case.


Subject: Weems School of Navigation/Gatty/Noonan
Date: 10/9/99
From: Michael Real

With respect to the Weems School of Navigation, I have the following information which may be of interest, and involves the Pioneer Instrument Company which has been previously discussed in connection with the type of sextant boxes Pan Am used.

Gatty opened his own school of navigation in Los Angeles in 1928, and in the process, secured an agency for the Pioneer company, which could possibly account for Pan Am Airways being supplied with this brand of sextant. ( I have located Gatty's personal sextant in Fiji, and will offer more details on this and the Noonan relationship as soon as the information can be disseminated and authenticated).

Gatty attended a lesson at the Weems school to compare his methods with those of Weems', and in the process was offered a job as an instructor with the school. Gatty collaborated closely with Weems on a number of breakthroughs in air navigation methods and equipment, for which Weems acknowledged in his text-book, Weems System of Air Navigation. Gatty was responsible for the invention of the octant or air sextant, the aerochronometer, and the drift sight, amongst others.

Gatty took over as manager of the Weems franchise in San Diego before navigating for Roscoe Turner's attempt on the absolute U.S. transcontinental record in 1929 in the Lockheed Sirius. Although the absolute record was not broken due to severe headwinds, the commercial record was broken, the Sirius carrying 3 passengers. This first test of his navigation skills is interesting when his discussion of his reactions on landing after the flight of 19 hours and 51 minutes is compared to the Noonan flight from Lae of a similar duration, in the context of the frequent appraisals from Forum members of what Noonan's condition could have been when arriving in the vicinity of Howland.

In 1957 he wrote:

Most of us have experienced that confused, bewildered and unpleasant feeling of uncertainty which accompanies an illusion of orientation in a strange city. Everything seems reversed and you begin to lose all confidence in your ability to find your way.

In 1929 I accompanied Roscoe Turner on his attempt to break the air record between Los Angeles and New York. It was my first flight to Long Island, and after a long and trying nineteen hours' flying, we landed at Roosevelt Field in very bad weather. It was in the middle of the night. I was overtired and when I oriented myself on leaving the airfield I established the wrong directions. I kept feeling that I knew my directions perfectly and kept finding that I was absolutely wrong. What is more, on subsequent visits I carried my capacity for illusion with me. Everything seemed reversed. I made mistakes so consistently that I began to lose confidence in my ability to find my way. For years after that, when I was in the region of Roosevelt Field, I always felt that North should be South and that West should be East; and even though I knew perfectly well that these directions were wrong, I somehow could not rid myself of them and had to translate them correctly in my mind with an act of conscious will each time I visited the area.

What is also interesting when contemplating whether A.E. could have landed on that reef 'wheels-down', is Turner's physical state at the end of that flight and his landing attempts:

After 20 hours of flying, Turner's judgement was frayed. Weather was bad over the city ,and the runway was poorly lit. On the first attempt to land, he overshot the field and accelerated quickly to gain height. Circling, he tried again. Twice more, he threatened to overshoot and had to give her the gun to pull away in time. On the fourth attempt, he brought her in for a bouncing landing.

Gatty was a supremely modest man, and of course his next famous flight with Bromley (the flight of the Tacoma) proved just how good he was in returning to the starting point after flying blind for 21 hours in a slowly disintegrating aeroplane filled with choking exhaust fumes. Although this pinpoint accuracy was as a result of his dead-reckoning skills combined with the Weems' system and his abilities in taking quick accurate sextant readings, he still confided later that it was luck and good fortune and maybe instinct that brought them safely home. He further added "From my experience in those twenty five and a half hours out over the Pacific, when I found that my research work in navigation had stood me in good stead and saved my life, I had learned some of the technical obstacles to long -distance flights."

Michael Real

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