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The Great Circle Route

Amelia Earhart – The Mystery Solved.

Elgen M. Long and Marie K. Long. Simon & Schuster, 1999. 320 pp. $25.00 hardcover.

In the ongoing debate over the fate of famous woman pilot Amelia Earhart and pioneering aerial navigator Fred Noonan, no researcher is accorded wider respect and affection than are Elgen and Marie Long, the authors of this latest attempt to answer the 62 year old riddle. Elgen Long's experience as an airline captain and record-setting, world-circling aviator give him the credentials to speak with authority about the art and science of long distance flying. Aided at every step by his wife Marie, Long has assembled an impressive collection of original documents and, because he began his quest over 25 years ago, has interviewed players in the 1937 drama who are now long dead. From the beginning, the Longs have maintained that the official government verdict was correct: the aircraft ran out fuel and ditched at sea. Now, their long-awaited book presents a step by step explanation of what happened.

Amelia Earhart – The Mystery Solved presents detailed computations of how and why the flight from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island went wrong and reveals precisely when the end came. According to the authors, a few seconds after 08:43 local time, the engines of the Earhart aircraft surged and died from fuel exhaustion. Amelia was at that moment in the process of changing the radio frequencies, having just told the Coast Guard that she would do so. When the engines suddenly quit she dropped the microphone and used both hands to hold the control wheel and disengage the automatic pilot. Preoccupied with preparing the airplane for a water landing, she never made a distress call or alerted the Coast Guard to her plight. The airplane hit the water two minutes later. It sustained little damage but sank relatively quickly and now awaits recovery almost perfectly preserved in the cold dark depths. The Longs say there is a 90 percent probability that the aircraft lies within a 2,000 square mile area which, they say, can be searched for two million dollars.

How, one might ask, is it possible to know with such precision the details of an event for which there is so little historical information? The Longs explain that a recently discovered document provides the answer. An eight page letter written shortly after the fatal flight by Eric Chater, manager of Guinea Airways in Lae, New Guinea provides previously unknown details about the events immediately preceding the disappearance. Lost in a corporate file drawer until 1991, the document's possible importance was recognized and made public as a result of publicity surrounding continued interest in Earhart’s fate. (See The Chater Report.) In fact, the new information about the flight’s progress contained in the Chater letter is highly ambiguous and raises as many questions as it answers. For the Longs, their own interpretation of some of the information in the letter was a revelation. As they put it, “In theory Earhart should have had more fuel remaining. Until recently it wasn’t possible to say conclusively why she ran out of gas.”

Rather than reach a conclusion which flows logically from the evidence, the Longs began where most researchers hope to end. As they openly state, “We have known for twenty-five years that the solution to the Earhart mystery lies on the ocean floor under 17,000 feet of water.” For the Longs there can be no other explanation for why no one heard radio transmissions from the airplane after 08:43 local time. (In that message Earhart said, “We are on the line 157/337. Will repeat message. We will repeat this on 6210 Kilocycles. Wait” and then she said something that may be interpreted from the original radio log entry as “We are running on line north and south” or “We are running on north and south line.”) The authors’ certainty that they knew the answer before they began their investigation allowed them to construct a perfect circle of argument. The available data are interpreted or altered to support the correct answer, contradictory evidence is ignored, and the manipulated data are then stated as fact to prove the original conclusion.

The assertion that they know exactly when the aircraft ran out of gas permits the authors to make categorical statements such as “If the maximum range remains constant, it is a mathematical certainty that an 8.5 percent increase in ground speed will result in an 8.5 percent increase in hourly fuel consumption.” Of course, if the maximum range is not a known constant the equation doesn't work. Similarly, their statement that the flight experienced a headwind over the entire route that averaged “26.5 mph” (despite the lack of any current winds aloft observations for the route) is established by calculating the time aloft versus the presumed distance flown and figuring out how much headwind is needed to achieve the ordained result. Working backward from a predetermined conclusion, ambiguous statements of position, speed and wind are easily interpreted to fit the formula, and undocumented aspects of the aircraft’s performance and characteristics can be readily adjusted with confidence.

Even so, the Longs’ solution of the mystery has some internal contradictions. For example, early in the book a map is presented showing the direct route from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island and Earhart’s “actual route” based upon position reports contained in the Chater letter. The map of the “actual route” shows deviations from the direct route which add at least 50 miles to the distance flown, and yet later in the book the authors base their precise calculations for the moment of engine failure upon an “actual distance” flown of 2,573 miles – only 17 miles longer than the 2,556 miles of the direct route. Which actual route is the actual route?

Foregoing scholarly conventions of historical inquiry relieves the authors of the need to provide footnotes, show their full calculations, or reproduce cited sources. Instead the Longs chose to write the book in what they describe as “an easy-to-read narrative style” which takes care “not to inject poetic license into any matter of consequence.” Without knowing what details are considered to be matters of consequence it is difficult and often impossible to know how much of the scenes described are of the authors’ invention. To know what is cited and what is not the discerning reader must check the notes at the back of the book for each page of text. However, in the Longs’ defense, they make no claim that the book is intended as an historical treatise.

Until someone finds conclusive evidence that the airplane ended up somewhere else, the possibility that Earhart and Noonan perished at sea remains a viable and certainly highly intuitive hypothesis. Whether or not it can be tested economically would seem to depend entirely upon how narrowly the search area can be reasonably constrained. Regrettably, the Longs’ book has merely demonstrated the need for greater scientific rigor in that endeavor.

Richard E. Gillespie
Executive Director

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