Finding Amelia
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writing head

he unlikely process by which Finding Amelia came to be written began in 1999. TIGHAR’s investigation of the Earhart disappearance was already ten years old when, on October 7 of that year, having just returned from our sixth expedition to the South Pacific, I posted a message on TIGHAR’s Earhart Search Forum:

  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. 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.

   Whether Earhart and Noonan had sent radio distress calls after they were down was an important question. The location of essential radio components aboard the aircraft meant that transmissions were not possible if the plane was afloat on the ocean. If only one alleged post-loss radio signal from Earhart was genuine, the Electra had to have been on land and the official U.S. government verdict that the Electra crashed and sank at sea could not be correct. After the 1937 search was abandoned, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard dismissed the widely publicized receptions by amateur radio listeners as hoaxes or misunderstood interceptions of the searchers’ attempts to contact the plane. But how many alleged receptions were there? Who heard them and exactly what did they hear? Were all of the reports really investigated and debunked as the government claimed?
   By the fall of 2002, after nearly three years of digging, we felt confident that we had uncovered all of the available reports of possible post-loss distress calls. From a master list of some 184 alleged receptions, we then constructed a minute-by-minute timeline for the entire sixteen-day 1937 search and a computerized relational database that allowed us to look for patterns in the reported signals. What we found surprised us.
   The distribution of the reported receptions, when compiled according to time, geography, frequency, and content, fell into very distinct patterns strongly suggesting that many, if not most, of the signals were genuine. A few instances of hoaxed messages were apparent but there were no misunderstandings; that is, at no time did an alleged reception of a distress call from the missing plane coincide with a call to the plane by the searchers.
   When we examined the historical record we found that, despite later government claims to the contrary, only a very few reports from amateurs were ever investigated and, in at least two cases, the authorities concluded that the reported signals probably came from the lost plane. We also discovered that far more signals were heard by professional and U.S. Government radio operators in and near the search area than were reported by amateurs stateside. In fact, the Coast Guard cutter Itasca received more suspicious signals (nearly a quarter of the total) than any other station but the cutter’s captain never provided his superiors with an accurate accounting.
   By early 2003 it was apparent that, not only was there reason to believe that Earhart and Noonan had been alive and calling for help days after they disappeared, but the true story of the 1937 search was significantly different and far more dramatic than the traditionally accepted version. On February 7, 2003, I broached the idea of a book to two of TIGHAR’s senior researchers, Dr. Randy Jacobson and LCDR Bob Brandenburg.

At some point about a month ago, in digging through and trying to piece together just what happened aboard the Itasca, it dawned on me that there is way too good a story here than can be told in a report about the post-loss radio signals. After the report is finished and published, I’d like to use it as the centerpiece of a book proposal for a commercially published book that will tell the story of the Earhart flight, disappearance and search from the perspective of the Coast Guard cutter Itasca – the personalities, the tensions, the frustrations, the assumptions, the mistakes, and ultimately the cover-up. I don't think it’s an exaggeration to say that to understand the voyage of the Itasca is to understand the Earhart mystery.

   Randy and Bob liked the idea, but first I needed to finish writing the Post-Loss Radio Study. The deeper I got into researching what happened, the more the picture kept changing, the more conventional wisdom was exposed as myth, and the longer the report got. By the fall of 2003 it was obvious that the study itself would have to be a book. The plan was for the first half to be a quantitative analysis of the reported post-loss messages. The second half would be a qualitative examination of who heard what. As I reported to TIGHAR’s Earhart Project Advisory Council on October 5, 2003:

For some chapters I have pages and pages written. For others I have pages and pages written that need extensive rewriting because new research has changed the picture. For other chapters all I have is a recognition that I need a chapter on that subject.

   By August of 2004 I was able to show the council a draft of the first half of the book, but the second half was still giving me fits. The problem was that it would not stop growing. I eventually came to realize that the post-loss messages were not merely an interesting aspect of the 1937 search, they were the driving force behind the entire effort. If I was going to tell the story of the alleged distress calls I would have to tell the story of the U.S. Government’s search for Amelia Earhart, and not just the cruise of the cutter Itasca, but the voyages of the battleship USS Colorado, the seaplane tender USS Swan, and the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. I would have to cover the U.S. Navy conferences in Washington and at Pearl Harbor where critical decisions were made. I would have to deal with the tensions within the command structure and between the various agencies and services involved in the search; the role of the press, of commercial radio stations and of Pan American Airways. And none of it would make any sense if I did not also deal with Amelia Earhart’s relationship with all of the people and organizations who ended up searching for her.
   By February 2005 I had come to the reluctant realization that the book that needed to be written was the complete story of Earhart’s world flight attempts, her disappearance, and the massive 1937 search that failed to find her. At least it was a story I knew and I thought I could probably have the manuscript finished that spring. I was wrong on both counts. As I started working through the source material, revelation after revelation made it apparent that the story I knew was largely a fairy tale invented by Amelia, her husband, and by the people who later tried and failed to find her. The events described in the primary sources are very different from the legends, and in some cases lies, that have long been accepted as the facts of the case. Piecing together the truth was going to take a lot longer than I had thought.
   Such an overhaul of the traditional tale would have to be exhaustively footnoted, but little numbers at the ends of sentences do not automatically bestow credibility on the information presented. To answer the inevitable skeptics, and save them the trouble of visiting innumerable archives to check our work, we decided to take the unusual step of providing the source material on an interactive DVD that would accompany the book. One click and the reader would be able to verify that the letter, log, telegram or report cited really did say what I said it said. The challenge would be to write an academically sound narrative while preserving the appeal of what is, without a doubt, one of the greatest untold adventure stories of the twentieth century.
   On April 6, 2005, we delivered a book proposal to the Naval Institute Press on the campus of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. They were by no means the biggest publisher that had expressed interest in the project but they were, nonetheless, our first choice. Their reputation for historical integrity is flawless, and we felt that a book that was going to be as hard on the sea services as this one would benefit from their endorsement. Our proposal was enthusiastically received and by the end of July we had a signed contract for a manuscript to be delivered by the end of the year or the end of March at the latest.
   At that point we still envisioned a two part book: a narrative recounting the world flight attempts, the disappearance, and the search, followed by a discussion of the post-loss radio signals. It soon became apparent, however, that it made more sense to deal with the post-loss messages in context, rather than as a separate issue. The book needed to present a single, seamless story. The publisher wholeheartedly agreed and I, once again, began writing. The first job was to set the stage for the drama to come.

(Note: The excerpts from Finding Amelia reproduced below provide a preview of the book’s style and substance. The published text includes citations for primary source documents, many of which are included on the DVD that comes with each copy of the book.)

An Airport in the Ocean: The American Equatorial Islands
dropItasca nodded gently in the tropical night, waiting, listening. The 2:00 AM deck log entry recorded a balmy 81ºF, clear skies, a light breeze from the east, and a calm sea. In the Coast Guard cutter’s cramped radio room, the smell of stale cigarettes, cold coffee, and shirtless men hung in the air amid the soft hum of the transmitters and receivers. Somewhere, far to the west, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra droned through the darkness, drawing closer with each passing hour.
   Nearby, invisible but for the faint moonlit line of surf breaking on its fringing reef, lay a narrow lozenge of coral sand and scattered scrub less than two miles in length. The captain of a Nantucket whaler had dubbed it Worth Island in honor of himself in 1822, but the name did not stick, perhaps because no one thought the barren outcropping was “worth” anything. Located in what was then the South Seas Whale Fishery, the island’s small size and low profile made it a hazard to navigation, and in 1842 another American whaling captain bestowed a measure of immortality on the lookout who spotted it. All we know about that sharp-eyed sailor is that his name was Howland.
   On a July night nearly a century later, Howland’s island was inhabited by several thousand seabirds, a similar number of small gray Polynesian rats, and a half dozen Hawaiian and Chinese-American youths. The birds and rats were regular residents, but the young men were there on business. They were employed by the U.S. Department of Interior as “colonists” to establish American sovereignty over the birds, the rats, the coral, and what had to be the world’s most improbable airport.
   Stretching across the length and breadth of the island’s surface were three intersecting runways. Each had been laboriously scraped out of the coral gravel, rolled smooth and firm, suitably marked, and equipped with windsocks. A handful of engineers and laborers, working under extreme conditions and using condemned and makeshift equipment, had accomplished the construction in strict secrecy and with great urgency. Built by the U.S. government with specific authorization from the president of the United States, the airfield was a civilian airport ostensibly intended to serve “the flying public” in a place nearly two thousand miles from the nearest flying and the nearest public. The American taxpayers, in the throes of the Great Depression, had unwittingly built an entire airport for one-time use by a private individual engaged in a self-promotional publicity stunt.
   The sequence of events that led to this bizarre situation had its beginning in 1932 when, among the telegrams received by Amelia Earhart upon the successful completion of her solo transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, was one from the wife of New York governor and presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After covering the evolution of Amelia’s remarkable political connections and the machinations by which the airport on Howland Island came to be built, I was ready to deal with Earhart’s first attempt to fly around the world.  This is where the seeds of the final disaster were sown – her reliance on the expertise of people who would not be there for the second attempt, the loss of her most important government ally, and her decision to forego an important flight check. Here too, is where the historical record begins to paint a portrait of people and events that is not at all in keeping with popular legend.

Hawaiian Debacle: The Luke Field Accident
dropImelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra landed at the army’s Wheeler Field early the next morning, having set a new record of fifteen hours and forty-seven minutes for the trip despite mechanical difficulties. On arrival, Mantz told Army Air Corps engineering officer Lt. Kenneth Rogers that for roughly the last half of the flight, the propeller on the right-hand engine had been stuck at a fixed angle of pitch. He also said that the generator had stopped showing a charge due to a failure in the electrical control box. After a brief photo session, Mantz, Earhart, Manning, and Noonan left the airfield.
   The army’s investigation of subsequent events would determine that they left without leaving any instructions “whatsoever as to what was to be done to the plane in the way of service or check-over.” The previously announced plan had been for Earhart, Manning, and Noonan to take off from Wheeler on the flight to Howland Island at 10:00 PM that night, so Lieutenant Rogers and the local Pratt & Whitney service representative, Wilbur Thomas, “took it upon themselves to do what is usually done to put an airplane in suitable condition for the continuance of such a flight.” They changed the oil, cleaned and gapped the spark plugs, and performed a number of other routine checks. Nothing was wrong with the control box. The problem was that the current control had been set improperly, resulting in a blown fuse. In servicing the propellers they found that both hubs took a surprising amount of grease, although there was no sign of a leak.
   At 2:45 PM, William Miller, back in Oakland, informed all government agencies supporting the flight that “Miss Earhart has postponed her departure from Honolulu to Howland Island 24 hours on account of weather.” In his later report to the chief of naval operations, however, the navy aerological officer (meteorologist) who prepared the forecast said that he had predicted “favorable flying conditions over the entire route, except for cloudiness and showers near Pearl Harbor. It is understood that her delay was occasioned by other reasons.”

   Further inspection showed that both propeller hubs had to be rebuilt due to the use of improper lubricant.  Two days later, Earhart’s attempt to continue her world flight ended on the runway at Luke Field, Pearl Harbor. She lost control of the aircraft on takeoff, the landing gear collapsed, and the Electra slammed to the ground, sliding to a stop in a shower of sparks. No one was injured, but by the time the wrecked airplane was aboard ship and on its way back to California for repair, the government personnel charged with supporting Earhart’s world flight did not welcome her assurances that she would try again.
    Over the years there has been endless speculation and debate about why Amelia Earhart wanted to make a flight around the world. At the time, Earhart claimed that her purpose was to collect scientific data for Purdue University and to “show what women can do.” Conspiracy buffs have since charged that she was on an intelligence-gathering mission for the American government.  In Chapter 4, I laid out the documented facts about the true purpose of the trip.

Reversals: Preparations for the Second World Flight Attempt
dropIarhart and Putnam had been able to secure the loans and sponsorships needed to make a second attempt possible. Much of the money had been donated, but George and Amelia had gone heavily into personal debt to complete the budget. In mid-April, the promise of another try at a trip around the world was enough to land a contract with publisher Harcourt Brace for a chronicle of her trip to be called World Flight. The book was an ingenious way to further capitalize on the press coverage that had always been the journey’s primary purpose.
   In her initial letter to FDR soliciting navy support for her planned world flight, Earhart had assured the president that “the flight … has no commercial implications. The operation of my ‘flying laboratory’ is under the auspices of Purdue University. Like previous flights I am undertaking this one solely because I want to, and because I feel that women now and then have to do things to show what women can do.”
   The sentiment was noble, and was without question sincerely felt, but Earhart was being less than accurate. As Al Williams had so acidly pointed out, the airplane was not a flying laboratory, and for Earhart to say that she was operating under the auspices of Purdue was a stretch, to say the least. The university had given Amelia the money with which to buy the Electra, but the title was in her name and decisions about how the airplane was used were hers alone. The purpose of the world flight, like that of her previous record-setting flights, was to generate publicity for Amelia Earhart and her sponsors.
   Earhart’s piloting skills were average at best, but good looks, good luck, genuine courage, a talent for writing, and George Putnam’s genius for promotion and media manipulation had made her one of America’s most famous and admired women. Amelia’s self-deprecating public persona belied a ferocious determination, but her drive was not aimed merely at self-aggrandizement.
   Earhart used her celebrity to advocate both public acceptance of commercial air travel and her other great passion, equal opportunities for women. A flight around the world, the first ever by a woman, and done simply “because I want to,” would advance both causes while enhancing her own fame.
   The central feature of the trip was a plan to use state-of-the-art telecommunications to bring the experience of international air travel to the public with unprecedented immediacy. By 1937, telegraph—and in many cases long-distance telephone—service was available from nearly all of the planned stops on Earhart’s world flight. Putnam had negotiated an arrangement with the Herald Tribune newspaper syndicate for Amelia to phone, or when necessary wire, the syndicate’s New York office from each destination with a travelogue about her flight and the exotic people and places she saw along the way. Earhart’s bylined story would be carried in the next morning’s paper. For the syndicate this was an opportunity to give Herald Tribune readers a first-person, serialized, near-real-time account of what it was like to travel the world by air. For Earhart and Putnam it was a publicist’s dream come true: coverage of Amelia’s adventures, as told by Amelia, featured in major papers around the country virtually every day for a month or more.

   Chapter 4 also deals with the reasons, aside from weather, for Earhart’s reversal of her course around the world, why she chose to keep the beginning of her second attempt secret, and the disastrous ramifications of that decision.
    Chapter 5 reveals Earhart’s navigator, Fred Noonan, to be not at all the down-and-out alcoholic of legend, but rather, a savvy professional with his own agenda.  The chapter covers the first legs of the second world flight attempt, including the crossing of the South Atlantic, where a famous incident on the coast of Africa, is shown to have never really happened.
    As I got further into the world flight, I was surprised to see the degree to which publicity took priority over planning. An incident later in the flight was particularly telling.

Stand to Sea: Preparations for the Flight to Howland
dropIhe next day, as Itasca steamed southward, Black sent a message to Ruth Hampton in Washington answering Putnam’s question about what frequency the Coast Guard would use to send weather reports: “Itasca can give her almost any frequency desired.” If Earhart was going to find Howland Island by homing in on signals sent by Itasca, however, Black needed more
information—and he needed it from Amelia, not from Putnam. He asked Putnam to have Earhart contact him with “what frequency best suited her homing device. Also, have her designate time and type of our signal.”
   Amelia had no way of communicating directly with Black. She was in Southeast Asia and he was on a boat in the middle of the Pacific. Black suggested that Putnam have her send a commercial wire to the governor of American Samoa. The governor’s office would then pass the message to the local U.S. Navy radio station at Tutuila, which would in turn relay it to Itasca. It was an awkward, time-consuming arrangement, but as far as Black knew, it was the only one available. Putnam responded that it was difficult for him to get in touch with Amelia but promised that she would contact Black via Samoa when she reached Australia, and that she would confirm all arrangements before leaving Lae for Howland.
   In fact, Amelia had been in daily telephone communication with the Herald Tribune’s New York office for more than a week, providing a series of exclusive first-person narratives of her travels. As she made her way down through South America and across the South Atlantic, she sent her daily travelogues as telegrams and they appeared in the paper under a byline that read “By Amelia Earhart—via wireless.” She filed no stories during her three-day trip across Africa, so the Tribune published Associate Press coverage of that part of the flight. Once she reached Khartoum in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, she resumed sending her daily contributions, but now the byline appearing above her articles in the newspaper read, “By Amelia Earhart—via telephone.” Over the next nine days she phoned in stories from Massawa, Eritrea; Karachi, India; Calcutta, India; Akyab, Burma; Rangoon, Burma; Singapore; and Bandoeng, Java, in the Netherlands East Indies.
   Late on the night of June 20, 1937, the same day he had sent a telegram to Ruth Hampton telling her “Difficult contact Earhart satisfactorily before arrival Darwin,” George Putnam talked to his wife again by telephone. She had just landed at Bandoeng after an easy 630-mile hop from Singapore. For Amelia it was midmorning on June 21. As Amelia reported in the story she phoned in to the Herald Tribune later that day, “The conversation mostly concerned arrangements being made for the two flights from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island and thence to Honolulu. The United States Navy and Coast Guard are kindly co-operating to help make these rather longish jumps a bit easier. There were details to settle about radio frequencies, weather reports, and the like.” If any details were, in fact, settled during the phone call, Putnam did not pass them along to the navy or the Coast Guard—or to Richard Black.

   The details about radio frequencies and weather reports, in fact, never did get settled. The men aboard the Coast Guard cutter Itasca knew that the radio frequencies Earhart planned to use to home in on Howland Island were inappropriate but the captain, to avoid responsibility, specifically declined to pass along headquarter’s suggestions about what frequencies she should use.
    Confusion, misconception and miscommunication continued to plague the world flight right up to the takeoff for the 2,500 mile trip to Howland Island.

Lost: Communications Failure on the Flight to Howland Island
dropIo word of Earhart’s progress had come in since the initial report of her departure from New Guinea. If Lae or anyone else had heard from Earhart since then, they had not told Itasca. The sleeping ship drifted on the dark ocean to the west of Howland. On the bridge, the officer of the deck ordered the engine ahead one-third to ease the ship to within five miles of the island. In the radio room, Bellarts continued to send weather reports and As. At quarter to three he listened for her scheduled broadcast and heard a voice. It was barely discernible against the background noise, but Bellarts was sure he was hearing Earhart. The transmission lasted three minutes, and he could not make out a word of what she was saying. He typed: “Heard Earhart plane but unreadable thru static” and notified the bridge that first contact had been made.
   Commander Thompson, in his official report, later claimed that at this time “Bellarts caught Earhart’s voice and it came in through loud speaker, very low monotone ‘cloudy, overcast.’ Mr. Carey, Associated Press representative, was present. Also Mr. Hanzlik [sic] of United Press, both gentlemen recognized voice from previous flights to and from Hawaii. There was no question as to hearing Earhart.” Overcast conditions would have prevented Fred Noonan from using star sightings to track the flight’s progress. But the ship’s radio logs do not support Thompson’s allegation. Asked about the discrepancy many years later, Bellarts vehemently denied that he had heard Earhart say “cloudy, overcast” and explained that, at that time, the loudspeaker was not in use: “That static was something terrific, you know, just crashing in on your ears. And I’ll guarantee you that Hanzlick and that other joker never heard that. Oh, I would definitely be on the phones. Absolutely. Not on a loudspeaker.”

   In the next chapter I addressed the crucial issue of how much fuel the Electra had left when radio contact was lost.

Probably Down: The Last In-Flight Radio Messages

dropIhe radiomen now realized that Earhart had not heard their transmissions. She had not heard the weather sent in code, she had not heard the As they were sending, and she had not heard any of the information they had given her by voice. As Bellarts later said: “And it appeared to us that she … wasn’t even trying to hear us… . ‘Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at one thousand feet,’ and bingo — she turns the thing off. Not saying nothing at all or go ahead, or this or that or the other thing. That’s what made us, as operators, disgusted with her.” She was down low, flying below the base of the clouds at one thousand feet. To Leo Bellarts, who had never flown, it did not make sense: “They were puffy clouds, you know. Just billow … and there was plenty of blue in between them. Plenty of blue.”
    Lieutenant Cooper could have explained to Bellarts that even widely scattered clouds, when seen from above, quickly merge to mask from view anything that is not directly below the airplane, but the Air Corps lieutenant was ashore preparing to meet the arriving flight. Worst of all, Earhart was low on fuel—but how low? Galten heard her say that her gas was running low. O’Hare thought he heard her say she had only half an hour of gas left. Which version was correct? Lieutenant Cooper later wrote in his official report that the Electra’s fuel supply was “estimated to last 24 hours with a possibility of lasting 30 hours.” He also noted that “a 20% gas reserve is usually required.” The pilot of an airplane with a total endurance of twenty-four hours should therefore consider the last five hours of fuel to be reserve. Earhart’s radio call was made just over nineteen hours into the flight. She was in the middle of the ocean, she did not know where she was, and she was now burning into her fuel reserve. She might reasonably be expected to describe her situation as “gas is running low.” If O’Hare’s interpretation was correct, however, the
situation was far more critical than that.
   Years later, Bellarts’s opinion of the discrepancy was unequivocal:

Well, don’t go on O’Hare’s log, because I say—I wasn’t even aware that O’Hare was putting that stuff down… . No, I mean that… . O’Hare shouldn’t have been putting that down because it was not his responsibility. It was actually mine and Galten, you know. [Laughs] … That stinkin’ O’Hare… . It’s in error … it should never have been in O’Hare’s log. He’s just adding confusion to it and that’s not correct. Possibly O’Hare might have had something in his little punkin’ head that he might have, you know, thought he was going to make a bundle of jack on that or something.

   For those who are inclined to explore the question of the aircraft’s range capabilities further, the DVD that accompanies the book includes a number of historical documents including the June 1936 Lockheed engineering report No. 487 “Range Study of Lockheed Electra Bimotor Airplane.”
    As I began to put together the story of the 1937 search, I discovered that the theory that the aircraft had run out of fuel and gone down at sea soon after radio contact was lost had always been based on unwarranted assumption and bad information.

The Search Begins: The First Day

dropIn hour and quarter after the expiration of the noon fuel deadline, and three hours after Commander Thompson first reported Earhart’s “non-arrival” at Howland, the Coast Guard’s San Francisco Division received a terse message from Itasca: “Earhart unreported Howland at 12:00. Believe down shortly after 09:15 A.M. Searching probable area and will continue.”
   Amelia Earhart was officially missing and presumed down. Thompson now believed that the plane had been in the water for four hours, but, again, he did not explain his reasoning. He seems to have taken the “one-half hour gas left” version of the 7:42 message and applied it to the 8:43 “We are on the line …” message to arrive at his estimate that the plane had landed in the ocean shortly after 9:15.”

   Later that afternoon, Commander Thompson received a message from San Francisco Division: “Possibility plane may attempt use of radio on water as radio supply was battery and antenna could be used on top of wing. Putnam and Lockheed state possibility of floating considerable time excellent and that emergency rubber boat and plenty of emergency rations carried on plane.”
    The message appeared to provide important new information. In fact, it was nothing more than wishful thinking. Technicians familiar with Earhart’s Electra would later confirm that the plane could not send radio transmissions if it was afloat on the ocean. The news about a rubber boat and rations was speculation. No one in the United States, including Putnam, could possibly have known what emergency gear was aboard the aircraft on the Lae–Howland flight.

    About an hour after San Francisco advised that the plane “may attempt use of radio on water,” Itasca came back with: “Request frequencies Earhart emergency transmitter.” Nobody had said anything about an emergency transmitter, but San Francisco replied, “Same as main transmitter. Possibility plane may be able receive Itasca 3105 voice.” The message compounded Itasca’s misimpressions by seeming to confirm the presence of an emergency radio.”

   As the search continued, there were documented incidents that never appeared in later reports but strongly suggested that Earhart and Noonan were alive and on land somewhere in the Phoenix Islands.

Voices: The Second Night

dropIhile Bellarts was struggling with the off-frequency signal, Paul Yat Lum on Baker Island, listening on 3105 kilocycles, signaled that he “heard Earhart plane, S4, R7.”4 According to the 1937 edition of the Radio Amateur’s Handbook, an S4 signal (strength 4 on a scale of 1 to 5) was “good, readable.” An R7 reception (readability 7 on a scale of 1 to 9) was a “good strong signal, such as copiable through interference.”
   The signal received at Baker Island was markedly different from anything that had been heard so far. On the previous night, stations in and around the search area had reported dashes and faint, unintelligible voice signals in apparent response to Itasca’s calls to Earhart. Now a government radio operator in the search area had heard a clear and strong transmission he unequivocally identified as being from the missing plane.
    Who did Paul Lum hear? Itasca, under orders from headquarters, was no longer transmitting on Earhart’s frequencies, so he did not overhear and misunderstand a call from the cutter. If Lum heard a strong signal at Baker, others in the region should have heard it too—if they were listening; but mostly they were not. Aboard Itasca, Bellarts was off frequency at the time. Howland Island was not listening at all. In Hawaii, the Pan American Airways station would not begin its radio watch on Earhart’s frequency for another ten minutes. The only other station known to have been monitoring 3105 at that moment was the Coast Guard’s Hawaiian Section.  Operators there were hearing a weak carrier wave but no distinguishable voice.
    If Baker Island and the Hawaiian Section were hearing the same transmission, whether sent from the plane or by a hoaxer, the origin point was almost certainly much closer to Baker than to Hawaii. A hoaxer could have been aboard a ship, and a ship could be anywhere, but if the transmission heard at Baker and Honolulu was genuine, the Electra had to be on land, and the land had to be otherwise uninhabited. Most of the island groups in the Central Pacific were densely populated. Only the Phoenix group remained largely unsettled. The uninhabited southwestern islands of the archipelago are 350 miles south of Baker Island and more than 2000 miles from Hawaii. If Earhart’s Electra was on one of those islands, the probability of a voice transmission from the aircraft being received at Baker Island as a good strong signal is 99 percent. The chance of the Coast Guard’s Hawaiian Section hearing an understandable voice message sent from the Phoenix group is only a little better than 2 percent. If the Hawaii operators heard anything at all, it would probably be only the underlying carrier wave, just as they reported.

   Radio bearings taken by Pan American Airways facilities in Hawaii, Midway and Wake Island provided further clues.

Bearings: The Third Night

dropIwo minutes later, Wake resumed its listening watch on 3105 and the operator in charge, R. M. Hansen, soon heard “a very unsteady voice modulated carrier.” The signal was strong, strength 5, an unreadable male voice just like the one he had heard the night before. The signals continued for thirteen minutes, gradually fading to strength 2 before stopping. In his official summary, written a few days later, Hansen reported that, during that time:

I was able to get an approximate bearing of 144 degrees. In spite of the extreme eccentricity of this signal during the entire length of the transmission, the splits were definite and pretty fair… . At the time I believed this bearing to be reasonable [sic] accurate and I am still of that opinion. After I obtained the observed bearing, I advised Midway to listen for the signal (couldn't raise Hawaii). He apparently did not hear it… . The characteristics of this signal were identical with those of the signal mentioned as being heard the previous night … with the exception that … the complete periods of no signal occurred during shorter intervals… . While no identification call letters were distinguished in either case, I was positive at the time that this was KHAQQ. At this date, I am still of this opinion.

Hansen’s statement was by far the most confident assertion that a reasonably accurate bearing had been taken on a signal sent from the missing plane. Like the majority of the other bearings, a 144 degree line from Wake passes near McKean and Gardner, the southwestern islands of the Phoenix Group.

   By the fifth day after Earhart and Noonan disappeared, the battleship USS Colorado had arrived in the Howland area and was ready to begin searching southeastward toward the Phoenix Islands.

The Most Likely Place: Colorado Arrives

dropIhat day, Wednesday, July 7, the admiral assured the gentlemen of the press that the answer to the question on everyone’s mind would soon be answered: “Admiral Orin G. Murfin, directing the search, said today it should be known by mid-afternoon Monday whether the round-the-world flier and her navigator are still alive… . [T]he aircraft carrier Lexington should reach the search area Monday morning. If it used all its planes, it would be able to scout thoroughly 36,000 square miles about the Phoenix Islands in six hours.”
   Others felt that the evidence warranted a more exhaustive examination of the islands. “Friends of George Palmer Putnam, Miss Earhart’s husband, expressed belief there would be grounds for continuing the search another two weeks, even if no further word came from the lost plane… . The five feverish nights of radio manifestations so convinced observers of Miss Earhart’s safety that they said there would be justification for searching the southern island area over and over… . Mr. Putnam reiterated his theory that Miss Earhart was on solid footing somewhere in the Phoenix Islands area.”
   Whether Lexington’s sixty-three airplanes and escort of three destroyers were to spend six hours or two weeks searching for the lost Electra, there was general agreement that the Phoenix group was the place to look. A surviving map from Fourteenth District Headquarters documents the rationale for Murfin’s remarks and suggests a special focus on McKean and Gardner islands.

   But before Lexington began its voyage southward from Hawaii, and even before Colorado had made an initial inspection of the Phoenix Islands, senior naval officers at Pearl Harbor, relying upon inaccurate and misleading reports from the cutter Itasca, decided to shift the focus of the search. If Colorado did not find the plane on an island, the aircraft carrier would search the open ocean north and west of Howland.
    A cursory aerial inspection of the Phoenix Group by Colorado’s three scout planes found unexplained “signs of recent habitation” on one of the atolls, Gardner Island; but no airplane was seen.  The battleship’s captain pronounced the islands thoroughly searched and began the long voyage home.
    The last act of the tragedy was about to begin.

“We Will Find Amelia Tomorrow”: Lexington’s Search

dropIt was July 10, 1937, and Amelia Earhart’s Electra had been missing for eight days. The navy had been in charge of the entire search for four days, and the Lexington Group’s strategy had been in place for two days, when Admiral Murfin decided it would be a good idea to get some basic information about the missing airplane. That morning, he sent a message to his counterpart at the Eleventh Naval District in California asking him to contact the Lockheed Aircraft Company in Burbank for the answers to four questions about the aircraft’s capabilities. What was the plane’s total fuel capacity? How far could it fly on 1100 gallons of gas? What was its economical cruising speed? And what was the maximum distance the plane could fly at an average fuel consumption of 53 gallons per hour? He explained that his inquiries were “based on established facts that Earhart plane took off with eleven hundred gallons fuel and remained in air about twenty and three quarter hours.”
   Murfin based his certainty about the plane’s fuel load on a July 5 message sent out by the Coast Guard’s San Francisco Division: “Lae verified that Earhart took off with 1100 gallons gas. Estimated flight time 24 to 30 hours.” His “established fact” that the Electra remained in the air for only twenty and three quarters hours, however, was not a fact at all. It was speculation based on the assumption that the plane ran out of gas about half an hour after the last in-flight radio transmission heard by Itasca. The 53 gallon per hour figure assumed that the plane burned through 1100 hundred gallons of fuel in 20.75 hours.
    Lockheed answered Murfin’s questions promptly. Earhart’s Electra could hold a total of 1151 gallons of gas. With 1100 gallons aboard, discounting headwinds or tailwinds, it could cover 3600 miles at its economical cruising speed of 150 miles per hour. But the engineers and technicians at Lockheed said that 53 gallons per hour was the wrong number. They also disagreed with the statement that the plane ran out of gas after only 20.75 hours: “Earhart, to our best belief, in air twenty-four and half hours. Took off with 1100 gallons. Her average cruising speed should have been 150 miles per hour. Her maximum flight should have been about 3600 miles in still air. We figure her average economical fuel consumption at 45 gallons an hour… . Base all estimates on fact that plane would average forty-five gallons per hour fuel consumption and approximately 150 miles per hour ground speed still air.”
   Lockheed’s response was inconvenient. Forty-five gallons per hour and twenty-four and a half hours aloft fit well with the idea that the plane might have reached one of the islands in the Phoenix Group, but the navy’s new search plan was based on the assumption “that the plane landed shortly after 0855 [on July 2] on the water within 120 miles of Howland Island.” On Sunday morning, July 11, 1937, three hours after he received Lockheed’s comments, Murfin ordered Captain Dowell to “take charge [of] all units in search area. Search of Phoenix Group area considered completed.”

   Lexington’s planes swept vast areas of ocean without spotting any trace of the missing plane or its crew and on July 18 the search for Earhart and Noonan was officially abandoned.  The book’s concluding chapter details how one man’s attempt to protect himself and his ship from criticism allowed the U.S government to embrace a self-serving, but ultimately indefensible, explanation for its failure to find and rescue the lost fliers.  Without an honest accounting of the facts of the case, generations of amateur sleuths have struggled to makes sense of a fairy tale that masquerades as a mystery. 
    With the true story of the Earhart disappearance available and verifiable it should be apparent, as I have said in the book’s Introduction, that there was always more mix-up than there was mystery.  I’ve done my best to sort out the mix-ups but I’ve left it to you, the reader, to form your own opinion about the solution to what mystery remains. Please visit the Naval Institute Press today to order your copy of Finding Amelia.
   I also hope you will join TIGHAR and support our continuing effort to find the conclusive physical evidence that will write the final chapter of this epic adventure


Table of Contents
forward By Mark R. Peattie, Ph.D., Hoover Institution, Stanford University chap12 “Think It Is Plane?”: The First Night
acknowledgments   chap13 Hoaxes and Hopes: The Second Day
intro   chap14 Voices: The Second Night
chap1 An Airport in the Ocean: The American Equatorial Islands chap15 Negative Results: The Third Day
chap2 Kamakaiwi Field: Preparations for the First World Flight chap16 Bearings: The Third Night
chap3 Hawaiian Debacle: The Luke Field Accident chap17 Betty’s Notebook: The Fourth Day
chap4 Reversals: Preparations for the Second World Flight Attempt chap18 281 North: The Fourth Night
chap5 Not for Publication: Crossing the South Atlantic chap19 The Most Likely Place: Colorado Arrives
chap6 Stand to Sea: Preparations for the Flight to Howland chap20 Signs of Recent Habitation: The Search of the Phoenix Group
chap7 The Long Road to Lae: Delays on the Way to New Guinea chap21 “We Will Find Amelia Tomorrow”: Lexington’s Search
chap8 “Denmark’s a Prison”: Confusion and Frustration in Lae chap22 Banquo’s Ghost: Explaining Failure
chap9 Lost: Communications Failure on the Flight to Howland Island epilogue  
chap10 Probably Down: The Last In-Flight Radio Messages notes  
cjap11 The Search Begins: The First Day index  
Hometrue story subtitle TIGHAR logo
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