High frequency direction finding equipment on Howland
For the whole story, see Finding Amelia page 51-2.
Shortly before the first world flight attempt, Harry Manning and Bureau of Air Commerce consultant Bill Miller had requested that a direction finder (not a high frequency direction finder [HFDF]) be set up on Howland "if practicable". At that time the aircraft had a trailing wire antenna, reasonable capability of transmitting on 500 kcs, and a crew member (Manning) who was adept at Morse code. The request arrived after the Coast Guard cutter tasked with supporting the flight had already sailed, but Dept. of Interior's Richard Black who was in charge of the expedition knew about it and thought it was a good idea.
While Itasca was in Hawaii preparing to depart for Howland in support of the second world flight attempt, Black was deeply concerned that there had been virtually no communication from Earhart about radio procedures to be used on her upcoming flight to Howland. Black also felt that Itasca's radiomen were too inexperienced and he suggested that they be replaced for this cruise with expert Navy operators. Commander Thompson had a fit and refused to consider the idea. Black decided to do an end-run around Thompson. He revived the idea of putting a Direction Finder (DF) on Howland but he also noted that in press reports Earhart had mentioned only her two higher frequencies, 3105 and 6210. He enlisted the help of Army Air Corps Lt. Dan Cooper who arranged for the loan of an experimental High Frequency Direction Finder from the Navy.
Knowing that Commander Thompson wouldn't accept a Navy operator, Black tried to recruit a highly experienced Coast Guard operator from the crew of USCG Taney which was laid up for refit, but the guy he wanted was sick. The best Black could do was a Radioman 2nd Class by the name of Frank Ciprianni.
Thompson still didn't like the idea but he went along with it. As he later wrote, "Mr. Black and Lieutenant Cooper of the Army had the Navy send a high frequency direction finder on board. The Coast Guard did not request the equipment and did not receipt for it." This all happened on or about June 16 by which time Earhart was in Karachi. She was in touch with Putnam but neither she nor her husband were communicating with the Coast Guard about radio coordination. When there later was an attempt between Earhart, Putnam and the Coast Guard to establish radio procedures for the Lae/Howland flight, nobody on the Coast Guard end said anything about the HFDF.
- The Howland DF was not an Adcock system. It was basically just a loop on a box.
- The same question could be asked of the entire Coast Guard/Navy search but, in fairness, it was never the Coast Guard's job to give her bearings. Earhart's announced plan was to do her own DFing using her loop. Black, with Cooper's help, took it upon himself to provide some kind of HFDF capability as a backup. After the debacle in Hawaii in March, Black was under no illusions about Earhart's competence and he was desperately afraid that things would not go as planned. Frank Ciprianni is the guy who screwed up and had the Howland HFDF running long before it needed to be, but who was responsible for managing Ciprianni? As a Coast Guard serviceman he was technically under the authority of Commander Thompson, but Thompson took no interest at all in the HFDF arrangements on Howland. Black and Cooper slept aboard Itasca that night, so they weren't ashore during the night to manage Ciprianni.
- Like almost everything else about the Lae/Howland flight, the HFDF on Howland seems to have been half-assed arrangement. It was apparently experimental but not classified (or the Navy wouldn't have released it to an Air Corps Lieutenant and a civilian for use by a Coastie). We know it had no built-in compass rose for taking bearings because Ciprianni had to use a "pocket compass" on the one occasion when he was able to take a bearing. According to Leo Bellarts' later recollections, the loop had no stop on it and when Ciprianni brought it back on board Itasca its insides were a tangled mess from the loop having been rotated too far.