Delayed in Lae
Lae is the second-largest city in Papua New Guinea. It is 2,556 statute miles from Lae to Howland. Earhart and Noonan arrived at Lae at 3 PM (1500 local, 0500 GMT) on June 29, and left at or near 10 a.m. on July 2.
- Gary LaPook, Forum, 5 Dec 2011.
- I think that everyone has always assumed that Lae was a sleepy little backwater airport, maybe one or two planes a day. It turns out that in the '30s Lae was one of the busiest airports in the world! The airplanes flying in and out of Lae carried more air freight than ALL THE OTHER AIRLINES IN THE WORLD PUT TOGETHER!
- This was due to the gold rush in New Guinea which could only be carried out with air transport since there were no roads.
Time and Weather
"The main cause of her delay at Lae was because they awaited a satisfactory weather report and an accurate check on time signals for setting the chronometer."
At 2015GMT [0615 local], June 29th, Earhart sent this message to Itasca:
- Plan midday takeoff here [June 30 local time]. Please have meteorologist send forecast Lae–Howland soon as possible. If reaches me in time will try leave today otherwise July 1st. Report in English, not code, especially while flying. Will broadcast hourly quarter past hour GCT. Further information later.
Fifteen minutes later, Earhart sent a telegram to George Putnam:
- "Radio misunderstanding and personnel unfitness probably will hold one day. Have asked Black for forecast for tomorrow. You check meteorologist on job as FN must have star sights."
Earhart is concerned about the weather forecasts (she hasn’t received any that are worthwhile), and is clearly concerned either about the radio protocol arrangements or about the time signals needed for Noonan’s calibration of his chronometers.
Much discussion by various researchers as to the meaning of "personnel unfitness" has been put forth, without any consensus.
- Gore Vidal made this claim in the WGBH American Experience show, Amelia Earhart: The Price of Courage:
- "Well, just the night before the final flight, she reported in and they had a code phrase, 'personnel problems,' which meant Noonan was back drinking. And my father said, 'Just stop it right now and come home,' and G.P. agreed and said, 'Come back, abort the flight, forget it, come home.' And then she said, 'Oh, no,' and she said, 'I think it’ll be all right,' something like that. So you may put that down to invincible optimism or it may have been huge pessimism."
Matters of fact
- The phrase was used in a telegram on 29 June [U.S. date], not a telephone call.
- Putnam never said that he had spoken with Ameila when she was in Lae. Amelia had called Putnam from Surabaya on 24 June. "George included only the end of the conversation in his book, stating that it was 'the last conversation I had with her.'" 
- Ric Gillespie says that there was no phone call from Earhart to Putnam while she was in Lae: "Amelia did not talk to her husband from Lae. She did telephone a travelogue story to the New York Herald Tribune [on 30 June], as she had from nearly every stop on the world flight."
- "Putnam was in California and communicating with his wife by telegram."
- Earhart's telephone calls to the Herald Tribune newspaper syndicate were routinely received and transcribed in the New York office.
- "Personnel unfitness" may have been a typo or a euphemism for "personal unfitness," meaning that
Arguments from the facts
- The possibility that "personnel unfitness" might refer to drinking or a hangover cannot, of course, be eliminated by recognizing that there are other possible interpretations; nor can the other possible meanings be arbitrarily set aside by the unsupported suspicion that Noonan was drinking irresponsibly on 2 July.
- Whatever the "personnel unfitness" was that was given as a reason to delay takeoff on 30 June (local), one might reasonably think that the "unfitness" was remedied by takeoff 51.5 hours later on 2 July (local); if the "unfitness" had not been remedied, then, if Earhart was behaving rationally, she ought not to have taken off on the fatal flight. All "coulda, woulda, shoulda" arguments are, of course, very weak, and admittedly this is that kind of argument. A stronger version of the argument is this: if we take it as a fact that one or both personnel were unfit on the 30th (local), it does not follow logically that one or both were unfit 51.5 hours later. We may note the non sequitur without having to lean too heavily on a belief in the soundness of Earhart's judgment about herself or Noonan.
The Brines Letter
TIGHAR was given a copy of a letter alleged to have been written from Honolulu by Russ Brines on 3 August 1937 to another journalist: "If authentic, it contains the first contemporaneous reference we’ve seen to Noonan being a heavy drinker and also provides some interesting insights into the attitude of at least some members of the press toward Earhart’s flight and disappearance."
- My cynical theory, and that of many other lads around here, is that Noonan found Lae a much too interesting town for anyone's good. Privately, and only between us, I know Fred; know that he is -- or was -- one of the country's best aerial navigators and one of its most accomplished six-bottle men, having cut his teeth on the foresail stays of an old square-rigged ship. Nursing such a developed thirst, he probably went for broke in Lae which, as you know, is an old-fashioned pioneer town with airplanes instead of covered wagons to cater to the gold rush.
- Therefore, if this is true, the chances are that Amelia had him poured into the plane and decided to do the naviqating herself. Well, she can't -- couldn't -- navigate for sour apples. ...
- The heart responded nicely to the fact the story was run under a Honolulu dateline, but it was hard on the nervous system, because we were supplying virtually all of the news. Except the screwy reports of amateur operators who persistently heard "voices" when we were trying to sleep. I bounced out of bed half a dozen times each night, sleepily trying to check up up on some new report that had Amelia doing everything but a fan dance in comparative safety on some South Seas atoll.
- Observations on the Brines Letter:
- Brines was not in Lae, on 2 July 1937.
- He did not personally witness Noonan drinking in Lae, but only imagined it as a possible explanation of the loss of the aircraft.
- He has not talked with ("interviewed") anyone in Lae who did see Noonan drinking irresponsibly.
Francis "Fuzz" Furman
- For what it's worth, we have a good anecdote on this subject. Way back in 1988 we interviewed Francis "Fuzz" Furman who was the Martin Aircraft factory rep in Bandoeng, Java when AE and Fred spent a few days there in late June (the Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force had a bunch of Martin B-10s). Fuzz spent quite a bit of time with Noonan both on and off duty. One thing that stuck in his memory was that Fred always carried his chronometer in his pocket and was obsessive about checking its accuracy at any opportunity. (Fuzz also said that he and Fred went out at night and that Fred never touched a drink, even though Fuzz was drinking.)
- When the Electra's navigation station was set up by Paul Mantz and Harry Manning prior to the first world flight attempt, three chronometers were supposedly shock-mounted in the navigator's table in the cabin. All that stuff was torn out during the repairs which followed the Luke Field crash and it appears unlikely that Noonan had it reinstalled.
- Francis O. “Fuzz” Furman remembers a great deal about the time he spent with AE and Fred in Java while they were having some repairs made to the airplane. Fuzz was the representative of the Martin Company servicing the new B-10 bombers used by the Netherlands East Indies Air Force. He spent five days with Earhart and Noonan while mechanics fixed a broken exhaust gas analyser on the Electra. He remembers that AE kept to herself, took her meals in her room, and frequently called her husband, George Putnam, on the telephone. Furman spent most of his time with Fred Noonan, who he remembers as being quite concerned about the upcoming Howland leg. But far from hitting the bottle as some have alleged, Fuzz remembers Fred as never taking a drink while he was in Java, and being almost obsessive about checking his chronometers for accuracy. He does not remember Fred having his navigational books out of the airplane, nor did Fuzz ever have occasion to board the Electra, so he was unable to help us regarding the bookcase.
July 1: Eventful day
- Excerpts from the Chater Report
Failed direction finding test
- "At 6.35 a.m., July 1st, Miss Earhart carried out a 30 minute air test of the machine when two way telephone communication was established between the ground station at Lae and the plane. The Operator was requested to send a long dash while Miss Earhart endeavoured to get a minimum on her direction finder. On landing Miss Earhart informed us that she had been unable to obtain a minimum and that she considered this was because the Lae station was too powerful and too close. ...
Time check OK
- "During the rest of the day constant watch was kept for the reception of time signals with no result until 9 p.m. when the Sydney signal was heard though with considerable interference. Meanwhile the Lae Operator had advised Rabaul of our lack of success in picking up a time signal owing to local interference. At 10.20 p.m. a message was heard from all Australian coastal stations requesting all shipping to keep silence for a period of ten minutes during the transmission of the Adelaide time signal which was being awaited by Miss Earhart. Complete silence prevailed during this period and a perfect time signal was received by Captain Noonan, and the machine chronometer was found to be three seconds slow. On July 2nd a further time signal was received from Saigon at 8 a.m. when the chronometer checked the same as the previous night."
- On July 1st all weather reports received were dated June 30th. Several radios received on July 1st were taken away by accident by Miss Earhart (both original and copy) and consequently we have no copies available.
- Miss Earhart did not receive any weather reports on July 2nd prior to her departure.
The purpose of this table is to diagram as accurately as possible the sequence of communications that took place between Earhart and others between June 29 and July 1 (GMT). Corrections, comments, and recommendations for additions most welcome.
Western Union conventions (printed on the telegrams):
- "The filing time as shown in the date line on full-rate telegrams and day letters, and the time of receipt at destination as shown on all messages, is STANDARD TIME.
- DL = Day Letter
- LCO = Deferred Cable
- NL = Night Letter
- NLT = Cable Night Letter
- NM = Night Message
- WLT = Week-End Letter
Undefined abbreviations (help wanted):
- FA =
- FAB =
- TB =
GCT = "Greenwich Civil Time."
GMT = "Greenwhich Mean Time" (now called UTC).
Lae is 10 hours to the east of Greenwich.
Pacific Standard Time is 8 hours west of Greenwich.
Eastern Standard Time is 5 hours west of Greenwich.
|Local sent||Local rec'd||GMT sent||GMT rec'd||Source||From||To||Contents|
|17-02 1100 Lae||17-02 0551 PST||Purdue||GRAIR||Putnam||
[RCA Radiogram] 1937 FEB 17 AM 5 51 SF25DV LAENG 19 17 1100 PUTNAM BOWCUM SANFRANCISCO
PLEASED PLACE QUALIFIED WASP ENGINEERS YOUR DISPOSAL.
[typescript--carbon?] [handwritten: Feb 23]
thanks message have you [handwritten insertion: extra] runin cylinder assembly for H senior wasp
|30-06 0615 Lae||29-06 2015 GMT||Jacobson||Earhart||Itasca||
Plan midday takeoff here. Please have meteorologist send forecast Lae–Howland soon as possible. If reaches me in time will try leave today otherwise July 1st. Report in English, not code, especially while flying. Will broadcast hourly quarter past hour GCT. Further information later.
|30-06 0630 Lae||??-?? 1753 PST||29-06 2030 GMT||??-?? 0153 GMT||Purdue||Earhart||Putnam, Tribune (CA)||
FJ18 VIA RCA=F LAE 40/39 30 0630
=RADIO MISUNDERSTANDING AND PERSONNEL UNFITNESS
This is the disputed communication.
"Amelia Earhart Ready to Fly to Howland Island," New York Herald Tribune, June 30, 1937, p. 1.
The byline reads "by telephone to the Herald Tribune."
"Sometime that day, Amelia phoned in a story to the Tribune describing the flight from Darwin and the airfield at Lae: 'Everyone has been as helpful and cooperative as possible—food, hot baths, mechanical service, radio and weather reports, advice from veteran pilots here—all combine to make us wish we could stay. However, tomorrow about noon we hope to be rolling down the runway, bound for points east.'"
|29-06 2332 EST||30-06 0647 PST||30-06 0432 GMT||30-06 1447 GMT||Purdue||Hill||Putnam||
FA 11 32 NL=TB NEWYORK NY JUNE 29
G P PUTNAM=
LAE DISPATCH ARRIVED LATE TONIGHT
HILL HERALD TRIBUNE.
JUNE 30 647A
[Sender's form? No time stamps]
JUNE 30 1937
WILCOX PRESS ASSOCIATION STORIES HERE CONFLICTING
|01-07 0700 Lae||01-07 0047 PST?||30-06 2100 GMT||01-07 0847 GMT||Purdue||Earhart||Putnam||
FA160 17 VIA RCA RCA=WD LAE 1 0700 PUTNAM=
LAE DEPARTURE DEPENDENT GETTING FORECAST FROM HAWAII BUT AIMING FOR NINE THIRTY JULY ONE=
|01-07 1200 Lae||01-07 0802 PST||01-07 0200 GMT||01-07 1602 GMT||Purdue||Earhart||Putnam, Tribune (CA)||
FA20 14 VIA RCA=LAE JULY 1 1200 1937
PUTNAM TRIBUNE: =OAKLANDCALIF=
DUE LOCAL CONDITIONS TAKEOFF DELAYED UNTIL JULY SECOND TWENTYONE THIRTY GMT.
= 9:30 PM GMT.
|01-07 2200A? Lae||02-07 0348 PST||01-07 1200? GMT||02-07 1148 GMT||Purdue||Earhart||Tribune (CA)||
FAB55 VIA RCA=F NG 570 1/100 PRESS COLLECT 1 2200A 
QUOTE DENMARKS A PRISON UNQUOTE AND LAE A ATTRACTIVE AND UNUSUAL AS IT IS APPEARS TO TWO FLIERS JUST AS CONFINING
LOCKHEED STANDS READY FOR LONGEST HOP WEIGHTED WITH GASOLINE AND OIL TO CAPACITY HOWEVER CLOUDS AND WIND BLOWING WRONG WAY CONSPIRED TO KEEP HER ON GROUND TODAY
IN ADDITION FN HAS BEEN UNABLE ACCOUNT RADIO DIFFICULTIES TO SET HIS CHRONOMETERS
LACK KNOWLEDGE THEIR FASTNESS OR SLOWNESS DEFEATS ACCURACY CELESTIAL NAVIGATION
HOWLAND SO SMALL SPOT TO FIND THAT EVERY AID MUST BE AVAILABLE ... [The full telegram is 9 pages long.]
WE SHALL TRY TO GET OFF TOMORROW THOUGH NOW WE CANNOT BE HOME BY FOURTH OF JULY AS HAD HOPED=
[Sender's form?] HERALD TRIBUNE NEW YORK
EXPECTED DEPARTURE LAE ABOUT TWO PM TODAY PST.
AFTER FOUR OCLOCK EYE LOCATED GOASTGUARD RADIO STATION WHICH PICKS UP INSTANTLY ALL SOUTH SEA RADIO MESSAGING.
ASSUMING FLIGHT COMMENCED WILL PHONE STORY THE OCLOCK EDT WITH MORE LATER.
COASTGUARD PHONE MONTROSE 2022
- "Junkers G31go VH-UOW - Guinea Airways."
- James A. Collopy's letter
- "Communications and Coordination."
- Susan Butler, East To The Dawn, p. 399.
- "Part 2 of Ric's Review of Amelia, the movie." For the remark on the 30 June telephone call from Lae to the Herald Tribune in New York city, see Gillespie, Forum, 4 Sep 2005: "Earhart filed her June 30th story to the Herald Tribune from Lae by telephone, so phone service from Lae WAS available. In theory, she could have telephoned the Coast Guard's San Francisco Division in Oakland. They were maintaining frequent radio schedules directly to Itasca. The problem seems to have been money. Earhart had to pay for the phone calls and, due to the delays in Java, she was running out of cash. After calling in her June 30 story she sent a wire to Putnam saying that if the Tribune wanted more stories they would have to set up an account in Lae. They didn't, and her last 'Denmark's a prison...' story on July 1st was sent as a collect telegram. Maybe it wasn't possible to make a collect international phone call."
- "Part 2 of Ric's Review of Amelia, the movie."
- Finding Amelia, pp. 32-33.
- "The Brines Letter."
- "For Earhart and Noonan, Wednesday, June 30, was a day of recuperation and preparation. Fred Noonan helped the Guinea Airways maintenance staff service the Electra and address a number of minor problems. The mechanics were familiar with the aircraft type because the airline operated a Lockheed Electra of its own" (Finding Amelia, p.71).
- "What Earhart meant by 'radio misunderstanding' is obvious. During the previous day’s flight from Australia, confusion about frequencies had prevented her from establishing radio contact with Lae. The misunderstandings would have to be sorted out and the radios tested before she could undertake the long and difficult flight to Howland" (Finding Amelia, p.69).
- "Her reference to 'personnel unfitness' seems equally clear. Amelia’s wire to her husband was sent at 6:30 AM local time in Lae. The previous day’s eight-hour flight from Australia had capped a week of early mornings and frustrating delays. It is hardly surprising that Earhart and Noonan did not feel up to immediately setting off on a journey that was expected to take a minimum of eighteen hours." FN: "Tired and stressed they undoubtedly were, but none of the contemporary accounts of their stay in New Guinea indicates that either was in less than good health. Allegations that Earhart was ill and that Noonan was drinking heavily are based on stories told years later and are not supported by the historical record" (Finding Amelia, p.69).
- Gary LaPook has raised doubts in the Forum about whether there was, in fact, trans-Pacific telephone service available in Lae in 1937.
- (Finding Amelia, p.71)
- Is ".(47)." a time stamp?
- In interpreting other telegrams, I have assumed that "A" stood for "AM." "2200A" doesn't fit that pattern.