PBY flight from Pearl Harbor
Lined up on their beaching gear at Fleet Air Base Pearl Harbor were 24 new PBY-1 flying boats capable of making the 1,600 nm flight to Howland. On hand at the island were 1,600 gallons of aviation fuel originally intended for Earhart, while aboard Swan were 10,000 gallons more. As early as 1138 on July 2 Itasca had suggested that the Navy send a patrol plane to assist in the search, but it was 1923 before a plane headed south under the command of Lt. W. W. “Sid” Harvey. He and his seven man crew would spend the next twenty-four hours and three minutes aloft only to land where they had started, forced to turn back barely three hundred miles from Howland by “extremely bad weather.” The Consolidated PBY would eventually carry out more successful rescues than any aircraft type in history, but Amelia Earhart’s would not be one of them. No further attempt would be made to employ a PBY in the search.
- A Letter Home From Sid Harvey, commander of the PBY flight.
The decision to send one of the new PBY-1 flying boats to Howland was a bold one. Only 22 examples of the aircraft were on strength at Pearl Harbor (VP-6F and VP-11F) and no one had ever attempted a maximum range, one aircraft search and rescue mission like this before. Itasca could provide radio navigation assistance and there was aviation fuel at Howland (intended for Earhart), but the big worry was the lack of sheltered water. Open-ocean landings in anything but a very calm sea were extremely hazardous and just refueling the airplane at sea from Itasca would be tricky (the PBY-1 was a straight flying boat and could not land on land). Routing the flight via Johnston Island was considered but rejected as impractical.
Navigation was accomplished using the same techniques pioneered by Pan American (dead reckoning and celestial for the enroute portion and DF for the final segment). The airplane had 24 hours' endurance and was equipped with a loop antenna, a dedicated radio operator, a navigator, and relief pilots. Lieutenant "Sid" Harvey was the CO of VP-6F and was considered to be top notch. One of the relief pilots who did much of the flying on that trip was Ensign Page W. Smith, who went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career with Pan American. Page is TIGHAR member 0691. He and I have talked about that flight many times.
As you note, the mission aborted and returned to Pearl Harbor due to extreme weather, arriving back where it started after 24 nonstop hours. No repeat was attempted because, according to Page, the failed attempt scared everybody pretty badly and after the excitement of the moment had abated somewhat, it was decided that it might be very bad for future appropriations to lose one of the new "big boats" in what might be seen as a rash and excessively risky operation. By the time the PBY arrived back at Pearl the Colorado had already been commandeered for the search and was about to head south.