Responding to Nauticos, Part One

A TIGHAR member recently sent an email to Nauticos president David Jourdan, presently at sea as leader of the Eustace Earhart Discovery Expedition, asking why Mr. Jourdan’s conclusions about the fate of Amelia Earhart are so different from TIGHAR’s. In his reply, Mr. Jourdan explained why he thinks the Earhart Electra is on the ocean bottom near Howland Island. Unfortunately, he then launched into a surprisingly uninformed attempt to disparage TIGHAR’s work, including ad hominem attacks on me, TIGHAR’s executive director. We generally ignore such tirades, but Mr. Jourdan’s deserves a response.

Before replying to Mr. Jourdan point-by-point, some background information is in order. Although both TIGHAR and Nauticos have the same goal – discovering the true fate of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan – the two organizations are quite different.

TIGHAR is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) public charity. Our work is carried out in the public interest for the public’s benefit. Archival research, data analyses, and expeditions are carried out mostly by volunteers although, when appropriate, we hire needed assets and expertise. Funding comes primarily from charitable donations by the general public as dues-paying members of the organization. The sale of exclusive media rights sometimes provides additional funding for expeditions. All of our research and results are published and freely available to anyone who wishes to look at our work.

Since launching The Earhart Project in 1988, TIGHAR has conducted 11 archaeological expeditions to Nikumaroro (formerly Gardner Island), and 14 related research expeditions: three to Fiji, two to Tarawa, three to England, two to New Zealand and one each to McKean Island, Kanton Island, Funafuti, the Solomon Islands, and Tinian. There have been three expeditions to remote locations in Alaska, Idaho, and New Zealand to collect comparative data from known Electra wrecks.

Nauticos LLC is an ocean exploration corporation owned and operated by David Jourdan. Nauticos hires expertise and assets with which to carry out contracts for its customers. Nauticos’ client for the current search for the Earhart Electra is former Google executive Alan Eustace. Dubbed “The Eustace Earhart Discovery Expedition,” the reported cost of the month-long operation is $3,000,000. The side-scan sonar search is being conducted using a REMUS 6000 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution deployed from R/V Mermaid Vigilance. This is Nauticos’ third search for the Earhart aircraft on the ocean bottom near Howland Island. Searches in 2002 and 2006 were unsuccessful.

Mr. Jourdan began with a recitation of the logic behind the Crashed & Sank theory of Earhart’s fate.

Jourdan: Amelia Earhart sent several messages received by the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca, waiting for her at Howland Island. These messages indicated she was 200 miles out, then 100, then “We must be on you, but cannot see you.”

Gillespie: Maybe, maybe not. The Itasca radio log entry for 06:46 reads, “I WILL MAKE MOISE [sic] IN MIC – ABT 100 MILES OUT.”1

In the original typed log there is a platen mis-alignment. The words “-ABT 100 MILES OUT” are not quite lined up with the previous words. The only way that can happen is if the operator went back and entered the phrase after he hit the carriage return. Was it ten seconds, ten minutes, or ten hours later that the phase was added? No way to tell. Was “-ABT 100 MILES OUT” something the operator later remembered Earhart saying, or was it the operator’s own estimate? No way to tell. A forensic examination of the original radio log, faithfully preserved by Itasca Chief Radioman Bellarts, reveals a number of similar discrepancies that challenge traditional versions of what Earhart was heard to say.2

Jourdan: Amelia reported that fuel was low. (This was supported by an analysis of her fuel consumption by Fred Culick of Cal Tech.)

Gillespie: The 07:42 Itasca radio log entry records Earhart as saying:

KHAQQ CLNG ITASCA WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE U BUT GAS IS RUNNING LOW BEEN UNABLE TO REACH YOU BY RADIO WE ARE FLYING AT 1000 FEET3

“Gas is running low,” but how low is low? TIGHAR’s analysis of the Electra’s theoretical endurance agrees with Lockheed historian Roy Blay’s calculation that Earhart should have had 24 hours and 18 minutes of fuel when she left New Guinea.4

Mr. Culick’s 1999 analysis is based on multiple assumptions that contradict or creatively interpret the historical record. He offers nine different possibilities for Earhart’s total fuel endurance, ranging from 23 hours 38 minutes to 18 hours 55 minutes, based on various assumptions. He prefers a tenth alternative. “Amelia should have run out of fuel after 20 hours and 38 minutes, indicating that she ran out of fuel within a half hour after her last transmission.”5

In his conclusions he rather confusingly states, “If we are correct in our assumptions about Amelia’s true airspeed and the head winds she encountered in flight … then Amelia could not have remained aloft for more than 22 hours. In any event, her fuel endurance would have been limited to 21 hours or less.”6

The key assumptions his conclusions rely upon are that Earhart had “an average true airspeed of 160.5 mph and an average head wind of 26.5 mph” for the entire flight.

In other words, Mr. Culick is suggesting that Earhart, upon encountering stronger than expected headwinds, instead of aborting the flight and returning to her departure point (as she had done twice during the world flight), increased power to raise her airspeed beyond recommended levels, thus unnecessarily increasing fuel consumption and effectively erasing any margin for error in finding Howland Island.

Is there a more reasonable explanation for Earhart saying “BUT GAS IS RUNNING LOW” at 07:42? This was the only time she was heard to mention her fuel situation. An hour later, in her last in-flight transmission heard by Itasca, she expressed no concern about fuel. At 07:42 she was 19 hours and 12 minutes into her flight. The flight to Howland was expected to take 18 to 19 hours. According to Army Air Corps Lt. Cooper aboard Itasca, the standard fuel reserve for long-distance flights was 20%.7 According to Lt. Cooper “Gasoline supply was estimated to last 24 hours ….”8 If that number is correct, at 19 hours 12 minutes Earhart had just begun burning into her five hour reserve. If you’re in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and your destination has not appeared as expected, and you don’t know why, and you have not heard any reply to your radio calls, and you’re burning your emergency fuel reserve, “GAS IS RUNNING LOW” would seem to be an appropriate comment.

The point is, both interpretations of Earhart’s reported statement are theoretically possible unless there is conclusive evidence that one or both are incorrect.

Jourdan: Her last message reported she was “flying north and south” on a line of position (157-337) that was obtained by observing sunrise.

Gillespie: To be precise, in the last in-flight message heard by Itasca she said she was “ON THE LINE 157 – 337 … RUNNING ON LINE NORTH AND SOUTH.” That the line she referred to was a line of position obtained by observing sunrise was the U.S. Navy’s interpretation at the time, and one that pretty much everyone, including TIGHAR, agrees with. There may have been subsequent in-flight messages that were not heard by Itasca and there were certainly post-loss transmissions logged by Itasca. Just after sunset at 6:25 that evening, the Itasca radio log recorded “We hear her on 3105 Kcs now, very weak and unreadable/voice.”

Jourdan: It is clear that she then ran out of fuel and ditched in the ocean.

Gillespie: Saying so does not make it so. If Amelia made a Mayday call that she was going down, nobody heard it. If the plane ditched in the ocean and sank, it did so without leaving so much as an oil slick to be seen by the subsequent Coast Guard and Navy search. If it happened, there is zero historical evidence that it happened, and considerable evidence to suggest that it did not happen.

Jourdan: She was quite close, as confirmed by radio signal analysis conducted by Rockwell-Collins.

Gillespie: Confirmed? How close is quite close? What Mr. Jourdan calls the Rockwell-Collins analysis was done in 1998 by the Collins Amateur Radio Club. Like the Cal Tech fuel analysis, the radio signal analysis draws firm conclusions from assumptions and interpretations. Club members recorded simulated Earhart transmissions using equipment roughly similar to that believed to be aboard Earhart’s Electra, measured the impedance of an antenna on the Pima Air Museum’s Lockheed 10A, and did field tests on a 1/12 scale model Electra and a Beechcraft Model 18. Creative research to be sure, but not capable of confirming anything that happened in the Central Pacific in the electromagnetic environment of 1937.

TIGHAR’s own analysis of Earhart’s in-flight radio transmissions was done in 2000 using a computer model of the NR16020 antenna created with NEC4WIN95.9 Propagation of each signal was analyzed using ICEPAC10, a program which allows the researcher to put the subject signal in geographical and historical context with regard to such variables as atmospheric noise and sunspot activity.

How close is close? TIGHAR’s study found that for Itasca to have heard Earhart on 3105 kHz, the airplane could not have been closer than 80 nautical miles away. For her to stand the best chance of Itasca hearing her at maximum strength (Strength 5) as recorded in the ship’s radio log, she had to be between 160 and 260 nautical miles from the ship.11

Jourdan: The question is, exactly where? We are searching the ocean floor at 18,000 feet depth, and will complete our search of the calculated probability area this month.

Gillespie: It is entirely possible that the Eustace Earhart Discovery Expedition will discover the wreckage of one or more of the many wartime and modern trans-Pacific ferry flights that have gone down at sea in the 80 years since the Electra disappeared. In the next installment of TIGHAR’s reply to Mr. Jourdan, we’ll correct his many misconceptions about our work and explain why any aircraft the Eaustace Earhart Discovery Expedition finds will not be Earhart’s.


Notes

  1. Itasca Raw Radio Logs.
  2. “Things Not Said,”
  3. Itasca Raw Radio Logs.
  4. “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” Roy Blay, Lockheed Horizons.
  5. “Details Concerning Analysis of Amelia Earhart’s Final Flight – July 2, 1937,” G. Swenson and F.E.C Culick, Jet Propulsion Center, California Institute of Technology.
  6. Ibid.
  7. U.S. Army Report, “Expedition to the American Equatorial Island in connection with the Amelia Earhart flight,”  Daniel A. Cooper, 1st Lieutenant, Air Corps, July 27, 1937.
  8. Ibid.
  9. A Windows 95/98 implementation of the Numerical Electromagnetic Code (NEC) developed by ORION Microsystems, of Quebec Canada, it is specifically designed for interactive design and analysis of antennas.
  10. Ionospheric Communications Enhanced Profile Analysis and Circuit prediction program, developed by the Department of Commerce Institute for Telecommunications Science (ITS) at Boulder, Colorado.
  11.  PLRST Technical Notes.

Personal observations by TIGHAR’s Executive Director, Ric Gillespie