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Leave Amelia Alone
by Michael John Claringbould © 2003
Aviatrix Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared without trace over the Pacific on 2 July 1937 while attempting to circumnavigate the world, their last port of call being Lae, New Guinea. People flocked to Lae’s grassy airfield to see their Lockheed 10 Electra. Lae was then a sleepy humid colonial town, where Tommie O'Dea, General Manager of Guinea Airways along with other town luminaries, feted the pair before final takeoff. The scene of the departing Electra was a gentle one as it banked gently over Huon Gulf to find a distant speck of land. It never arrived.

Whilst the disappearance continues to intrigue, recent “research” on the matter has taken an ugly turn. Millions of dollars have been wasted, spent by various US enterprises apparently hell-bent on proving that the pair’s Lockheed 10 Electra either wound up on a remote Pacific island, or that they were captured by the Japanese. All these dollars continue to be wasted whilst the funds could be put to a greater cause – the location and identification of Pacific wartime wrecks being but one example. The latter cause is both realistic and achievable. Determining Amelia’s last resting place is not. Furthermore, there is no need to do so because it is a foregone conclusion – somewhere on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

The Japanese capture theory is unworthy of comment, although I do concede that Elvis might have been captured by the Japanese too. I do not propose to enter into the debate about the hows, whys and wherefores of the Earhart disappearance, however I do wish to outline some essential truths which have been long buried under a landslide of falsity and conspiracy theories. Over the seven decades or so since Earhart and Noonan were swallowed by the vast Pacific, many so-called researchers have focused on alleged incompetence by the aircrew as a contributing reason the Electra failed to find Howland Island. Furthermore, despite having achieved numerous aviation firsts, Earhart is sometimes portrayed as “unqualified”, even though she was the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean and the first aviator to fly from Hawaii to mainland USA. Other critics have claimed that Noonan, a proven first-class navigator, was an alcoholic who was either drunk or hung-over when most needed. Whilst it is true he sometimes showed up suffering from the night before, once aloft Noonan would sip his coffee from a flask and then proceed with flawless navigation. There is not one documented exception to that situation. In summary, the Electra could not have hoped for a better crew.

In direct contrast with the ongoing sniping at the Earhart-Noonan team, Commander Warner Thompson, captain of US Coast Guard ship Itasca - the modest vessel anchored off Howland Island to guide in the Electra - has to date received nothing but praise. Whilst it is true that Thompson received a letter of commendation for his role, the Itasca’s actions, or more specifically, its non-actions, are readily identifiable as the main reason the Electra failed to find Howland Island. Now that all official records pertaining to the Electra’s loss are released, examination of Commander Thompson's performance reveals shortcomings bordering on negligence. In fact, his actions so embarrassed then-Rear Admiral R. R. Waesche, Commandant of the Coast Guard, as well as Secretary of the US Treasury Henry Morgenthau, that documents pertaining to the loss were deliberately withheld. Thus, with the fliers unavailable to defend themselves, only one side of the story has until recently received attention.

Of course, Thompson is no longer here to defend himself, but his actions must also be contrasted against the unfounded attacks he made on Earhart in his search report. A month after the search for the missing Electra ended, Navy Commander P. V. Weems, a highly regarded navigator and instructor, wrote to Rear Admiral Waesche asking for copies of files concerning the loss. Weems held high regard for Noonan, and was naturally motivated to discover what had happened. Waesche’s reply, disguised in bureaucratic eloquence, was an outright “no”. Such remained the attitude of US government authorities for many years. This was hardly “conspiracy”, just a simple mechanism to defend the undefendable. There was no conspiracy by anyone else either – just clear political will to withhold the incompetence of the US Coast Guard, funded by the US taxpayers who had Amelia’s well-being at heart. 

The Itasca was anchored off Howland Island to provide communications, smoke signals, and radio bearings to guide Earhart and Noonan into a Pacific needle-in-a-haystack. The first two facilities were luxuries, the third quintessential. It was on this last imperative that Itasca failed to deliver. I reject as false the multitude of fantastic conspiracy and faulty navigation theories involving the Electra’s loss. Tragedies in aviation usually have fundamental causes. What happened is simply this - Earhart and Noonan attempted to fly from Lae to Howland Island, arrived in the latter’s vicinity perilously short of fuel, and left with no alternative, ditched nearby. Indeed, things are and were what they seemed to be.

The Electra flew into a morning sunrise in hazy conditions. Those of us who have flown over a misty sea when the sun is bright and low, with regular cumulus clouds clogging the horizon, know how difficult it is to discern a tiny land mass with an elevation barely above sea-level. Looking towards the sun, one sees only an iridescent path of reflected sunlight in a limited arc forward of the cockpit. Outside that arc, omnipresent cloud shadows all appear like islands. Yes, the Itasca was generating smoke, but this would have been visible only if viewed from sea level with a light background. By the time they arrived in Howland’s vicinity, Earhart and Noonan had descended to a thousand feet or less, and any smoke from that perspective would have blended into the haze. Insignificant Howland was always going to be difficult to find visually regardless, but none of this would have mattered had Noonan received a radio bearing for final guidance. That was not to be, and herein lies the crux of the Electra’s disappearance.

We now know that the Itasca failed to provide a directional radio beacon, as had been ordered and planned. The ship’s radio log as entered by Radioman Third Class T. J. O'Hare shows that Itasca’s radio direction finder and 500 KHz beacon transmitter were not initiated until 0730 hours local time. Noonan by that time would have been almost upon Howland and whilst both crew scoured the horizon for a visual clue Earhart would have been acutely aware that their endurance was approaching the red stop. Commander Thompson should have ordered his radioman on watch from 0615 hours at the latest, and by then Itasca should have been transmitting, not receiving. All log entries show that the Itasca was only listening on 500 KHz, and not transmitting. One could not do both at the same time with 1930’s radio equipment. It had been planned that the Electra would depend on its radio direction finder for the approach to Howland. Put more simply, the fliers needed and had planned on receiving a continuous beacon signal on that frequency, except during the plane's scheduled transmissions. They found none for there was none to find. Had there been one, it would have certainly guided the Electra safely to Howland Island. By 0730, tired of hearing incessant static instead of Morse code, an exasperated Noonan probably gave up trying to tune into the radio beacon, and may have even assumed that the Electra’s ADF was not working. One can only imagine the desperate frustration of the two crew when they realized they would have to ditch.

Three days later, Commander Thompson subsequently reported in a long message to Coast Guard Headquarters that "SHIP MET ALL EARHART REQUESTS WITH EXCEPTION INABILITY TO SECURE EMERGENCY RADIO BEARING DUE BRIEF EARHART TRANSMISSIONS . . . ." Thompson is squarely on the defensive (through attack) here, and attempting to shift blame squarely to Earhart. Itasca’s radio log for 0756 hours does not support his claim that Itasca was broadcasting at this time, although this was when Earhart requested bearings. The fact that Amelia was doing this had no effect on the ship’s ability to transmit a homing beacon. The die was cast.

Even when the Electra ditched near Howland, accurate bearings would have been a lifesaver during the subsequent rescue attempt, giving the searchers a good idea of where to look for the downed plane. In the end the resultant search was a farce. Howland Island was actually six nautical miles or so from its charted position. Commander Thompson had visited it regularly and knew its correct position, but failed to inform Earhart and Noonan of the error prior to their Lae departure.  Things quickly became worse. With brisk rescue an imperative after the plane became overdue, Commander Thompson to his credit raised Itasca’s anchor at 1040 hours. He spent the first night chasing meteors which he mistook for flares, a forgivable error. However, given Noonan’s professional reputation, Thompson should have searched initially along Noonan’s Line-of-Positioning (LOP) as radioed by Earhart. Why would you adopt any other starting point ? The search should have been conducted during daylight hours only, whilst at night the cutter should have hove to, allowing the two-knot current to equally carry both vessel and downed aircraft (assuming it was still afloat) in the same direction. Thompson instead searched an arc a good hundred miles east of the Noonan’s LOP. Why he thought that Noonan could wander off course this far is hard to fathom, for such would have required an error around nine times Noonan's proven maximum error. When Earhart radioed her infamous quote, "We are on you but can't see you," she was likely no more than ten miles from Howland. Unable to see the tiny island, it is logical that she would fly up and down the LOP and that is precisely what she told the Itasca she was doing. History will never know why Commander Thompson looked so far elsewhere.

The more Itasca continued her neglectful search, the further Earhart and Noonan drifted from rescue. An open-ocean ditching is hazardous, as proved by the many rich examples provided by World War Two. However, we do know that the swell was uncharacteristically calm around Howland that morning, so the chances are that Earhart ditched successfully, but ditched the Electra was. One recent US researcher has gone to great length to point out that the Electra’s positive buoyancy would have kept it afloat for days, even weeks. This preposterous calculation, correct in theory, overlooks a simple practical fact known to all aircraft engineers. Whilst it is true that the machine would have had about 2,400 Kg of positive buoyancy, the center of buoyancy was well aft of the engines, meaning that shortly after ditching the Electra would have nosed downwards. The cockpit would soon have flooded, forcing the tail higher and making it difficult to reach the dinghy and all the emergency gear stored aft. Unless Earhart and Noonan were able to secure and clamber into the raft, they would not have survived long under such conditions. Given all other factors, neither would have the Electra. What happened in the first day of the search was crucial. Days and more days were wasted as Commander Thompson and Itasca wandered purposely, yet increasingly distant from the Electra – assuming it remained afloat. Perhaps the two crew made it into their raft – God forbid – and drifted into a prolonged death through exposure.

The truth of the loss remains obscured today, sometimes unintentionally, by the pall of disinformation that continues to be accepted as fact. Contributing to this unhappy situation is a range of false and forged documents from the era. For example, whilst it is tempting to speculate on what person(s) may have authored the strangest document from the incident: the Howland radio log, such speculation is pointless. Why bother trying to determine who concocted it when it is historical fact that the log is counterfeit. If the Howland radio log is bogus, it follows that other fundamental documents may also be suspect. Such idle miscellany detracts from the basic dignity that the Electra could not find Howland and ran out of fuel, and adds fuel to a fire of speculation which should have been extinguished long ago.

The bad news of Earhart’s disappearance electrified the entire world, and engaged the attention of the Washington military and polity right up to the President. I suppose it is not unusual that people should still speculate on the loss, however to continue to assign substantial funds to some of the “research” projects which have ensued over past years is just plain sad. Furthermore it is downright disrespectful. Earhart herself would be appalled that her name was still being discussed, and in some cases her reputation questioned. A multitude of conspiracy theories, most with the same credibility that Elvis lives on Mars, abound to this day and even attract the research patronage of those who should know better. Images continue to be painted of a clumsy Earhart, a drunk Noonan, the pair being captured as American spies by the Japanese, or the Electra having landed on another Pacific island (or even having crashed on New Britain). Such errant nonsense continues to be promoted as a by-product of the substantial funds put forward to discover the final fate of the Electra. All of this distraction contrasts against the reality of a simple tragedy of basic communications failure, resulting in two tired fliers being forced to ditch. Who knows how long they survived after the ditching, but no-one should be deterred from the conclusion that they both died doing what they enjoyed doing most, and that the Electra’s remains lie on the Pacific floor. At least Commander Thompson’s fate is well-known. The poor chap suffered a coronary thrombosis and died at age 53 on 1 September 1939 in Ketchikan, Alaska, two years and two months after the Electra disappeared. 

All the players in the Earhart game should redirect their considerable funds into another charity, of which there is no shortage. The bursary could be named in the lady’s honour and she would like that, but otherwise please leave Amelia alone.

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