The Other Amelia Earhart Mystery Part 3

By 1936, Amelia Earhart was the most famous female aviator in America. But as the world struggled through the Great Depression, she found it increasingly difficult to make a living by touring and talking. The crowds that came to her talks became smaller and smaller. Meanwhile she was still supporting her mother and sister financially, while her husband George Putnam had lost his money when the publishing company he once controlled had gone into receivership.

Putnam continued to push Amelia to promote her books and make money. Putnam needed Amelia to make another record-breaking flight to get her name into the headlines again. So he convinced her to fly around the world.  At the same time, he was aware that she was seeing other men.

Amelia Earhart and the Around the World Flight

Aviators had previously flown around the world. As early as 1924, eight US Army Air Service pilots had circumnavigated the globe, starting and ending at Seattle, Washington. Using four planes, they had made seventy-four stops during the flight that had taken almost six months to complete. Airplane and radio technology had improved in the intervening twelve years, but Amelia Earhart still faced many obstacles to making an around the world flight. The greatest of these obstacles was navigating across the wide Pacific Ocean.

When confronted with the Pacific, previous around-the-world aviators had usually flown north, crossing from the Asian continent to the North American continent (or vice versa) where the landmasses came together.

Even by 1936, no airplane was capable of flying non-stop across the Pacific Ocean at, or near, the Equator. They needed to refuel at least twice if they were to successfully complete the flight. At its widest (12,000 miles – 19,300 km) the Pacific Ocean reaches almost halfway around the globe. Aviators crossing the ocean had made the flight in three stages, usually flying from the West Coast of the United States, first to the Hawaiian Islands, then to the Fijian Islands, and then onto Australia. At both Hawaii and Fiji, they could rest and refuel.

But making flights up to 2,500 miles (4,000 km) across water to locate small islands, required expert and accurate navigation. Even being off course by one or two degrees meant the pilot might miss the islands and continue to run out of fuel somewhere over the water.

In 1936, there were fundamentally three ways to navigate a plane. All required a specialist navigator, leaving the pilot free to fly the plane.

The most common method was called ‘dead reckoning.’ It used a magnetic compass and a stop watch. The navigator would direct the pilot to fly in a certain direction (established by reading a map) and then time how long they were in the air. The navigator would need to know the plane’s airspeed, and would also need to establish whether it was drifting to the left or right. Because of wind and air currents, air speed indicators and drift indicators could be inaccurate, so navigators who used dead reckoning on long flights always allowed for a margin of error. This could be as much as ten percent.

A second method of navigating in 1936 was celestial navigation. This involved establishing the angles of celestial bodies, such as the Sun, Moon and stars, then with a series of complicated calculations, establishing from what point on the Earth’s surface, the observations were made.

Because ships travelled slowly, and navigators could stand firmly on the deck to take readings of celestial bodies, celestial navigation was favoured by mariners. Planes travelled faster, so angles of celestial bodies were difficult to establish looking out a small window. Consequently, aviators usually preferred dead reckoning to celestial navigation.

A third method of navigation was also available to flyers in 1936, but it was in its infancy. This was radio direction finding. The aviator would have a circular Radio Direction Finder (RDF) on top of their plane. This could be turned from within the plane, so that it rotated. The navigator would set their radio to a frequency that was continually being broadcast from a known place. Then by turning the RDF, the signal would become weaker or stronger. The aviator would rotate the circular-shaped aerial to establish the strongest signal, and then know the direction from where it was coming.

A model of Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Electra.
A model of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra.

Planning Amelia Earhart’s World Flight

Amelia Earhart and George Putnam began planning her world flight in 1936. They decided that to show the flight was something never achieved before, by man or woman, that Amelia would circumnavigate the globe as close to the Equator as possible.

A Lockheed Electra 10E model airplane was built to Amelia’s specifications and the modifications included the inclusion of additional fuel tanks in the fuselage.

For the critical role of navigator, Amelia wanted Captain Harry Manning. Amelia had met Manning while returning to America on board a ship, after her solo flight to Europe. He was both a ship’s captain and a pilot. He was experienced in celestial navigation and dead reckoning. Additionally, he was an experienced radio operator and knew Morse Code.

There is evidence that George Putnam believed that Amelia Earhart and Harry Manning were romantically involved. Whether this is true or not, Putnam certainly tried repeatedly to have Manning replaced. On a promotional flight around America, Manning’s dead reckoning navigation was off by an acceptable margin of error. Yet Putnam complained he did not know where he was and insisted Amelia find another navigator. Putnam also told Amelia her navigator should not be a pilot, because people would suggest that she had not done all the flying herself.

Eventually it was agreed that Amelia would have a second navigator for sections of the flight. The person chosen was Fred Noonan. He was an expert flight navigator, experienced in dead reckoning, and had pioneered air routes across the Pacific Ocean.

The original plan was for Amelia to fly west from California to Hawaii, and from Hawaii to tiny Howland Island. From Howland Island she would fly to the east coast of Australia, and from there should would make a series of shorter flights, mostly over land, across Asia to Europe, and then back across the Atlantic to America. The first stages, across the Pacific Ocean, needed the expert navigators. From Howland Island she could dispense with one or both navigators and follow known air routes and landmarks.

Amelia Earhart before her first attempt to fly around the world.
Amelia Earhart before her first attempt to fly around the world. With her (left to right) are Paul Mantz, Harry Manning and Fred Noonan

Amelia Earhart’s First Attempt

The first attempt got underway on 17 March 1937, with Amelia flying the Lockheed Electra from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii. On board were Amelia, Harry Manning, Fred Noonan, and Paul Mantz, who was acting as a technical adviser on the first stage to sort out any issues with the plane. After the plane was serviced and adjustments made at Hawaii, Amelia, Manning and Noonan prepared to continue the flight to Howland Island. As the plane was taking off it crashed, sliding along the runway on its belly and damaging the propellors and the fuselage.

The reason for the crash has always been disputed. A watching journalist claimed he saw one of the tyres blow out. Other people claimed the undercarriage collapsed. Technical adviser Paul Mantz, himself an experienced pilot, claimed it was pilot-error.

Whatever the reason, the plane had to be shipped back to America and repaired by Lockheed. At this point, Harry Manning decided to leave the flight. Manning claimed he had to return to his other duties. Some people have claimed it was because he had lost confidence in Amelia Earhart’s ability as a pilot, especially to make such a long flight. Others have claimed Putnam wanted him gone because of (i) his possible romantic relationship with Amelia, and (ii) people might imply, because he was a skilled pilot, that he had flown part of the way. The second point would detract from Amelia Earhart’s claim to be the first woman to pilot a plane around the world.

With Manning leaving the flight, Amelia Earhart also lost a skilled radio operator. Fred Noonan, who had joined the flight only to assist navigate across the Pacific, would now navigate around the world. He was not an experienced radio operator. Nor did he know Morse Code.

Amelia Earhart crashes on the take-off from Hawaii.
A scene from the movie Amelia, where Amelia Earhart crashes on the take-off from Hawaii.

Amelia Earhart’s Second Attempt

With her Lockheed Electra repaired, and only Fred Noonan acting as navigator, Amelia Earhart flew across America, from California to Miami, and announced she was ready to depart on her second attempt to fly around the world. This time she would fly in the other direction. The reason given was that seasonal weather conditions meant flying east would give her more favourable weather and wind.

Amelia and Fred Noonan left Miami on 1 June 1937. One month and 22,000 miles (35,000 km) later they arrived at Lae, New Guinea, ready for the final 7,000 mile (11,000 km) stage across the Pacific.

The plan was to fly from Lae, to tiny Howland Island, on which there was a runway. After refuelling, they would fly from Howland to Hawaii, refuel again, then fly to California.

The flight from Lae to Howland Island was going to be the most difficult of all the stages. Howland Island is only 6,500 feet (2 km) long and 1,600 feet (500 m) wide. Locating it would take accurate navigation. The distance was 2,500 miles (4,000 km), which was the longest stage of any during the circumnavigation. It also meant that the Lockheed Electra needed to be heavily loaded with fuel and at the limit of its range. If they missed the island, there would be very little fuel remaining to fly around looking for it.

Lae and Howland Island
Lae and Howland Island shown as white dots on the map. Inset pic shows Howland Island.

In preparation for Amelia Earhart’s attempt, the United States Coast Guard had despatched a Coast Guard ship, Itsaca, to Howland Island, which was uninhabited at the time. The Itsaca could deliver fuel and supplies. It could also communicate by radio with Amelia Earhart and, most importantly, transmit a signal so she could use her Radio Direction Finder to fly towards the island. Additionally, when Amelia Earhart was close to the Itsaca, it would send up black smoke that could be seen from a long way away.

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan left Lae, New Guinea, at 10 a.m. local time on 2 July 1937. In the movie, Amelia, starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, the scene of their departure shows Fred Noonan severely hungover. There is no evidence this is true. It also has the crew of the Itsaca, mistakenly letting the battery go flat on the radio meant to transmit to Amelia. Neither is there any evidence for that happening.

The flight was expected to take twenty hours. They would be flying east, towards the sun and crossing the international date line. Therefore, after leaving Lae at 10.00 a.m. and flying for twenty hours, they should arrive at Howland Island early on the morning of the same day: 2 July.

In voice transmissions from Amelia Earhart, she reported her speed and altitude and everything seemed to be going according to plan. As she and Fred Noonan got within about 200 miles (300 km) of Howland Island, the Itsaca crew continued to receive strong signals. At this point Amelia Earhart requested the Itsaca to transmit a continuous signal so that she could use her Radio Direction Finder.

Next, the Itsaca received broken messages from Amelia Earhart. She said should could not hear any incoming messages or signals. The Itsaca also sent up black smoke on the clear morning.

The Itsaca received a message saying that Amelia could not see Howland Island or the Coast Guard ship, and that they were flying back and forth along a course of 157-337 degrees, looking for the island. That is roughly a north-south direction (23 degrees off).

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were not seen again.

Their inability to locate Howland Island is generally attributed to a number of factors. Fred Noonan had reported problems with the RDF. There was miscommunication regarding which radio frequencies were to be used. There was also miscommunication regarding the time that radios transmissions were to be made, because Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan were using GCT (Greenwich Civil Time) while the Itsaca was on US Navy time, which was thirty minutes different.


In the next article I will look at the initial search for Amelia Earhart, the various theories surrounding her disappearance, as well as the modern day searches.

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