Amelia Earhart in July 1937 – Did she hang up before she could be traced?
By Gordon Allison, Jr. | Copyright 2017
Part Four of a series
Editor’s Note: There have been ‘news’ items saying Major Joe Gervais (MJ) was discredited when McGraw-Hill removed his and Joe Klaas’ book from the shelves following a lawsuit by Irene Bolam. McGraw-Hill did that to cut their losses. No retraction statement was ever made! In 2000, the rights to Amelia Earhart Lives reverted to the authors, Joe Klaas and Joe Gervias. Gordon Allison Jr., the author of this series and a good friend of Gervais, has contacted the University of Texas (the repository for Gervais’ records) to request release of the lawsuit documentation now that all parties to the original litigation have passed away with the exception of a corporate entity – McGraw Hill.
Amelia appeared to have a fetish over aircraft weight. Most pilots do — for two reasons. First, too much weight and a plane won’t perform and may crash on takeoff. Second, weight distributed in the wrong locations can make the aircraft unstable. As fuel is consumed, weight loss from fuel could make the aircraft uncontrollable. Weight located a long way from the plane’s center of gravity is not a good idea.
On her first attempt to fly around the world, Amelia embarked from west to east – crashing on takeoff from Hickam Field in Hawaii, where she took the military oath for enlisting in the US Army Air Force.
Her plane was returned to Lockheed in Burbank, Calif. for extensive repairs. Her route for the fabled 1937 flight was then reversed — to east-about — thereby giving military planners more time to set up Navy and Coast Guard vessels for her long flight across the Pacific. After the shakedown flight from Burbank to Miami, the US Military assumed control of her flight. The military installed state-of-the-art automatic direction-finding (ADF) equipment, replacing the earlier generation low frequency radio direction finding (RDF) equipment.
At the last minute in Miami, to save weight Amelia requested removal of a 400-pound motorized spool containing 250 feet of wire insulated from the airframe and fed out the tail of the plane. Please note: The trailing wire antenna that receives and transmits low frequency signals when the wire is reeled out wasn’t required with the new ADF equipment.
Thus, Amelia had a smaller chance that anyone could receive her low frequency signals using her remaining high frequency antennas. Not taking the long trailing wire antenna and associated radio equipment was, I believe, penny wise and pound-foolish.
The trailing wire antenna was the best chance of making distress calls on the international distress frequency of 500 kHz. The radio direction finder (RDF) on the US Coast Guard cutter, Itasca, only worked on the distress frequency. The RDF that was placed on Howland Island (an intended stop that she never made) could take bearings on the high frequencies of 3105 kHz and 6210 kHz which Amelia used, but did not transmit a signal. The RDF antenna on Howland Island used wires instead of slip rings from the receiver to the rotating loop antenna. At some point, the inexperienced radioman broke the wires by continually rotating the antenna in one direction instead of sweeping an arc – an extremely unfortunate error!
Itasca broadcast lots of signals carrying routine traffic that Amelia could “home” in on. However, her flight was during the monsoon season, and storms could cause static interference, which would make her ADF unable to receive clear bearing readings. Thus, she couldn’t be sure where she was.
Amelia had arranged to broadcast signals on the hour and half-hour. Then the radiomen on the Coast Guard cutter would have been ready to get a fix on her airplane. Her last transmission was at 8:43 am on July 2 – certainly not on the hour or on the half-hour? Why didn’t Amelia use the pre-arranged procedure for Itasca to be able to home in on her location? Bottom line, I believe, and my friend MJ believed, that she didn’t want anyone to know where she was. Her short calls to Itasca were like hanging up the phone before the call could be traced.
This begs the question, why didn’t the frequencies chosen for Amelia include those used by thousands of amateur radio operators, commonly know as Hams? The simple answer is that it would have given away her true mission – spying on pre World War II Japanese military installations on various islands in the Pacific Ocean!
The next day, July 3 at about 10 a.m., a listening post run by Pan American Airlines on an island in the Pacific picked up a distress call from Amelia saying she was down, and wet, but okay.
Not long after publication of his book, Amelia Earhart Lives (which asserts that Amelia assumed a new identity after WWII as ‘Irene Bolam’) MJ received copies of two years’ of Mrs. Bolam’s tax returns, sent anonymously from Washington, DC.
These documents – which I hope still exist at the University of Texas archives – revealed that she had been paid $1 million a year from Radio Caroline. Those of you old enough to remember Radio Caroline know it was a “pirate” radio station anchored three miles off the coast of England in international waters. Radio Caroline broadcast rock and roll music to an audience that wanted rock and roll when the vaunted BBC played only staid 1940s and early 50s music. There was a lot of pressure to silence the station, but it never went off the air! It turns out the station was secretly used for a US government project!
I have a slight connection to the Radio Caroline story too! When I became a product manager for the RCA Broadcast Division, a long-time RCA employee told me the Radio Caroline ship was a US Liberty Ship from WWII that had been converted into a “pirate” radio station using RCA transmitters in the mid 1960s. Hint: This is NOT what the Radio Caroline website says.
The recollections in this series of articles are copyrighted by Gordon Allison, Jr., 2017.