Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Focus on the South Pacific: The 1937 Pacific Aviation Mystery

The Search for Amelia Earhart, A Hundred Different Callsigns

It was 5:30 am local time on Friday July 2, 1937, exactly 79 years ago.  The hotel orderly knocked on the outer doors of two adjoining rooms in the small country style Hotel Cecil, the only hotel back then in the frontier town of Lae in New Guinea.  This town also boasted a local Post Office under the auspices of the PMG Department in Australia, a grass surfaced runway as part of the remote airfield which was under the management of Guinea Airways, as well as a one roomed radio station which had been established by AWA in Australia though it was managed locally by the same Guinea Airways.  

  This was their fateful day.  In a few hours, the world famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart and the equally capable aviation navigator Fred Noonan would begin their transPacific journey from New Guinea to California, with two refueling stops en route, Howland Island and Honolulu.  A quick “morning tea” in the waterfront hotel was followed by a short walk to the Lae Airport where their plane was stored overnight in the Guinea Airways hanger.

 Their one year old plane was a modified version of the new Lockheed Electra 10E.  The shiny body was formed from a new aluminium alloy, the two wings were painted a strong red, and the identification number NR16020 was screened in bold black lettering under the left wing, on top of the right wing, and also upon the tail.  This trustworthy plane had been almost completely readied for the long haul flight on Thursday, and now on Friday morning the two aviators attended to the final last minute preparations.      

The two major items of radio equipment aboard the Electra were a standard 12 volt aircraft transmitter and a separate receiver both manufactured by Western Electric.  The three channel transmitter, model number WE13C, was rated at 50 watts, and it was factory adjusted for use on 500 kHz, 3105 kHz and 6210 kHz, for communication in both voice and Morse Code.  The official American callsign was KHAQQ.  The aircraft receiver, model WE20B, was a regular 4 band aircraft receiver, for reception on longwave, mediumwave, tropical shortwave and international shortwave.

 The main antenna was a V doublet on top of the plane, with stubby masts above the fuselage and on top of the twin tails.  Another main antenna was a long trailing wire underneath the plane that needed to be unrolled and deployed when in use.  However, it appears that this antenna had been removed before their departure from Lae, either accidentally or intentionally.

   During the day before, the radio operator at Lae, Harry Balfour had attempted to obtain time signals from the AWA coastal stations, VIS Sydney, VIM Melbourne, VIA Adelaide, and VIP Perth, but with no avail; their 500 kHz signals just did not propagate up to New Guinea.   However, on the morning of this fateful day, Balfour did obtain a time check at 8:00 am from station FZS3 in Saigon, French Indo-China on 9620 kHz.  Noonan discovered that his chronometer was giving a readout about 3 seconds slow. 

 Zero hour, departure time, was set at MN GMT, 10:00 am local time.  The plane’s regular and supplementary tanks were already filled with 1100 gallons of Stanavo 87 octane aviation fuel, the distance to Howland Island was 2556 miles, the flight time was calculated as approximately 18 hours, and the plane carried a fuel reserve sufficient for an additional 4 hours of flying, if necessary.  

 After an early quick lunch at the hotel, they were ready for their 10:00 am take off.  The heavily overloaded plane rumbled down the 3,000 ft grass runway and it cleared the ground just 50 yards from the 20 ft drop off to the ocean.  A black and white movie of the take off would suggest that the plane sustained a slight fillip as it crossed the slope of the roadway, sufficient to make the plane airborne.

The Electra then veered out over the almost empty Pacific towards remote Howland Island.  For some distance, the plane seemed to almost slowly hover, literally just a few feet above the water line, until air speed had increased sufficiently for the climb into the bright blue tropical sky.

 Although both Lae Radio and Amelia aboard the Electra attempted mutual radio communication, this was not achieved until 4 hours and 18 minutes later, more than 600 miles out.  The radio contact from the Electra KHAQQ on this occasion was made on 6210 kHz, and the voice report indicated that all was well.  Interestingly, the international shortwave channel, 6210 kHz was also the first (or if you prefer) the second harmonic of the fundamental 3105 kHz.

  The callsign for the Guinea Airways AWA communication radio station has been listed in some official reports as PAE.  These three letters almost look like a corruption of the town name, Lae.  If this callsign PAE really is correct, then it must have been an unofficial or company callsign.  The official government issued callsign at the time, was an Australian callsign VLU, though subsequently that was modified to VHX. 

At around the halfway point between Lae and Howland, in both time and distance, the American navy auxiliary tug, Ontario had been lying in wait for a little over a week.  The only radio aboard this ship was a longwave transmitter NIDZ, using 400 kHz longwave, rated at ½ kW.  There was no radio contact between NIDZ & KHAQQ, and no visual siting between the Ontario and the Electra.

At 10:30 GMT during the dark hours of the Pacific night, that is 10½ hours out from Lae, Amelia radioed that she saw the lights of a ship, which happened to be the Myrtlebank, en route from Auckland New Zealand to the isolated island of Nauru.  Communication station VKT on Nauru heard the call and responded, but apparently Amelia never heard this confirmation call. 

  At 14:14 GMT, the Electra was overflying the middle of the Gilbert Islands, and KHAQQ transmitted a voice report.  However this was at 2:14 in the morning local time and apparently no one was on duty at station VSZ Tarawa, Gilbert islands, and thus no contact was made.

 At 16:23, Amelia called the Itasca NRUI off Howland Island, and they heard her voice report on 3105 kHz, when she gave a brief weather report, stating “partly cloudy”.  Then again, at 19:12 on the same night time channel 3105 kHz, she stated “we must be on you, cannot see you, gas running low”.

The two final communications came at 19:28 GMT when she stated on the same tropical band channel, 3105 kHz “we are circling, cannot hear you”; and two minutes later again, “we hear you, please take a bearing on us”.  Then silence.

 One hour later emergency searching began.  Why no further confirmed radio transmissions from KHAQQ aboard the Electra?  Where had they gone?  What happened to them? 

 Over a period of 17 days, that is 2½ weeks, a total of 10 ships, 102 planes and 3,000 men participated in an extensive search covering ½ million square miles of empty Pacific Ocean.  Most of the planes and ships involved in this expensive search that cost $¼ million each day came in from the north and covered wide areas extending north east, north and northwest from Howland Island. 

 At the time of the fateful disappearance of Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan aboard the Lockheed Electra 10E on Saturday July 2, 1937, Amelia’s husband, publisher George Putnam was following the progressive events as they occurred at Coastguard Station NMC.  Back then, this was a very new communication station that had been opened just a few months earlier at Fort Funston in a former lifeboat station in San Francisco.  He declared at the time that the searchers were looking in the wrong places and he stated that they should search south of Howland Island, not the north side.

 A PBY plane, with callsign F3Y and tactical call 62C, was sent out from Honolulu on the long haul flight towards Howland Island but it had to turn back because of bad weather.  In addition, 3 scout planes from the United States battleship SS Colorado NECR were sent out twice each day to comb the area for two days.  The American aircraft carrier Lexington sent out 62 aircraft to cover the search areas.  

 Somewhere around 30 American ships, naval and commercial, were involved in the Earhart search, and each operated under its own separate American callsign.  There was one strange call that apparently has not yet been solved, and this was QZ5.  However, the commercially operated tanker Frank G. Drum had been allotted the callsign KDQZ, and it would be suggested that the strange callsign QZ5 was simply an abbreviated call in Morse Code, indicating frequency number 5 from KGQZ aboard the Frank G. Drum. 

In addition, shipping registered in Japan, New Zealand and Australia also participated in this massive and widespread search.

A host of landbased radio stations also passed on relevant information by radio, and these stations were located in continental United States, in Hawaii and on various islands throughout the Pacific.  The AWA station on Fanning Island VQN operated on longwave 425 kHz; this island was subsequently searched for possible airplane wreckage.  Three of the Pan American Airways radio stations assisted in the search with direction finding procedures and these were KNBF Mokapu Hawaii, KNBH on Midway Island and KNBI on Wake Island.

We should remember also the two mediumwave stations in Honolulu at the time, KGMB with 1 kW on 1320 kHz and KGU with 2½ kW on 750 kHz, both of which broadcast messages directly to Amelia Earhart, age 39 and Fred Noonan age 44, in the hope that they might possibly be listening.

 The mystery of their disappearance exactly 79 years ago, the greatest mystery in the history of aviation, is not yet solved

 If we really knew the exact number of radio transmitters aboard all of these ships and planes and ashore on all of the nearby islands, it would greatly outnumber 100 callsigns.  
(AWE Wavescan/NWS 384)