Jul 11th, 2017

Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence – A Pilot’s Question

Posted in Aviation News

These are my thoughts, as a pilot, regarding the Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence documentary shown on the History Channel July 10, 2017.  I shared my thoughts on the new photo in my previous blog:  https://www.doctoraviation.com/amelia-earhart-photo-a-critique/

As a pilot I was most interested in how Earhart could possibly have gotten to the Marshall Islands, 800 miles from her intended destination.  Earhart and Noonan’s original landing site was intended to be Howland Island.  The Marshall Islands lie to the west and north of Howland Island.  As documented in the film, the Marshall Islands were under Imperial Japanese control at the time.

Howland Island on a clear day

The documentary gave scant attention to the specifics of Earhart’s final flight.  As I thoroughly cover in Session 4 of Doctor Aviation, this leg was the longest (by far) of any of the flights to this point in her round the world venture.  It was planned to be 2,556 miles.  The United States had a Coast Guard Cutter, the Itasca, in place at Howland Island in the midst of the Depression to assist in her arrival.

The Itasca

As the navigator, Noonan would rely on dead reckoning and celestial navigation to guide the Electra from Lae, Papua New Guinea (the point of takeoff) to Howland Island.  The last known island landmark to check his navigational accuracy were the Nukumanu Islands about 800 miles into the flight.

Scattered clouds and shadows dominated the morning she was to arrive at Howland.  Earhart and Noonan were having difficulty finding their destination.  The Itasca began to emit black smoke in order to try to provide a visual location.  They also transmitted frequently over the radio in an effort to guide the wayward craft.  Some errors by Earhart hampered radio communications.  For example, Earhart’s radio receiver and antenna were on different wavelengths and there is visual evidence from earlier in the around the world venture that Earhart had trimmed her long wire antennae (presumably to cut weight).

At 7:42 am Earhart radioed “We must be on you, but cannot see you—but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”   In her last known transmission at 8:43 am Earhart broadcast “We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.” However, a few moments later she was back on the same frequency (3105 kHz) with a transmission which was logged as a “questionable”: “We are running on line north and south.”

What happened next was the most helpful hypothesis offered by the documentary.  Colonel Dan Hampton, a former Air Force fighter pilot, proposed the following theory.  He asserted that Amelia Earhart had a backup plan should she not be able to find Howland Island.  The backup plan was to fly west (heading 270) to the Gilbert Islands, a long string of islands she said she could not miss.  This is the first time I have heard of this back up plan.

However, more importantly, winds on that day were forecasted to be light and from the northeast.  Colonel states that instead they were actually from the southeast blowing at 23 knots (25 mph) that strength of wind will cause an aircraft to drift off course, if not accounted for.  Over several hours, if the Electra did not correct for drift, they would have been blown west and north of Howland Island by a considerable distance.  If they then turned west (heading 270) they would have been heading for the Marshall Islands, which lie north of the Gilbert Islands (their purported back up location).

Hampton’s statement of the cloud cover was also different that I had researched in the past.  However, with cloud cover and no visible landmarks it is plausible that the Electra was north and west of Howland Island and did not know it.  If they headed west and came upon the Marshall Islands (a series of atolls), this would provide a decent emergency landing option. Mili Atoll, shown on the documentary and stated by two eye witnesses to be the scene of the emergency landing would have provided a beach landing strip consistent with those found in a jungle environment.  I highlight such a beach in Session 8 of Doctor Aviation, when I chronicle Nate Saint’s landing on Palm Beach in Ecuador.

My biggest question as a pilot, “If Earhart was really running low on fuel near Howland Island, how did she make it 800 miles to Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands”?  I have read the same question from others, to include a man who has flown Lockheed Electra’s.  The documentary provided at least a plausible explanation.

In flying there is a concept known as “Bingo Fuel”.  This is a fuel level which causes the pilot to make a decision.  For example, when doing work on a flying range, when the fuel level hits “Bingo” (let’s say that is 800 lbs of fuel) the pilot knows that it is time to return to base so that they return with ample fuel to land safely.  Hampton proposed that when Earhart stated she was low on fuel, she was referring to a bingo fuel.  The amount of fuel remaining that would require her to either land at Howland Island, if it could be found, or else head to the Gilbert Islands.  Hampton shows some fuel calculations indicating that Earhart could have made it to the Marshall Islands.  I have not checked the accuracy of those calculations.


My Final Thoughts (for now).   I have long held that the most plausible explanation for the Earhart / Noonan disappearance was the crash and sink theory.  That she ran out of fuel crashed into the ocean and sank.  I had at least allowed for the possibility that she may have crash landed at Gardner (now Nikumaroro) Island, but this seemed less likely.  At this point, I would add that the Marshall Island crash and capture by the Japanese is a valid hypothesis.  It also holds much more credibility than that Gardner Island hypothesis.

To view clips of the documentary, see: http://www.history.com/specials/amelia-earhart-the-lost-evidence

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