By David Billings
The full story is included here as best I know it. It has taken me thousands of hours to read and digest all the information concerning the ill-fated attempt by Earhart and Noonan to fly around the world in the two attempts made in March 1937 and June 1937. The first attempt ended at Luke Field on Oahu when the aircraft was damaged on take-off in what is called “the Ground-loop Incident”. This event provided a large clue in our project. The second attempt failed due to a combination of weather, radio procedures and navigation. The aircraft was a splendid aircraft for the time and well in advance of contemporary aircraft.
The Story and the Project.
Since early 1994, I have been involved in a project to locate aircraft wreckage seen on New Britain Island in Papua New Guinea, by Australian soldiers on a WWII patrol on 17 April 1945. I have been into the same area as this wartime patrol on nine occasions but have had no success at relocating this wreckage. We have been to the wrong area on several occasions and even when in the right area, I believe we could have walked by it without seeing it or that it is more likely that it is partially or completely buried. It has been 59 years since it was seen.
This particular 1945 WWII patrol took place between Japanese lines and Australian lines in a no-man’s land between the two opposing forces, the Australian Army and the Japanese Army. The patrol orders stated that this was a reconnaissance patrol and the task was to report on Japanese troop concentrations in the area and they were told to avoid a firefight. In 1994, there were four Australian veterans from this patrol who were still alive, now, there are only two left from the original 20-man patrol. These two men live in Perth, in Western Australia. I have interviewed all of these four veterans and have documented their evidence of the patrol and the wreckage. Their story has also been captured on videotape.
What was the visual appearance of the wreckage?
The wreckage first seen, was an aircraft radial engine in an unpainted aluminium nacelle tilted down at the front and one third buried in mud. The nacelle had burst open. The patrol virtually bumped into this partly buried nacelle which was covered in jungle vines and they first saw it from a distance of about ten or fifteen feet. The propeller was also unpainted and was of a narrow chord. Only one propeller blade was seen in a 12 o’clock position and it was bent backwards over the front cowl ring. The front face of the cowl ring was heavily corroded with finger size holes and the typical look of corrosion lacework. There was no serious corrosion on the sides of the nacelle sheet metal. There were rivets on the front cowl ring, described as “ugly-looking” rivets. The interior sheet metal surfaces were painted in a yellow paint. At the rear of the nacelle behind the firewall, were some tubes, which were twisted and torn. The nacelle was about five feet in diameter and about the same in length. There was tubing at the rear of the engine inside the nacelle and from this tubing a small metal tag was removed. The nacelle was examined by the patrol Warrant Officer. The patrol Lieutenant walked on from the engine for about thirty yards and states that he saw some airframe wreckage, consisting of a metal fuselage structure, the wings, one engine (still attached) some glass and a round black shiny object. This wreckage was also covered in vines. The starboard (right hand side) wing is bent upwards about ten feet from the tip and the cockpit area is smashed backwards to the wing leading edge. There was a round hole in the jungle canopy about 30 to 40 feet across and the breaks in the tree limbs looked old. The patrol were at, or near the top of, a hill and under the jungle canopy it was dark and it was raining.
The wreckage is an unpainted all-metal aircraft with two engines. It has severe corrosion on the engine cowl rings, which is not consistent with the wreckage being that of a World War Two aircraft. WWII aircraft in the area were camouflage painted and in the three years since the opening of hostilities in New Britain, a wartime aircraft would not corrode as described. The description as made does resemble salient points of the Lockheed Electra.
The area was dense jungle. The patrol was at the site for no more than five to ten minutes and had to move on as they had been told by radio, the night before, that they were being followed by a Japanese patrol, superior in number. On arrival back at their Company Headquarters, the patrol Warrant Officer handed in the metal tag, together with the patrol report.
Early appraisal of the wreckage.
At the time, the Warrant Officer did not know that airframe wreckage had also been seen. The patrol Lieutenant assumed that the Warrant Officer had seen the airframe wreckage. The patrol Warrant Officer filed the patrol report and also handed in the small metal tag he had removed from the detached engine. The United States Army Air Force were informed of the “engine” wreckage as the engine looked to be American and the words Pratt & Whitney had been seen by the Warrant Officer. Some five weeks later the Company was at another location close to Battalion Headquarters, waiting for a barge to transport them further up the coast to the Unamitki River where a large party of Japanese had been reported. They were approached, by an officer from Battalion Headquarters, who informed them that the U.S. Army had replied to the report of the find of the engine. The Officer was reading from a signal and he told the assembled men that the USAAF had said that the engine was not one of their engines. The U.S. Army had said that the engine was a Wasp engine and was most probably from a civilian aircraft. They were told “Don’t worry about it, we have other things to do”. Years later at reunions, the veterans would raise the question of “Whose aircraft was it then ?” The veteran who brought the story to light was watching television in 1990 and a programme came on about Amelia Earhart and that her aircraft had been powered by Wasp engines. He took the story to the Royal Australian Air Force and a Historian at the R.A.A.F. Museum investigated the story and said that it could possibly be the Earhart aircraft. It went from there.
Involvement and research.
I had read about this wartime find of an engine in the Brisbane Courier-Mail newspaper at Christmas 1993. The small article mentioned only a “possibility” that the wreckage was the Electra. I made enquiries with the curator at the National Museum on my return to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and joined the project. I was then working in Papua New Guinea at Air Niugini, the airline. I contacted the Lead veteran in Perth and spoke to the ex-Warrant Officer (W.O.) who lived on the East coast of Australia in April of 1994. I had read a couple of books by this time and was familiar with the Earhart saga and some detail of the aircraft. What the Warrant Officer told me made my hair stand on end. He described the nacelle, which he had examined and the description fitted with the construction of the Electra nacelles:
The Electra front cowl rings were made in three pieces, each covering a 120 degree segment, the whole cowl being round and just under five feet in diameter. The W.O. said that the cowl ring had been burst open but “strangely” the “split” edges at the opening were straight and had a row of rivets on each side. This would be where the matching pieces of the segments joined at the sides of the nacelle, as the top join, was held together by screws. The cowling had burst open at one of the side latching points, not at the screwed join at the top.
At the front of the cowl ring there were “ugly-looking rivets”, which protruded from the skin surface. This is correct as the corners of the joint areas of the cowling had dome-headed rivets in clusters which had an ugly appearance. By WWII, the countersunk rivet had been invented and this presents a “flush” appearance on the skin and does not cause what is called “Drag” in an aerodynamic sense. Dome head rivets do cause drag.
The frontal area of the cowl was heavily corroded with finger sized holes and was so corroded it looked like lacework. “Holed and filigreed” was how the W.O. described it. The cowling on the Electra was not what we now call a “NACA” cowling, which is designed for its aerodynamic properties. The Electra cowl was quite flat at the front, which would cause aerodynamic drag. This flat area must have had impinged salt on it to have corroded so badly as the sides of the nacelle were said to not have corrosion on them. This then indicated to me that the cowling was not of a WWII aircraft as the time from early 1942 to April 1945 is not sufficient to cause that kind of corrosion if the aircraft had been a wartime aircraft. Also, wartime aircraft were painted and this was a bare metal aircraft. The cowling must have picked up salt and the Electra was low over the sea until out of sight after taking off from Lae. It was also at low level when Earhart was looking for Howland Island.
At the back face of the nacelle, which the W.O. described as “a large round metal disc” were some metal tubes which were twisted and torn. The W.O. said that these tubes were painted glossy black. The round metal disc would be the rear face of the firewall and the torn tubing would be part of the “airframe” metal tube truss which, mounted on the front spar of the Electra carried the firewall, the engine mount truss and the engine and propeller. When the engine was ripped out in the impact it obviously broke off at the airframe truss. The former President of the Amelia Earhart Society has told me that Art Kennedy, an engineer who worked on the Electra, painted the tubing on the aircraft with black paint.
The W.O. said that there was yellow paint inside the nacelle on the interior surfaces of the sheetmetal. This would be Yellow Chromate anti-corrosion finish. It is said that both yellow and green chromate finishes were applied to certain places on Electras. Art Kennedy could not recall which colour was used on C/N1055.
The propeller blade seen was of a narrow chord (width) and was bare aluminium. It was bent backwards over the top of the cowling as viewed. This type of propeller was usually referred to as a “toothpick” type of propeller and on the Electra the total diameter of the propeller circle was nine feet. The Electra used narrow chord propellers of the “toothpick” type. Wartime aircraft with more powerful engines in the 1200 H.P. power group used what are known as “paddle-blade” propellers and they were usually painted black with yellow tips. The fact that the propeller was bent backwards shows that there was no power on the engine when the aircraft went into the trees. Under power propeller blades bend forwards as they cleave the trees on impact. On a tree (forest) entry a multi-blade propeller under power has the appearance like a bunch of bananas but all bent forwards.
The Warrant Officer looked inside the cowling for any identification but could not see a data plate on the front of the engine or on the rear. He did find a small metal tag wired to the engine mount tubing at the rear of the engine. He removed this metal tag and he said, “It had letters and numbers on it but they did not mean anything to me, I took the tag to hand in with the patrol report”. The “normal” place for a data plate on later Pratt & Whitney engines is on the front crankcase cover in the 4 o/clock position. Earhart’s Electra did not have the plates in this position and it is more likely that they were on the back of the engine on the blower casing. I have seen a 1928 Wasp, a variant designated “S1D1” in a museum and it has the data plate on the blower housing. It is not surprising that a data plate could not be seen in the jungle darkness and inside the cowling. Somewhere though, the words “Pratt & Whitney” were seen. This could have been on the P&W badge, which was attached to the oil scavenge housing on the front of the engine or from a decal or from embossed writing on the crankcase. It may have been on the small metal tag he removed also. The Warrant Officer said that at the time he said to himself, “This thing is bloody old”. He was 27 years of age at the time.
The Corporal who first saw the engine, thought at first that it was a Japanese gun emplacement and he threw himself to the ground with rifle at the ready. As he focused on the mound in front of him he saw what looked to him like a three inch gun pointed at him. He described it as “a hollow tube pointing at me”. When nothing happened and his mind cleared he could see metal ahead and what looked like an engine. He signalled for the patrol leader to come forward. What he would have seen would have been the propeller pitch change tube without the front aluminium cover. This also points to corrosion in that the cover disc had dropped out.
The Lieutenant left the Warrant Officer to examine the engine and walked forwards about thirty yards to another large vine covered mound. Under the vines and tree debris he could see a metal structure and he climbed onto the Port (LH) wing close to the fuselage. He peered down into what would have been the cockpit area but saw nothing except jungle growth coming through from the bottom. He said to himself, “I hope there are no poor devils in there”. He described the cockpit area as being all smashed back to where he stood at the front of the wing. The left hand engine was gone but he could see the right hand engine. The right hand wingtip was bent upwards about ten feet from the tip. The fuselage height where he stood was at belt height. He cannot recall seeing the tail section or whether there were windows down the side of the fuselage. He did see a “round black and shiny” object lying on the wreckage. He also saw some glass.
The aircraft had no exterior paint and he did not see any letters or military markings on the wreckage. The fuselage height at where he stood is correct. The round black and shiny object would have been one of the balloon type low pressure tyres wet with rain. The cockpit area being smashed back would be typical of an Electra going into trees as the frontal area of the Electra was very lightly built and the damage would be stopped at the very large and substantial main spar where he stood. Being covered in leaf debris and vines he would not see “NR16020” on the right hand upper wing surface.
The hole in the canopy was described as round and 30 to 40 feet across. Normally when an aircraft goes into trees in a level attitude it leaves an elliptical or teardrop hole. This aircraft that they saw went into the trees at a steep angle. An Electra running out of gasoline would be a handful to keep in the air. Nowadays, the surviving Electras are fitted with fully feathering propellers. Earhart’s Electra did not have fully feathering propellers and out of gas, the propellers would windmill and cause very high drag. If the pitch levers were left in the coarse position (fully back) the propellers would also “hunt” from coarse pitch to fine pitch and back again as the windmilling propellers caused the engine to build up oil pressure which will send the propellers into coarse pitch, they slow down, oil pressure drops off and they go to fine again. This hunting would also cause the propellers to go out of synchronization and the aircraft would yaw violently. The pitch levers would best be put into fine pitch and the propellers would remain in fine pitch and the drag on the aircraft would be enormous but even on both sides. In order to prevent the stall, the aircraft would have to be pitched down, to maintain airspeed. All that can be hoped for when this happens is a severe pull out of the dive to crashland the aircraft on cleared ground. Over jungle this is not possible and a catastrophic entry into the trees is inevitable. The Electra would have had a steep glide angle to start with, under minimum power. Losing all power as described above would cause the Electra, if kept in the air, to have the capability of flying like a brick. Such a crash would not be survivable.
Documentary evidence comes to light.
In late 1993, a chance meeting between two veterans from the same Company, which had carried out the patrol, resulted in a wartime map being brought to light after 48 years. The edges of this map (the border areas) were folded over and taped down. The map, which is a U.S. Army produced map, showed the particular area where the Company patrol had operated in April 1945. After the Japanese surrender, the unit was at Rabaul in New Britain. This map had been taken from a map case, which was part of some discarded equipment when the Army Unit was at Rabaul. Orders had come through that the Battalion was to return to Australia and all equipment not needed was to be burnt. The Company Clerk opened the map case, took out the map, kept it as a souvenir and took it back to Australia. After meeting with the ex-Corporal who first saw the engine, the former Company Clerk posted the map to him, the ex-Corporal looked at it and put it with his other papers. I was to travel to Perth on Air Niugini business in August 1994. The map was retrieved and photocopied for me, but first, the tape was removed from the border areas and some indelible penciled writing came into view. This writing says:
GI/1009 SERET REF: 600H/P S3HI C/N1055 [24/5/45]
SITREP D COY PATROL Al
SEE SPECIL SITREPS 58, 59,61, 63, [63A] ATT: CAPT. MOTT.
We believe that this writing is part of the reply that came back from the U.S. Army but we do not know who jotted down this writing on the map. The date is five weeks after the Patrol A1 was completed. The writer would have been someone from “D” Company as the map was always in the possession of “D” Company personnel during the war and after the war.
This writing refers to “PATROL A1” by “D COY” (COY = Company) and is the patrol, which our veterans carried out. We have seen the situation reports (SITREPS) in the War Museum at Canberra, Australia, all except 63A, which was an Annex report and most probably referred to the engine. Sitrep 58 is the Patrol A1 departure signal, Sitrep 59 details the handing over of a radio on the second day of the patrol and the fact that the patrol were being followed by a larger Japanese patrol. Sitreps 61 and 63 are the patrol reports and as said 63A which has not been found yet, probably carried the detail of the find. Captain Mott was a Division Headquarters Staff Officer, a Topographer. We have only recently been able to contact the family of Captain Mott. His papers do not reveal any more detail. In 1945 he demanded that all future reports from the area be directed to him. We consider that the metal tag that the Warrant Officer removed from the engine mount immediately behind the engine was sent to the USAAF in April 1945.
I have been researching this Project for thirteen years. The significant content of the writing on the map is of course the “600H/P S3HI C/N1055". We believe that this three-group sequence is the detail from the metal tag removed from the engine mount by the Warrant Officer. This three group sequence translates as “600 Horsepower, Pratt & Whitney R-1340-S3H1, Constructor’s Number 1055". Of this group of three parameters, two are Engine parameters and one is an Airframe parameter. “Constructor’s No.1055” is the Airframe parameter and relates to “Model 10, 55th Built”. This Airframe constructor’s number does belong to Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 10E Electra aircraft. The project had the verbal evidence from the veterans and now had documentary evidence from the map as to the identity of the aircraft wreckage.
The significance of the evidence.
The question of how an “Airframe” construction number came to be on a metal tag removed from an “Engine” mount was a mystery to me at first until I realised that the aircraft in question, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 10E, was ground-looped at Luke Field, Ford Island, Honolulu, in March 1937. Then, Amelia was on her first attempt at flying around the world, West-about. She ground-looped the aircraft on take-off for Howland Island and it was severely damaged.
After the ground-loop in March 1937, the aircraft, in photographs, is shown resting on the ground on its’ belly with the No.2 Engine pointing skywards. There is a large pool of oil under the No.2 engine showing that the RHS engine mount must have collapsed completely, piercing or crushing the oil tank, which nestled within the mount, forward of the firewall. The No. 1 Engine is shown to be only slightly “out-of-line” and the engine mount on the No.1 has been pushed backwards buckling the firewall. Also, the LH Main wheel has buckled the outboard side of the nacelle in the area of where the engine mount tubing lower truss beam would be.
It is my contention that the No.2 Engine mount was destroyed but the No.1 Mount was recoverable if jigged and re-welded in a repair. It is typical of ground-loops, when the landing gear collapses and the propellers strike the ground at power, that engine mount trusses are bowed, bent or broken. We do know that during the repair, that the Electra was given a new mount for the No.2 Engine. That information is in records held by the former President of the AE Society, Mr. Bill Prymak, in Broomfield, Colorado. The President of the AE Society also confirms that in Lockheed documentation “C/N” does stand for “Construction Number”.
I have been in aircraft engineering for 50 years. I believe the Metal Tag, wired to the tubing on the detached engine and removed by the patrol Warrant Officer was a metal “Repair Tag”, which had been left on the engine mount truss after repair and re-installation. The leaving of repair tags on components does happen even today. In 1937, the aircraft was repaired where it had been made and workers at the Lockheed factory at Burbank would identify all components removed during the repair as from the build number,“C/N1055", not as from “NRl6020", the civil registration of the aircraft. Items sent for a gas flame welding shop repair would get fireproof metal tags not card tags, just as they would do today.
Of the writing on the border of the map, the Pratt & Whitney Wasp S3H1 variant is correct and the Construction Number 1055 is correct for Earhart’s Electra. 600 Horsepower is not correct for AE’s aircraft in 1937 as all books put the power at two 550 H.P. Pratt &Whitney R-1340 S3H1 Wasps. were, however, capable of 600 H.P. if 100 Octane gasoline was used. Earhart did use 100 Octane for Take-Off. However there might be another explanation as Pratt & Whitney raised the “official” horsepower rating to 600 H.P. in 1941 when 100 Octane was more freely available:
In 1937, using 80 and 87 Octane number fuels, the S3H1 Wasp engine was rated at 550 Horsepower with 600 H.P. being available for take-off if 100 Octane was used. When WWII came along, with it came the higher Octane number gasoline fuels. Available now in quantity, was 90, 97, 100, 115 and later 100/130 Octane aviation gasoline. In April 1941, Pratt & Whitney raised the general horsepower rating of the S3H1 from 550 H.P. to 600 H.P. A higher Octane rating fuel will increase what is known as the Brake Mean Effective Pressure (BMEP) in the cylinders and will increase the power of an engine. P & W did not modify the engine, the higher octane fuel gave the extra power. A quick analogy of this is that a normally quiet “street car” engine can be made to give extra power by adding chemicals to fuel to give a higher Octane number as is done in drag racing.
The writing on the map is dated 1945, so the rating of 600 H.P. for the S3H1 was correct for 1945 when the advice from the USAAF came back that the engine was “not one of theirs”. The US Army might ask themselves what the “current” rating for the engine was in 1945 and reply back with that information, as in:
“Reference your 600 Horsepower P & W S3H1 Wasp C/N 1055 that you found in the
jungle the other week…..”, abbreviated to the cryptic “Ref: 600H/P S3H1 C/N 1055”.
This explanation for the seemingly “incorrect” 600 H.P. is an acceptable explanation as although the 1937 S3H1 was rated at 600 H.P. for Take-off, the general “well known” rating was 550 H.P. It is possible that 600 H.P. was written on the metal tag due to the Take-off rating as all that the Burbank employees would want to know was “What is the engine type that mount is for ?” An S3H1 engine.
“Who does the S3H1 engine mount belong to ?” C/N 1055.
Our Project Group do not have an engine number as a data plate was not seen by the patrol Warrant Officer, we just have an Airframe Construction Number written on a map owned by “D” Company who carried out the patrol in April 1945. There is no possible way that an Australian infantryman would have known Earhart’s Electra 10E Airframe Construction Number. The numbers on the map have to be what the numbers were on the metal tag.
The U.S.A.A.F. do not recognize the evidence.
When the U.S. Army were informed of the find and the information from the metal tag was sent to them, how is it possible that they missed that it could be one of Amelia Earhart’s Wasp engines ? In April 1945, General Douglas MacArthur was already out of New Guinea, it was a backwater. The mopping up of Japanese forces was being left to the Australians while MacArthur went on to the Philippines. Major units of the U.S. 5th Air Force had already left. At that time there would have been many reports of wreckage found as army units advanced over former Japanese held territory. Somewhere in all of this is a report of an engine found on New Britain Island by Australians but as previously said the U.S. Army did not believe it was “one of theirs”.
Firstly, the “S3H1” was a Civil designation. In USAAF use the engine was known as an AN-1 engine.
Secondly, I believe that “C/Nl055" was misread as an engine Serial Number, “S/N1055", and this Serial Number would not appear in the Army G2 Intelligence Section Inventory Files as a military engine.
Thirdly, my research at the USAF Museum through a curator there, reveals that no AN-1 powered aircraft served in the South-West Pacific Area of Operations (SWPA).
Hence: The USAAC would say, “not one of ours”, “most probably from a civilian aircraft” and that they accepted "C/N 1055” as the engine serial number "S/N 1055".
In the 1930’s, Pratt & Whitney used to serialise their engines with the "Year" first, i.e; Earhart’s engines were S/N’s 6149 and 6150, made in 1936. An engine bearing a serial number (S/N) with a number "1" first, as in 1055, would have been made in 1931. Therefore the USAAC would say, "Not one of ours". There are no long enduring tales of losses of pre-World War Two civilian aircraft on New Britain in Papua New Guinea as it is today. Pre-war, most of the flying took place on the main part of Papua New Guinea, not out on the islands. As the Electra was a civilian aircraft the 1055 would not appear in Army inventory. If the tag had NR16020 written on it, they might have realized whose aircraft it was and I might not be writing this now.
Other aircraft and engines.
There were two Lockheed Model 10A aircraft in New Guinea operated by Guinea Airways and based at Lae. These aircraft had P & W R-985 engines of 450 H.P. and both these aircraft were evacuated to Australia at the outbreak of war in 1942 and one did return to New Guinea during the war for a very brief period. I have been unable to find any evidence that any other R-1340 S3H1 direct drive powered aircraft flew in New Guinea prior to WWII or during WWII. There were some Australian Wirraway aircraft powered by licence-built P & W R-1340 S3H1-G engines. There were seven of these at Rabaul when the Japanese invaded on 23 January 1942. Of these, five were shot down over Rabaul, two escaped to Port Moresby. One flew on to Australia and one remained in Moresby. These “G” engines, were a geared engine (they had a reduction gear at the front of the engine) and drove a three bladed propeller and developed 650 H.P. What we have is a twin-engined aircraft, the Wirraway was a single-engined aircraft. Other Wirraways operated in New Guinea but were not sent against Rabaul.
History and the effect of salt induced corrosion.
New Britain Island during the Second World War housed up to 100,000 Japanese. They invaded New Britain at Rabaul on 23rd January 1942. When the nacelled engine and airframe was found the Japanese had been on New Britain for 3 years and 3 months. Aerial activity against Rabaul started in 1942 with sporadic raids by four-engined Flying Fortress B-17’s operating from Australia and re-fuelling at Port Moresby. Major aerial hostility did not start until late 1942 when the U.S. 5th Air Force achieved a worthy strength and bases were opened up on New Guinea Territory. This wreckage find in 1945 was a bare aluminium nacelle and a bare aluminium airframe, wartime allied aircraft were camouflage painted. I have been into U.S.A.A.F. wreck sites (B-24’s) in Papua New Guinea and have seen wrecks of Japanese aircraft at their resting places. The museum in Port Moresby has aircraft out in the open. None exhibit the amount of corrosion as described by the Warrant Officer, “holed and filigreed”. It would be impossible for a wartime aircraft on New Britain to have corroded so badly after a maximum of three years. To be Amelia’s, it would have been there eight years. That bare aluminium cowling must have had a layer of impinged salt upon it to have been eaten away so badly. Three years is not really enough but eight years is plenty for the salt to eat through the cowl ring. AE was low over the sea after take-off from LAE until out of sight and she was also at 1000 feet whilst looking for HOWLAND Island. Even today, WWII aircraft cowlings out in the open at Kokopo, near Rabaul, in the Museum there, close to the sea, do not exhibit that kind of corrosion.
Fuel and Weather.
Fuel and weather, of course, are critical to this project. It is generally accepted that the aircraft left LAE with 1100 U.S. Gallons of fuel at 0000GMT on 2nd July 1937. Lockheed say that the aircraft would be held at 8,000 feet for ten hours when we know that Amelia used to climb straight through to 10,000 feet where she would burn less fuel than the Lockheed figures. Amelia’s weather forecast was for an Easterly wind of 12-15MPH when we can deduce from the position report at the Nukumanu Islands before nightfall, that the wind must have been Easterly at 24MPH minimum at 7,000 feet at that point, double the low-end forecast. Amelia did indeed report a 25mph wind at Nukumanu but did not state the direction.
It can be demonstrated that Amelia’s practical use of the aircraft on a flight from Oakland to Honolulu on the first World Flight attempt used far less fuel than Lockheed say should have been used. Lockheed say that for the first 14 hours of this flight in the Climb/Cruise phase, the Electra should have used 714 USG. My research and figures show that the Electra could have used around 577 USG in these 14 hours which is a 19% saving in fuel. One other researcher states that he believes the saving was around 10%. This saving will obviously increase the range of the aircraft. This percentage or a savings percentage figure such as this will only increase as the aircraft burns off fuel and becomes lighter and then can be expressed as less power required for a given airspeed.
After her reporting point at Nukumanu, she climbed a further 3,000 feet or 5,000 feet to either 10,000 feet or to 12,000 feet depending on which reports one believes. At higher altitude, the wind strength would have been a new figure, different than the 25 mph wind stated at Nukumanu. It can be shown that at whichever altitude the Electra cruised, the wind was a minimum of 35MPH on the nose when she reached a USCG cutter named the “Ontario”. AE was now night flying and very unlikely to attempt a change in altitude. Because of the timing of the transmission made at 1030GMT, which said “ship (or lights) in sight”, the wind could have been even greater in strength. Because of her groundspeed at Nukumanu of 128MPH, the light seen at 1030GMT could not have been the SS Myrtlebank or the Nauru Island light as the groundspeed rate of increase required would have been impossible to attain with the headwind. The distance of 520 statute miles from Nukumanu to a possible glimpse of the Nauru light at a distance of 40 statute miles would have required a groundspeed at the Nauru light of some 220MPH after the 3 hours and 10 minutes between Nukumanu and the radio call. Similarly impossible, for the lights to have been the SS Myrtlebank. The lights seen, must have been the USCG Ontario positioned 1278 miles from Lae at half distance to Howland. The Electra was late at the Ontario and her average groundspeed at that point was only 120 mph after ten and a half hours..
Note: Further to the wind speed as shown above, an Air Niugini pilot ferrying an aircraft from the U.S. to P.N.G. told me he received a quartering tailwind of 40 Knots in this same area on the delivery flight in mid-year. He was flying from Tarawa to Port Moresby at 14,000 feet. Another pilot flying a light twin from the Solomon Islands to Nauru, recently told me that in August 1992 he had a headwind of 30-35 knots from the NE at 10,000 feet and had to descend to 1500 feet where the wind was less at 15 Knots. Those large value headwinds are there, in the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).
The Contingency Plan.
The combination of a headwind of greater strength on the way out, no Astro Navigation, failure to reach anywhere close to Howland after searching for one hour, says that Amelia would have invoked her contingency plan. I say no Astro Navigation because if Noonan had achieved star shots through the night he would have known where they were, their groundspeed and the wind speed. A further star shot just before dawn, would have given him his last good fix and then for him it would have been a simple matter to Dead Reckon onto Howland Island. The contingency plan, found in Gene Vidal’s papers was to turn back for the large spread of the Gilbert Islands and to put the Electra down on a cleared area, a beach or ditch close to shore. No wreckage was found or has been found on the Gilbert Islands. As to the position that Amelia and Fred thought that they were at, when the 1912GMT radio call, “We must be on you but cannot see you…” was made, it tells us that AE & FN thought they were at or lateral to, Howland Island. In invoking their contingency plan to return to the Gilberts they would not start looking for the Gilbert Islands for two and a half hours, by which time they would have over-flown these islands. Trans-Pacific pilots tell me that the Gilberts are difficult to pick out anyway, due to cloud shadow. With a lower than published fuel consumption, and the now tailwind at altitude of 20MPH or more the aircraft would have had a groundspeed of at least 200MPH. A return to New Britain is feasible. Rabaul on New Britain had the only two airstrips between Lae, the take-off point and Howland Island, the destination. These airfields were Lakunai and Vunakanau. There were no others at all. The Electra was a landplane not a seaplane. Amelia would have known about these two airstrips as she had conversed with Guinea Airways staff at Lae and had also queried Governments on available landing grounds on the world track or close to it. Amelia would also consider that she had wrecked the aircraft once that year but that if she could make Rabaul, the aircraft and crew would be saved. By climbing higher, by leaning off the fuel by use of the mixture control, by using full throttle and full coarse pitch she can economise further on fuel. By doing this, the cylinder head temperatures would rise and prolonged use of a weakened mixture would damage the engines in the long run but this is a small sacrifice to be paid for saving the aircraft. Cylinders and valves can be replaced, airframes are more costly.
The US Navy file records a radio call.
There is one radio call, which seemingly to other researchers, has no bearing on the matter. This is a radio call made public by the author, Fred Goerner, who found the item tucked away in a US Navy file. The call was made at 0030GMT and dated as 2nd July 1937. The call was, “Land in sight ahead….” and was only heard by the Nauru Radio operator who said that the voice sounded the same as the voice he had heard the night previous. The call time and date in the Eastern Hemisphere makes no sense as Earhart had departed Lae only one half hour before. The US Navy, however, would date the call in the Western Hemisphere and 2nd July is 3rd July in the Eastern Hemisphere. 0030GMT on the 3rd July is around 11:00am local time on Nauru. On my plot at that time, the Electra is within fifty miles of Banaba (Ocean) Island, on the way back.
The search area.
My group, have had ten attempts at finding this wreckage in the jungle since 1994. In 1945, the wreckage was covered by vines. As the tree canopy rejuvenates and closes over after a period of years, the vines covering the wreckage theoretically should die back. We have been hoping to “bump” into the wreckage the same way that the Australian Soldiers did in 1945. In April/May of 1997, a Tropical Cyclone named “Justin” went through the area and has blown down dozens of trees and they are piled up on the target hillsides, the loggers have been in there also on the ridges and have made a terrible mess. Our last attempt was in June 2006. The search area and the damaged areas are turning into Secondary jungle making a ground search virtually impossible. We need modern technology on the job and for that we need sponsorship for a Magnetometer Survey of the area. A Magnetometer will find the engines. A worldwide Geological Survey Group based in Perth, Western Australia, have told us that they would be able to find the engines down to a depth of eighty feet. I doubt that the engines would be buried that deep if they are buried. The search area is up a river valley about 40 statute miles from Rabaul.
I have been trying to get the attention of prospective sponsors who would listen to this very intriguing story for some time now. We have the descriptive evidence of the patrol veterans and the documented evidence on the map. This is more than anyone else has. Richard Gillespie of TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) has been able to attract and spend more than US$3.6 Million looking on Nikomuroro Island in the Phoenix Group on a bare hypothesis only. He has not turned up any evidence which can be proven to be connected with the Electra. We need US$100,000.00 as a minimum to find the New Britain wreckage, but more would be nice, as, if I cannot pinpoint it with that kind of money, people will say “It is not there”.
We believe Amelia and Fred would have had little choice but to turn onto their reciprocal course and hope to make landfall before the fuel ran out. On realising the tailwind after a series of sunshots, Fred figures that they might possibly make Rabaul and save the aircraft. In emergency, with low fuel, there are islands before Rabaul to crashland upon. The round trip needed is around 4200 miles, they had already done about 2400. The 10E had a still air stated range of 4000 miles with judicious fuel management. With an average 35 mph headwind for the last 9 hours of the outward sector the 10E should not have been closer than 120-150 miles from Howland. This puts the return sector at around 1800 to 1900 miles. With a possible climb to 12,000 feet or more and a leaned off mixture the aircraft return is feasible with a tailwind. Amelia did fly the aircraft at 12,000 feet in the United States, she would know what the fuel usage would be. I believe there would have been around 300 US Gallons on the aircraft after the search for Howland.
At 0030GMT and realising that the island they could see was Banaba Island (formerly Ocean Island), Amelia could have done what she did on the Oakland to Honolulu flight in March 1937 by easing the speed back to 120mph IAS on the ASI and with a tailwind of 25-30 mph she can easily do 145-150 mph groundspeed. After eight and a half hours she will be in the vicinity of Rabaul.
I have released most of what we have which is the visual sighting and the detail on the map. The details of significance of the evidence and the flight into a greater than known headwind and the return in a tailwind, are what I have worked out. Although the World Flight attempt failed due to the circumstances as described the fact remains that human beings will strive to save themselves and their means of survival when their plight is desperate. Amelia had a contingency plan, so that she knew that they might not find Howland Island all those years ago.
I have tried to show here, within this story, that there is merit in continuing to search for this aircraft wreckage in New Britain, which I firmly believe is the elusive Electra.