Friday, July 14, 2017

Chronicle of a flight foretold

How Amelia Earhart and Brad Washburn went their separate ways

Surfing the current vogue for alternative facts, the History Channel recently revived a hoary old theory that the pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart crash-landed on the Marshall Islands and was taken prisoner by the Japanese military. An old photo was cited as evidence – which was swiftly debunked by a blogger, who pointed out that the photo was taken two years before Earhart vanished midway through her round-the-world flight.

Amelia Earhart in 1937, standing in front of her Lockheed Electra
(Photo: Wikipedia/Smithsonian)
By coincidence, exactly when the History Channel was airing its programme, Project Hyakumeizan was reading a biography of the inspirational Bradford Washburn, explorer and mountaineer. Washburn was also a qualified pilot and, when he got the chance to hear about Earhart's plans, this enabled him to predict with some accuracy how the flight would end. Here is the story in his own words.

One day l got a phone call from George Putnam, my old publisher, and he asked me to come to his house in Rye, New York. He was married to the famous pilot Amelia Earhart, who was planning to fly around the world. He called to ask me to spend the weekend with them, but said only that they had "something very interesting to discuss" with me.

I had never met Amelia, and found her just as charming and pleasant as I had heard she was. And she looked exactly as she had in all the pictures I had seen: tousled hair, boyish smile, pullover sweater, relaxed, informal, delightful. All supper, Amelia told me that she was putting together plans for a round-the-world flight in the summer of 1937, and that she was interviewing a number of people as possible navigators. They talked a lot about her plans, and threw out some ideas about the trip ...

After supper we spread out a mass of maps on the living room floor, and Amelia and I sat on the floor while she described her plan in great detail. I saw a key flaw in her plan for navigation between Darwin, Australia, and Howland Island. (Howland Island is a sliver of land in an immense mass of trackless ocean about a mile and a half long and a half mile wide.) I asked her how she planned to hit it at the end of a two thousand-mile flight without a single, intermediate emergency landing spot. She replied: dead reckoning, and star and sun sights. We never even got to discussing where she was going to land: on a beach, or a small, specially prepared field. At that point I thought the problem wasn't landing, it was how to get there.

They made it seem as if they might be sounding out my interest to be the navigator, and people later said, "You turned her down." I said, "Nothing of the sort." She may have had that in mind, but it certainly was not expressed to me in that way ....

The big discussion that I got involved in was locating Howland Island. I said, "The one part of this flight that I'm very scared about, if I were to be involved, would be how you are going to find Howland Island." From Darwin, Australia, it was a thousand-mile leg. I knew that that the airplane flew most economically to conserve fuel at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Suppose you got out there after a thousand miles. You knew the chances were very high that you'd have fractocumulus clouds- a mass of small, ragged clouds torn loose from cumulus clouds - each throwing a shadow on the surface of the water. Well, as you neared where you thought Howland Island ought to be, based on the passage of time, some of those clouds might begin to look like Howland Island. 

What you needed was a radio on Howland Island. If you had somebody there who could talk to you on the radio, and let you know your position, that would be a big help. Or if you just had something that sent a signal, dah-di-dah, dah-di-da, all day long, you could home in on that point. Without that, you needed to see the island to locate it. If you went down under the fractocumulus clouds and there wasn't an island, it was just a shadow, that would force you to fly back up to 12,000 feet, wasting a lot more fuel.

I told her, "You've got to have a radio on Howland Island." Amelia insisted that it wasn't necessary. I said that a big, complex radio installation wasn't at all necessary, just an automatic signal sent out continually. Any sort of signal that you could pick up with a Radio Direction Finder. If she had asked for a young radioman to do this she would have had hundreds of volunteers in a moment. In fact, she was so popular that I'm sure she would have found a score of very competent operators who would have paid her for the fun and privilege of doing it.

And that's where our discussion ended. When I finished, George made a comment I will never forget: "If you're going to all that trouble to get a radio there, the book will not be out for Christmas sales." He was essentially using Amelia's flight as a promotion for the book he was going to publish.

Amelia had no response to what I'd said. She didn't say, "I don't agree," or "I don't like that." Nothing. I went back home to Boston and never heard from George Putnam or Amelia Earhart again. As navigator, she chose Fred Noonan, a fellow who had navigated for Pan American's Pacific flights.

In 1937, flying from Burwash Landing to Fairbanks with the famous pilot Joe Crosson, I heard the news that Amelia Earhart had disappeared. As far as we know, Amelia and her navigator never made it to Howland Island. Why she refused to bring a copilot, why her radio planning and execution were so unsatisfactory, nobody will ever know. If I'd been asked, I'd have refused to go under the conditions planned. And a navigator who was far more experienced than I failed to do the job with the equipment at hand. Amelia Earhart's greatest liability was probably her extraordinary optimism, which in this situation exceeded the bounds of reason.

Perhaps the calumnious conspiracy theory about Earhart’s disappearance can now be ditched for good and all.


Bradford Washburn, An Extraordinary Life: The Autobiography of a Mountaineering Icon