Amelia Earhart Distress Call Details Emerge

Lawrence LeBlond for

New details about the last moments of legendary aviator Amelia Earhart´s fateful voyage to fly around the world at the equator have emerged, adding to the evidence that she didn´t just vanish off the face of the Earth.

Dozens of radio signals that were previously dismissed have been found to be credible transmissions from the famed pilot just after her Lockheed Model 10E “Electra“ went down on July 2, 1937, according to a new study.

It has been generally accepted that Earhart´s plane simply ran out of fuel and crashed in the Pacific as she searched for Howland Island, the final refueling stop before flying on to Honolulu and then California.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), the group planning an expedition to search for the lost crash site and final resting place of Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan, said the radio transmissions entered the air waves just hours after Earhart sent out her last in-flight message.

TIGHAR presented their findings during a three-day conference last week in Arlington, Virginia. Among the discoveries: a small broken cosmetic jar found on an uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, which the group believes proves where Amelia Earhart´s plane went down nearly 75 years ago.

The cosmetic jar, when reassembled, looks eerily similar to that of Dr. C H Berry´s Freckle Ointment. The ointment was marketed in the early 20th century as a concoction guaranteed to make freckles fade.

“It´s well documented Amelia had freckles and disliked having them,” said Joe Cerniglia, the TIGHAR researcher who spotted the freckle ointment as a possible match. The ointment jar was found along with several other artifacts during TIGHAR´s nine expeditions made to the uninhabited island in the Pacific.

TIGHAR is now about to begin a high-tech underwater search for parts of the plane in July, marking the 75th anniversary of Earhart´s disappearance.

“Amelia Earhart did not simply vanish on July 2, 1937. Radio distress calls believed to have been sent from the missing plane dominated the headlines and drove much of the US Coast Guard and Navy search,” Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR, told Discovery News.

“When the search failed, all of the reported post-loss radio signals were categorically dismissed as bogus and have been largely ignored ever since,” he added.

Now, using a series of tools, models, and other high-tech equipment, TIGHAR was able to examine the 120 known reports of radio signals suspected to have been sent from Earhart´s plane within hours after the crash on July 2, 1937 through July 18, 1937, when the official search ended. The examinations conclude that 57 of the 120 signals are credible.

“The results of the study suggest that the aircraft was on land and on its wheels for several days following the disappearance,” said Gillespie.

During her scheduled approach of Howland Island at 07:42 a.m. local time on July 2, 1937, Earhart called the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed at Howland for flight support.

“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,” said Earhart.

Her final in-flight message came one hour later at 08:43 a.m.

“We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait,” she said.

TIGHAR said the numbers 157 and 337 refer to compass headings and describe a navigational line that passed not only Howland Island, but also Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro. This uninhabited island is where TIGHAR believes Earhart and Noonan landed after running out of fuel, and where they died as castaways.

TIGHRA theorizes that Earhart made several days of radio transmissions before the plane washed over the reef and disappeared before searchers flew over the area.

After analyzing all the post-loss radio signals, the recovery group was able to build a detailed catalog of all the credible signals based on their frequencies. Transmissions from Earhart´s Electra were possible on three primary frequencies: 3105 kHz, 6210 kHz and 500 kHz. The 500kHz frequency gave no credible post-loss signals, however.

During her world flight, Earhart transmitted on 3105 kHz at night, and 6210 kHz during daylight, using her 50-watt WE-13C transmitter. While the Itasca transmitted on 3105 kHz, it did not have voice capability on 6210 kHz. Itasca reported hearing signals on only one occasion at night on 3105 kHz frequency.

TIGHAR found that three 50-watt Morse code radio stations in Nicaragua could be heard on a receiver tuned to 3105 kHz, but those stations sent only code, and no voice. And furthermore, all transport aircraft in the area used assigned route frequencies, instead of 3105 kHz.

“Therefore, other than Itasca, Earhart´s Electra was the only plausible central Pacific source of voice signals on 3105 kHz,” said Gillespie.

But, in order to make multiple transmissions, the Electra plane needed to run the right-hand, generator-equipped engine to recharge the batteries. “The safest procedure is to transmit only when the engine is running, and battery power is required to start the engine,” said Gillespie. “To run the engine, the propeller must be clear of obstructions, and water level must never reach the transmitter.”

TIGHAR researchers analyzed tidal conditions on the island from 2 to 9 July 1937, following Earhart´s disappearance, to verify that transmissions could be made from the plane if it did in fact land on Nikumaroro´s reef. They found that credible transmissions occurred in periods during which the water level on the reef was low enough to permit engine operation.

Of the 57 credible signals picked out from the host of 120, four are of particular interest to Gillespie, mainly because they were picked up by more than one station.

The first signal came through within 5 hours after the plane went missing. It was received by Itasca and two other ships: the HMS Achilles, and the SS New Zealand Star.

Credible signals were also picked up from other locations in the US, Canada, and the central Pacific, with witnesses reported hearing a woman´s call for help, adding she spoke in English and in some cases said her name was Amelia Earhart.

A notable signal was received on July 5, 1937 by the US Navy Radio at Wailupe, Honolulu: “281 north Howland – call KHAQQ – beyond north — won´t hold with us much longer — above water — shut off.” The message, however, was somewhat distorted.

Gillespie said the re-analysis of the credible post loss signals supports TIGHAR´s theory that they were sent by Earhart´s Electra aircraft from a point on the Nikumaroro reef, roughly a quarter mile north of the British SS Norwich City shipwreck.

“The results of the study show a body of evidence which might be the forgotten key to the mystery,” said Gillespie to Discovery’s Rossella Lorenzi.

His TIGHAR expedition, setting sail from Honolulu on July 2, the 75th anniversary of Amelia Earhart´s disappearance, will be the group´s tenth voyage to the remote island trying to solve the mystery. Unlike previous missions to the island, in which the team investigated the island itself, this one will focus on the plane´s possible final resting place — at the bottom of the Nikumaroro reef.

Talking about the expedition in March, Gillespie said: “Targets will be identified using high resolution, side scan sonar mounted on an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). Finally, we will investigate suspicious looking targets using a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) with dual manipulators and color video camera system and lights.”

The expedition has the support of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the State Department. She met with historians and scientists from TIGHAR on March 20, noting just how pertinent this search is to Americans, saying that Earhart went missing when the country was in the grips of the Great Depression.

“Now Amelia Earhart may have been an unlikely heroine for a nation down on its luck, but she embodied the spirit of an America coming of age and increasingly confident, ready to lead in a quite uncertain and dangerous world,” she said. “When she took off on that historic journey she carried the aspirations of our entire country with her,” Clinton said.