December 4, 2000
In the 'Whereabouts' of Amelia Earhart's Last Radio Message"
Two days before we got to Howland Island I wrote the following to my wife:
"We've arrived at a stretch of water in the middle of the vast Pacific-an area so absent of features of interest to lovers of maps that it is often where the Analemma, that strangely flattened figure of eight, is printed on globes: no land, no current or wind lines of special note, no intersections of the dateline with important longitude lines such as the equator or either tropic, no site of some famous sea battle, or the tragic sinking of some ocean liner, but the locus of a mystery, a 'whereabouts': the area in which Amelia Earhart was flying while searching desperately for Howland Island (a tiny, difficult-to-find refueling stop on her route around the world) and the 'whereabouts' from which she radioed her final message.
God, it's a vast and lonely place out here. Back in 1937, even had she survived a ditching she would have stood no real chance. Even today you'd feel very lucky to receive help in time. This is about the remotest region of the earth's surface to which I've ever been, and I've been to many remote places. Given the primitive navigational aids and flying conditions of the late thirties, to even consider flying into it in staggers the imagination, and drives the whole thing off even the scale of highest-challenges. Howland Island' nearest neighbor, Baker island is 37 miles away. The next nearest is 330 miles off. That makes Howland Island a particularly dangerous destination to have chosen, given its tiny size, its great isolation, and the fact that it was near the limit of Earhart's fuel range-a bad combination. The most realistic current theory is that the chart she had on board, placed Howland island in the wrong position. If true, it means that from the moment she bought that chart she never really had a chance.
We are on an expedition around the world, just as Amelia Earhart was. And in spite of the 63 years that have passed since her fatal attempt there is no substantive difference between many of the preparations we had to make for our round-the-world trip in the Odyssey and the preparations she must have made for her round-the-world trip in the Lockheed Electra. So I feel confident that I know the kinds of steps she had to carry out and the check lists she had to make while preparing for that trip. She would have spent days checking exhaustively every last detail of what she was taking: fuel, food, clothing, emergency gear, radio gear, a few critical spare parts, survival rations, flares, charts, navigation instruments, and so on. We did the same, but I never once had to give even the most passing thought to whether the charts I bought for the expedition actually showed things in their correct places. It was safe to assume that if they did not the errors would be small, and we would have plenty of time to figure out whatever mistakes they contained when we got close enough to detect them-a relaxed attitude that comes from being in a boat with a good radar, where you usually have plenty of time to figure out the charts' mistakes, make the necessary corrections, and avoid any bad consequences. But in Amelia Earhart's day any significant chart errors would have been fatal, because by the time she discovered them she would be in her plane with its fuel nearly gone, a faulty radio (as it turned out), and not enough time to correct mistakes before the terrible silence occurred when the engines stopped running and the plane started its final glide into the sea.
Because Earhart was one of the very first to attempt long over ocean flights, I wonder if she or Fred Noonan, her Navigator, gave sufficient thought to the accuracy of their charts? Though I suppose they did, I still wonder if either checked to be sure of the exact positions of crucial destinations like Howland Island-by seeking and obtaining the calculated latitudes and longitudes for them (along with their confidence intervals) rather than just relying on reading them off the chart. Perhaps they did so; I don't know.
Think of the weight of responsibility that chart makers and surveying engineers have, when any one of them may have killed a nation's sweetheart by an error in calculation, or a careless mistake in reading a sextant, theodolyte, or chronometer. And imagine the possibility that any of these people may have awakened to that fact during some later night of their lives.
Those of us who spend much of our lives at sea should all perhaps be more aware of how much we depend on the accuracy of calculations made by chains of people on land whom we have never met-many of whom may have died a hundred years ago, yet whose calculations (on which our lives so utterly depend) were made by means we would consider unacceptably error-prone today."
© 2000 - Roger Payne