The purpose of this book is to help you secure a good education for your child from early childhood through the eighth grade. As far as learning goes, these years are far and away the most important. They are the time when children acquire the bricks and mortar of a solid education -- the knowledge, skills, habits, and ideals that will serve as the foundation of learning and character throughout their lives. If that edifice is solid by the end of eighth grade, then a student's future is bright indeed. If poorly constructed, the outlook is much dimmer.
Our aim is three-fold. First, we hope to remind parents of their own responsibilities in educating their children. There are few secrets to raising good students. What needs to be done is mostly a matter of common sense. But there is much you can do, and a few things that you must do, to see that your child learns well.
Second, this book will help you determine whether your school is doing a good job. Many parents assume that their children's schools maintain high expectations and offer a quality education. They naturally want to believe that the academic program is strong. Our message to you is: "Trust but verify." The reality is that too many American schools are not doing right by their pupils. In the coming chapters, you'll find some tools you can use to figure out whether your child is truly getting a good education, and some suggestions about how to correct problems at school.
Third, this book paints a fairly detailed picture of what a well-educated child knows and can do. For much of American history, there existed the idea of a "good education." It meant possessing certain knowledge and skills, and behaving in a certain way. Today, regrettably, such a vision is missing from many schools. They are reluctant to specify the lessons that all children should learn. This is a shame, because some things are more important to know than others.
This book helps you know what to look for in a good education. It reminds you of what to stand for as a parent, and what you should not stand for. It draws on common sense, the experience of many teachers and parents, the wisdom of the ages, and much of the best available research. We can all use allies in our efforts to raise children. Think of this book as an ally to help you keep yourself, your child, and your school on track.
You Are Your Child's Most Important Teacher
There is an old saying that a parent's heart is the child's schoolroom. Your dreams, your efforts, your examples and loving exhortations -- these set the boundaries of your child's education. The seminal lessons taught in the home stay with children as they make their way through school and life, shaping their interests, ideals, and enthusiasm for learning. Parents are children's first and most important teachers. Raising your child is your number one job. Seeing that he gets a good education is, in many respects, the crux of that task.
The pressures of time, work, and competing interests tempt us to hand more and more of our educational responsibilities to others. Parents often get a subtle, alluring, but deeply damaging message from today's culture: your role is not quite so important after all. You can delegate. You can outsource. Children will suffer no harm -- in fact, they may reap some benefits -- when they get more of their care and guidance from others. Specialists and experts can fill in for you, pay attention for you, make decisions for you, give guidance where you cannot. Let others take charge of education: curriculum directors, counselors, child care professionals, even children themselves. It is a seductive siren song. It gives the green light for surrendering part of a sacred duty.
You must resist these temptations. For good or ill, you are always your child's most influential teacher. Even when he reaches school age, you are still the dean-at-home, the chief academic officer. The more involved you are, the better your child's chances of getting a good education. If you begin to remove yourself from the learning process, those chances start to plummet. If you turn over your most important responsibilities to others, you may doom his school career. That amounts to educational abandonment, a pernicious form of child neglect. You need to be in charge of your child's education. So take charge.
Several critical elements can come only from you. First among these is your love. The psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner says that the one indispensable condition for a child's successful upbringing is that at least one adult must have a deep and irrational attachment to him. In other words, someone must be absolutely crazy about that child. Children are put on this earth to be loved. They need unconditional devotion (not unconditional approval). When they grow up knowing that an adult is always there as guardian angel and guide, they thrive. When they sense that such devotion is missing, things can begin to go terribly wrong with their educations and their lives.
Your attitude about education is another key predictor of academic success. Your child looks to you for cues about what is important in life. He is always watching for your approval or disapproval, for your interest or indifference. If you care, he cares. If he sees that you value learning, he will probably do the same. If he observes you putting education second or third, he may not take his schoolwork seriously. Consistent reinforcement means everything. The messages you send determine in no small way how well your child reads, writes, and thinks. Every morning, you must send him off to school with a good night's sleep, a decent breakfast, and a positive attitude toward learning.
Instilling the highest ideals is crucial: Belief in the value of hard work. A strong sense of responsibility. A willingness to keep trying until success finally comes. Respect for legitimate authority. Such traits are the engines that power learning at school, in college, and in life. Academic success depends on them. Transmission of these virtues is more than just part of the territory of parenthood. It is a fundamental obligation.
Your expectations are all important. Children strive to clear the bars that their parents set. So long as those standards are fair and reasonable, they help kids flourish. Parents' expectations determine whether children finish homework on time and study for tests. They separate good students from bad. They help set the course of life. It is said that Abraham Lincoln's mother told him over and over again what kind of good, hardworking man she hoped he would become. Many years later Lincoln observed, "All that I am, and all that I hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." Setting standards for children is not placing a burden on them. It is an expression of love and confidence.
Good students usually come from homes where moms and dads have tried to create a rich learning environment. They've stimulated their children's curiosity by showing them that the world is a fascinating place and helping them explore it. This does not require you to spend lots of money or have a degree in education. It mostly consists of seeing that your child grows up with interesting things to do. It means reading aloud to him, and listening to him read aloud. It means playing games, asking and answering questions, explaining things as best you can. It means exposing him to varied experiences and visiting places together -- taking walks in the woods, working in the garden, occasionally going to a museum or monument. Such activities turn children into curious students.
Education success comes from putting enough time into the right work. What one spends time on is what one ends up knowing. If your child spends endless hours playing video games, he will know all the ins and outs of video games. If he spends time on math and science, then that's what he will know. Academic achievement also hinges, to no small degree, on the time you devote to education. If you spend time helping your loved one learn to read, master those multiplication tables, and listen carefully when others are talking, his chances of doing well in school are much better.
Know what your child is doing -- where he is, who his friends are, what books he reads, what movies he sees. Keep track of schoolwork -- what he is learning, whether he's finishing his assignments, if he's prepared for that upcoming test. The parents of good students keep an eye on what the school teaches. They have a sense of the expectations it maintains, the discipline it requires. Your child's education demands your vigilance. You must stay alert. No one else will do it for you. When a parent's attention wanders, a child may quickly veer off the learning track. It may be harder than you think to get him back on.
You teach by example. Aesop tells a wonderful fable about a crab and his son scurrying over the sand. The father chastised his child: "Stop walking sideways! It's much more becoming to stroll straightforward." The young crab replied: "I will, father dear, just as soon as I see how. Show me the straight way, and I'll walk in it behind you." There is nothing like the quiet power of intellectual example and moral example. Parents teach in everything they do. More often than not, your child will walk it the way you walk it.
For most moms and dads, faith is a crucial part of education. Believing that children are moral and spiritual beings, they want their loved ones to be educated in a way that reflects those beliefs. Public schools, by law, cannot be of help in the inculcation of faith. But there are other institutions -- churches, synagogues, mosques, and of course religious schools -- that can be critical teachers. Bear in mind that religious training can help young people become better students, and there is ample evidence that faith safeguards children from threats that wreck educations at an early age, such as drugs, alcohol, and sexual experimentation.
The rules you maintain lie at the foundations of a good education -- rules such as "All schoolwork must be finished before you talk to your friends on the phone," and "Always speak politely to teachers." Without clear direction from parents, most students do not know how to conduct themselves.
Rules about television are especially critical to academic success. In this country, television has become an enemy of education. In many homes, it is a constant interference with learning. Television is not only a distraction and sometimes a cesspool, but watching it also means your child is losing the opportunity to do something more valuable. Almost anything else -- reading, exercising, playing a game, talking with parents, even sleeping -- is a better use of your child's time. The research is clear: excessive television hurts a youngster's school achievement. A TV set on all the time is a sign of parental indifference. Yes, there is some good TV, but if you care about education, your youngster cannot sit slack-jawed hour after hour in front of the tube.
These, then, are the fundamentals. Your love. Your attitude about education. Your efforts to stimulate your child's curiosity. Your ideals, rules, and expectations. The time and attention you pay, and the examples you set. These themes are at the core of this book. They are necessary ingredients on your end. They do not guarantee academic achievement, but they make it much more likely. They put your child's education in the hands best able to direct it: yours.
Lessons That Good Schools Teach
Parents often attach the most importance to higher education, yet elementary school has a far greater impact. Except for family and church, no institution is so influential. We ask elementary schools to help shape our students' first and lasting ideas about themselves, their country, and the world. We expect them to teach basic knowledge and nourish the appetite for learning. In the K-8 years, children gain -- or fail to gain -- skills they will need throughout their educations and careers. They develop habits and values they will carry the rest of their days. Elementary school is an invitation and encouragement to a fulfilled life. In educational significance, its mission dwarfs all others.
The authors have visited hundreds of schools across the country. We have learned that good elementary schools share a certain character or ethos. They teach certain lessons and uphold certain ideals. It takes no expertise to recognize whether a school is doing right by its students. You can begin to get a good sense of it just by spending a little time in its classrooms and corridors.
Good schools attend to the basic subjects: English, history, geography, math, science, art, and music. They focus on these academic fundamentals. They don't clutter the curriculum with so many other topics that the basics get pushed aside. Students know that learning this core curriculum is serious business.
Good elementary schools concentrate on essential skills. Perhaps most of all, that means teaching students how to comprehend the written word. Reading is the heart and soul of elementary education. If a child goes on to high school unable to read fluently, his chances for academic success are in great peril. Other vital skills also need to be mastered before eighth grade. We expect elementary schools to teach children to speak and write well; to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and measure things; to think logically and clearly; to ask good questions, analyze problems, and search for correct answers.
Knowledge is just as important as skills. Good elementary schools recognize that there are some facts and ideas that all American students should know. For example, they teach students what a right triangle is, what happened in 1776, where the earth is in our solar system, what a Trojan horse is. Good schools spell out for parents the fundamental knowledge they intend to transmit. Teaching it is serious work, not a chance by-product of learning skills.
Elementary schools hold the responsibility of transmitting to each new generation what may be called our "common culture," the things that bind Americans together as one people. In its highest form, this common culture is the sum of our intellectual inheritance, our legacy from all the ages that have gone before us. It is the knowledge, ideas, and aspirations that shape our understanding of who we are as a people. Our common culture is found in documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence; in principles such as the belief that all men are created equal; and in events from our past, such as the landings of the Mayflower at Plymouth and the Eagle on the moon. It lies in great stories and poems, such as Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus." Americans of all backgrounds want schools to acquaint children with our common legacy. As the journalist Walter Lippmann once observed, no culture can survive that is ignorant of its own traditions.
Teaching cultural literacy is part of the effort of raising good citizens. This task, too, belongs in considerable part to the elementary school: to help lay the groundwork for young people's eventual entry into the democratic community of responsible adults. Teachers acquaint pupils with their rights as well as their duties to their fellow citizens and their country. Teddy Roosevelt once said that "the first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his own weight." Good schools teach such civic virtues. They help children learn to live up to their obligations, not to shrink from toil, and to give others the respect they are due. They teach them to recognize America's faults, but also to offer this country the great honor it deserves. They help children become, in Madison's words, "loving critics."
In that vein, good elementary schools help parents develop character in children. They never lose sight of the fact that the formation of intellect and character go hand in hand. In training young hearts and minds toward the good, they make conscious efforts to inculcate virtues such as self-discipline, diligence, perseverance, and honesty. Teachers cultivate these traits largely through the formation of habits: getting to class on time, being thorough about assignments, saying "Yes, Ma'am" and "Yes, Sir" to teachers, cleaning up after oneself. They offer lessons that appeal to children's moral imaginations. They help students come to know virtue.
These are lessons that good elementary schools must teach. Our system of education is like a pyramid. Success at each level -- high school, college, and beyond -- depends on earlier preparation. Mediocrity at any stage will diminish possibilities for the next. A cracked foundation threatens the whole.
Will Your School Educate Your Child Well?
It is well documented that many U.S. schools are not meeting today's challenges. Surveys and test scores are disheartening. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that fewer than one third of fourth graders are "proficient" readers. Nearly 40 percent read below the "basic" level, which means they can barely read at all. In math, nearly 40 percent of eighth graders score below basic. Americans are now sadly accustomed to newspaper reports that fewer than one in five American children knows the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, or that one third of high school seniors can't identify the countries we fought during World War II.
Employers complain that many job applicants lack the basic reading and math skills they need to perform the jobs they are seeking. They say that many students come out of school with poor work habits, including disorganization, irresponsibility, and an inability to get to work on time. College officials voice similar concerns. Nationwide, about three in ten first-time college freshmen now have to take remedial courses in reading, writing, or mathematics. As Steven Sample, president of the University of Southern California, has observed, "A country that has the best universities in the world has among the worst elementary and secondary schools."
There are some bright spots in the academic record, particularly in the lower grades. In international math and science tests, for example, American fourth graders fare well compared with students in other nations. By the eighth grade, however, their performance is middling. By twelfth grade, they occupy the international cellar. In math and science, American seniors are among the worst in the industrialized world.
Clearly something is going wrong, particularly in the middle and high school grades. Unlike students in other countries, our kids seem to do worse the longer they stay in school. By the end of eighth grade, many are ill-prepared for the kind of high school education we want them to have.
The U.S. has been "reforming" its schools for the better part of two decades. We've tried a hundred different programs and a thousand gimmicks. We've poured in countless billions of dollars. Yet it's clearer than ever that none of these nostrums has worked -- and some have made matters worse. It is deeply disturbing that in the most prosperous country in the world, our education system is failing so many of our children.
Low academic standards afflict many schools. Textbooks, tests, and assignments are watered down. "We're just demanding less and less, all the time," says a veteran North Carolina teacher. "I'm teaching lessons in the eighth grade that I used to teach in the sixth." Students learn to get by with less than their best. "No one corrects bad spelling or punctuation -- and we're talking about third grade," says one worried mom. "Everyone gets a gold star." Some schools seem to have forgotten that there is a difference between making a lesson interesting and making it easy. "My seventh grader spent the last two weeks of social studies class cutting pictures out of magazines," another parent reports. "What is he learning? He's getting real handy with the scissors."
Some schools do not focus enough on basic subjects. Judging by their students' assignments, learning to cherish the rain forests, recognize ethnic foods, and feel good about oneself have become more important than mastering the three Rs. It's not that matters like respecting the environment are not important. They are. But too often they are used as an excuse not to tackle the tough academic fundamentals. Remember, education is largely time on task. We learn what we do. If a child does not work many math problems, we ought not be surprised that he doesn't know much math.
In many places, educators no longer take responsibility for stating which facts and lessons are most important to know. They no longer say: "Here is what we will teach your child before he leaves us. This is what a good education looks like." Instead, they talk about teaching students to "learn how to learn," and remain vague about exactly what they should learn. Some schools look largely to children's preferences, instincts, and feelings as teaching guides. For example, in one school saluted for its progressive attitude, the principal proudly announced that he uses "the smile gauge" -- if students are smiling, they are doing their jobs. This is a questionable approach to teaching and learning, to say the least.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once invited a friend with such notions of education to view his garden. "But it is covered with weeds," his friend said in surprise. Coleridge explained that he was letting the garden make up its own mind about what to produce. "The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow," the poet explained, "and I thought it unfair of me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries." If schools do not spell out what a student should learn, you can count on his education being choked with weeds.
In some schools you find an unruly atmosphere. Kids act up, use foul language, talk rudely to teachers -- and get away with it. The adults in charge are unwilling to tell them to sit down, be quiet, and get down to work. In some places, we've forgotten that self-discipline is not the enemy of learning -- or of happiness. It is, rather, a necessary condition. We act as if young people cannot develop the self-control to pay attention, do what the teacher says, and stick with assignments until they get them right. We've given up the notion of insisting on studious, respectful children.
Many schools no longer possess a moral center. Their teachers have been discouraged from taking up character training in a direct fashion. They are reluctant to "impose their values" on students. Their overriding concern is to demonstrate how tolerant they are of others' behavior and choices. Saying to children "What you are doing is bad and wrong" might trample their rights, inflict feelings of shame, or damage their self-esteem. Meanwhile, more and more young Americans graduate with a shaky sense of right and wrong.
Let us be clear. The United States is blessed with a number of excellent elementary schools. Many, however, are mediocre, and there are some that we would not wish on any child. Here is the bottom line: you cannot automatically assume that your school is doing a good job teaching your child -- even if it assures you that it is. You must pay attention and look to see exactly what sort of education your child is getting.
Our Schools and Our Culture
It would be easy to point fingers at the schools and say, "There lie all our problems." There is no doubt that the school system is the source of many of its own shortcomings. But the truth is that U.S. schools are filled with dedicated teachers and principals who want more than anything else for American schoolchildren to succeed. These people are on the front lines. They see firsthand what's right and what's wrong in our classrooms. They are heartbroken that so many of their schools get mediocre results.
Talk to these women and men, and you begin to sense deeper problems at play, problems larger than the schools themselves. The disturbing news is that many teachers feel as though they are working with little help from parents. They express dissatisfaction, worry, even bitterness over their circumstances. They are convinced that many schools struggle partly because parents are not holding up their end of the bargain. These educators are right.
According to the research organization Public Agenda, more than four out of five public school teachers say many parents fail to set limits and create structure at home, fail to control how much time their kids spend with TV, computers, and video games, and refuse to hold their kids accountable for their behavior or academic performance. Too many moms and dads are failing to get their children interested in learning. They are not making sure that assignments get done. They are not teaching the self-discipline, perseverance, and respect that enable students to succeed.
This lack of supervision yields real classroom consequences. Nearly seven in ten teachers say they face a serious problem because so many students try to get by doing as little work as possible. More than half say they have serious problems with students failing to do homework. And more than four teachers in ten point to kids who are disruptive in class. "Very few students bring good habits to class," says an Indiana teacher. A Nebraska teacher agrees: "Parents are not sending them to school prepared. Simple things like basic manners, but lots of parents don't do this anymore -- 'please, thank you, close your mouth when you chew.' The parent hasn't taught the child: 'Get your things together the night before, leave them in front of the door.'...Today's kids need more than what they're getting."
To be sure, many youngsters still come from homes where the message from parents is: "We care about what you are doing, we want to be involved, and we're with you every step of the way." But in other homes the signal to the school is: "Here are our children. They're in your hands now. Let us know how it turns out." As Diane Ravitch of New York University observes, too many mothers and fathers have the attitude that school is like a car wash where you drop the child off at one end and pick him up at the other. They do not realize that, to get a good student, you have to be involved in the washing.
More and more, America has asked schools to fill in the gaps and pick up the slack where families leave off. We've tried to turn schools into the first line of defense against problems far beyond their competence to handle successfully. Teachers today tell us that much of their time is spent "raising children" -- teaching them the basics of hygiene, manners, and rudimentary respect for the rights and property of others. They counsel children of divorce, teach kids the facts of life, and train them in "conflict resolution." Meanwhile, we also expect them to make sure students learn to read, write, multiply, and divide. More than four out of five teachers say that many parents expect the school to do their job for them. Half of parents surveyed say schools should be able to do a good job with students whose moms and dads pay little attention to discipline and supervising behavior!
Such expectations are unreasonable. We should not ask schools to take on basic socialization and basic academics. There simply is not enough time. Even with perfect school attendance, American children spend less than 10 percent of their time from birth to age eighteen in school. There is no way that 10 percent can overcome what is happening -- or not happening -- in the other 90 percent. When schools stray too far from teaching basics like English, science, and history, they take time away from what they can do best.
We can't expect teachers to produce good students if we don't send them the right sort of raw material -- youngsters who are well behaved and eager to learn. If parents don't spend enough time with their kids, don't try to get them interested in reading, don't pay attention to homework, and don't see that children are prepared for tests, the school's job is next to impossible. When students come to class with a cavalier attitude about education, poor work habits, little self-control, and no respect for authority, a good education is already out of reach.
If we've learned anything in the last three decades, it is this: schools cannot take the place of moms and dads. When parents are distracted from their most important responsibilities, it is exceedingly difficult for teachers to fill the breach.
In the end, it is hard to escape the conclusion that what we see in our classrooms is a reflection of the larger culture, and that the mediocrity of our schools is part of a general lowering of standards. We have teachers who shy away from teaching right and wrong because they've been made to feel that the greatest sin is to be "judgmental." We have administrators who fear strict discipline because they don't want to get sued by parents. We have kids coming to class who've spent thousands of hours in the company of TV shows, movies, video games, and music which celebrate trash: profanity, violence, promiscuity, foul language, and rebellious attitudes. We have parents who rarely complain when their kids get lots of As in "fun" courses but turn plaintive when teachers try to give more homework or raise standards. If this is the world in which our schools have to operate, no wonder the education system has problems.
We repeat: many schools do a fine job. Likewise, millions of devoted parents want to do everything in their power to see that their children get good educations. Still, when we look at the cultural and educational landscape that our children are growing up in, like many Americans we find that things are not as they should be. This country is able to offer most of its young people a great deal materially, but is not necessarily giving them some of the things they need most. We are tolerating mediocrity on the hard, important lessons and trying to compensate with a kind of material lavishness that cannot plug the gap. We are doing well in many ways, but not nearly as well as we might in others. For all of this nation's greatness, it is not giving many students an education worthy of our ideals.
The good news is that it does not have to be this way. You can make a difference -- all the difference -- if you take certain steps and keep your eyes on certain goals. Education is not an enigmatic enterprise. There is no mystery about what makes good students and good schools. We spell out the basics in this book, together with steps you can take at home with your child, ways to see if your school is doing a good job, and strategies to adopt when things go wrong. James Madison said that "a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." If you arm yourself with a little knowledge about what works in education, and take some of the actions described in these pages, the power is yours to help your loved one learn to his potential.
Please remember that, so long as you remain at the center of the education process, good things are likely to happen. Countless American parents prove it every school year, including those newly arrived on our shores. There will be bumps in the road, but your child is growing up in an amazing country and in an astonishing time. Despite our problems, the opportunities for education are more than plentiful. We hope this book is both informing and encouraging. We hope it bolsters your determination. We hope it helps you raise an educated child.
Ten Principles For Parents Of Educated Children
These are ten critical propositions will help you raise an educated child. Please take them to heart.
1. Parents are the first and most important teachers. The more involved you are, the better your child's chances of getting a good education. You can make the difference.
2. Your teaching must not stop when schooling starts. Some parents withdraw from involvement in education once their children reach school age. This is a mistake. Teachers cannot do a good job without your aid, support, and interest.
3. The early years build the foundation for all later learning. Make it sturdy. The first few years of life and then the first few years of school are critical. A solid education by eighth grade is a necessity or there will be trouble in high school and beyond.
4. American schools are underperforming. Many schools don't pay enough attention to academic basics, and standards are often too low. Trust but verify. Do not just assume that your school is doing a good job.
5. Learning requires discipline; discipline requires values. Too many classrooms are disrupted by disrespectful, unruly children. Too many kids have not been taught the virtues necessary to succeed in school.
6. Follow your common sense. Some people act as though it takes a special degree to know if a school is doing a good job. Wrong. You are the expert on your own child. Pay attention, talk to teachers and other parents, and trust your instincts.
7. Content matters: what children study determines how well they learn. Many schools are unwilling to say exactly which facts and ideas their students should know. This is a fundamental problem in American education. Some things are more important to learn in elementary school than others.
8. Television is an enemy of good education. In many homes, TV is the greatest obstacle to learning. We urge you to shut it off from Sunday evening until Friday evening during the school year.
9. Education reform is possible. You can change the system. If you are interested and engaged, there is much you can do to ensure that your child receives an excellent education. There are ways to improve your child's school, especially if you join forces with other parents.
10. Aim high, expect much and children will prosper. No parent, school, or child is perfect, but we all rise toward the level of expectations. The surest way to learn more is to raise standards.
Copyright © 1999 by William J. Bennett
Chapter One: Tragedy Near Howland Island
Friday morning, July 2, 1937, Lae, New Guinea. It was not yet ten o'clock, but the tropical sun already beat down unmercifully on the twin-engine Lockheed Electra. Inside the closed cockpit, Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, could feel the heat build as they taxied away from the Guinea Airways hangar.
The heavily loaded plane lumbered slowly across the grassy airfield toward the far northwest corner. Soon they would take off southeastward toward the shoreline, to take advantage of a light breeze blowing off the water. When they reached the jungle growth at the end of the field, Earhart swung the plane around to line up with the runway for departure. Only 3,000 feet long, the grass runway ended abruptly where a bluff dropped off to meet the shark-infested waters of the Huon Gulf.
Earhart was preparing to take off with the heaviest load of fuel she had ever carried. She and Noonan had flown 20,000 miles in the previous six weeks. Now only 7,000 miles of Pacific Ocean separated them from their starting point in California. The Electra, nearly 50 percent overloaded, was weighted to capacity with 1,100 gallons of fuel for the 18-hour flight to the next stop, Howland Island. Less than a mile wide, two miles long, and twenty feet high, their destination was just a speck of land that lay nearly isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was truly a pioneering flight over a route never flown before, and they would be the first to land at the tiny island's new airfield. Two more firsts for the famous thirty-nine-year-old aviator, who upon reaching California would become the first woman pilot to have flown around the world.
Fred Noonan, at age forty-four, was famous in his own right. As chief navigator for Pan American Airways he had navigated the Pan American Clippers on all their survey flights across the Pacific. Now, both he and his pilot knew that the grossly overloaded takeoff would put their lives at great risk.
Fred watched closely as Amelia ran up each engine and checked it for proper operation. She gave the instruments a final scan, and they were ready to go. The moment of truth had arrived.
Amelia advanced the engine throttles full forward and released the brakes. The roaring, straining airplane slowly accelerated as it began its ponderous takeoff roll. Her feet were busy on the rudder pedals, moving them left, right, back, and forward to keep the plane going straight down the runway. They passed the smoke bomb that marked the halfway point to the shoreline. The tail wheel was already off the ground; they were going over 60 mph. There was no stopping the heavy plane now; it was fly or die, and the bluff at the end of the runway was coming up fast. Amelia applied back pressure on the control wheel to lift off the ground. The force required was lighter than she expected, and the plane over-rotated slightly as the wheels left the runway. She relaxed some of the pressure, allowing the nose-high attitude to decrease slightly.
They were off the ground, but their airspeed was too slow for optimum climb. When they were beyond the edge of the bluff, Amelia let the plane sink slowly until it was only five or six feet above the water. She signaled Fred to retract the landing gear, and the electric motor began cranking the wheels up into the nacelles to reduce drag. The seven seconds required to retract the landing gear seemed more like seven minutes as the engines struggled at full power to increase the airspeed.
After several seconds, Amelia could tell that she needed less back pressure on the control wheel to hold the craft level. This signaled that the battle between the engines and the drag of the airplane was slowly being won by the engines. The airspeed was increasing; they were going to make it. When the indicated airspeed increased to optimum climb speed, Amelia let the plane rise from its dangerous position just over the water. After they were safely a couple hundred feet in the air, she gently turned the plane to a compass heading of 073 degrees, direct for Howland Island. She reduced the engines to climb power and quickly scanned the engine gauges to check that everything was normal. They breathed easier as the plane slowly rose to the recommended initial cruising altitude of 4,000 feet.
Fred wrote down their takeoff time from Lae as 0000 Greenwich civil time (GCT), July 2, 1937. Having calculated that the flight to Howland Island would take 18 hours, they had to time their arrival to occur at daylight the following morning. Fred would need the stars to be visible for celestial navigation until just before they reached the island.
Amelia had arranged for a message to be sent from Lae to notify the Coast Guard cutter Itasca at Howland Island of her departure. The 250-foot Lake class cutter was waiting just off the island to provide communications, radio direction-finding, weather observations, and ground servicing for her flight. The captain of the Itasca was to notify all other stations, including the U.S. Navy auxiliary tug Ontario. The Ontario was positioned approximately halfway between Lae and Howland Island, in order to provide weather reports and transmit radio homing signals for Earhart.
Harry Balfour, the Guinea Airways radio operator at Lae, was receiving new wind forecasts for Earhart's flight just as she was taking off. The messages indicated that the headwinds to Howland Island would be much stronger than reported earlier, when they had expected only a 15 mph headwind. Fred had subtracted this headwind from the 157 mph optimum true airspeed to calculate a 142 mph ground speed. At 142 mph it would take them 18 hours to fly the 2,556 statute miles to Howland Island.
Earhart's radio schedule with Lae called for her to transmit her messages at 18 minutes past each hour, and to listen for Lae to transmit its messages at 20 minutes after the hour. Balfour attempted to report the stronger headwinds to Earhart by radio at 10:20, 11:20, and 12:20 local time, but she never acknowledged having heard him. In addition, for more than 4 hours after she departed from Lae, local interference prevented signals sent by the plane from being intelligible until 0418 GCT.
At 0418 GCT (2:18 p.m. local time), Balfour finally received a radio transmission from Earhart using the daytime frequency of 6210 kilocycles. She reported: "HEIGHT 7,000 FEET SPEED 140 KNOTS" and some remark concerning "LAE" then "EVERYTHING OKAY."
At four hours and eighteen minutes into the flight they were already experiencing stronger headwinds than anticipated. The increased winds had made them recalculate their optimum speed. Amelia reported the change to 140 knots (161 mph) in her message.
Maintaining the correct airspeed was important, but Earhart also had to fly at the correct altitude for optimum fuel efficiency. As the engines burned fuel, the plane's weight would decrease and the optimum altitude would increase. At any given aircraft weight there is a specific altitude for best fuel economy. The higher temperatures common in the tropics reduce the density of the air. Above the optimum altitude the temperature's effect on air density is equivalent to approximately a 2,000-foot increase in altitude and a corresponding increase in fuel consumption. The Electra would lose fuel efficiency below the optimum altitude but not nearly as rapidly as when flying above it. For maximum efficiency in the tropics, the Electra had to be flown approximately 2,000 feet below the recommended pressure altitude.
Balfour heard the next report from Earhart in Lae one hour and one minute later, at 0519 GCT. She reported: "HEIGHT 10,000 FEET -- POSITION 150.7 EAST, 7.3 SOUTH -- CUMULUS CLOUDS -- EVERYTHING OKAY."
Perhaps the cumulus clouds or the 9,000-foot mountains of Bougainville Island had forced them to the very uneconomical altitude of 10,000 feet. The worst had happened; they were flying at a density altitude close to 12,000 feet. The gross weight of the plane at this point would require them to burn an unconscionable amount of extra fuel to reach and cruise at that altitude. The resulting inefficiency could cost them a significant portion of their fuel reserve.
The position indicated by the reported geographical coordinates, longitude 150.7 east and latitude 7.3 south, is less than 220 statute miles from Lae and well over 450 miles from where the Electra would have been at 0519 GCT. Since it was standard practice for ships at sea to give their position at noon every day, it's possible that this was their position at twelve noon local time. It definitely was not their position at 0519, when Earhart transmitted the message.
Lae heard nothing from Earhart during her 0618 GCT transmitting schedule, but at 0718 GCT Balfour heard her report clearly on 6210 kilocycles: "POSITION 4.33 SOUTH, 159.7 EAST -- HEIGHT 8,000 FEET OVER CUMULUS CLOUDS -- WIND 23 KNOTS."
This position, approximately 850 statute miles from Lae, was right on their planned course to Howland Island. Significantly, the position was just to the west and in sight of Nukumanu Island. Noonan had navigated perfectly so far; they were exactly on course with a positive visual fix. A true airspeed of 161 mph reduced by a 26.5 mph (23-knot) wind would give them a ground speed of 134.5 mph. Again, the geographical position reported is not where they were at the time when the report was received by Harry Balfour in Lae; Earhart would have been at the reported position near Nukumanu Island approximately one hour earlier. Perhaps the activity resulting from sighting Nukumanu explains why Balfour in Lae did not hear from Earhart during her 0618 GCT transmitting schedule. Her signals on 6210 kilocycles were strong before and after 0618, and if she had transmitted, he should have heard her. (The reason why the radio position reports made by Earhart to Lae were not correlated to the time she transmitted them is unknown.)
At Nukumanu Island, Earhart and Noonan were approximately one-third of the way to Howland Island. They had been flying about six and a half hours and had a positive visual fix of their position. They knew their ground speed and the heavy plane's hourly fuel consumption precisely. None of the news was good. It would be prudent for them to reevaluate the remainder of their flight.
No pilot appreciates strong headwinds that make a flight fall behind schedule, but Earhart was doubly handicapped on fuel. The 26.5 mph headwind required her to fly at 140 knots (161 mph) to obtain maximum range. That was 11 mph faster than the required zero-wind speed of 150 mph. This increased fuel consumption by about 9 percent per hour, but her progress over the ground was also increased by about 9 percent. (For every wind component there is a recommended speed for maximum range. The stronger the headwind, the faster a plane must fly. It may sound incongruous, but consider an extreme situation with a headwind of 155 mph: A plane flying at the no-wind speed of 150 mph would be driven backward. At a speed faster than 155 mph, it will run out of gas much sooner but will be farther along the way when this happens.)
Whether or not Earhart had heard the messages from Lae concerning the increased headwinds, she had already encountered the actual winds. She acknowledged their importance by reporting the 23-knot (26.5 mph) wind at 0718, and significantly she did not then, or ever again, end a message with her earlier sign-off, "Everything okay."
So far, Earhart had maintained the optimum airspeed, but if the excessive fuel consumption continued they would arrive at Howland Island with little if any fuel remaining. The situation was very serious. If they were going to return to Lae, they had to turn about before they were beyond the point of safe return.
A number of factors had to be weighed as Earhart made her decision to continue or return. The badly overloaded takeoff from Lae was punishing to the plane. The margin of safety had been so minimal that she would not want to expose them to it again unnecessarily. Even with a headwind it had required every bit of engine power that the plane could produce with 100-octane fuel, and there was no more 100-octane available at Lae. Earhart could not responsibly attempt another takeoff using only the 87-octane fuel that was available. A major delay would be caused by having to transport more 100-octane fuel to Lae.
Pilot and navigator had to weigh the hazards of continuing against the hazards in returning. It would be dark in an hour or two, and the 24-day-old waning moon would not rise until after one o'clock
in the morning. There were no high peaks between Nukumanu Island and Howland Island, but there were the 9,000-foot peaks back on Bougainville Island between them and Lae. With their excess weight, if they lost an engine they might not be able to maintain altitude to clear the mountains. Lae was surrounded by mountains over 12,000 feet high on three sides, and near the airfield the terrain was over a thousand feet high. There were no landing or obstruction lights, so they could not land safely until daylight. Sunrise at Lae would be about 2020 GCT, nearly an hour and a half after they were due to arrive at Howland Island. No high terrain lay ahead, and if the weather cooperated they should be able to keep the plane operating optimally for the rest of the trip. They had now burned off enough fuel to be flying at comfortable weights.
As Earhart continued toward Howland Island, she descended to 8,000 feet to get closer to the optimum altitude. It was still too high, but as they would not have to climb back up to it later, it was a reasonable choice. With better fuel economy and a tailwind replacing a headwind, they could safely return to Lae after 10 hours. They could not land back there before 2000 GCT anyway, so she could delay her decision until 1000 GCT.
The sun had set about an hour before. It was dark as the Electra continued eastward toward Howland Island. On his map, Noonan could measure that at 0810 GCT they would be about 200 miles west of the Navy guard ship Ontario, which for over a week had been keeping near the midpoint position waiting for Earhart to pass.
The coal-burning Navy auxiliary tug was not equipped with the high-frequency radio equipment needed to receive Earhart's transmissions on 3105 or 6210 kilocycles. The low-frequency radios on the ship prevented it from communicating with its base in American Samoa except at night. Earhart had requested by cablegram before takeoff that the Ontario send a series of Morse code "N's" at 10 minutes after each hour on 400 kilocycles. She wanted to be able to take radio bearings on the ship with her radio direction-finder as they flew by. If she listened to her Bendix radio receiver for the "N's" at 10 minutes after the hour, she heard nothing.
At 0815 GCT, Earhart was scheduled to transmit a quarter-after-the-hour report on the nighttime frequency of 3105 kilocycles to the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, waiting just offshore at Howland Island. Neither the Itasca nor Balfour back at Lae heard anything. This was not surprising, as both were over a thousand miles away, and her Western Electric transmitter was rated at only 50 watts.
At 0910 GCT she may have listened again for "N's" on 400 kilocycles, because at a ground speed of 134.5 mph she would be passing by the ship just before 0940 GCT. She must have been disappointed when she did not receive any of the scheduled signals from the Ontario. She had no way of knowing that her departure message from Lae had been delayed. The Ontario never logged sending "N's" on 400, and soon after 1500 GCT set course to return to American Samoa. The tug was running short of coal.
Earhart and Noonan were past the Ontario and more than halfway to Howland Island by 1000 GCT. They were approaching the point of safe return, and it was time to reevaluate their progress. They decided not to return to Lae and committed themselves to continue. There was no known airfield within a thousand miles of Howland Island. From that moment on, if Earhart was to successfully complete the flight around the world, a landing at Howland's airfield was mandatory. There was no alternative.
It was coming up on 1030 GCT when Earhart saw lights on the ocean ahead. As the lights came closer she could see that it was a ship and transmitted a report of the event. It was about 1030 GCT when she reported "a ship in sight ahead."
The ship SS Myrtlebank, with Capt. Cort J. Holbrook in command, was out of Auckland, New Zealand, bound for Nauru Island. The 434-foot cargo ship of the Banks Line Ltd. was under charter to the British Phosphate Company and due to arrive at Nauru Island at dawn. The Myrtlebank's estimated position at 1030 GCT was 80 miles southward of Nauru. Harold J. Barnes, officer in charge of the radio station at Nauru Island, copied Earhart's message. He called her over Nauru's radio station VKT on 3105 kc. The Itasca heard VKT, but evidently Earhart did not.
From Lae to the Myrtlebank's 1030 position was approximately 1,414 statute miles. It had taken Earhart 101/2 hours to get there, at an average ground speed of about 134.5 mph. There were 1,142 statute miles still ahead to their destination. If they continued at the same speed, it would take them 81/2 hours to get to Howland Island. Their new estimated arrival time would be about 1900 GCT, nearly an hour after the stars had disappeared.
The plane continued eastward, with nothing but ocean and clouds below, until about 1315 GCT. Amelia must have welcomed the waning moon when a pointed end of its crescent shape poked above the horizon right in front of them. (Even a moon in its last quarter is a help when making one's way across a sky shared with towering cumulus clouds. It is much less tiring and stressful when a pilot can see what is coming and avoid plowing unexpectedly into the rain and turbulence of a cumulus buildup.)
It was overcast as they approached the Gilbert Islands. At 1415 GCT, Earhart transmitted her quarter-after-the-hour radio message on 3105 kilocycles. When the plane passed high overhead in the cloudy sky, the local time in the British-administered Gilberts was after two in the morning.
Amelia and Fred were now only 4 hours from Howland Island. Though the headwind had not slackened, they had been able to come reasonably close to keeping their fuel consumption on target. The 26.5 mph headwind had necessitated holding their true airspeed at 160.5 mph for maximum range. The higher-than-planned airspeed automatically increased their fuel consumption, but they were still progressing the same optimum number of miles over the ground for each pound of fuel burned. They were burning 8.5 percent more fuel each hour to do it but at the same time were progressing 8.5 percent more miles toward their destination each hour.
With only four more hours to go, the specter of running out of fuel before reaching Howland Island was greatly diminished. They could rationalize that it would not be considered unusual, or even improper, for a pilot to fly a 4-hour visual flight in the United States and land with only a 45-minute fuel reserve. But of course this was not a visual domestic flight.
At 1515 GCT, Amelia turned on her transmitter and sent the following message: "ITASCA FROM EARHART -- ITASCA FROM EARHART -- OVERCAST -- WILL LISTEN ON HOUR AND HALF HOUR ON 3105 -- WILL LISTEN ON HOUR AND HALF HOUR ON 3105."
They would leave the Gilbert Islands before their next quarter-after-the-hour transmission, and the sky was still overcast. A positive visual fix from the island would be possible only if the clouds cooperated. They still had over three and a half hours to go, and Fred could calculate that the sun would rise just before 1800 GCT. That would be shortly after they crossed the international date line, at 180 degrees longitude. Nautical twilight would begin 49 minutes before sunrise. It was imperative that he get a celestial fix before daylight obscured his view of the stars.
At 1615 GCT the sky was only partly cloudy and Fred could presumably see stars for a celestial fix. Standard procedure was for Amelia to take the plane off the automatic pilot and hold it as level as possible while Fred took a series of sightings with his octant. By 1622 GCT he would have had time to finish his observations, and Amelia could turn control back to the Sperry autopilot. It was already past the time for her quarter-after-the-hour transmission. Eight minutes late, at 1623 GCT, she transmitted a report in which the Itasca heard her say it was "partly cloudy." As long as it remained partly cloudy, daylight would not obscure the stars for at least another hour. Fred could readily take additional celestial fixes if he needed or wanted them.
A celestial fix at 1622 GCT would have shown them to be about 354 miles from Howland Island. The wind was slowing their ground speed to 133 mph. If Earhart could get radio bearings from the Itasca, they could continue straight toward the island following the courses indicated by the radio bearings. If they flew straight in, their estimated time of arrival would be about 1902 GCT. If no radio bearings were received to guide them, Noonan would have to depend on something else to set an accurate final course for the island.
They were flying an easterly course, and the morning sun would rise right in front of the plane. A sun line, or single line of position from the sun, plotted on Noonan's chart would be at right angles to the sun. The sun line would lie on his chart running approximately northward and southward across their course to Howland. The sun line would accurately update their position along the course to the east and west, but it could provide little indication whether they were maintaining the intended course direct to the island or actually flying off to the north or south of it. Their arrival time at the island was not crucial, but it was imperative they not accidentally fly past the island to the north or south without seeing it.
The standard solution to this problem was for Noonan to make a judgment of the maximum distance it was reasonable for them to be accidentally off to the north or south of his intended course. (In navigation, this is called the area of uncertainty.) Noonan would then make a deliberate choice, north or south, to head the airplane off the distance of his uncertainty to one side. He would then know beyond a reasonable doubt that his actual position was off to the north or to the south side of the island, whichever he had chosen. When the sun line of position indicated they had progressed eastward as far as Howland Island, he would turn in the appropriate direction (northward or southward, depending on which side he had chosen) and fly directly toward the island. This was a standard procedure that Noonan had used many times.
This effectively eliminated any course errors they might have accumulated since the 1622 GCT (or any later) celestial fix. It would give them a relatively accurate fresh start on the final course line as they approached the island. Meanwhile, to ascertain that they were off to the north or south side of the island would require them to fly an extra 15 or 20 miles, delaying their arrival time 8 or 10 minutes to about 1912 GCT.
It was approximately 1715 GCT when the last fuselage tank ran empty. Amelia switched the selector valves to run the engines off the last main wing tank, which was still full with 97 gallons. The design of the fuel system required her always to run both engines off the same tank. The engines were each burning about 20 gallons per hour. At a total of 40 gph, the tank would run dry in slightly less than 21/2 hours, or at approximately 1945 GCT. Amelia would select the stripper pump and carefully pump out by hand any fuel left by the engine pumps in the fuselage tank. This transferred every remaining drop into the last main wing tank and assured that all the gas left on the airplane was in that one tank. When it ran dry, they would be completely out of fuel.
The eastern sky was getting lighter, heralding the coming sunrise. The calculations from the celestial fix would have them 200 miles out of Howland at 1732 GCT and 100 miles out at 1817 GCT. They were now approaching the island, and Amelia still hadn't heard from the Itasca. Before the flight she had cabled the Itasca that she would transmit by voice on 3105 kilocycles as she approached. She had also told them she would broadcast at a quarter to the hour when she could.
The Itasca transcribed Earhart's 1744 GCT message and information as follows: "WANTS BEARING ON 3105 KCS/ON HOUR/WILL WHISTLE IN MIC."
She gave them a moment so they would be ready to take the radio bearing, then transmitted at 1745 GCT: "ABOUT TWO HUNDRED MILES OUT//APPX//WHISTLING//NW."
A few minutes later Amelia would need her darkest sunglasses. The sun, coming up in the front of the plane, would shine directly into her eyes through the cockpit windshield.
Amelia was expected to listen at 1800 GCT for the Itasca to transmit during her on-the-hour listening schedule. She would select band 4 on the Bendix receiver and set the dial to 3105 kilocycles. When receiving signals she would turn the CW (code) switch off and listen intently for a voice on 3105 kilocycles to tell her the radio bearing, as she had requested. The volume would be set high as she searched both sides of the 3105 dial, reading for any voice signal. There was nothing but noise and static, and after listening for a few minutes she could only tell Fred there was no bearing from the ship. The only thing she could do was try again during her quarter-after-the-hour transmitting schedule.
Fred had his octant in the cockpit so he could sight the sun through the windshield. They must shortly begin their descent to below the clouds. He had to take his sightings before they started down.
At 1815 GCT, it was time for Amelia to transmit on the quarter-after-the-hour schedule. If the Itasca hadn't heard her before, she was hopeful they would get a bearing on her now. She sent the following: "PLEASE TAKE BEARING ON US AND REPORT IN HALF HOUR/I WILL MAKE NOISE IN MICROPHONE -- ABOUT 100 MILES OUT."
When Amelia was finished, Fred needed her to hold the plane steady while he took a series of sights of the sun with his octant. He would be finished by 1825 GCT. The sun was about 7 degrees above the horizon, and he would calculate its azimuth (direction) to be 067 degrees.
Fred had completed his sightings, and Amelia put the plane back on autopilot. They needed the bearing she had requested from the ship, and she listened intently at 1830 GCT. Once again, there was nothing but noise and static. She hadn't received any voice signals from the Itasca during either the 1800 or the 1830 GCT schedule. Either the Itasca wasn't transmitting to her with voice at that time, or her receiver wasn't receiving the signals. As far as she knew it was possible the Itasca's 3105 transmitter wasn't working, and they were transmitting on 7500 kilocycles instead. She had no way of knowing what was wrong.
Noonan plotted the 1825 GCT sun line perpendicular to the sun's 067-degree azimuth. The plotted sun line thus ran 157-337 degrees across their course on his map. After many years of aerial navigation, he had learned that on average a sun line was accurate within 10 miles. The plot of the 1825 GCT sun line showed they had traveled about
272 miles since the 1622 GCT celestial fix. It fit well with his dead-reckoning position and confirmed that their ground speed was about 133 mph. If he lined up their final approach course into Howland with the plotted 157-337 sun line, Noonan could be confident that his average final course to the island would be accurate within 10 miles east or west of that course. He would only have to allow for any possible dead-reckoning errors that might accumulate after 1825 GCT. (This procedure is called a line-of-position approach. It is a close cousin to the latitude sailing methods used by maritime navigators for centuries.)
In order to use the 1825 GCT sun line as a guiding course for coming in to Howland Island, Noonan would draw on his map a new advanced parallel line 157-337 that ran right through the island. He could then measure the distance between the 1825 GCT line and the new advanced line, along the eastward course they were flying. It was 82 miles from the original plotted 1825 GCT sun line to the new advanced line that ran through Howland. Noonan could then calculate that at a ground speed of 133 mph, it would take 37 minutes to fly the 82 miles. He would tell Earhart to turn toward the island at 1902 GCT, exactly 37 minutes after 1825. She would turn to fly a heading calculated to keep them on the new advanced course line, 157-337, until they saw the island.
Earhart started to descend at about 1833 GCT, when they were approximately 65 miles out of Howland Island. They needed to be below the cloud base before their estimated arrival time. They must not accidentally go past the island while it was hidden under clouds. They had received no radio bearings for guidance, so Noonan had to change the compass heading to make sure they were far enough off to one side of the island to cover any uncertainty when they intercepted the new advanced line, 157-337 degrees, at 1902 GCT.
Earhart could reduce the power by pulling back on the throttles as the plane gained speed in the descent. The fuel flows would drop in unison as the power was reduced. As long as the engines didn't quit or run rough, she could continue to let them run with lean fuel mixture. She would want to do everything possible to conserve fuel. If she selected the main wing fuel tank gauge, it should have read slightly over half full.
As the plane continued to descend, the relatively cool, dry air in the cockpit at the higher altitudes would have slowly given way to the warm, moist air normal on the surface at the equator. At 1,000 feet they were below the cloud base, and Noonan and Earhart could look carefully in all directions to try to spot the island. They were approaching the turning point and were busy searching every quadrant of the empty sea below. There were no whitecaps on the surface. That would indicate that the 26.5 mph headwind they had bucked since leaving Lae had finally died down. Without a smoke bomb they could not determine the wind's actual direction or velocity; they just knew that without whitecaps on the water, it was blowing less than 12 mph.
At about 1902 GCT Earhart turned toward Howland Island and flew a heading to maintain a course on the new advanced 157-337 line of position. Noonan's standard procedure would put the island about 15 or 20 miles dead ahead. They searched the water in front of them and to either side for any sign of the island or the cutter Itasca. The atmospheric visibility was good, and they could effectively search the ocean's surface for the island except when they looked toward the morning sun. The sun was only 17 degrees above the horizon, and it created a glare off the water. It was difficult to see anything in that direction. Also, the shiny aluminum surfaces of the wings and engine nacelles acted like mirrors. The sun's rays were reflected off the metal into their eyes, further hampering their vision toward the east.
The ten minutes Fred had estimated to get to Howland Island had elapsed, and there was still nothing in sight. At 1912 GCT Amelia made her quarter-after-the-hour transmission. While they continued to look out over the water for Howland Island, she reported on 3105 kilocycles, "KHAQQ CALLING ITASCA WE MUST BE ON YOU BUT CANNOT SEE YOU BUT GAS IS RUNNING LOW BEEN UNABLE REACH YOU BY RADIO WE ARE FLYING AT ALTITUDE 1000 FEET."
The line-of-position approach procedure required that they keep flying down the line until they reached the island, or at least until Noonan was certain they had passed it. He knew the sun line of position he had taken 47 minutes before should be accurate to within 10 miles. They had flown little more than 100 miles since then. Even if Noonan added 10 percent of the distance traveled, 10 miles, for maximum dead reckoning error, they would be no more than 20 miles off course. It had been agreed by cablegram before takeoff that the Itasca would make smoke in the daytime as the plane approached the island. The smoke would make it easier for them to see the low-lying coral island. If the smoke went high enough, they should spot it from 30 miles away. (Many times at sea, if the atmosphere and wind are right, a telltale column of smoke can be seen high above a ship traveling out of sight below the horizon.)
Earhart probably chose to pull the propellers back to minimum rpm, then advance the throttles just enough to keep the indicated airspeed around 85 mph for maximum endurance. They needed time to look for the island. By maintaining maximum endurance airspeed they would burn the least fuel per hour.
They continued onward for 16 more minutes and by 1928 GCT had flown along the new line 157-337 for a total of about 40 miles. When they had first started to fly along the line at 1902 GCT, they could have scanned 20 miles in the opposite direction before turning onto the line. Now they could see 20 miles farther ahead. Altogether, they had visually searched about 80 miles on the new advanced line of position. Howland Island wasn't there.
As the navigator, Fred had the knowledge and insight to judge just how accurate their position was at that moment. This was not a judgment he would make lightly, as their lives so clearly depended on it. By 1928 GCT he must have been sure they had already passed to the east or west of Howland Island. He judged the island must now be behind them, and had Amelia begin circling so they would not fly farther away. They must get a radio direction-finder bearing to resolve whether the island was to the east or west.
Amelia had already tried twice, without success, to get the Itasca to report a bearing to her by using voice on 3105 kilocycles. She set the receiver to band 5, set the dial on 7500 kilocycles, and turned the CW switch on. She was going to try a different strategy. Two minutes before the Itasca's scheduled time to transmit on the half hour, she transmitted on 3105 kilocycles, at 1928 GCT: "KHAQQ CALLING ITASCA -- WE ARE CIRCLING BUT CANNOT HEAR YOU GO AHEAD ON 7500 EITHER NOW OR ON THE SCHEDULE TIME ON HALF HOUR."
Amelia had turned on the receiver's CW (code) switch to activate the receiver's beat frequency oscillator, so she could receive the agreed-upon "A's" in Morse code on 7500 kilocycles instead of the voice transmissions she had listened for on 3105 kc. Soon there were loud Morse code dit-dahs of "A's" being repeated over and over. She adjusted her radio direction-finder's loop coupler to make sure it was selected to band 5, and tuned the "A's" for their loudest reception. Then she switched to take a bearing, and turned the loop to find the direction the signals were coming from.
The "A's" signal volume should have weakened and dropped off to minimum strength when the loop was turned across the direction the signal was coming from. Amelia turned the loop completely around, but there was no point where the signal "A's" signal volume would drop off. She couldn't get a minimum on the Itasca's signal anywhere.
Finally the "A's" stopped, and Amelia could hear Morse code sending something for a few seconds. Then silence. She picked up the microphone and at 1930 GCT said: "KHAQQ CALLING ITASCA WE RECEIVED YOUR SIGNALS BUT UNABLE TO GET A MINIMUM PLEASE TAKE BEARING ON US AND ANSWER 3105 WITH VOICE." And then she made long dashes for them to take a bearing on.
Amelia cranked the receiver back to band 4 and set the dial to 3105 kilocycles. She turned the CW switch off and listened for the Itasca to answer with speech as she had requested. There was nothing but noise and static on 3105. She gave it up after a few minutes and resumed looking for the island.
If she activated the hydrostatic fuel gauge, it would now indicate less than a quarter tank of fuel remaining. Amelia was undoubtedly feeling increased tension in her muscles. They had saved an additional half hour's worth of fuel by descending and flying at endurance airspeed, but that would be the last of it. They had 35 to 40 minutes to find the island and must choose the option that would give them the best chance in the time allotted.
Noonan could be certain that his navigation had placed them within 50 miles of the island to the north or south, and within 20 miles to the east or west. They had already searched the advanced line of position to the north and south without seeing any sign of either the Itasca or Howland. They obviously had passed to the east or west of the island, but without a radio bearing they could not determine which. Regardless of whether they chose to move over to the east or contrarily to the west, they had only a fifty-fifty chance of being correct. It would take over 30 minutes to search the selected side, leaving not enough fuel even to get to the other side. If they'd had an hour and 15 minutes' worth, they could have covered both the east and the west sides and solved their dilemma. With a couple hours' fuel reserve, Noonan could even have started a square search pattern to look for the island in all directions. But they had only 35 or 40 minutes of fuel remaining. They had to make a decision.
Reasonable error placed the advanced 157-337 line of position within 20 miles of Howland to the east or west, but there was a good chance they were even closer. They decided to retrace their flight along the 157-337 line and visually search the ocean on both sides of the plane with renewed vigor. There was still one more chance, on the hour at 2000 GCT, for the Itasca to give them a radio bearing with voice on 3105 kc. It was important they remain as close to the island as possible. If they did get a radio bearing, there was little time left to follow it into the island.
The last chance for Amelia to turn on the Bendix receiver and listen for the Itasca to transmit on 3105 with voice came at 2000 GCT. Unfortunately there was nothing but noise and static, no voice signal from the Itasca to give them a radio bearing. She returned to searching for any sign of the island on the ocean. Their last hope for a bearing was gone, and she could only hope that the island might miraculously appear in the few remaining minutes. Her body would react to the anxiety, and the adrenaline would flow to prepare for the impending emergency.
The other tanks had been stripped, and the last main wing tank was now showing empty. Amelia turned on the Western Electric transmitter for a final call. She decided there was no hope for a radio bearing now. Meanwhile, two hours had passed since sunrise. Her agreement had been to use 3105 kilocycles, but this time she would repeat the message on the daytime frequency of 6210 kilocycles just in case something was wrong with 3105.
At 2013 GCT, with her voice pitched noticeably higher from the tension in her throat, Amelia spoke rapidly, transmitting the following on 3105: "WE ARE ON THE LINE OF POSITION 157-337, WILL REPEAT THIS MESSAGE, WE WILL REPEAT THIS MESSAGE ON 6210 KCS. WAIT LISTENING ON 6210 KCS....WE ARE RUNNING NORTH AND SOUTH."
Amelia released the microphone button. She leaned over to crank the transmitter control from 3105 kilocycles to 6210. When the engines began to surge, she would have to drop the microphone and use both hands to reach for the control wheel and disengage the autopilot. For a few seconds, the engines cutting in and out would cause the plane to yaw back and forth. Finally, the engines would quit completely. To follow standard procedure Amelia would lower the nose to maintain a safe gliding speed, and configure the plane for ditching in the water. She would put the flaps full down and leave the landing gear retracted. With the drag of full flaps and the windmilling propellers, she would have to lower the nose considerably to maintain safe airspeed. The plane's rate of descent would increase accordingly.
The stall speed of an empty Electra with full flaps would be less than 60 mph. When the aircraft neared the water, Amelia would have to time precisely the critical raising of the plane's nose to stop the rapid descent. If she leveled off too high or too early, the plane could stall and she might lose control before it hit the water. If she was too low or too late when she leveled off, the plane could hit the water too fast. The dead-stick ditching of a plane into the ocean wasn't something you could practice; you had to get it right the first time.
As they approached the water, Fred could have rationalized his inability to find the island as plain bad luck. He had navigated other flights that had taken longer. The distance from Lae to Howland wasn't much farther than earlier pioneering flights he had made with Pan American Airways. As far as navigation was concerned, the course from Lae was neither particularly difficult nor extraordinary. Except for the absence of radio navigation and communications at Howland Island, the flight was little different from dozens he had made before. They had known from the start that it might require radio direction-finding to bring them in and had provided two systems in case one failed. Regardless, with a normal fuel reserve they could have searched the area to the east and west of Howland, or used a standard square search pattern to find the island.
Beyond all reasonable odds, the random hand of fate seemed to have conspired against them completely. Why couldn't Amelia get a minimum with her Bendix radio direction-finder? Why couldn't she hear the Itasca transmitting voice on 3105 kilocycles? Why hadn't they seen smoke rising from the Itasca? Why was Noonan's navigation so far off that they missed the island entirely? Whatever the causes, they were directly responsible for the failure of the flight.
Amelia had been apprehensive during the last 12 hours of the flight that everything was not okay. After all of the careful planning, how could everything have gone so wrong?
There was little time for reflection as the aircraft, now strangely almost silent, glided toward the sea. A couple of minutes after the engines quit, Amelia Earhart was flaring the plane above the reasonably placid waters of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Howland Island.
She had worked and sacrificed for years to gain recognition of women's abilities. The flight had been designed to demonstrate to a skeptical world the contributions women were capable of making. History would be charged to record her effort honestly and determine if it had been truly worthwhile. Earhart could only hope that from this moment of failure, she would be vindicated for daring to lead the way.
But what demonic trick of fate had caused this tragedy?
Copyright © 1999 by Elgen M. Long and Marie K. Long
Excerpted from Amelia Earhart by Elgen M. Long Copyright © 2009 by Elgen M. Long. Excerpted by permission.
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