Amelia Earhart waded into the Pacific Ocean and climbed into her downed and disabled Lockheed Electra.
She started the engine, turned on the two-way radio and sent out a plea for help, one more desperate than previous messages.
The high tide was getting higher, she had realized. Soon it would suck the plane into deeper water, cutting Earhart off from civilization — and any chance of rescue.
Across the world, a 15-year-old girl listening to the radio in St. Petersburg, Fla., transcribed some of the desperate phrases she heard: “waters high,” “water’s knee deep — let me out” and “help us quick.”
A housewife in Toronto heard a shorter message, but it was no less dire: “We have taken in water . . . we can’t hold on much longer.”
That harrowing scene, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes, was probably one of the final moments of Earhart’s life. The group put forth the theory in a paper that analyzes radio distress calls heard in the days after Earhart disappeared.
In the summer of 1937, she had sought to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Instead, TIGHAR’s theory holds, she ended up marooned on a desert island, radioing for help.
Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, could only call for help when the tide was so low it wouldn’t flood the engine, TIGHAR theorized. That limited their pleas for help to a few hours each night.
It wasn’t enough, TIGHAR director Ric Gillespie told The Washington Post, and the pair died as castaways.
But those radio messages form a historical record — evidence that Gillespie says runs counter to the U.S. Navy’s official conclusion that Earhart and Noonan died shortly after crashing into the Pacific Ocean.
On July 2, 1937, just after Earhart’s plane disappeared, the U.S. Navy put out an “all ships, all stations” bulletin, TIGHAR wrote. Authorities asked anyone with a radio and a trained ear to listen in to the frequencies she had been using on her trip, 3105 and 6210 kilohertz.
It was not an easy task. The Electra’s radio was designed to communicate only within a few hundred miles. The Pacific Ocean is much bigger.
The searchers listening to Earhart’s frequencies heard a carrier wave, which indicated that someone was speaking, but most heard nothing more than that. Others heard what they interpreted to be a crude attempt at Morse code.
But thanks to the scientific principle of harmonics, TIGHAR says, others heard much more. In addition to the primary frequencies, “the transmitter also put out ‘harmonics (multiples)’ of those wavelengths,” the paper says. “High harmonic frequencies ‘skip’ off the ionosphere and can carry great distances, but clear reception is unpredictable.”
That means Earhart’s cries for help were heard by people who just happened to be listening to their radios at the right time.
According to TIGHAR’s paper:
Scattered across North America and unknown to each other, each listener was astonished to suddenly hear Amelia Earhart pleading for help. They alerted family members, local authorities or local newspapers. Some were investigated by government authorities and found to be believable. Others were dismissed at the time and only recognized many years later. Although few in number, the harmonic receptions provide an important glimpse into the desperate scene that played out on the reef at Gardner Island.
The tide probably forced Earhart and Noonan to hold to a schedule. Seek shelter, shade and food during the sweltering day, then venture out to the craft at low tide, to try the radio again.
Back in the United States, people heard things, tidbits that pointed at trouble.
On July 3, for example, Nina Paxton, an Ashland, Ky., woman, said she heard Earhart say “KHAQQ calling,” and say she was “on or near little island at a point near” … “then she said something about a storm and that the wind was blowing.”
“Will have to get out of here,” she says at one point. “We can’t stay here long.”
What happened to Earhart after that has vexed the world for nearly 81 years, and TIGHAR is not the only group to try to explain the mystery.