Aviation

A 15-Year-Old Girl Heard Amelia Earhart's Last Transmission

When it comes to mysterious aeronautical disasters, there's really only one name that springs to everybody's mind: Amelia Earhart. Even now, more than 80 years after her disappearance, historians and airplane enthusiasts can't stop wondering about where her remains finally ended up (and whether we've had them this entire time). Here's something we were fascinated to find out: When Earhart and her co-pilot Fred Noonan went down, they sent out a distress signal. What's more, people heard that cry for help hundreds of miles away.

Betty Klenck's Notebook

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in St. Petersburg, Florida in the summer of 1937. Now, step into the sitting room at the Klenck house, where you'll find 15-year-old Betty Klenck seated on the floor in front of her family's radio. Her father has set up a long-wire antenna measuring about 60 feet (18.3 meters) long that runs across the backyard to a pole outside the house. It's strong enough to capture transmissions from much farther than a radio normally could.

It's a good thing Betty was so interested in cruising the airwaves — not to mention that she still describes herself as "crazy about airplanes." Otherwise, she might not have reacted so strongly as she sat there that July afternoon, doodling pictures of fashionable women and writing down the lyrics to pop songs, when she heard a voice come over the radio saying "This is Amelia Earhart. This is Amelia Earhart."

Earhart superfan that she was, Betty snapped to attention and began dutifully transcribing everything she could make out from the message. For about three hours, she sat there taking notes while the signal faded in and out. When her father arrived home at 6:15 p.m., she showed him what she'd heard, and he rushed over to the neighbor's house to find out if they were picking up the signal as well. Unfortunately, his was the only 60-foot antenna on the block. Later that evening, he called the Coast Guard only to be told that there were already ships in the area and everything was under control. Apparently, they didn't give much credit to the idea that a 15-year-old girl could have been the only one to hear the clearest signal from the world's most famous aviator.

So what did the message say? It isn't entirely clear, because it was fuzzy to begin with even before the voices began fading in and out. But enough details from Klenck's account match up with what we know or suppose about Earhart's final flight that it seems unlikely that she misheard the radio or embellished the story.

Details she got right? The plane was angling for Howland Island (Betty heard Amelia repeat either "W40K Howland port" or "WOJ Howland port" over the radio), that Earhart had sustained a mild injury and that Noonan was more badly hurt, and that the plane was quickly taking on water. Among the final bits of speech that Klenck was able to make out, she heard snippets like "water's high," "water's knee-deep, let me out," "I can't make it" (that one from Noonan), and "Are you here?" after Noonan apparently bailed out of the plane and Amelia prepared to follow suit.

Ears to the Air

The fact that officials at the time didn't give much credit to Betty Klenck and her transcription is one thing — but the fact that she tried again, more than once as the years went by, and wasn't taken seriously until the year 2000 is something else entirely. In 1970, Klenck's next-door neighbor John Hathaway contacted Fred Goerner (who four years previously had published a high-profile book about the pilot), only to be told that the notebook was of no interest. A decade passed, and another, and another, and at the dawn of the new millennium Hathaway tried again. This time, he reached out to The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR, pronounced "Tiger").

Without TIGHAR, the world at large probably would never have seen Klenck's valuable notes. But they are also responsible for a large collection of many other radio listeners who heard (or thought they heard) the voices of Earhart and Noonan. All told, there were about 57 or so people who, for at least a moment, probably had Amelia Earhart on the other end of their radio. Many of these communications are marked by clear indicators of the pilot's identity — mainly because she smartly made a point of repeating her name. Others have less obvious signs, including a few occasions at which the pilot turned the sending transmitter on and off several times in an approximation of Morse code. However, as TIGHAR noted, "On only one occasion was Morse code heard but the message was fragmentary, cryptic, and sent in 'extremely poor keying.' Neither Earhart nor Noonan was adept at Morse code."

It all adds up to a pretty haunting portrait of people hearing the final moments of one of the most accomplished pilots of all time — many of them stuck on land, far from any way to rescue them. And not just because they were still in high school at the time.

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Most of the time when we tell the story of Amelia Earhart, we start in the last days or even hours of her life. Susan Butler's biography of the legendary pilot, "East to the Dawn," rectifies that issue. Plus, it's free with your trial membership to Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

TIGHAR's Best Guess for Earhart's Final Resting Place

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 22, 2018

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