Tom Vinson will soon be aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean, searching for Amelia Earhart’s lost plane.
GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Tom Vinson will soon be aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean, searching for Amelia Earhart’s lost plane.
“She was a risk-taker. She wasn’t the first woman pilot — that was Harriet Quimby — but she made altitude records, went cross-country with the fastest flight times, was the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo, and she wasn’t afraid…she once said, ‘I calculate the risk, and if I think it’s worth it, I don’t worry about it’,” said Chatfield resident Tom Vinson, speaking of how he admires the courage and tenacity of the late Amelia Earhart, the first woman pilot to attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

Vinson outlined that Earhart, an adjunct professor at Purdue University in Indianapolis, was born in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, and saw an airplane for the first time at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines when she was only 10 years old.

“She had courage and compassion…she was a nurse in Toronto during World War I, and she also encouraged women to venture into aviation,” he said.

Earhart felt women shouldn’t be constrained by roles prescribed them by history and therefore was not afraid of taking off into the wild blue on a mission to prove that she had what it took to reach beyond the horizon.

Vinson continued, “In 1932, she broke barriers and aviation records, and she was the second person to fly the Atlantic solo…Charles Lindbergh, of course, was the first in 1927. Amelia Earhart saw aviation as the gateway for women to become more independent. It was her vision to see women in aviation and in laboratories. She was ahead of her time in the 1920s and 1930s, and she saw how women had opportunities through suffrage and aviation.”

It is her disappearance into the Pacific Ocean on the last leg of her journey on July 2, 1937 – an attempt to stay as close to the equator as possible while flying her Lockheed Electra around the world with only her navigator, Fred Noonan, at her right – that intrigues Vinson.

He is currently on an expedition in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean trying to find the location of her downed plane. He expects to be searching with a team from Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from mid-February through April.

He remarked, “I started this project in 1999, and I’ve been at it ever since. I retired, and after that I went back on a two-year contract, and my wife and I moved to Chatfield in 2010. There’s a team of engineers at (industrial engineering firm) Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I spent my entire 33-year career, and we’re one of four independent teams.”

He explained that the his team’s job at Rockwell Collins is to see if they can back-calculate the distance between the aircraft and the U.S. Coast Guard ship Itasca.

After pulling together a team of engineers in avionics and systems communications, he and his fellow team members have been trying to get into Fred Noonan’s head and his last transmission. Using their hypothesis, they create modeling and simulation to narrow the area where they think she went down.

Integrating actual field work flying over the ocean, he and his team have spent over 3,500 hours narrowing the area down. Vinson said his team is “world class” and has been fortunate to be able to use Rockwell Collins’ resources.

He stated the intrigue with Earhart’s plane comes from the fact that there are so few remaining 20th-century tales left unfinished.

“The mystery of her disappearance is one of the last great mysteries of the 20th century, other than the Titanic, and they found that and wanted to see if they could raise it, but after that, this is the last great mystery to solve,” he said. “Where are Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan? It’s part of American history that we need to preserve.”

Vinson and his team have been on two previous expeditions as representatives of Rockwell Collins. Their work this late winter and early spring is being done in cooperation with the deep ocean exploration firm Nauticos, founded by David Jourdan. This venture will hopefully provide the final answer as to what became of the fearless Earhart and Noonan through an expedition known as the Eustace-Earhart Discovery Expedition, aboard the Mermaid Vigilance, a ship flagged out of Singapore.

The initial work on the project was started in late 1998 and January 1999 at Rockwell Collins.

Vinson elaborated, “Rockwell Collins told us we could use any software. It was all volunteer labor from the engineering groups, and what we formed just became addictive from an engineering standpoint. It was like being an engineering CSI, using engineering solving skills with a forensic approach. Because our objective was to back-calculate the distance between the Itasca and Amelia’s plane, we had to get into Fred Noonan’s head and how he navigates…he wrote the training manual for PanAm. PanAm’s clipper fleets started flying across to islands at a time when people didn’t think flying that far was possible.”

The first two expeditions were taken in 2002 and 2006, respectively, and great progress was made in mapping the ocean floor surrounding Howland Island, where Earhart was expected to land but did not.

“We got together with three other independent people…our area was within 2,000 square miles of each other,” he said. “Getting the area down to 2,000 square miles makes it more financially feasible to do sonar searches – this is not easy because a trip takes millions of dollars, and each time we go out, it’s a couple of million dollars, so we covered 1,350 of the original 2,000 square miles on the last two trips, and this time, we’ll cover the mileage that’s left. This mission’s objectives target the locations we covered in 2006, but we had to stop that mission because of a medical evacuation.”

This year’s expedition is primarily sponsored by Alan Eustace, the Chatfield resident noted, which is why it’s the Eustace-Earhart Discovery Expedition.

“Alan Eustace is an explorer in his own right,” Vison said. “He put on a space suit and a balloon and rose to 136,000 feet. He dropped down and broke the sound barrier with his body, and he also broke the altitude record. He used to be senior engineer at Google. David Jourdan is on the tracking and recovery team.”

Vinson recalled the first venture into the Pacific in 2002 and how the technology that the team used to seek Earhart’s Electra miles under the ocean’s surface was so very different than that used today.

He described the sonar equipment towed by the boat, saying, “Our first mission, we put high-resolution sonar in to photograph and see if we found it…her Lockheed L10 Electra only had a 55-foot wingspan, so that’s pretty small. In 2002, we had a three-and-a-half mile back cable for our sonar, and it had high-powered lights and camera that was drug three miles down. We’d put in 12-hour shifts watching the sonar, and if we didn’t see the characteristics of her airplane, we’d continue. Even if you saw something that might be the plane, you marked it.”

In 2006, the crew boarded the R/V Mt. Mitchell, towing sonar on a sled that was much smaller than the one they’d used just four years before. “The technology was much more advanced, and we had a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV). This time, we have no cables to drag – it’s a torpedo system that’s better technology because it’s autonomous and it can go to sites and survey all by itself. It comes up, we replace the batteries, analyze the data, triangulate the distance and send it back underwater.”

The theories held by groups of people searching for Earhart’s plane are varied, but they’re mostly based on the facts that Earhart’s aircraft had been in the air for more than 18 hours, that her engine was running low on fuel and she was attempting to reach the tiny U.S. Navy base at Howland Island in the Pacific. She had miles to go before she could land and Noonan was busy trying to calculate a solution for navigating the last leg before they could safely alight on the middle-of-the-ocean land mass.

Vinson explained, “The U.S. Navy had taken claim of the island four years before Pearl Harbor…they already had a few men and a flag there. She was trying to fly as close as she could to the equator and had gotten all the way from California to the east. The last they heard from her was when she was at Lee (lay), New Guinea, and she had 2,056 miles to go over mostly open water to the little island of Howland Island, where the Navy had made arrangements for her to land and the Itasca was waiting for her because the Japanese already had an advantage in the Pacific.”

Noonan had his navigational experience on which to rely, but the shortage of fuel, combined with the fact that they were flying low at 1,000 feet and were trying to find Howland Island while the engines droned, they were short on sleep and the wide open ocean rolled beneath them might have contributed to miscalculations.

“It was a tough navigational problem, but it was certainly doable,” Vinson said. “If he charted Howland Island and the island was five miles off, the question becomes how far until they can see the island at 1,000 feet. Within two miles of it charted, they possibly could have seen it, but there were clouds casting shadows on the surface of the ocean, and that meant that they could be going toward a shadow.”

Vinson elaborated, “They’d been flying for 18 hours over open ocean, and at 6:15 in the morning, Amelia wants the bearing to the ship. They’re about 200 miles out, and at 6:45, she thinks they’re about 100 miles out. At 7:42, the gas is low and they’re unable to reach her by radio, but they hear her saying that she’s flying at 1,000 feet. The Itasca’s crew can hear what she’s saying, but it was a hard navigational problem, they may be circling trying to get their bearing, and maybe Fred Noonan was at the end of the navigational solution, or the plane antenna may be broken. Her equipment was not designed to work on the channel 7500, but she wants a bearing from the ship and she’s telling them to answer with voice — because they’re using Morse code — and they don’t know why she was on that channel.”

At 8 a.m., Earhart asked in code for a bearing on the ship, but this time on another radio channel, 3105, but the ship could not take a bearing on her at that frequency.

“Her last transmission was at 8:43 a.m., and it was that they were at the 157-337 (north and south),” Vinson detailed. “It’s been an hour since they had low fuel, and I think the engines coughed. She has to throw down the microphone and trim out a dead stick landing, possibly landing on water. The silence must have been deafening after flying all those hours with the engines roaring.”

Countless expeditions have been dispatched to the Central Pacific, but so far, nobody has been able to return with a definitive piece of evidence showing that Earhart landed near Howland Island or at Gardner Island, the next available, yet uninhabited, island over.

“We’re convinced the airplane is in deep water. There are several main theories – one group says that she couldn’t fly to the island, so she kept flying south and flew another two and a half hours until she hit Gardner Island,” Vinson said. “There’s a group, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, or TIGHAR, that says she flew until she died as a castaway on an island in the Pacific; another group that says she was a spy for the U.S. Navy who flew up to the Marshall Islands west of Howland Islands and was captured by the Japanese and executed in Saipan; and some say that she turned back, but that’s not realistic because to fly to Gardner would take another two and a half hours and it’s uninhabited, they were running north and south, and Howland was the only inhabited island there.”

Getting to Howland Island, at 10 knots, takes a week to cover the 1,900 miles from Honolulu.

“There’s nothing out there,” Vinson commented, highlighting that the trip from Honolulu to the triangulated swath of ocean can mean endless hours of seeing nothing but the sea, sky and perhaps a bird or some dolphins, something that’s made him grateful for land and trees, for wildlife and the bumpy horizons of Bluff Country when he returns home.

There are some perks to being that far at sea, however. Vinson is a lifelong ham radio operator, as are most of the rest of the Rockwell Collins team members, so he’s thrilled to have recorded a conversation that not many people will ever be able to hold.

“One of the things we do is set up a link…one of the ham radio operators from Houston got the orbital paths of the international space station so that when the space station comes around every 90 minutes, we could be calling from sea to space,” Vinson said. “It’s all line of sight to their antenna. And sunrise and sunsets are the best part of the day at sea.”

Even if the explorers do not locate Earhart’s aircraft, they will have come to some conclusions about where to look next. And while they’re afloat seeking the plane’s wreckage, they’ll be offering some views of their adventures to area school children through the SeaWord non-profit arm of Nauticos.

“This expedition, Rockwell Collins donated $10,000 for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, and we’ve developed a web portal. Rockwell Collins donated our labor and cash to support the STEM education,” Vinson said. “I’m hoping to update the portal at so people from Chatfield can see pictures from the expedition itself, and as for STEM education, I’m trying to work with Kristy Cook at the elementary — we’re hoping to set up Skype, or at least audio. We’ll try to set up Skype sessions live with Chatfield and Stewartville schools, as we’ll actually have a person from NASA onboard who developed the curriculum.”

The team’s ultimate hope is to raise Earhart’s plane and refurbish its wreckage, placing it on a river barge to form a floating museum that will stop in 68 cities because it will be accessible by water for everyone to see.

“People would be able to read about Amelia Earhart’s life…we hope to give it to the Smithsonian after about eight years so that it could be back with her Lockheed Vega, making history available for people to see,” he added.

Vinson concluded, “It’s exciting that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, especially when it comes to solving one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century.”