With the Atlantic Ocean conquered by Charles Lindbergh only three month earlier, the next biggest prize was the next biggest ocean, the Pacific. James D. Dole, the American entrepreneur who, with his Hawaiian Pineapple Company, had taken a South American fruit and turned it into a major plantation crop on the Hawaiian Islands. Dole was, however, at the mercy of the shipping lines, especially Matson, to get his crop to the mainland, and when Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize by demonstrating that aviation could conquer oceans, Dole realized that aviation could also, one day, delivery pineapples, and so should be encouraged. Thus, he posted a purse of $35,000 ($25,000 for first place, $10,000 for second place) for the first two planes which successfully flew from Oakland to Honolulu, a distance of about 2,400 miles, and which met a number of very specific criteria.
The irony is that the Army had already been planning such a flight, and utilized a large Fokker C-2 Trimotor known as the Bird of Paradise, flown by Lt. Albert F. Hegenberger and Lt. Lester J. Maitland. The pair successfully completed the flight in a time of 25 hours, 50 minutes, flying from Oakland to Wheeler Army Air Field. Because they didn’t land at Honolulu, they were disqualified from winning the Dole prize, but did secure the 1927 Macay Trophy, an annual award presented by the Air Corps (now Air Force) for the most meritorious flight of the year, as well as each receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross (Hegenberger would also go on to win the Collier Trophy for his work in developing blind flying techniques).
The first civilian flight to make it to the Islands also failed to secure one of the Dole prizes. Ernie Smith and Emory Bronte flew a Travel Air 5000 named The City of Oakland, departing on July 14, 1927. After a flight of 25 hours, 36 minutes they found themselves over the island of Molokai and out of gas, and with no airfields to land at, they had to settle for putting the plane down in some trees. And, of course, since they didn’t land at Honolulu, they, too, were disqualified from the Dole prize.
|The City of Oakland departs its namesake in a bid to become the first civilian aircraft to fly across the Pacific to Hawaii. The goal was Honolulu, and they almost made it (see below).|
|The Travel Air 5000 Oklahoma waiting on the starting line. One of two Travel Airs sponsored by the Phillips Oil Company, Oklahoma turned back with a misbehaving engine.|
Second in the lineup was El Encanto, a custom-built Goddard Special flown by Norman Goddard and navigated by Kenneth Hawkins. The odds-makers, before the race, had heavily favored this unique monoplane, but it didn’t even get off the ground, swerving and crashing on its takeoff roll.
Virtually the same thing happened to the Pabco Pacific Flyer, one of a pair of Breese-Wilde Model 5s entered. The plane was being flown solo by Livingston G. Irving, son of the mayor of Berkeley. Since Livingston was a decorated WWI pilot, he was able to qualify to fill both the pilot and navigator positions, so flew solo in order to be able to carry more fuel. But, fuel was his undoing. The plane was very heavily loaded, and on its first attempt he was not able to lift off, instead running off the end of the runway.
Fourth was the Hearst Papers’ Golden Eagle, the prototype Lockheed Vega, with Jack Frost and Gordon Scott. Unique and far advanced in both design and construction, Golden Eagle was filled with safety features and was another favorite to win, since it was clearly the fastest plane in the field of competitors.
Miss Doran, a Buhl, was fifth, and it too experienced engine problems right after takeoff. Flown by Auggy Pedlar with Vilas R. Knope as navigator, the plane was named for Mildred Doran, a Michigan schoolteacher who was to be the only woman, and the only passenger in the race.
Next was Dallas Spirit, a monoplane custom-built by the Swallow Airplane Company to fly in two prize flights: the Dole, and a $25,000 offering by William Easterwood for the first plane to fly from Dallas to Hong Kong. Flown by William P. Erwin and navigated by Alvin Eichwaldt, the Dallas Spirit fell victim to a mis-installed panel on the fuselage, which led to a large portion of the skin fabric ripping off shortly after takeoff. They were able to return to Oakland safely, but repairs would then take too long.
|The Aloha takes off from Oakland.|
Aloha, the second Breese-Wilde Model 5 then took off with Martin Jensen and Paul Schluter. Schluter wasn’t an aviator, but rather was a marine navigator who had seen an advertisement in the newspaper placed by Jensen. They were followed by the other Travel Air 5000, the Woolaroc, named after the Oklahoma ranch of sponsor and oilman Frank Phillips, and crewed by Arthur C. Goebel and William V. Davis, Jr. Phillips, of Phillips Petroleum, had sponsored both Wollaroc and Oklahoma as way of promoting the company’s Nu-Aviation brand of gasoline.
|This Acme press photo is dated August 9, 1927, but doesn't give an location of where it was shot.|
Miss Doran, her engine now fixed and running smoothly, departed a second time, followed by the Pabco Pacific Flyer. Since the plane wasn’t damaged when it ran off the end of the runway earlier, it was towed back to the starting line for another try. This time, Irving tried to lift off without sufficient airspeed, immediately stalled and landed hard, collapsing the gear.
So after all the hoopla, drama and carnage at Oakland, four planes were in the air and heading west, Golden Eagle, Aloha, Woolaroc and Miss Doran.
In Honolulu, there was great expectation the next day, and scores of people went to the field to await the arrival of the four contestants. Only two showed up. The first was Woolaroc, which had flown a great circle route in 26 hours, 17 minutes. Almost exactly two hours later, Aloha also arrived, having flown a more “direct” route (Schluter should have know better, and as a result, out of the $10,000 second place prize, Jensen only paid his navigator the advertised fee of $25!).
|The Aloha arrives in Honolulu.|
|Photo donated by Vonrad Trading Post|
|Photo donated by Vonrad Trading Post|
The repairs to the Dallas Spirit took two days, and even though the prize money was all claimed, Erwin and Eichwaldt decided to make the flight anyways, and on the way try and search for the missing planes. After Hawaii, they planned to press on to their other goal of Hong Kong. Livingston Irving donated the short-wave radio from the Pabco Pacific Flyer, so that they could make calls in case they found signs of the lost planes. When they were about 650 miles west of Oakland, Eichwaldt sent out a call that the plane had gone into a spin, but that Erwin had managed to recover. This was followed shortly afterwards by another call, that they were in a spin once more. This message was interrupted midway through, presumably because the plane either broke apart or crashed into the water. No sign of wreckage was ever found. In the aftermath, the Dallas Spirit had been built by Swallow on the condition that the company receive some of the prize money from both the Dole and the Hong Kong flights. The loss of the plane - and thus the promised cash - was enough that Swallow had to declare bankruptcy.
No sign of Miss Doran was ever found, either. However, there is an enduring mystery surrounding the Golden Eagle. There were some indications that Frost had actually reached Hawaii...the big island, that is, and had crashed on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano. In the days after the race, reports started filtering in that people had heard an airplane engine over the island, that there had been sightings, one of which even said that the tail number, NX-913, had been seen (this was dismissed, because the number was so similar to the Aloha’s, NX-914). However, at least seventeen different witnesses, at different locations around the Big Island, reported seeing Very flares (named for Edward Very, the US Navy officer who had invented the flare gun) on the night of August 18th, and again on the night of the 21st.
Army Captain E. R. Block, who was stationed on the island, saw the flares, and was convinced that a plane was down, and he and a sergeant started out on foot up the mountain. Their mission, however, was interrupted when the sergeant suffered an appendicitis and they had to return to post. Relatives of the crew, and even Martin Jensen himself, became more and more convinced that the Golden Eagle had indeed gone down on Mauna Loa. Unfortunately, the 13,680 volcano was active at that time, and besides the steam and lava coming from its crater, the flanks were typically shrouded in fog, making an air search impossible during the rest of August. Careful interviews of the witnesses, which included testing their recognition of lights and flares fired in test from the mountain, all pointed to actual flares having been fired in a fairly defined area at the 8,000 foot level, in an area that was still a very hot lava flow.
No physical evidence of the Golden Eagle was ever found, but then again, a wooden airplane landing in that volcanic hell would have likely been quickly obliterated. Two years later, search efforts were still being undertaken, the final one including a large flight of Army mapping planes which photographed a 10-square mile area of the mountain with large-format cameras. Detailed scrutiny of the photos failed to provide even a single clue.
The Aloha was subsequently converted to a passenger plane and was used by the Hawaiian Air Tours company, before being returned to the US, where it served as an aerial photography platform for the New York Daily News. It was destroyed in a hangar fire in 1933.
Woolaroc is the only surviving plane of the race, and is on display at the Woolaroc Ranch Museum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.