Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Tragedy and Triumph of the Dole

Eighty-eight years ago today, on August 16th 1927, one of the most tragic events of the Golden Age of Aviation began, an air race from California to Hawaii which, in the weeks before and after, dominated the American press.

8x10 press photo of the start of the Dole Air Race in Oakland, California on August 16, 1927. Caption pasted on the back reads, "General view of flying field where four planes took off for Honolulu in the Dole $35,000 prize air derby. The Oklahoma is seen on the starting line, with other planes in rear awaiting their turn. Underwood photo."

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).

"July 23 - Resting place of Smith's plane, City of Oakland, in a tree on the island of Molokai". Photo also includes an editorial note: "These four pictures [the archive only has one] of the Smith flight to the Hawaiian Islands were rushed by steamer back to the mainland, and thence by fast mail to all points."

For the rest of the teams planning on competing for the prize, a derby-style takeoff was planned for August 16th. In an expression of city pride, Oakland built a 7,020 foot runway, the longest in the world at the time, just for the event. To determine the order of departure, a drawing was held by the NAA at the Matson Building in San Francisco, an odd twist given Dole’s motivation for offering the prize.

Before the race even started, three planes, The Spirit of John Rogers, The Angel of Los Angeles and The Pride of Los Angeles (a unique twin-engined 22-passenger CF-10 triplane) crashed, resulting in three deaths and two injuries. Another, The Air King (City of Peoria) was disqualified by the race committee because they believed it couldn’t carry enough fuel for the trip. At least one other crewman was disqualified for not meeting skills requirements.

"Aug 11 - Disaster overtakes the 'Hoot' Gibson Triplane, Pride of Los Angeles as it attempts a landing at Oakland Airport after flying north from Los Angeles to enter the Dole fllight to Honolulu. Pilot James L. Giffin and companions prepare to abandon ship after crashing in the water a few yards from Oakland airport. Picture shows flyers, plane, shore, and runway of field in background, with swimer from shore bringing line to flyers. (Acme)"

On August 16th, a huge crowd - a large as 100,000 by some press reports - had gathered at the Oakland airport to see the racers take off. Oklahoma, one of two Travel Air 5000s competing, was flown by Bennett Griffin and navigated by Al Henley, was first, taking off just after 11am. They didn’t get far, though: the engine started overheating over San Francisco, and Griffin turned back.

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.

The prototype Lockheed Vega, Golden Eagle, is delivered factory-new to the Oakland airfield, still wearing its original X-2788 registration. From left to right are race pilot Jack Frost, Lockheed test pilot Eddie Bellande, principal designer Jack Northrop, Allan Loughead (aka Lockheed) and Ken Jay.

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
To the distress of everyone, both the Golden Eagle and Miss Doran were no-shows, and officially listed as missing. Another $50,000 in reward money was posted by various parties to help spur the search for the missing planes and fliers. In Michigan, the loss of school teacher Mildred Doran was taken hard, an eerie foreshadowing of the reaction decades later at the loss of Christa McAuliffe in the Challenger accident. The Navy Secretary E. W. Everle authorized the largest ever search effort, and tasked three submarines, and several destroyers already on patrol in the Pacific with searching. All 28 patrol planes from the carrier USS Langley were launched, but despite all the effort, no sign was found.

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.


  1. Thanks for this excellent post

  2. What an interesting article, the early days of aviation were extremely exciting but very costly, with lots of lost heroes.