Soon after “Lucky Lindy’s” solo flight from New York to Paris in May 1927, Wichita’s Travel Air Company was deluged with orders for airplanes capable of flying nonstop to Honolulu. Competing in the trans-Pacific free-for-all would be risky business, but Walter Beech welcomed the challenge.
In June 1927, anyone walking past the office of Travel Air President Walter H. Beech would not have been surprised to see him puffing on his ubiquitous pipe as a column of smoke slowly rose to the ceiling. Earlier that year Beech had inherited the top management position from his friend and fellow aviation pioneer, Clyde V. Cessna, following the latter’s resignation to establish his own company.
Walter was busy perusing a pile of 17 telegrams on his desk, slowly sifting through each one in an attempt to digest its message. The local telegraph operator had been busy delivering them during the past few days, and more were anticipated. The telegrams all had one thing in common: How soon can Travel Air build an airplane to compete in the Dole Race?
It is hard for Americans today to understand just how tightly “flying fever” gripped the nation in the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s epic crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. To the public, whose generally negative perception of flight stemmed from deadly dogfights during the Great War, aviation was viewed as a new and dangerous activity with little or no future. In 1927, flying to Paris was akin to Apollo 11’s flight to the moon in 1969.
In February, the young airmail pilot had sent a telegram to Mr. Beech asking if Travel Air could build an airplane capable of reaching Paris. Yes, the company could design and construct such a ship, but Travel Air also had an obligation to meet existing orders from paying customers. In view of the very tight timeline of less than three months, Beech had no choice but to decline the opportunity. He was aware of the pressure the factory was experiencing as workers struggled to complete a contract for National Air Transport. The airline had ordered eight of Travel Air’s Type 5000 cabin monoplanes for service on its Chicago-Dallas route, and only three had been delivered.
Only four days after “Lindy” plunked down his Ryan monoplane on Le Bourget Field in Paris, half a world away in Hawaii a banner headline appeared in Honolulu’s Star Bulletin newspaper. James D. Dole, a prominent pineapple tycoon, was offering $25,000 to the first pilot to fly nonstop from the North American continent to Honolulu “within one year after the year beginning August 12, 1927.” The second place pilot would receive $10,000. As Dole Race historian Lesley Forden wrote, “And thus it was that James Dole, in his admiration for Charles Lindbergh and his enthusiasm to hasten air transportation to the Hawaiian Islands, launched the greatest air race of the time – a spectacular if ill-advised transoceanic marathon that would result for many flyers in financial frustration, hardship, and for others, death.”1
Although Dole’s contest was aimed at aviators flying commercial aircraft, the U.S. Army made the first nonstop flight to the Territory of Hawaii in the summer of 1927. On June 28, Lieutenants Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger took off from Oakland airport in their specially-prepared Fokker C-2 monoplane Bird of Paradise powered by a trio of Wright Whirlwind static, air-cooled radial engines. After a flight that lasted more than 25 hours, the C-2 landed at the Army’s Wheeler Field near Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii.2
Meanwhile, back at Santa Monica’s Clover Field, H.C. Lippiatt looked up from his desk and greeted his friend Arthur C. Goebel, Jr. Lippiatt was a dealer for Travel Air and was considered by Walter Beech to be an important part of its West Coast sales and marketing organization, along with D.C Warren in the Oakland area. Both Lippiatt and Warren were among the company’s earliest agents and the airplane business was good for both men thanks to California’s wealthy residents, particularly those who made their fortunes in film.
Goebel and Lippiatt soon found themselves talking about the upcoming Dole competition. Art was well known within the tight-knit aviation community as an excellent pilot. He had been flying since 1920 and was sometimes employed temporarily as one of many “stunt” pilots for National Pictures, Inc. Art was a member of the famous “Thirteen Black Cats” – a group of local airmen who flew a motley assortment of colorful but old Curtiss Jennies. The “Cats” performed various stunts at local events and July Fourth celebrations as well as creating aerial scenes for Hollywood movie camera crews.
Their most spectacular stunt was the intentional (and carefully-executed) mid-air collision between two biplanes (a $1,500 deposit in advance was required). In addition, Goebel also operated a small aviation repair shop on Clover Field and proved to be a successful businessman.
Goebel told Lippiatt that he wanted to enter the Dole race and was considering a Type 5000 Travel Air Transport for the flight. The big monoplane would be well suited to such a task and possessed more than enough space in its broad wings and voluminous cabin to mount multiple fuel tanks – tanks that would have to carry at least 450 gallons (including a 15 percent reserve) of aviation gasoline to make the 2,400-mile flight to Honolulu.
Lippiatt was quick to inform Art that Walter Beech already had 16 potential orders in hand for Type 5000 ships to be built expressly for the race, and the chance that his order would be accepted were, at best, very slim. He made it clear that Walter Beech and Travel Air’s board of directors would be looking closely at every order, paying particular attention to who would be flying and navigating the airplanes. The final decision would be heavily influenced by Mr. Beech.
Undaunted, Goebel set about acquiring two things as quickly as possible: A $5,000 deposit and a financial supporter with deep pockets who could afford to pay off the balance due on a Travel Air racer. He would have to work fast. It was already early June and less than two months remained before the race was scheduled to take place.
Fortunately for Art, four of his best friends agreed to provide the $5,000 down payment he desperately needed in hope of securing a Travel Air. Of these four friends, Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Knechtel resided in Hollywood where Mr. Knechtel worked as a movie camera man. The other couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cal Chandler, lived in the up-and-coming posh neighborhood of Beverly Hills where Mr. Chandler operated real estate and publishing businesses.
By June 17, 1927, Beech had received Goebel’s order along with the deposit. The 31-year old pilot now faced the toughest part of his dream to fly in the race to Hawaii: interrogation. Art was summoned to the Travel Air factory in Wichita, Kansas, where he met Beech and other company officials. For the next five days Goebel was subjected to a barrage of questions about flying, navigation, engine operation, preparation for the race and who would be his navigator. A navigator was required for every entrant because an error of only two or three degrees across 2,400 miles of ocean could spell the difference between victory and death. It was serious business, and James Dole had given the National Aeronautic Association complete responsibility to oversee the race to ensure it would be conducted in the safest manner possible.
After grilling Goebel for five days, Beech announced that the company agreed to build Art a Type 5000 for the race. Relieved, he returned to California and began to make further preparations. He chose Cal Chandler as his manager, and Beech promised support from Travel Air throughout the preparation phase. At the same time Goebel was under scrutiny by Beech, two other fliers who managed to plunk down $5,000 were receiving the same in-depth examination by Beech and other officials.
Bennett H. Griffin and Al Henley were a year older than Art and both were experienced pilots. Griffin was a flight instructor during the Great War and later flew bombers over the Italian front. Henley had been flying for 10 years and learned the science of aerial and celestial navigation from the U.S. Army. Both men eventually passed muster with Mr. Beech and set about making their preparations to enter the competition. Griffin and Henley had secured their down payment from friends and businessmen in Oklahoma, namely George Henshaw, Fred Copshaw, William Armstrong and James Wilson.
Beech quickly authorized construction of the two monoplanes and hand-picked work crews began a race against time to build, test and deliver the airplanes to Goebel and Griffin in a matter of weeks, not months. Engineer Horace Weihmiller was in charge of designing and installing the fuel tanks (manufactured locally) in both ships. Although both monoplanes were identical, important modifications had to be made for the race.
Beech did not agree with some of the modifications stipulated by Griffin, who insisted that the airplane be stripped of everything but its essential airframe structure in order to accommodate as much fuel as possible. The airplane featured a different window arrangement below the cockpit and the Wright Whirlwind radial engine used a standard exhaust manifold.
In addition, the standard cupola-type cockpit canopy was lengthened to cover the aft navigator station. As construction progressed, Beech and his engineers continued to make suggestions to both Goebel and Griffin, some of which were accepted while others were rejected. By comparison, Goebel’s ship was a standard Type 5000 modified to accommodate additional fuel and oil tanks and a navigator’s station.
As both airplanes neared completion, Mr. Beech inquired as to when the money would arrive to pay off the balance owed, which amounted to about $15,000 for each aircraft. Until it was paid the airplanes would not be delivered and that would prove disastrous for Goebel and Griffin, but business was business and Beech had no intention of relenting. He was taking a big risk building not one but two transports for the race, and his first obligation was to investors.
Fortunately for both pilots, they found an important ally and friend in Billy Parker. Only 28 years of age, Parker was a highly respected, no-nonsense aviator who had known Walter Beech for a long time. In years past, the two had often flown barnstorming tours together throughout the Midwest region. Billy also had an engineering background that helped him in his job developing aviation fuels for the Phillips Petroleum Company based in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
His boss, oilman Frank Phillips, had introduced a new blend called Nu-Aviation gasoline that was in use by pilots and airlines across the United States. Parker had been busy evaluating the fuel using his Travel Air Type 4000 biplane when he met Bennett Griffin and Al Henley. They convinced Billy to approach Phillips about paying off the balance due for the Travel Air. After much discussion Phillips agreed and cut a check for $15,000. Shortly thereafter, Art Goebel sought the same backing from Phillips who paid off another Travel Air and suddenly had two airplanes in the dash to Hawaii.
After weeks of nearly around the clock shifts, Griffin and Henley’s monoplane was completed on July 29 and flown by Travel Air’s chief pilot, Clarence Clark. Emblazoned on each side of the fuselage in large letters was the name OKLAHOMA in honor of his financial backers. A few days later, Goebel’s ship emerged from the factory and carefully evaluated by Clark, who deemed both ships ready for delivery. Art’s transport was named WOOLAROC at the behest of Frank Phillips. The word stood for “woods, lakes and rocks” that described the topography around the Phillips ranch near Bartlesville.3
During the first week of August both Travel Airs were winging their way west toward Oakland, California. Billy Parker arrived to supervise fueling of both ships with Nu-Aviation fuel, 20 barrels of which had been shipped out West to top off the tanks of both the Oklahoma and the Woolaroc. Griffin and Henley were all set to go, but Goebel still lacked a navigator. His good friend D.W. Tomlinson, a lieutenant in U.S. Navy, strongly recommended Lieutenant William V. Davis, Jr. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis (class of 1924), Davis served on the U.S.S. Idaho and the grandfather of all American aircraft carriers, the U.S.S. Langley. He was trained on celestial and marine navigation and was familiar with the latest in radio communication equipment. Placed on temporary leave, Davis joined Goebel in time to make the necessary preparations for the race.
As August 16 approached, a total of 15 airplanes had been entered in the Dole race. Of these, a few withdrew because they could not meet all requirements to participate, three had been wrecked and another was disqualified. The eight remaining pilots drew lots to determine takeoff position. Griffin held the number one slot and Goebel drew number seven.
On August 7, Walter Beech arrived in a Type 4000 and made final plans to personally oversee every facet of final preparations of the two modified transports, particularly servicing and maintenance. Billy Parker was there, too, carefully monitoring the fueling process on race day as both ships were filled to the brim with Phillips aviation gasoline.
At noon on August 16, the starter flag dropped and the Oklahoma staggered forward as men pushed on the life struts to help the ship gain momentum. After a takeoff run of 3,000 feet, the Travel Air was airborne and heading west toward the vast Pacific Ocean. The Woolaroc also took off without incident. At last, Goebel and Davis were on their way westward. Other entrants that made a safe departure included the Lockheed Vega Golden Eagle, Buhl Air Sedan Miss Doran, Swallow Dallas Spirit and the Breese monoplane Aloha. Of the remaining entrants, the Pabco Pacific Flyer crashed on takeoff, as did the El Encanto.
Less than one hour after taking off, the Oklahoma returned to the airport and landed. Beech wanted to know exactly what the problem was, and Griffin complained that the Whirlwind’s cylinder head temperatures were too high. Having lost confidence in the engine, Griffin withdrew from the contest, leaving the Woolaroc to soldier on westward. So far, Beech’s gamble that two Travel Airs would reach Hawaii was off to a bad start.
High above the Pacific Ocean, however, the Woolaroc and her two companions were winging their way across the waves without incident. Goebel landed the Type 5000 on Wheeler Field, Territory of Hawaii, on August 17 after flying for 26 hours, 17 minutes, 33 seconds. His careful management of the precious fuel supply paid off – the monoplane still had sufficient fuel for another five hours of flight. Two hours later the Aloha landed with very little fuel remaining in its tanks. Pilot Martin Jensen and navigator Paul Schulter were immensely relieved to be on terra firma once again.
Walter Beech’s great gamble had paid off. Travel Air would bask in the success of the Woolaroc’s victory for weeks after the race, and orders for the company’s airplanes kept piling up on the desk of office manager and chief secretary, Olive Ann Mellor. Art Goebel would go on to more fame and fortune in the years ahead and after World War II became a successful Beechcraft dealer. In 1928, William Davis became a member of the Navy’s Three Sea Hawks aerobatic team and in the “Jet Age” flew the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket at speeds above Mach 1. He retired as a vice admiral and eventually became Executive Director of the battleship Alabama (BB-60) permanently moored at Battleship Park in Mobile, Alabama. As for the legacy of the Dole race itself, 10 people died, five airplanes were wrecked and three were lost at sea. Of the 15 airplanes originally entered in the contest, only the Woolaroc survives.
- Forden, Lesley: “Glory Gamblers—The Story of the Dole Race.” Nottingham Press, Alameda, California, 1986.
- The C-2 is on display as part of the National Air and Space Museum collection in Washington, D.C.
- The fully restored Woolaroc and its achievement lives on in the Frank Phillips Museum. The monoplane hangs suspended from the ceiling in a special gallery dedicated to the Travel Air and her crew. The airplane’s nose is aligned on a heading for Honolulu.