In the summer of 1927 two airframe manufacturers bet the future on an ill-fated race across the Pacific Ocean – a race that left one company in a tailspin and the other flying high.
By 1927 the commercial aviation industry in the United States was still in its infancy. By contrast, cars and jazz music were fast becoming “all the rage” as millions of Americans accelerated a never-ending romance with the automobile. Although it had been nearly 10 years since the end of the Great War that made “aces” and their airplanes front page news, as the “Roaring Twenties” entered its last three years the flying machine still was largely regarded as a novelty – a mysterious contraption that few people believed would amount to anything useful.
In May of that year, a young airmail pilot changed that misguided perception forever. Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo, eastbound flight across the Atlantic Ocean from New York City to Paris, France, firmly demonstrated the airplane’s potential as a vehicle for long distance travel. A few decades and another world war later, the airplane eventually brought the glory days of transoceanic travel and transcontinental railroads to an ignominious end. As pioneer aviator Clyde V. Cessna said in 1911, “Speed is the only reason for flying.”
A few years before Lindbergh’s epic trek above the treacherous North Atlantic, Wichita, Kansas, had earned a reputation as one of the first, if not the first, city in the United States to embrace the mass manufacture of airplanes for commercial sale. Before “Lucky Lindy” (a term that Lindbergh hated) chose a Ryan monoplane for his flight, he had contacted Walter H. Beech, president of the Wichita-based Travel Air Manufacturing Company, in February 1927 about building an airplane suitable for the journey. His telegram is quoted here in full:
“New York-Paris flight under consideration. Requires Whirlwind plane capable of 45 hours flight with pilot only. If you can deliver, state price and earliest delivery date.”
Mr. Beech knew the company could custom-build a monoplane to Lindbergh’s specifications, but that would mean delaying for weeks the production of airplanes already on order. It was with a sense of regret that Beech telegraphed Lindbergh that the company could not delay production and delivery of customer airplanes. Walter did, however, send a hearty congratulations to Lindbergh before he landed at Le Bourget Airport on the night of May 21. The lanky airmail pilot quickly sent Beech a telegram thanking him for expressing confidence that the flight would be a success. Apparently, Walter had faith in Lindbergh and never doubted that the Spirit of St. Louis would land in Paris after more than 33 hours in the air.1
Lindbergh’s flight ignited America’s zeal for aviation, and only four days after Lindbergh’s arrival in France, James D. Dole, the wealthy owner of Hawaii’s pineapple empire, offered a prize of $25,000 for the first airplane to fly nonstop from California to the United States Army’s Wheeler Field near Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. The second-place finisher would receive $10,000. The only stipulation was that the flight had to be nonstop and completed within one year after the date of Aug. 12, 1927.
When Lindbergh landed in France, Dole was in San Francisco, California, reading the newspapers about “Lucky Lindy’s” triumphant flight. After considerable thought and discussion, Dole had the following statement printed in the Honolulu Star Telegram for May 25, 1927:
“James D. Dole, believing that Charles A. Lindbergh’s extraordinary feat in crossing the Atlantic is the forerunner of eventual transpacific air transportation, offers $25,000 to the first flyer and $10,000 to the second flyer to cross from the North American continent to Honolulu in a nonstop flight within one year after the year beginning Aug. 12, 1927.”
In the wake of Dole’s challenge, air racing fever reached a near fever pitch. By late June the Travel Air company had received 17 orders for specially-modified monoplanes to compete for the prize, but these were rejected when it became clear that the pilots lacked not only the money necessary to build such an airplane, but the qualifications and experience to fly it halfway across the vast Pacific Ocean.2
Meanwhile, north of downtown Wichita, 54-year old Jacob “Jake” Moellendick was facing a major decision that he knew would either “make or break” the Swallow Airplane Manufacturing Company. The business had begun in 1919 when Jake and E.M. “Matty” Laird teamed up to produce the Swallow – a double-bay, three-place biplane powered by the ubiquitous, war-surplus Curtiss OX-5 engine. By late 1923 about 40 had been sold before Laird resigned and relocated to his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, where he became a successful builder of custom biplanes.
In early summer 1927 a Texan named William P. Erwin had placed an order for a cabin monoplane specially designed and equipped to compete in the Dole race. Time was short – only two months remained before the Aug. 12 deadline. Jake’s chief engineer, Waverly Stearman (brother of Lloyd C. Stearman) was in the process of completing the engineering drawings and plans to build the ship to Erwin’s specifications.
For years Moellendick had been a gambler, betting that his oil fields in Kansas would strike black gold (and they often did). Customers for the Swallow were becoming impatient to take delivery of their airplanes, the backlog already was more than the small factory and workforce could cope with, and dealers were becoming angry as delays continued. Jake, however, made up his mind to build Erwin’s airplane. The production line screeched to a halt and all resources were directed to building the monoplane Erwin called Dallas Spirit.3
By early August, activity at the Swallow facilities had reached a frenetic pace as workers scrambled to complete Erwin’s ship in time for the race. The rules of the race required that each pilot have a navigator, and Erwin signed up Alvin Eichwaldt who was soon familiarizing himself with the airplane’s navigator compartment. Unfortunately, the Swallow monoplane missed the entry deadline, but an agreement was reached that delayed the takeoff date to Aug. 16.
As with his old friend Jake, Walter Beech also was willing to take a risk. The board of directors authorized him to negotiate with only two pilots desiring to place orders – Arthur Goebel and Bennett Griffin – to custom-build Type 5000 monoplanes for the race. Goebel was a well-known pilot and respected businessman based at Clover Field near Santa Monica, California. He learned to fly in 1920 and had flown many stunt scenes for National Pictures, Inc. Walter Beech received his order June 17 and Goebel arrived at the factory for five days of interviews and questions about his flying abilities. Finally, he signed a contract and plunked down the required $5,000 deposit to begin construction, with the balance $15,000 due upon delivery early in August.
The second order received by the Travel Air Company came from Griffin and navigator Al Henley. After the usual interviews and questioning about their experience in the air, they signed a contract and handed Walter Beech $15,000 to have their airplane ready by August. Griffin had flown French-built Nieuport bombers during the war, and Henley had 10 years of flying under his belt and learned aerial navigation in the U.S. Army. Their money came from four businessmen in Oklahoma therefore the ship was named “Oklahoma” in honor of the state.
Goebel still needed a navigator. His good friend and naval aviator D.W. Tomlinson recommended Lieutenant William V. Davis. He was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy (Class of 1924), was trained in celestial and marine navigation and was an expert with radio communications equipment. The Navy granted the young lieutenant temporary leave to fly with Goebel.4
As the time for delivery of both monoplanes approached, Goebel could not pay the balance due. Fortunately, oilman Frank Phillips, who had agreed to help sponsor the Oklahoma, decided to fund Goebel’s airplane, too. Phillips’ only request was that the Travel Air be named in honor of his grand estate near Bartlesville known as Woolaroc – a blend of the words Woods, Lakes and Rocks. Both Griffin and Goebel flew their airplanes to Bartlesville so Phillips could see what he was paying for – $30,000 – worth of flying fuel tanks. Each ship carried more than 450 gallons of Nu-Aviation fuel, recently developed by the Phillips Petroleum Company for the aviation industry.
Time was running out for entrants to arrive at Oakland, California, for inspections prior to race day, and both Griffin and Goebel flew west, the former arriving Aug. 6 and the latter Aug. 9. Of the original 15 contenders, only eight remained. Three aircraft had been wrecked and one was disqualified as totally unsuitable for a transoceanic dash. The other three withdrew because of funding, construction issues or second thoughts about flying to Hawaii.
Race officials emphasized that a navigation error of only two or three degrees across a distance of 2,500 miles would result in missing the Hawaiian Islands entirely, with certain death awaiting in the cold depths of the Pacific Ocean. A few of the airplanes were poorly equipped to undertake the flight, with only two magnetic compasses to guide their brave airmen, but others, including the three ships built in Wichita – Oklahoma, Woolaroc and Dallas Spirit – were equipped with state-of-the-art earth in-ductor compasses developed by the Pioneer Instrument Company. Both Erwin and Eichwaldt had finished their tests and were found qualified to take off for Hawaii, as were Goebel and Griffin.
As race day approached, final preparations were completed by each crew and their airplanes fueled for takeoff the next morning. A signal code was transmitted to any ships plying the sea lanes between Hawaii and California during the race. In addition, 10 commercial merchant vessels and eight U.S. Navy destroyers would be cruising the same area and were instructed to fly signal flags in a code that would indicate their distance from San Francisco along a Great Circle Route. That would allow airplanes to swoop low over the ships and verify their position. As a final measure, ships were given descriptions of each airplane in the race and the order they would depart Oakland Airport. If pilots saw a ship at night, they were to signal their race number in Morse Code and the ship would transmit the sighting to San Francisco and Honolulu.
The stage was set to begin the great aerial trek to Oahu. The next day, at precisely high noon in Oakland, the first airplane would take off into the western sky to be followed by seven other ships and their intrepid crews. Before them lie 2,500 miles of empty, unforgiving ocean and a black night frought with hazards. The Dole Race was never intended for the faint of heart, the fearful or the weak. It was both an enormous gamble and an exciting adventure, with either glory or death awaiting them all.
- It is important to point out that development of the static, air-cooled radial engine during the early mid-1920s made many long-distance flights of the late 1920s possible. Lindbergh had specified that a Wright Aeronautical, nine-cylinder J-5-series Whirlwind engine power his Ryan Spirit of St. Louis monoplane. Water-cooled piston engines of the time had reached a high degree of development but were heavier and more vulnerable to systems failures on long flights.
- The first airplane to make a nonstop flight to Hawaii was a U.S. Army Fokker monoplane named the Bird of Paradise piloted by Lieutenants Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger. They departed California June 28, 1927, and landed at Wheeler Field the next day. The first commercial airplane to complete a nonstop flight to Hawaii was a Travel Air Type 5000 cabin monoplane dubbed City of Oakland, flown by Ernest Smith. The first attempt in June had to be aborted, but in July he was ready for a second attempt. After flying for more than 25 hours, Smith and his navigator, Emory Bronte, made a forced landing on the island of Molokai after the Wright radial engine suffered fuel exhaustion. Unfortunately, their flight has been largely forgotten. It was, however, well planned and carefully executed and made an important contribution to the advancement of aeronautics and long-distance flying.
- Erwin had been a captain in the Great War and despite being shot down six times in combat, managed to shoot down eight of the enemy. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his feats in the air.
- In the author’s opinion, Davis ranked as one of the most competent navigators enlisted by Dole race competitors, and Goebel was glad to have him on the Travel Air Woolaroc’s team. Later, Goebel would praise Davis for his performance during the long overwater flight that kept them safely on course all the way to the island of Oahu.