On August 16, 1927, two airplanes built in Wichita, Kansas, took off from Oakland, California, bound for the shores of Hawaii, but only one would return triumphant.
By early August both Arthur Goebel and Bennett Griffin had arrived at the Oakland airport with their new Travel Air monoplanes, the Woolaroc and Oklahoma, respectively. Resplendent in their paint schemes of blue fuselage and orange wings, the Wichita ships looked impressive and appeared more than capable of making the 2,400-mile-long trek westward. William Erwin and Alvin Eichwaldt had finally arrived in the Dallas Spirit, painted in a conservative green and silver combination.
Early on the morning of August 16 a flood of spectators began arriving at the airport. By midmorning the crowd was estimated at 25,000 with other estimates as high as 100,000. The race was Oakland’s big event – merchants closed their shops, workers were given or took the day off and a large fleet of small boats filled with curiosity seekers bobbed gently in the waters of San Francisco Bay, almost directly in line with the end of the runway. As Dole race historian Lesley Forden writes, “The people at the airport brought their camp stools, picnic tables, lunches, ukuleles, cameras and field glasses to watch this crazy once-in-a-lifetime stunt, and they brought a great curiosity about this new and exciting world of airplanes and aviators.”
When the clock struck 12 the stirring of the crowds was overwhelmed by the ear-splitting roar of eight Wright Whirlwind radial engines as their pilots checked magnetos and checked oil pressure, temperature and RPM at full throttle. All of the racers were using the reliable Whirlwind, which had proved itself on Lindbergh’s Ryan monoplane and was fast becoming the engine of choice for commercial and military aircraft.
It was time for the first contestant to line up on the dirt runway, and Bennett Griffin taxied the Oklahoma into position, revved the engine to full throttle and watched anxiously for the starter’s flag to drop. Behind the Travel Air, arranged in a semicircle, stood the El Encanto, Pabco Pacific Flyer, Golden Eagle, Miss Doran, Aloha, Woolaroc and last, Dallas Spirit.
When the checkered flag finally dropped, the Oklahoma, heavily laden with more than 450 gallons of highly flammable aviation fuel, its Wright engine roaring at full throttle, struggled to move forward, but slowly accelerated as men pushed on the wing struts until the ship left them in the dust. At 12:02 pm the monoplane was airborne and heading out over the bay. Next came El Encanto, which promptly entered a ground loop and crashed, crushing the left wing as the landing gear failed. The Pabco Pacific Flyer was next to try, but the airplane suddenly rolled to a stop and had to be towed back to the starting line (it later crashed on the second takeoff attempt).
The Lockheed Vega Golden Eagle took off effortlessly, followed by the Buhl Air Sedan Miss Doran with the pretty, 22-year-old schoolteacher Mildred Doran on board as a passenger. The Breese monoplane Aloha took off next, followed two minutes later by the Woolaroc and then the Dallas Spirit. Of the airplanes that did manage to get into the air that day, the Miss Doran soon returned with engine trouble, as did the Oklahoma, and the Dallas Spirit landed trailing a long sheet of fabric that had torn loose from the fuselage aft of the navigator’s station.
Pilots at the Oakland airport speculated that, of the four airplanes that took off, the Golden Eagle was favored to win because it was the fastest ship, followed by Aloha and Woolaroc with the slowest ship, Miss Doran, finishing fourth. As the crowds began to fade away, they could not have known that the Miss Doran and the Golden Eagle would never be seen or heard from again. Meanwhile, mechanics were scrambling to repair the torn fabric on the Dallas Spirit. Undeterred by the unfortunate mishap, William Erwin was determined to take off and head for Hawaii, still in pursuit of the Easterwood prize.
As for the two Travel Air monoplanes, one was out of the race with engine trouble, but the Woolaroc had climbed safely above a cloud deck as Art Goebel and navigator Bill Davis settled in for the long night ahead. Goebel flew Great Circle routes given to him by Davis as he laid out each one as the Travel Air flew westward. The initial course had been 250 degrees before changing to about 230 degrees until dawn would allow Davis to determine if they were still close to being on course for Hawaii.
Flying straight and level at 4,000 feet, with the Wright J-5 engine singing its constant, reassuring song of power, the two men and their airplane were slowly swallowed up by the Pacific darkness. By midnight Goebel had climbed the airplane to 6,000 feet, just above a layer of stratus clouds. Davis, sitting in the cramped navigator’s station behind the cockpit, used a string telegraph to exchange messages with Goebel and took sightings on Polaris, tuned the radio set for a signal code and attempted to transmit position reports.
About 8 o’clock that evening the radio operator aboard the passenger liner SS Wilhemina steaming eastward 500 miles from San Francisco, began receiving the “dah-dit” Morse code sent by Davis as he transmitted the Woolaroc’s position.
As the night wore on Davis was able to give a series of progress reports that were quickly relayed to Honolulu and San Francisco. Unfortunately, the other three airplanes did not have radio transmitters or receivers installed for the flight. There were, however, indications that at least two unidentified aircraft had been heard flying over vessels late into the night.
As dawn approached on August 17, Davis prepared to drop smoke bombs to determine if the wind had shifted during the night so he could give Goebel course corrections to the islands. White lines had been painted on the Travel Air’s elevator panels at various angles. Davis would watch the smoke on the water to ascertain drift and send a new heading up front to Goebel. It was a crude process, but it worked.
As Davis had hoped and an-ticipated, during the night the winds had shifted around to the northeast, providing a welcome tailwind as the flight entered its final hours. He estimated groundspeed to be about 100 mph that would pay dividends in reduced fuel consumption. Later, Davis realized that the wind was shifting to the southeast and ordered Goebel to change heading toward the south to “crab” into the wind and maintain course.
About 7 o’clock the next morning the residents of Honolulu awoke to the news that the latest report from the Woolaroc indicated that Goebel and Davis were only six hours from Wheeler Field, but the Travel Air was running low on fuel.
About four hours later with the bright morning sun lighting up the world in front of him, Goebel spotted what he thought was a cloud, but it did not move. Art realized it must be land, maybe the island of Maui. It was, and both men felt relieved that the Woolaroc was nearing its destination. Soon the Travel Air flew past Diamond Head and was met by a Boeing PW-9 pursuit (fighter) from Wheeler Field. The pilot tucked the biplane in close, holding up one finger and gesturing wildly. Initially, neither Goebel nor Davis understood what the signal meant, but when the PW-9’s pilot got even closer and they saw his smile, they realized they were first to make the crossing!
Guided by the pursuit ship, Goebel flew inland and landed at Wheeler Field, Territory of Hawaii, exactly 26 hours, 17 minutes, 33 seconds after departing Oakland. During the flight the Wright Whirlwind had consumed 317 gallons of fuel, and the Woolaroc had achieved an average ground speed of 93 mph. Spectators at Wheeler Field waited patiently to see if other airplanes would arrive. Two hours passed before the Aloha landed, nearly out of fuel, to win the $10,000 second prize money.
As time passed that day it became obvious that no other racers were going to arrive. The Golden Eagle and the Miss Doran were hopelessly overdue. Their fate remains unknown, but there is general agreement that sometime during the night vertigo may have overcome the pilots, neither of whom was trained to fly on instruments, leading to a death spiral into the ocean.
Sadly, lives were lost, but in the final analysis it can be stated that despite all of the bad press given the Dole Race, it was another step toward aviation progress. It was as equally legitimate as the Atlantic crossings and showed no worse a track record for the number of people killed.
As for the Dallas Spirit, Bill Erwin had lost his chance to win the Dole race, but he insisted on taking off to help search for the missing airplanes and their brave crews. With fuel tanks filled to more than 500 gallons of fuel, on Friday, August 19, the big Swallow monoplane took off not to search for lost airplanes, but for Honolulu and then on to Hong Kong.
After a successful takeoff run with the wind blowing straight down the runway, the Dallas Spirit began to wing its way west. During the next seven hours Eichwaldt made a series of position reports with the radio, stating that they were flying at various altitudes. A few minutes before 9 o’clock that night, while flying at 900 feet above the water:
“SOS … belay that. We were in a spin but came out of it OK. We sure were scared. It was sure a close call. The lights on the instrument panel went out and it was so dark Bill could not see the wings.” Eleven minutes later another transmission was picked up by ships and shore stations: “We are in an…”1
At daybreak on the morning of August 20, ships of the United States Navy were converging on the area where the Dallas Spirit should have been when Eichwaldt sent his final transmission. No trace of the airplane was found, and after a week of further searching, the Navy canceled the effort.
Back in Wichita, Jacob Moellendick was admitted to the hospital after hearing news of the disappearance of the Dallas Spirit and apparent death of his two friends, Erwin and Eichwaldt. Jake’s great gamble had failed, forcing his airplane company into bankruptcy. By contrast, Walter Beech and the Travel Air company had much to celebrate in the victory of Goebel and Davis and the Woolaroc. His great gamble had paid off handsomely, but Walter and the nation deeply lamented the death of six men and one woman in an all-or-nothing dash to Hawaii, a race that 91 years later remains controversial in both its purpose and execution.
After the Woolaroc’s victory in the Dole Air Race, the Travel Air disassembled and shipped it back to California aboard the steamship Monoa. Art Goebel flew the airplane to various cities as part of farewell flight commemorating the aerial journey to Hawaii and its potential to spur transpacific air transportation.
In October, Goebel flew the monoplane to Wichita where he was greeted by hundreds of people. On October 5 he laid the cornerstone for Travel Air’s new factory unit “B,” turned the first spade of dirt for Clyde V. Cessna’s factory, and dedicated the manufacturing and production facilities of Lloyd C. Stearman’s airplane factory north of the city.
Late in the next year, 1928, Goebel had the Woolaroc removed from temporary storage. It was flown to Wichita where Walter Beech and his engineers directed a series of major modifications in an attempt to turn the monoplane into a cross-country speedster. The Wright J5CA was replaced by a Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. rated at 400 horsepower, fuel tanks were added that increased capacity to 600 gallons, and the cockpit was relocated aft where the navigator’s station had been for the Dole Race. The airplane had a maximum speed of 160 mph – too slow to be a serious contender – and in 1929 the airplane was restored to Dole race configuration and placed on static display at the Frank Phillips Museum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where it remained for decades. In the mid-1980s the airplane was fully restored and suspended from the ceiling in a special room dedicated to the race to Hawaii.
As for the Oklahoma, early in September 1927 Bennett Griffin flew the ship to Wichita where the original Wright Whirlwind was replaced with a new engine. In January 1928, Griffin contacted Walter Beech about modifying the airplane for an attempt to set a new endurance record. Fuel tanks were installed that held 525 gallons of fuel, and the ship was renamed Peerless Princess. The endurance attempt was not made, and by the early 1930s the aging Travel Air had disappeared from history.