Coast to Coast with the ‘Vin Fiz’
The 84-day Odyssey of Cal Rodgers
Vintage Airplanes Magazine, Sept-Oct 2013 and Nov-Dec 2013
© 2013 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
In January, 1910 the first American International Air Meet was held at Dominguez Field in Los Angeles County. Dozens of pilots in Wright and Curtiss biplanes competed in altitude, speed, and endurance events. The air meet drew the attention of thousands of spectators eager to see the new wonder of airplanes. It had only been six years since the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk. In the intervening years there had been significant advances in airplane design. But range and speed had increased very little. The average biplane could only manage 70 miles per hour. Range was limited to how much fuel the plane could lift, not the capacity of the fuel tank. An hour-long flight was considered a notable feat in 1910.
Among the spectators at Dominguez Field watching the daring young men in their flying machines was a 13-year old boy who was fascinated by the darting planes and yearned to find his way into the skies. Soon he would be famous as an aviation pioneer and war hero. His name was Jimmy Doolittle.
The 1910 Dominguez Field Air Meet was covered by several papers across the country, most notably those owned by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.
At that time airplanes were little more than slow, fragile and unreliable wood-and-fabric crates and the idea of flying from coast to coast was totally ludicrous.
But the seed of such an idea took root in Hearst’s fertile and ambitious mind and in October, 1910, eager to promote aviation and draw readers to his chain of newspapers, offered the then-staggering sum of $50,000 to anyone who could fly from coast to coast. The challenge was good for one year, starting October 10.
This in itself was a daunting proposition. But Hearst wanted the feat accomplished in 30 days or less.
Today it seems laughable to need so much time.
An airliner can fly from New York to Los Angeles in about 5 hours.
With only a little careful preparation a private pilot may fly a Cessna or Beechcraft from coast to coast in about two days, allowing for fuel and rest stops.
Even a single person in a car can drive the 3,500 miles from New York to Los Angeles in less than a week, provided they don’t mind the grind of driving, catnaps in rest stops and fast food.
Hearst was eager to promote an aviation event his newspapers could cover on a daily basis, thereby increasing sales and profits.
Cash prizes for aviation feats were nothing new, even in 1910. Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the London Daily Mail, was a fanatically patriotic Briton. In 1908 he put up ?10,000 for the first plane to cross the 26 miles of the English Channel between Calais and Dover.
Northcliffe knew there were few UK—built planes capable of crossing the Channel, but he preferred that it be done by either an Englishman or at least an American. Wilbur Wright was in France at the time, demonstrating the new ‘Military Flyer’ to the French government. Northcliffe reportedly offered the elder Wright the sum of ?15,000 if he would do it. Wright was tempted, but he turned down the offer. Orville had been demonstrating the same plane at Fort Myer, Virginia and crashed after a propeller fragmented in front of a crowd of Army brass and spectators. Orville suffered a broken leg but his passenger Lt. Thomas Selfridge was killed.
Another crash would seriously impair the Wrights’ sales.
As history has shown, the English Channel was conquered by air on July 25, 1909 by Frenchman Louis Blériot.
Hearst’s challenge earned some attention. The Wrights themselves and their chief competitor Glenn H. Curtiss briefly considered entering but realized that any chance of success would entail huge investments of time and money.
By 1911 airplanes were still a novelty most Americans had never seen. They were hardly capable of flying more than a hundred miles under ideal conditions. Between New York and California the terrain varied from small towns and big cities, hills and mountains, cultivated land and vast stretches of open plain and scorching desert, towering granite mountain ranges and dense forests.
And not a single airport.
There were no navigation beacons, no air traffic controllers, and no mechanics waiting to repair balky engines or torn fabric. On a cross-country flight a pilot had to hope he would find a convenient road or smooth field to land on. He was on his own, forced to improvise as he went along. And once on the ground he had to make his own repairs and maintenance. Fuel had to be found and brought to the airplane.
A rough landing or damage to the airframe might ground a plane for days or weeks until the needed parts could be brought by rail.
This was what faced the pilot who chose to accept Hearst’s challenge.
And that man was Calbraith ‘Cal’ Perry Rodgers. Rodgers was born in January, 1879 of a wealthy Pittsburgh family. He was a scion of one of the most illustrious Navy dynasties in the country. His ancestors included War of 1812 hero Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry the victor on Lake Erie. He also counted among his antecedents Commodore John Rodgers and Commodore Mathew Perry, who had opened Japan to the world in 1853.
With such a pedigree, Cal, as he preferred to be called was eager to join the Navy. But a bout with Scarlet Fever as a boy robbed him of much of his hearing. He grew up to be a handsome, 6’4” man who loved sailing, football, and was never seen in public without a cigar in his wide, smiling mouth.
Rodgers had earned a reputation as a daredevil. His cousin John, named for the commodore, had graduated from Annapolis. John was one of the first navy officers to be chosen to fly the Wright Military Flyers purchased by the U.S. Navy in March, 1911.
John Rodgers was sent to Dayton, Ohio where he began flight instruction at the Wright Brothers’ Huffman Prairie Flying School. Cal visited him there and was instantly bitten by the flying bug.
He learned to fly under the tutelage of Orville Wright and Al Welsh until he felt ready to solo after a mere 90 minutes of flying time.
He bought a Wright Model B, known as the “Headless Wright” because it lacked the familiar forward canard elevator. In doing this he became one of the first private citizens to buy a Wright airplane. Pilot’s License No. 49 was issued to him on August 7, 1911 by the Aero Club of America.
Just three days later Rodgers entered the Model B in several competitions at an International Air Meet at Grant Park in Chicago.
He did well, winning a total of $11,925 in several aerial competitions and an endurance flight.
Rodgers had heard of the Hearst coast to coast flight challenge and decided to try for it. His total flying time amounted to less than forty hours.
He went about it methodically, securing funding and logistical support from J. Oggen Armour, owner of the Chicago-based Armour Meat Company. Armour was eager to promote a new grape-flavored soft drink called Vin Fiz. With an agreement that Rodgers’ plane would have the words ‘VIN FIZ’ painted on the rudders and underside of the wings he was to be paid $5.00 for each mile flown east of the Mississippi River and $4.00 for each mile west of that. This would be honored regardless of whether he beat Hearst’s deadline. Armour also provided a special three-car train that would accompany Rodgers across the country.
With a boxcar carrying spare wings, struts, rudders, wheels, engines and enough parts and fabric to rebuild the entire plane at least twice, the train was a rolling repair shop and carried a car able to leave the train and drive to wherever Rodgers had landed. His wife Mabel and his mother, Mrs. Sweitzer, rode in a comfortable Palmer-Singer touring coach with accommodations and baggage. Also on the train were two Wright mechanics and two assistants supervised by Charlie Taylor, who had been with the Wrights since before Kitty Hawk. The two women were accompanied by a friend, Charles Wiggin.
The boxcars were painted white, so Rodgers would be able to spot the train easily from the air, and emblazoned with the Vin Fiz logo, prompting the name of “Vin Fiz Special.”
Rodgers agreed to pay for the fuel, oil, spare parts and mechanics’ pay. Taylor was paid $70 per week.
Using his prize money Rodgers purchased a Wright Model EX (for Exhibition) for $5,000. The EX was a modified Wright Model R, which was often called the “Roadster” or the “Baby Wright,” and was specifically built for exhibition flying.
The Wrights’ workers lengthened the spruce muslin-covered Model R’s 26.5-foot wing to 31.5 feet with a 5-foot chord. The separation between the upper and lower wings was 56 inches.
The low profile allowed for better control and maneuverability, less bracing wire, shorter struts and reduced wind resistance.
(Note: Some sources say the EX was a Model B, which had a 31-foot wingspan. But the 64” wing separation was more than 8 inches higher than the Model R and the EX. The author supports the Model R, but this may never be proven).
With a 35hp upright inline four-cylinder engine turning chains to twin contra-rotating 8-foot propellers at 450 rpm, the EX could maintain a speed of 55 mph for about 3 and a half hours under ideal conditions.
The EX had no navigation instruments, not even a compass. Rodgers would have to navigate visually using railroads, euphemistically named the “Iron Road” or “Iron Compass.” That meant he could only fly in daylight and with good visibility. Fog and rain would ground him as surely as a broken wing or clogged fuel line.
The only instruments Rodgers had on hand were his pocketwatch, to keep track of flying time and estimated distance, and a weighted shoestring tied to a bracing wire by his head. The string served as a sort of inclinometer to tell him if he was pitching or rolling the plane.
The engine was fitted on the wing to his right, which made minor in-flight adjustments possible.
For good luck an unopened bottle of Vin Fiz was wired to one of the wing struts. Rodgers intended to celebrate his victory by drinking it after landing in California.
The new plane was instantly dubbed the “Wright EX Vin Fiz.”
Cal Rodgers was not the only pilot trying for the Hearst prize money.
Robert Fowler and James Ward, who each had more flying time than Rodgers, were ready by early September.
Fowler was the first, taking off from San Francisco on September 11 and headed east. But once he reached the towering Sierra Nevadas, he turned back, unable to climb high enough to clear the mountains.
Two days later Ward took a route west from New York City, but gave up five days later, unable to even get out of the state.
Eager to avoid the mountain ranges Rodgers planned his route along railroads from York, west into Ohio, Indiana and Illinois and then south to Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas. From there he would fly into New Mexico and Arizona, and finally into California, headed for the goal of Pasadena, the official ending point of the coast to coast attempt.
The total distance was over 4,300 miles. Time would be of the essence, and every delay would cut into the deadline.
The most distance Rodgers could make in a single flight was about 190 miles. Local conditions however were likely to affect this goal. Bad weather and engine trouble, even landing too far from the repair train could make a second flight in a day unlikely.
It was technically possible to make it to California inside the 30-day time limit, but only if everything went right.
The “Vin Fiz Special” would either follow Rodgers or lead him, depending on conditions on a particular day.
It was truly an odyssey “where no man had gone before.”
Rodgers had the new EX, painted with the bold ‘VIN FIZ’ logo delivered to Sheepshead Bay on the south coast of Long Island in Brooklyn. The EX was on the beach with light Atlantic surf touching the wheels.
On the afternoon of September 17, 1911, before a modest crowd, he climbed onto the wing and seated himself in the wood and canvas pilot’s seat. He was wearing a simple business suit and tie under thick sweaters and a sheepskin vest. On his head was his familiar cap and clamped between his teeth was an unlit cigar. Rodgers had agreed to carry a U.S. Mail pouch to California. The sturdy leather bag was secured to a central wing strut. He would be delivering the first transcontinental Air Mail.
The ground mechanics had filled the gas tank and upon Rodgers’ signal, pulled the big starboard propeller through, until the 35hp engine chugged to life.
It was 4:30 p.m.
The plane rolled slowly and with the crowd watching wobbled, picked up speed and then lifted into the cool afternoon sky. He banked to the west. Rodgers was on his way.
The “Special” was in Jersey City on the west bank of the Hudson River and started north, paralleling the Hudsson River Valley. Rodgers saw the distinctive white boxcar and kept it in sight as they passed through Paterson. His first goal was Middletown, New York, 104 miles away.
Hearst’s chain of papers started following the epic journey.
After two hours the sun was dipping low ahead of the EX and Rodgers looked for a suitable place to land. He chose a flat field alongside the railroad tracks and settled in.
The first leg of the long journey had ended successfully. Taylor and the train arrived and immediately fueled the EX, checking for loose bracing wires and controls. Rodgers hugged his mother and kissed his wife, feeling good about his initial progress.
A night in the Palmer-Singer coach refreshed him and the next morning, he again climbed into the EX, eager to continue on to Binghamton, New York, 120 miles to the west.
But almost immediately Rodgers’ luck changed. Just after lifting off, a wheel struck a tree and the plane spun and fell into a farmyard, crushing a chicken coop. Rodgers was slightly injured, but the EX had suffered its first major damage. An irate woman stormed out of the farmhouse and demanded Rodgers pay her for the damage to her chicken coop, which he dutifully did.
The EX was towed back to the field and repairs were performed to broken struts, snapped wires and torn fabric. It wasn’t until the 21st that he was able to try again.
After a less violent takeoff, the resilient Rodgers again banked to the west and headed for his ever-distant goal.
Running Out of Time
For most of his journey, Rodgers maintained an altitude of nearly 4,000 feet, which gave him excellent visibility, but when low cloud intervened, he was forced to fly lower to keep the precious rail line in sight.
Looking for known landmarks and town names painted on water towers and barns, he kept an eye on his watch and the gas gauge until two hours had passed. Then he found a place to land. Sometimes the “Special” was there with the crew waiting.
But lacking a compasss, he did get lost. On September 22 Rodgers mistakenly flew south from Hancock, New York along the wrong railroad into Pennsylvania. He recognized his mistake and turned back north after landings at Throop and Scranton. Then he had another serious takeoff crash in Redhouse. Leaving New York at Salamanca on September 28, he crossed the corner of Pennsylvania into Meadville. From there he flew along the south bank of Lake Erie to Kent, Ohio, seeing the fertile valleys and rolling hills pass under his wings.
People on the ground heard the strange chattering of the motor and looked around, puzzled at the source. Then someone would point into the sky and say “There! It’s an aeroplane!”
Inevitably they would spot the bold ‘VIN FIZ’ on the underside of the wings and wave as Rodgers soared over.
From town to city, from crossroads to railroad junctions, Rodgers stubbornly flew on.
After daily conferences with Taylor over the maps, Rodgers would take off and find the railroad line that would lead him to his next destination.
Entering Indiana on October 1, he landed at Huntington. The next day he crashed on takeoff, requiring three days to repair. On the 5th he made it as far as Hammond, where a broken skid had to be replaced. Then high winds delayed his takeoff until October 8. Time was beginning to run out. His many forced landings and repairs had cost too much. As Rodgers crossed into Illinois and skirted the southern shore of Lake Michigan, the sobering truth was undeniable. He wasn’t going to make Hearst’s deadline. It was October 9th when he reached Chicago.
But he persisted, and followed the Illinois Central Railroad west to stops in Lockport, Peoria, and Sprinfield. He flew southwest down the Illinois River towards the Mississippi River. Then the Vin Fiz flew upstream along the Missouri River to Kansas City, Missouri.
On October 17, thirty days after leaving Sheepshead Bay, Rodgers had only reached McAlester, Oklahoma. The Hearst papers, which had been following the Vin Fiz from the start, continued to report his progress, and in some cases, the lack of it.
Even though he would not be able to win the $50,000 Rodgers never considered quitting. After all, he was being paid by Armour for every mile he flew, and even though he had lost out on the 30-day goal, he was becoming more and more famous with each passing day.
Mabel Rodgers obtained local newspapers in every town the train stopped in and she told her husband he had the entire nation behind him.
The Wright EX slogged south, enduring crashes and engine trouble, bad weather and bumpy landings.
For most pilots a serious crash would be a ‘wake-up call,’ prompting an examination of their chosen profession. But Cal Rodgers suffered at least seven major crashes that required repairs and medical care. Another sixteen were serious enough to need work on the plane before flight could be resumed. Cal Rodgers, while being an excellent athlete, was not an experienced pilot. He won several air competitions, but a fair degree of luck was involved. When something went wrong in the air, a pilot with more flying time might often have been able to land with less damage than Rodgers sustained. Rodgers had only flown Wright Brothers aircraft and probably felt a loyalty to them. But the EX was hardly the ideal biplane for an extreme long-distance series of flights over several weeks.
Daily takeoffs and landings took their toll on the EX, which had never been designed for such work. Texas was so large that more than twenty flights were needed to traverse the Lone Star State. An engine exploded on October 20 at Kyle, Texas. But repairs were swift and he flew on to San Antonio on the 22nd. The determined Rodgers was well past the halfway point by late October. After following the Rio Grande Valley northwest with landings at Alpine, Sierra Blanca and Fort Hancock, he reached El Paso on the 29th. New Mexico proved to be a breeze. After two landings in New Mexico on November 1, he reached Willcox, Arizona. He stopped in Tucson and Phoenix, and aimed the EX for the Golden State.
On November 3 he crossed over Imperial Junction, California, just 200 miles short of Pasadena when an engine cylinder burst. Hot steel shards lanced into Rodgers’ shoulder and tore into the wing fabric. Gritting his teeth, Rodgers turned back and managed to coast the EX to a safe landing in Imperial Junction.
The “Vin Fiz Special” reached the town and set to work while Mabel accompanied her husband to the local hospital to have the metal fragments removed from his right arm and shoulder.
The EX required a day to repair.
The next day the bandaged pilot was off again, driving hard for Banning, California.
He reached Banning on the afternoon of November 4. The next stop was Pasadena, the elusive goal. November 5 was a clear day with high cirrus clouds and perfect visibility. Rodgers took off early and flew on, keeping one ear cocked for any unusual sound in the engine. But the four cylinders banged on and he landed at Beaumont, a sleepy farming town, and then on to Pomona among the alfalfa fields.
A crowd of nearly 20,000 people were waiting at Tournament Park, the site of the first Rose Bowl game in 1902, outside Pasadena when they heard the chugging of the Wright’s engine approaching from the east. Cheers erupted from every throat at 4:04 p.m. when Cal Rodgers settled the battered Vin Fiz on the grass and cut the engine. He unstrapped the battered mail bag and handed it to the Postal Service representative. It had taken him 49 days to reach Pasadena. The first transcontinental Air Mail took ten times longer to deliver by air than it would have by rail.
Officially, Rodgers had done it and even though he was 19 days past Hearst’s deadline, it was a remarkable feat in aviation history. For the first time an aircraft had flown from coast to coast, linking the oceans by air.
Yet Rodgers wasn’t fully satisfied. He wanted to go all the way to the Pacific, 23 miles away.
To the Pacific or Bust
Seven days later, after Taylor and his team had tuned the engine and tightened the bracing wires, Rodgers, with his characteristic grin and cigar, was off again, bound for Long Beach.
The coastal city had won the bid for the honor of being the site of Rodgers’ ultimate triumph. He would receive $1,000 to land there, plus part of the receipts for an exhibition of the plane afterwards.
But Rodgers’ luck hadn’t changed for the better. A few minutes into the flight, the engine, which had been pushed beyond what its builders had intended, suffered a broken fuel line and forced him to land at Covina Junction.
The “Special” reached him and repairs were swift. A short time later Rodgers took off again, casting his eyes to the distant blue line on the western horizon.
Then the engine quit. Rodgers kept the falling EX under control but he crashed on the Orr Ranch outside Compton, California.
This was the last crash, but it was severe. The fuel tank dislodged, smashed through the radiator and split open as it fell onto Rodgers’ legs, crushing the ankle. He was doused in gasoline and knocked unconscious.
Rodgers was taken to a hospital while his wife watched anxiously. She knew he wasn’t done yet. When he awoke, his first words were “How far do I have to go?”
He had survived many crashes that could have been fatal. Orville Wright wrote to a friend, “That man Rodgers was born with four horseshoes in his pocket.”
Weeks were needed to literally rebuild the EX for the last hop to Long Beach, just 12 miles away. The bottle of Vin Fiz had disappeared after the crash, and Rodgers, like many pilots was superstitious and asked his mechanics to go to the crash site and find it. They said there were ‘a million of them,’ but he wanted the one he’d carried from New York. Only after several searches was the battered bottle found buried in the dirt.
On December 10 Rodgers was surrounded by well-wishers as he limped on crutches out to the Vin Fiz. He stopped and regarded the plane, realizing it wasn’t the same aircraft in which he’d left Sheepshead Bay on September 17. While it was still a Wright EX and the black ‘VIN FIZ’ letters stood out boldly, all that remained of the original was one rudder and a wing strut.
He climbed in, strapping his crutches to a strut and signaled his team to start the propeller. A moment later, engine chugging away, Cal Rodgers lifted off and turned west.
A crowd of nearly 50,000 spectators who’d been waiting for word of Rodgers’ takeoff were on the beach as the Vin Fiz came into view over the hills.
Rodgers grinned in triumph when the wheels touched down on the firm sand of Long Beach. Wanting to fulfill his ultimate goal, he had the plane rolled forward until the wheels were washed by the Pacific Ocean surf.
The crowd swarmed around the plane and clapped the grinning pilot on the back. Flash powder flared in the sunlight as dozens of photos were taken of the historic moment.
He had done it. From Sheepshead Bay, New York, to Long Beach, California, with seventy flights, a dozen serious crashes, two engine explosions and several injuries, 84 days had passed. An Olympic Marathon runner would, (assuming he never stopped or slept) could run across the country in less time. Interestingly, Rodgers’ actual time in the air for 4,321 miles was just over 82 hours, at an average airspeed of 51.1 miles per hour. His longest single flight was 133 miles, and the most distance in a day was 315 miles between McAlester, Oklahoma and Fort Worth, Texas. He used eight propellers and 20 wheel skids.
Robert Fowler made another attempt to fly across the country. He left southern California on October 19, and reached Jacksonville, Florida on February 8, 1912. The second crossing of the continent by air took 112 days.
Armour’s cost for the flight ran to over $23,000.
The “Vin Fiz Special” returned to Dayton.
The Finish Line
Cal and Mabel decided to stay in Pasadena and bought a home there. Even though the last six months of his life had been focused on the coast to coast flight, Cal Rodgers wasn’t content. He began doing exhibition flights around the Los Angeles area in his trusty Wright Model B. He housed both planes in a hangar at Dominguez Field (now the site of Cal State Dominguez Hills). He later moved them to a field in Long Beach.
Cal Rodgers finally ran out of horseshoes on April 3, 1912 (coincidentally exactly a week before the Titanic left Southampton), and flew over Long Beach. Flying past the spot where his long journey had ended, he encountered a flock of seagulls. Various accounts state he either tried to scatter or avoid the birds, but one was entangled in his rudder controls and he fell from the sky and crashed in the surf.
Cal Rodgers died of a broken neck at the age of 33.
As for the current status of the Vin Fiz, there is some controversy. The National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC has the only “original” Wright EX Vin Fiz in existence.
How it got to be there is the issue. Cal’s cousin Lt. John Rodgers inherited the Vin Fiz and attempted to donate it to the Smithsonian, but they had a Wright Military Model on display and turned the offer down.
Mabel was by then married to Charles Wiggin, who accompanied the train during the 84-day trip across the country. She accepted the plane from John and the couple flew it around southern California at various air meets.
Cal’s mother won the Vin Fiz in a court order in 1914 and sent it to Dayton to be restored. But for some reason it was not done and the plane was destroyed when the factory was sold in 1916.
However, according to Charles Taylor, the Vin Fiz was restored and presented to the Carnegie Institute in 1917, a year after it had supposedly been destroyed.
Carnegie donated the plane to the Smithsonian in 1934 where it was restored and put on display.
The only logical explanation is that there were in effect two Wright EX Vin Fiz airplanes. One was the original that Rodgers flew to California. But it had been rebuilt so many times that little remained of the actual plane that left New York. This is the one that was lost in Dayton.
The “Vin Fiz Special” carried enough spare parts, i.e. wings, engines, propellers, wheels, struts, rudders, elevators and so on, that another Vin Fiz was apparently built. This is the one Cal’s mother sent to Carnegie and ended up in Washington. It is on public display today.
The Boy Who Wanted to Fly
Eleven years after Cal Rodgers landed in Long Beach, a single De Havilland DH-4 took off from Pablo Beach, Florida and headed west. The date was September 4, 1922. After one refueling stop, the DH-4 landed in San Diego, California, completing a flight of 21 hours, 19 minutes, the first transcontinental flight in less than a day. At the controls was the man who’d once watched the fragile planes in the sky over the 1910 Dominguez Air Meet, Jimmy Doolittle.
Calbraith Perry Rodgers was buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburg. On his headstone is the inscription ‘I Endure. – I conquer.’
He was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame on December 17, 1964 along with Orville and Wilbur Wright.
The Disastrous 1927 Dole Air Derby
Vintage Airplanes Magazine, January 2013
© 2013 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
Flying in small airplanes cross country pilots experience a profound sense of the nearness of the world outside. They hear the engines and feel the airstream on the windshield. Looking below the wings a flyer sees roads, rail lines, towns, airfields and other familiar landmarks to guide them. This is very different from what airline passengers sense, sealed into a large aluminum and plastic tube that isolates them from the hostile and vast environment beyond.
But when a small plane leaves the land behind and points its nose out over the ocean it is another matter. Today with GPS and instant global communication it’s almost impossible to get lost or lose contact with civilization.
85 years ago, when wood-and-fabric planes were common, the blue ocean far below might just as easily have been another planet. For thousands of miles there were no roads or rail lines to follow. A pilot flying the ocean was as alone as any human could possibly be.
Charles Lindbergh’s brave goal of flying the Atlantic alone was one of the most daring feats in history. To be fair, he wasn’t the only one to attempt the flight. But the danger that accompanied such an attempt was driven home by the deaths of six men who tried the same thing.
Two experienced French pilots, Charles Nungesser and Francois Coli were both aces in the Great War. Even with a suitable airplane and extensive preparation the flight ended with their disappearance somewhere over the 1,800 miles of ocean between Ireland and Newfoundland. To this day their loss remains a mystery.
The moment Lindbergh touched down on the grass field of Le Bourget, Paris on the night of May 21, 1927 the world changed forever. For the first time in history, the continents of the Old and New Worlds had been joined by the wings of an airplane.
Even as Lindbergh was making speeches and being paraded around Europe a man in Honolulu, Hawaii was already thinking of a way to generate interest in another trans-oceanic flight. His name was James D. Dole, the Pineapple mogul. He had been profoundly impressed by Lindbergh’s feat. Dole saw the incredible marketing potential in a similar flight over the Pacific.
Lindbergh, however, had intended the New York to Paris flight to promote aviation, not to become a celebrity. He had worked for months to prepare for the flight, taking every precaution to assure his safety and success. To him it was not a stunt but a carefully planned long-distance flight. He had little experience with over-water flying and knew it was dangerous.
With typical zest American pilots began looking to set other aviation records, to fly to the same fame and fortune Lindbergh had found. The summer of 1927 became known as “The Summer of Eagles.”
Dole put up a prize of $25,000, the equal of the original 1919 Ortieg Prize for a New York to Paris flight, for the first plane to fly from the continental U.S. to Honolulu. Dole sent the story out onto the Associated Press wire on May 25; only four days after Lindbergh had landed in Paris.
The man who made pineapples famous in the United States was a member of the National Aeronautic Association. Dole knew the dangers of such a flight and approached the Honolulu chapter to establish race details and rules. Chapter president Clarence H. Cooke worked with Navy Commander H. B. McComb of Pearl Harbor and Army Captain Lowell H. Smith from Wheeler Army Airfield. The Dole Air Derby would begin in Oakland, California, on the east shore of San Francisco Bay. The landing was to be at Wheeler on Oahu. Dole hoped Lindbergh himself would take the bait and enter the competition. Takeoff was scheduled for Saturday, August 12.
But even before the race had begun, two Army Air Corps lieutenants named Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger had already flown an Atlantic Fokker C-3 Trimotor from Oakland to Wheeler on June 25. They made the flight in just over 25 hours. The timing of the flight was purely coincidental, having been planned for several months. This only made dole more eager to promote his air race.
Unlike New York hotel owner Raymond Ortieg, Dole was offering a $10,000 prize to the runner-up. Drawn by the lure of a big cash prize and instant fame, pilots from all over the country besieged the committee with their intent to enter the competition. Thirty-three applications were received and reviewed by Cooke’s committee. One of the early entrants was Frank Clarke, a noted Hollywood stunt pilot, whose work would include Howard Hughes’ famous Hell’s Angels in 1930. His plane was an International F-17W named ‘Miss Hollydale.’ Famed cowboy star Hoot Gibson sponsored the ‘Pride of Los Angeles’ another unusual Catron & Fisk CF-10 triplane. Gibson’s iconic face was painted on the side of the plane. The pilots were James L. Griffin and Ted Lundgren.
Other entrants were itinerate barnstormers or exhibition flyers and the money was a huge temptation. To Dole’s disappointment, Lindbergh was not among them. After returning to the U.S., the Lone Eagle was far too busy promoting aviation and flying the silver Ryan NYP to every one of the 48 states.
Only a few of the applicants had any experience with long, over-water flying.
The prevailing mood was ‘If a Midwesterner like Lindy can do it, so can I.’ Few of the entrants seemed to realize or pay heed to the danger. Oakland was 2,400 miles from Hawaii, far to the southwest. The Hawaiian Islands were less than 300 miles across. Even a slight compass deviation at that distance would put them hundreds of miles off course.
In 1927 aircraft instruments were simple and even primitive. It would be another two years before aviation pioneer Jimmy Doolittle would help to develop the artificial horizon and directional gyroscope that greatly aided all-weather and night flying.
The Aeronautics Branch of the Bureau of Commerce, the forerunner of the FAA, knew the flight was dangerous and sent inspector Walter Parkins to work with the Dole committee. Navy Lieutenant H. T. Wyatt was ordered by the 12th Naval District at Mare Island in Vallejo, California, to oversee the inspection of aircraft intending to enter the Dole Air Derby. The 33 original applicants were quickly whittled down to less than half that number.
One was disqualified because its magnetic compass was 45 degrees off true. The plane would have flown off to the northwest and disappeared. Far from being grateful for having their lives saved, the flyers were angry at being cut. The race officials held a drawing on August 8 to determine the order of takeoff.
Of the fifteen qualifying entrants, two withdrew. Then ‘The Angel of Los Angeles’ crashed on a trial flight. On August 10, ‘The Pride of Los Angeles,’ bearing the face of Hoot Gibson, but without him on board, crashed in San Francisco Bay. Griffin, Lundgren and mechanic Lawrence Weill were able to swim to shore.
Then another was cut for having an unqualified navigator. Ten remained.
Lieutenant Wyatt, feeling the entrants needed more time to prepare told the press, “In the interest of aviation and safety, this race should not be held tomorrow. It would be suicidal.” Takeoff was re-scheduled for noon on Tuesday, August 16.
On the 11th, a British pilot named Arthur Rogers took his unique Bryan Taylor monoplane up for a test flight. The radical design had twin booms and two Bristol-Lucifer engines set fore and aft on a central fuselage, one pushing and one tractor. As onlookers watched the plane suddenly went into an uncontrolled spin and fell. Rogers was able to bail out but his parachute failed to open and he was killed.
‘The City of Peoria’ was disqualified just a day before the race because it couldn’t carry the 450 gallons of fuel necessary to reach Hawaii.
The eight remaining aircraft were an eclectic bunch. Most were high-wing monoplanes, while a few were biplanes.
Hawaii’s favorite was the ‘Aloha,’ a Breese-Wilde Model monoplane, flown by Martin Jensen with Paul Schluter as navigator. Schluter was not experienced in aerial navigation, having only been on ships. This would be his first time in an airplane.
Jensen, an Oahu resident had raised the money for the plane with his wife’s help. “She told me,” Jensen said to the press prior to takeoff, “that if I flopped into the ocean, she was going to row out and hit me in the head with an oar. So I guess I’d better make it.”
He’d christened the ‘Aloha’ with a bottle of water from Waikiki Beach.
Another Breese-Wilde was named the ‘Pabco Pacific Flyer.’ The lone pilot was Major Livingston Irving, an ace in the Great War.
Two reliable Travel Air 5000s were entered. One was the ‘Oklahoma,’ flown by Bennett Griffin (no relation to the pilot of the ‘Pride of Los Angeles’) and Al Henley.
The second Travel Air was the “Woolaroc’ with Art Goebel another Hollywood stunt pilot, and Bill Davis Jr. navigating. Goebel had used his own money and borrowed from friends to buy the Travel Air, but was unable to make the last payment. Bennett Griffin suggested Goebel contact wealthy rancher Frank Phillips. Phillips, who was already sponsoring the ‘Oklahoma’ agreed to make the final payment if Goebel named the plane after his ranch lodge. ‘Woolaroc’ is from ‘WOOds, LAkes, and ROCks.’ Goebel’s plane was one of only two to carry a two-way radio.
A new prototype Lockheed Vega Model 1, soon to become famous with Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart was named ‘Golden Eagle.’ Jack Frost piloted the Vega while Gordon Scott navigated. ‘Eagle’ was painted bright gold, making her easily the most visible of the entrants. It had been purchased by the San Francisco Examiner. With a long over-water flight in mind, the Vega had been equipped with several modifications. Fuel could be dumped from the tanks, increasing buoyancy. In addition, Scott could use a compressed air tank to inflate rubber cells inside the wings. The fuselage and wings were designed to be as watertight as possible, while a five-man life raft complete with sail, oars, compass, and flare pistol was ready for use.
The remaining all-metal aircraft was the ‘El Encanto,’ a Goddard Special, flown by her designer, Norman Goddard and navigator Ken Hawkins. This advanced plane was favored to win by members of the aviation community. Goddard and Hawkins were both Navy officers.
‘Dallas Spirit,’ flown by Bill Erwin, was a Swallow Monoplane. Her navigator was Alvin Eichwaldt.
One of the most intriguing entrants was the ‘Miss Doran,’ a Buhl CA-5 Air Sedan biplane piloted by John “Augie” Pedlar. Pedlar always flew with his trademark knickerbockers and a straw hat. The plane had run into engine trouble on the flight from Michigan and needed repairs. Pedlar and his original navigator, Manley Lawling, worked on the plane in Long Beach and took off for Oakland. Lawling’s navigational skills didn’t impress Pedlar and he was replaced by Vilas Knope.
But the male pilots were secondary to their passenger, a pretty, 5’4” 22-year old fifth grade teacher named Mildred Doran from Flint, Michigan. The plane was purchased by a wealthy Flint businessman. Doran, who wasn’t concerned (or more likely, aware) of the dangers, was instantly the darling of the press as she paraded about in her specially tailored khaki ‘flight suit’ emblazoned with admirers’ fraternity pins as though they were military medals. Across her chest was a Sam Browne belt and she wore high leather boots. Doran intended to go into acting after the flight. “She was the cutest little thing,” said a woman who met Doran.
The Buhl was painted red, white, and blue. As a passenger, Doran was to ride in a separate compartment behind the cockpit. A hole was cut into the forward wooden bulkhead for her to communicate with Pedlar and Knope with a small megaphone. She sat on an inflatable rubber cushion for comfort. Under it was a crude toilet.
Nearly every aircraft was powered by the faithful and now-famous Wright J5C Whirlwind radial engine, the one that had powered Lindbergh’s’ Ryan.
One thing Lindbergh didn’t have was maritime and naval support. The committee arranged for a dozen ships en route between California and Hawaii, including the S.S. Wilhelmina, 1,400 miles out of San Francisco, to keep watch for the airplanes.
In addition, the U.S. Pacific Fleet, still based in San Diego was put on standby alert. This included the first American aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1). Wheeler Field had a radio beacon, but only the ‘Golden Eagle’ and ‘Woolaroc’ could make use of it.
On the morning of the race, the eight planes and crews waited on the hard-packed dirt tarmac of the Oakland Airport for their turn. Arranged in a semicircle, they were to roll out one at a time. There was a lot of bravado and bragging. “When I pass the halfway mark,” said Bill Erwin of the ‘Dallas Spirit, “I’m going to listen for the rustling of grass skirts in the breeze and use it as a beacon to guide me in.”
At least 100,000 spectators and dignitaries’ were gathered to watch the start of the Dole Derby. At exactly 12:00, Ernie Smith, the official starter, fired his pistol and Bennett Griffin advanced the throttle of the blue and yellow ‘Oklahoma’ and rolled down the bumpy dirt runway. The plane was off at 12:01. The heavily-laden Travel Air finally lifted off and banked west over San Francisco Bay.
The next plane at 12:03 was Goddard’s ‘El Encanto.’ It began to roll down the runway. But it suddenly veered off the strip and tipped over, crushing the left wing. Goddard and Hawkins were able to climb out, shaken but unhurt.
At 12:11 Major Livingston Irving pulled his bright orange Breese-Wilde monoplane ‘Pabco Pacific Flyer’ just a few feet off the runway, but it failed to rise and landed heavily in a marsh at the end of the runway. Undeterred, Livingston had ground crewmen pull him out so he could try again after the last entrant had taken off.
But the derby had started off badly. Two of the three starting planes had crashed.
The crowd kept cheering on the entrants, but their enthusiasm was tempered by the fear of seeing more crashes.
Jack Frost coaxed the gleaming Vega ‘Golden Eagle’ into the air at 12:31 and headed out to sea.
At 12:33 ‘Miss Doran,’ with the sole woman contender aboard in her tiny cabin followed Frost into the warm afternoon sky. Martin Jensen threw Hawaiian leis out the window as the Travel Air ‘Aloha’ took to the air. A few minutes later ‘Woolaroc’ with Art Goebel at the stick joined the procession.
The last plane in the lineup was the green and silver ‘Dallas Spirit,’ which took off uneventfully at 12:37.
Then Livingston in the ‘Pabco Pacific Flyer’ was ready after repairs and headed down the runway. His second attempt reached seventy feet, and then the plane nosed over and crashed. Livingston too survived.
A short time later the sound of engines had died down and the spectators began to gather up their things to go home and wait for news.
But suddenly the sound of a rough-running engine was heard to the west. A mechanic frowned. “That engine doesn’t sound right.”
In a minute the crowd saw the gaily-painted ‘Miss Doran’ approach the field and land. Pedlar and Knope ran around to the balky engine and made some adjustments. Mildred Doran, in her faux aviator’s clothing, watched with some trepidation. When Pedlar suggested she might want to remain behind, she smiled and said “I’m going.”
With that, Pedlar and Knope lifted off again and headed into the afternoon sun.
Then the ‘Oklahoma’ with a tear in the fuselage, returned for repairs. Shortly after, the last plane to take off, Bill Erwin’s ‘Dallas Spirit’ returned with control trouble. It would be a day before they could re-enter the race
Four planes were in the air, separated by several miles, headed southwest for the tiny and distant Hawaiian Islands.
At an average altitude of 1,200 feet the fragile planes flew ever westward, eating up the miles. From that height the pilots were able to see for sixty or seventy miles in all directions in clear weather. The ‘Woolaroc,’ the only plane to carry a radio, sent regular reports of their location, provided by navigator Bill Davis. All through the afternoon, evening and night of August 16 the nation waited for news.
Rumors began to circulate among coffee shops and workplaces from Hawaii to New York. One plane had been spotted approaching Hawaii or another had been reported down at sea. No one really knew anything, but that didn’t stop the speculation.
On the morning of August 17 the first solid report came in from the ‘Woolaroc.’ Art Goebel sighted the S.S. Wilhelmina, westbound 1,500 miles from San Francisco and radioed it for a navigational fix, confirming his position. At Wheeler Army Airfield north of Honolulu, nearly 25,000 spectators, a huge number for the island, began to gather to watch the winner land.
At 10:00 a.m. a report came in from a Hawaii listening station that Davis estimated they would be over the island by 12:30. But just after noon, the droning sound of aircraft engines thrummed in the warm air. People pointed at a monoplane, escorted by Navy and Army pursuit planes headed in for a landing. The assembled crowd cheered as Art Goebel stopped the ‘Woolaroc’ with 26 hours and 17 minutes in the air. After cutting the engine, Goebel and Davis emerged, stiff and woozy from the long flight. Hawaiian girls placed leis around their necks and soldiers fired a salute. Goebel looked around. “How many made it in before me?”
He was astonished to hear the ‘Woolaroc’ was the winner. No other planes had been heard from in the last 25 hours. Knowing he had been behind the ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Golden Eagle,’ ‘Miss Doran’ and the ‘Aloha,’ Goebel began to worry. At least one of the leading planes should have landed already or been seen. He and Davis had seen no other aircraft on their lone journey over the ocean. Goebel said they had maintained an altitude of over 6,000 feet because a cloud layer at about 1,000-2,000 feet had obscured their view of he ocean. Any of the other planes flying at that altitude would have had difficulty seeing ships or land.
Navigator Davis said he finally sighted a faint shadow, the island of Maui, “just where I thought it should be.”
It was nearly 2:00 when another plane was spotted, the gaily-painted ‘Aloha’ with Martin Jensen at the controls. He had been in the air more than 28 hours. Jensen, after receiving his lei, explained they had been lost. “But after wandering about for four hours we found ourselves and lit off like a blue streak for Wheeler Field.” Jensen was reunited with his wife who hadn’t had to hit him with an oar.
As the afternoon wore on there was no sign of the other two planes. People and race officials began to fear the worst. ‘Miss Doran’ and ‘Golden Eagle’ were both missing. But few were more than concerned. Even if they were down at sea, the planes would float until rescuers reached them. On Thursday a massive sea and air search began along the 2,400 miles between Hawaii and California. Since there was no way to know when or where they had gone down, every mile had to be scoured for wreckage. More than forty Navy ships, including the USS Langley were put on the search. Merchant ships were asked to look for any sign of the missing planes. A $40,000 reward, possibly offered by Dole himself, was posted for information leading to the rescue of the downed flyers.
In Flint, Michigan, a rumor circulated that the ‘Miss Doran’ and her crew were found. Celebrations were short-lived when it turned out to be a false report. The people of Flint and Mildred Doran’s pupils went into mourning. It echoed the heartfelt feeling for the loss of another schoolteacher more than 59 years later, Christa McAuliffe who died in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
A subdued James Dole, knowing his dream had turned to ashes arranged for a simple ceremony. He handed Art Goebel a check for $25,000 and Martin Jensen a check for $10,000. The race was over.
Even though three men had been killed at takeoff, and five more had disappeared over the vast Pacific, Bill Erwin and his navigator, Alvin Eichwaldt, having effected repairs to the controls of the ‘Dallas Spirit’ decided to take off on Friday morning to Hawaii. Friends tried to talk them out of it, saying the race was over, there was no hope of prize money. But Erwin was adamant. They had a radio and could look for survivors on the way. At just before noon on Friday, August 19, 1927 the ‘Dallas Spirit’ lifted off and headed west.
For several hours Erwin reported all was well. Then as evening approached, a California listening station heard a shaky call from Eichwaldt. “We were in a tailspin but came out of it okay. We sure were scared. It was a close call. Bill (Erwin) thought it was all over but we cane out of it. The lights on the instrument panel went out, and it was so dark…” The signal faded. Then a few minutes later Eichwaldt called again. His voice was frantic. “We are in a tailspin! SOS!” From that moment on there was only silence.
Ten people had died in the Dole Air Derby. No trace of the three missing planes was ever found.
What happened to the ‘Golden Eagle’ and ‘Miss Doran?’ Speculation among aviation historians runs the gamut of engine failure, clogged fuel lines, faulty controls, and pilot error. But why hadn’t any of the more than half-dozen ships along the route seen or heard them?
The Wright Whirlwind was one of the most reliable radial engines ever built until the appearance of the Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp in 1935. Both missing planes had J5C Whirlwinds.
The only logical answer is navigational error. Celestial navigation was a reliable way of fixing an aircraft’s position, but juggling a sextant and trying for an accurate fix in a small plane is a challenge, and an error of only a few degrees would put a plane far off course, with nothing but empty sea ahead. At the altitude of 1,200 feet even the large island of Hawaii could be missed from seventy miles away. As Goebel said, there was a cloud layer up to 2,000 feet for the later part of their flight.
The margin for error was thin and fragile, as were the lives of Jack Frost, Gordon Scott, Bill Erwin, Alvin Eichwaldt, Augie Pedlar, Vilas Knope and Mildred Doran. Doran is perhaps the most tragic figure in the story of the Dole Derby. A young, pretty schoolteacher who sought fame and adventure, she only found a terrifying fall from the sky to die in a tiny shattered cabin sinking into the freezing black water. She had no concept of how dangerous flying was, even under ideal conditions.
A Flint girlfriend told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin that ‘Mildred didn’t know enough to be afraid.’
In a statement replete with grim irony, Doran, just before takeoff said she didn’t plan to go swimming at Waikiki Beach when she reached Hawaii. “I don’t care much for the water.”
The man whom inadvertently inspired the Dole Air Derby, Charles Lindbergh, was the guest of honor at the official opening of the Oakland Airport in September. The famed aviator must have harbored some grim thoughts about the Derby that had begun there a mere month before.
The “Summer of Eagles’ was over.
James Dole, after learning the planes were on their way to Hawaii, had told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “There is a definite stimulus to commercial aviation on the Pacific in the Dole Derby. It is my hope and belief that the achievements of the trans-Pacific flyers today point to the early establishment of commercial aviation in Hawaii with regular and ample facilities for business and pleasure transportation. “
His flawed dream did come true, however. Four decades later a Boeing 747 was en route to Honolulu from Los Angeles. In two adjoining seats in First Class were a retired Air Force Colonel and a retired aeronautical engineer. Looking down at the wide blue Pacific 35,000 feet below, they talked about the Dole Derby. It had been a tragedy, a dangerous stunt with little heed paid to the risks and all to the payoff. But it had been the forerunner of the very plane they were flying in, basking in comfort and ease.
They were Art Goebel and Martin Jensen, the winners and sole survivors of the Dole Derby.