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Monday, December 29, 2003



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IT WAS KNOWN as the "Summer of Eagles," the months following Lucky Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, when the world went mad for aviation and records were broken at every opportunity. Hawaii businessmen, anxious to capitalize on the new craze, created an air race between the islands and the mainland. Dozens signed up, eager for fame and James Dole's prize money. The "Dole Derby" became the most notorious aviation event in Hawaii's history, a dash for glory punctuated by tragedy.

To commemorate the Centennial of Flight, the Star-Bulletin presents this serialized account by staff writer and aviation historian Burl Burlingame. "The Dole Derby" will continue over the next two Mondays.

* * *

The Dole Derby

The dual promise of fame and
a cash prize has aviators lined up
for the flight to Hawaii


Chapter 1 - The Pineapple King's Great Pacific Air Race

Even though they'd been married for two years, Martin Jensen never failed to admire Marguerite's legs. There they were, long and tanned and smooth, streaming out of the man's white shirt she wore. Martin slouched sleepily at the kitchen table and watched Peg make coffee.

"If you're going to fly that charter to Maui this morning, you'd better shake a leg," she said, over her shoulder.

"Hmmm," murmured Martin. That gave him ideas. He grinned. Martin was a cocky, little bantam of a guy, with a toothbrush mustache and a retreating hairline that made him look older than his 28 years.

He was also the best pilot Marguerite had ever seen, and she had seen plenty. They'd married on the wing of a Jenny several thousand feet over Yuma, Ariz., and barnstormed for a year around the country, Martin flying and Marguerite wingwalking and making parachute jumps.

She was, Martin thought for the five-thousandth time, the best-looking tomboy he'd ever seen.

"Have you seen this?" said Marguerite. She was reading the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Martin shifted attention from legs to headlines, and sat upright. "Wow!" he said. "I'm seein' things!"

Marguerite nodded. "You're seeing $25,000."

When he didn't answer she looked over at him. There was a look on his face she recognized, a look that she partly dreaded, and partly the reason she married him in the first place.

* * *

It's hard to imagine now, but in the hazy spring and long summer days of 1927, everybody was looking up. The world was becoming "air-minded," in the catch-phrase of the day. Aviation records were being set, broken, set again.

Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, by himself.

French ace Charles Nungesser disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic.

Arctic explorer Cmdr. Richard Byrd and a crew of three flew across the Atlantic, only to get lost over France in the dark and plop down in the ocean, within yards of the beach.

Army officers Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger flew from Oakland to Oahu in a Dutch-made transport.

Civilian fliers Ernie Smith and Emory Bronte flew from Oakland to Molokai, a record that still stands.

There were dozens of other flights and all of them got into the newspapers. Aviators, after all, were the heroes of the day. The fact that airplanes became flying billboards for their corporate backers was secondary, but it was surely in the back of pineapple king James D. Dole's mind when editors Riley Allen and Joseph Farrington at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin approached him with an idea for an aerial extravaganza.

It sounded sure-fire: A race, an out-and-out flying circus, where everybody takes off at the same time from the mainland and puts the pedal to the metal for Honolulu. First place and second place get cash prizes, put up by Dole. Everyone else, including Dole, gets glory and all the press coverage they can stomach.

We'll call it, said the editors, the "Dole Flight." But it became known as the Dole Derby.

Dole, a member of the National Aeronautical Association, didn't think about it long. Hoping to entice Lucky Lindy into the race, he announced on May 25, "Believing that Charles A. Lindbergh's extraordinary feat in crossing the Atlantic is a forerunner of eventual Transpacific air transportation, I offer $25,000 to the first flyer and $10,000 to the second flyer to cross from the North American Continent to Honolulu in a non-stop flight."


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Maj. Livingston G. Irving takes off in his Breese monoplane, the Pacific Pabco Flyer, Bay Farm Island in Oakland, headed for Honolulu, 2,400 miles away.


HOLLYWOOD Theater mogul Sid Grauman countered with a $30,000 purse to whoever flew first from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and the San Francisco Citizen's Flight Committee proposed extending the Dole race all the way to Australia. They wanted the purse pumped up to $50,000.

But Lindbergh was busy. So was Byrd and other aces of the Atlantic, all of whom protested the too-short preparation time.

Even so, 15 entrants signed up, some of whom dropped out when they couldn't round up planes. Those remaining:

William P. "Lonestar Bill" Erwin, America's first ace in the War to End All Wars, shooting down nine Germans. Erwin had a limp, not from a war wound but from pegging a gopher hole. His plane was a green and silver Swallow monoplane called Dallas Spirit. Erwin was also after a $25,000 prize put up by Dallas broker William Easterwood, for a flight from Dallas to Hong Kong in less than 300 hours, with no more than three stops. The Derby was just going to be one leg.

Erwin's navigator and radio operator was to be his 20-year-old wife Constance. Bright and attractive, with sea-blue eyes and tightly bobbed black hair, Connie Erwin was more familiar with the ways of the stars and radio waves than many of the male second-seaters.

Maj. Livingston G. Irving, another ace, and his bright orange and black Breese monoplane Pacific Pabco Flyer. From Berkeley, where his father was the mayor, Irving worked for the Pacific Paraffin Paint Co. The company sponsored the plane, with employees themselves contributing toward the purchase. Irving qualified as his own navigator.

Arthur Goebel, famous for being able to fly upside down as easily as right side up, and his Phillips Petroleum-sponsored Woolaroc. The name on the yellow and blue Travelair came from the "woods, lakes and rocks" on the oil company's Oklahoma lands. His navigator was Lt. Bill Davis.

John W. "Jack" Frost and a slick new Lockheed Vega called Golden Eagle, paid for by San Francisco Examiner publisher George Hearst, son of William Randolph. The plane was painted gold with blue landing gear.

Martin Jensen, from Honolulu, and Breese monoplane Aloha. A previous buyer had put a diamond ring on the incomplete plane as down payment, but had forfeited. Friends in Hawaii had helped him pay for the plane, and a grateful Jensen had painted a gigantic lei running completely around the plane's nose, and the Hawaii state seal on both sides. His navigator was Paul Schluter, whom he had recruited in the Bay area.

Capt. Arthur V. Rogers, a British ace with 32 German planes under his belt, flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, where he was buddies with Nungesser. He was married with a baby daughter. His plane was the tricky and speedy Angel of Los Angeles, designed by Leland Bryant, who was also to be navigator.

Capt. Frederick A. Giles, British ace, from Detroit, in a Hess Bluebird biplane.

Navy lieutenants George Covell and Richard S. Waggener, in the Tremaine Humming Bird, a low-winged monoplane that resembled a squashed shoe box. They renamed her The Spirit of John Rodgers. They were friends of Davis, Goebel's navigator.

Cowboy star Hoot Gibson, who sponsored the Spirit of Los Angeles. Gibson had his smiling face painted on the flanks of the lumbering, two-engined International Triplane. Other pilots hooted at the plane, calling it the "Incredible Stack 'o' Wheats." On the way to Oakland, the plane slammed nose first into San Francisco Bay, flinging pilot James Giffin and two others into the water. She was out of the race and Gibson was furious.

Bennett Griffin, pilot of the Travelair monoplane Oklahoma, identical to the Woolaroc and steered by Al Haney.

Lt. Norman Goddard, flying the gleaming silver El Encanto (The Charm) that he designed. The navigator was Lt. K.C. Hawkins. Goddard insisted the "HBH" letters painted on the rudder stood for "Hell Bent for Hawaii!"

John A. "Augie" Pedlar and his mascot, a schoolmarm named Mildred Doran, age 22, and their red, white and blue Buhl Airsedan biplane called, naturally, Miss Doran. The crew hailed from Flint, Mich.

* * *

Mildred Doran was what folks called "plucky."

She was 14 when her mother died, leaving the girl in charge of several brothers and sisters. Father wasn't much help, so Mildred made ends meet as a telephone girl. Whenever there was a few minutes, Mildred hung around Bill Malloska's gas stations and flying field in Flint, fascinated by mechanical things and speed.

Malloska became her advisor, and loaned her enough money to go to college. He'd send his own airplane to pick her up on weekends, and on the flights Mildred became a fair hand at piloting and navigation. The air thrilled her, and whenever Malloska saw his ward she'd blurt out the latest aviation news. She also became friends with Malloska's pilots, Augie Pedlar and Eyer "Slonnie" Sloniger.

After graduation, Mildred became a teacher. But when Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, Mildred blurted out to Pedlar and Sloniger that she wanted to be the first to fly across the Pacific. They laughed.

Malloska didn't. "You're serious?" he asked, but he could see in her eyes she was.

So Malloska bought a plane. There was an argument between Pedlar and Sloniger to see who'd fly. Sloniger had all the experience, and had even replaced Lindbergh on the airmail routes. Pedlar was young and eager, a former wingwalker who still limped from a bone-tearing crash.

They flipped a coin. Pedlar won. They named the plane after the woman, and Mildred Doran was instantly famous in Flint.

* * *

The 2,400-mile distance from San Francisco to Hawaii was 1,200 miles less than Lindbergh's distance. But the distance over water was 600 miles farther, and Lindbergh had been aiming for France, which is somewhat bigger then Oahu.

The War Department hedged about radio beacons sending from Crissy Field in San Francisco and Maui. They were iffy at best, and the department didn't want to be responsible if they fizzled.

Entries closed on Aug. 2 and take-off was set for noon, Aug. 12, at Bay Farm Island, a 7,000-foot runway at Oakland.

The race committees, one from Honolulu and one from Oakland, decided that the order of take-off would be by drawing lots. The planes would take off one minute apart.

Covell and Waggener drew No. 13, and laughed at their luck.

Aug. 10, two days before the scheduled start, mechanics worked on the Humming Bird all night at San Diego's North Island Naval Base and advised against flying the machine. Something wasn't quite right with the fuel system. But Covell and Waggener were rushing to the starting line in Oakland.


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The Golden Eagle, piloted by John W. "Jack" Frost, was sponsored by San Francisco Examiner publisher George Hearst, son of William Randolph.


The plane chugged a mile and a half down the field, waddled into the air and skimmed the waves as she headed toward Point Loma. The plane slid into drooping turn and clipped a sandbank. She crumpled and tumbled headlong down the bank, spraying fuel in a hissing mist. It exploded into flame. By the time sailors reached them, there wasn't much left of Covell and Waggener.

The brand-new Aeronautical Branch of the Department of Commerce tried hard to legitimize the race. Inspectors insisted on extra gas tanks, lifeboats, sails, emergency rations and such, as well as orienting the old-fashioned earth-inductor compasses by swinging the planes around on a circle drawn on the ground. No pilot was to fly alone or without a navigator certified by them.

Only a few pilots had logbooks proving they had the minimum 200 air hours required for an air transport rating. No one had the new pilot or aerial navigator licenses Commerce had started issuing a few months before. Provisional licenses were granted on the spot, with Commerce inspectors handing out written exams and buzzing around Oakland on trial flights.

Miss Doran's original navigator, Navy chief Manley Lawing, flunked just finding his way around Oakland. Lt. Vilas "Cy" Knope was recruited.

Connie Erwin was disqualified because she wasn't at least 21 and didn't have an expert navigation rating. Never mind that this rule was largely ignored for male navigators -- Connie Erwin was also pregnant. Erwin rounded up Alvin "Ike" Eichwaldt to steer the Swallow.

The day before takeoff, only four planes had radios; only two could send as well as receive. The Oakland Race Committee wanted two weeks delay, but the Honolulu Contest Committee wired: "THE COMMITTEE DISAPPROVES POSTPONEMENT OF ZERO HOUR FOR STARTING TIME. THE CONTESTANTS HAVE ALREADY BEEN GIVEN SUFFICIENT TIME TO PREPARE."

* * *

"I've only had 10 days to get her ready. Five days ago, not even the fuselage was on her, but I've been working night and day," said Martin Jensen.

"How are you and Schluter going to talk to each other?" asked inspector Bill Breingan. They crouched in the cabin of his Breese monoplane Aloha.

"Look," said Jensen, demonstrating a clothesline arrangement to run messages back and forth in the plane.

"But that's behind you. How will you know if there's a message?"

Jensen picked up a long pole and made poking motions. Breingan laughed, then turn serious. "What's your gasoline capacity? Fifty gallons in each wing tank, and 50 in the fuselage tank, right?"

Jensen could hear the unspoken statement behind the questions. That's not enough gas. Not nearly enough.

"I'll carry another 250 gallon here in the cabin," said Jensen. Breingan's eyebrows went up. "In 5-gallon cans."

"Fifty 5-gallon cans in here with Schluter?"

"Sure. We'll pour the gas into the fuselage tank as it goes down, and throw the empties overboard. Others have done it. Admiral Byrd ..."

"Byrd had a big airplane and a big crew. Schluter's a sea captain who's never flown before. If he can get them out the door, the empties might hit the tail surfaces. And he's a chain smoker!"

"There's no other way," said Jensen. He looked cornered. "Peg's hit every village in the islands raising money for me. Nickels and dimes from school kids! I've got to fly this race."

Breingan shrugged. These flyers were crazy. "You ever see an airplane burn? When this one blows, you guys won't even know what hit you."

But Aloha passed.


Portions of this story originally appeared in the Star-Bulletin in 1986. Some dialogue is courtesy Lesley Forden's book "Glory Gamblers," used with permission.



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