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 conclude next Monday.
* * *
One by one, planes
lined up and took off
Today, we continue our account of The Dole Derby, a 1927 race from Oakland to Hawaii that became an aerial disaster. Only two of more than a dozen aircraft entered made it to the islands. Of the others, seven aircraft crashed or disappeared, with 10 lives lost.
CHAPTER 2 - In which aeroplane crews take off with dreams of glory blinding their common sense
THE air crews met and voted to postpone the start of race until Aug. 16. Honolulu can like it or lump it. Without racers, there was no contest.
On Aug. 12, Rodgers decided to test Angel of Los Angeles once more, suspecting the high-mounted engines made her unsteady.
Designer Bryant wanted to go up too, but Rodgers told him it might be safer if only one went. Just in case, Rodgers pulled on a parachute.
Angel horsed into the air, slipping from side to side. He circled the field and came back for a landing. Bryant and Anna Rodgers could see him plainly, silhouetted in the cockpit.
Angel suddenly appeared to lose control, corkscrewing toward the field. At 150 feet, Rodgers leapt clear, the parachute trailing behind him.
It didn't snap open. Rodgers' flailing body dashed to the ground in front of Anna and Bryant. She stared at the crumpled form, and when she could speak, she said, "Thank God, he left me a beautiful daughter."
* * *
MALLOSKA ARRIVED in Honolulu, wanting to greet Mildred Doran personally when she arrived. "She's fearless," he told newsmen. "On the flight from Flint to Oakland, they were caught in a hurricane. The wind blew the plane every which way and nearly tore her to pieces, but all Mildred said afterward was, 'Gee, Augie sure stepped on the gas that time!'"
Miss Doran had a rope up around her, and visitors were being let in a couple at a time. Too many people were walking off with "souvenirs."
The lady from Honolulu saw Mildred Doran standing off to the side, and couldn't resist going up to talk.
"You'll love Honolulu. It's the prettiest city," she said.
"You're from there?" Doran said, and her whole face lit up. They chatted for awhile about Honolulu, where to go, what to see.
"That's Mr. Pedlar over there," Doran said, pointing to a thin, balding fellow. "He's younger than he looks."
"He seems quiet."
"Oh, yes -- Augie's a shy one." For a moment, they watched the pilot sign autographs and pose for snapshots. He wore a civilian suit that accentuated his knobby joints.
The lady from Honolulu looked at Doran's flying uniform -- khaki riding pants and jacket, high leather boots, a Sam Browne belt crossing her shoulder -- and told the flier she looked like "the cutest little thing."
"A store in Flint made it up for me," said Doran. She wore fraternity pins on her lapel, gifts from college boys. "Would you like to see the plane?"
Doran had a little cabin to herself in the back of the big biplane. The pilot and navigator sat far in front, and communicated with Doran by shouting through megaphones.
The seats were cushioned with inflatable rubber. Doran picked up a cushion and revealed the toilet. The lady from Honolulu laughed. "I'd been wondering about that," she said.
"All the ladies do," Doran said. She sat primly in the seat, posing. She was so small that she could curl up catlike and sleep there, if need be. But the lady from Honolulu doubted she'd do much sleeping.
"The cushions float, just in case," Doran said. "We're really quite well prepared." She nodded toward a life belt and a "Fyre Fyter" extinguisher attached to the wall.
"Are you bringing a bathing suit? The swimming on Hawaii beaches is so good. Warm water, gentle."
"Oh no," laughed Doran. "I don't much care for the water, thank you."
* * *
ON SUNDAY, Aug. 14, an estimated 100,000 curious Californians came to the long field at Oakland to gawk at the entries. Three of 13 planes had crashed. Three men had died. As the deadline approached, two planes were ruled unsafe when it was discovered they couldn't carry enough gas to get to Hawaii.
On Monday, Martin Jensen christened his monoplane Aloha with ragtime music by Dave Kane's "Harmony Trio" and Ruby Smith, winner of an Oakland beauty contest. Ruby dashed a bottle across Aloha's bow.
"That's pure Hawaiian water, straight from the islands!" announced Jensen.
"Too bad it isn't money," snickered Jack Frost.
Jensen agreed. Unlike Frost's well-heeled Hearst crew, Jensen couldn't even afford to pay his mechanics. They'd worked hard installing new gas tanks inside the fuselage.
The next day, Derby Day, eight planes were left, crewed by 15 men and one woman. The field crackled with high spirits.
Suddenly, the Phillips Petroleum-sponsored Woolaroc was leaking fuel, and her mechanic pushed a wad of chewing gum into the hole and braced a soap box against the shaky tank. Pilot Arthur Goebel didn't see this.
As noon neared, engines sputtered in warm-up runs, crowds pushed in the ropes and stood on the backs of cars.
A messenger pushed his way up to Jensen. He had $300 cabled from Honolulu by his wife Peg, the last she could raise.
Goebel saw this and checked his pockets. All he had was $5. Some of the other pilots pitched in, and soon he had $25. Enough to buy bed and board in Honolulu.
Surrounded by family and sponsors, Livingston G. Irving waves from the cockpit of his orange Breese named PABCO Pacific Flyer. Attached to the side of the cockpit is a newly installed drift indicator, and below that, the Indian-head insignia of the Lafayette Flying Corps.|
AT NOON precisely, the checkered flag dropped.
First away was Griffin's Oklahoma, rising smoothly from the field, the crowd roaring along with the engine. She was off!
Mildred Doran turned to pilot Augie Pedlar. "Now it's time, old friend. We're about to become 'somebody.'"
Then Lt. Norman Goddard's little El Encanto began to roll, straining under her massive load of fuel. At 4,800 feet down the runway, the wing suddenly dipped, catching the ground. Sledding to the right, the wing erasing itself into the soil, El Encanto's fuselage balled up as the right wing rose vertically. In the rising dust, the silver wing gleamed at the far end of the field.
Luckily, there was no fire. Goodard and his navigator, Lt. K.C. Hawkins, were unhurt.
Next in line was Pabco Pacific Flyer, the Berkeley favorite, but she couldn't break free of the ground. She slid to a shuddering stop and pilot Livingston G. Irving called for a tow. He stood cursing by the plane.
There was a roar. Golden Eagle blazed by, smoothly gaining altitude. The bright yellow plane disappeared into the west, the first plane to clear the Golden Gate. It was 12:30.
One minute later, Miss Doran took off.
Two minutes later, Aloha took off.
One minute later, Woolaroc took off.
One minute later, Dallas Spirit took off.
The planes were roaring off the starting line like racehorses out of the paddock. The air was thick with cheers and excitement. But as all eyes followed Dallas Spirit west, they spotted the red, white and blue biplane Miss Doran returning.
A gas feed had choked. Pedlar horsed the plane back to Oakland, landing and nervously probing the gas lines. Helped by Ernie Smith, the Molokai aviator, Mildred Doran was hustled into a nearby tent.
* * *
MILDRED DORAN sat on the edge of the cot and tried to control her trembling. Was it fear or excitement? She wondered about it, as if she were in somebody else's body.
Ernie blocked the milling reporters. "Leave her alone, fellows!" he was shouting. "Leave her alone."
"They ought to tell her not to go in that thing!"
"Can't she be disqualified?"
"Somebody talk some sense into Augie Pedlar!"
Mildred heard the sound of aircraft engines and peeked out. Dallas Spirit landed, her fuselage fabric peeled back from the rear door like a banana skin. Her inexperienced navigator hadn't fastened it properly, and it had blasted open in the 100-mile-per-hour slipstream. Mildred wondered how Erwin had wrestled the machine back to Oakland.
Oklahoma reappeared and landed, black smoke coughing out of her engine.
What's going on? thought Mildred. Everything had started so well!
Irving fired up Pabco Pacific Flyer and tried again. The Breese was seen to bounce off the ground and then bellyflop back down, the tail skid shredding and a wing denting before dust obscured the view.
Mrs. Irving, holding her tiny daughter, was quickly driven to the crash. They found Irving standing forlornly beside the plane. "Well, my dear," said he, quietly, "I shan't get to Honolulu now."
Cy Knope appeared at the tent. "It's time, Mildred. We've fixed 'er." She could hear Miss Doran's engine rumbling, hollow thunder.
Mildred stood up.
Cy was being awkward. "Look, Mildred. Augie and I think it would be a good idea if you didn't go ..."
She pushed past him, her eyes set. "But that's ridiculous, Cy," she said, louder than she meant to. "Of course I'm going."
Those nearby saw tears on her face. It could have been the flying dust, though.
As Miss Doran twinkled and vanished in the afternoon haze, Oakfield's airfield was quiet for the first time in a week. Four planes had gotten off safely, headed west toward Honolulu. Only Golden Eagle and Woolaroc were equipped with radios.
The show was over, and the crowd evaporated.
* * *
WOOLAROC vibrated in smooth synthesis with Arthur Goebel's fingertips. Several hundred miles out over the Pacific, sunset was catching up with the little plane.
Goebel was headed right for the setting sun. He basked in the view, feeling confident. He scanned the dials. Smooth. Just a couple of months before, he'd been test-flying Navy airplanes in San Diego, forcing them into spins by piling sandbags in the tail. A couple of times, it had been a near thing before the spinning planes had straightened out. Flying a straight line across the Pacific seemed like child's play.
Ahead, the sun began to wink out.
It's going to be a long night, he thought. As purple clouds piled up around Woolaroc, Goebel considered all the things that could go wrong in the darkness. He looked out the windscreen. Now that he couldn't see the sky, it seemed bigger than ever, impassive and limitless. For the first time, he felt vulnerable.
Don't care if I lose, he decided. All I want is to see that beautiful sun go down again.
In her specially tailored flying suit, Mildred Doran primps for the cameras. She had no idea how dangerous flying was.|
TWENTY THOUSAND people gathered at Wheeler Field the next day, in a mood to celebrate. Bands played, flags waved, bottles of Prohibited booze were swallowed. In the reviewing stands were practically everyone of note in the Territory, including Gov. Wallace Rider Farrington. The governor chatted with James Dole, who seemed somewhat nervous and animated.
The only ones not on hand were the pineapple company's 3,500 employees. The week's delay had put the race smack into prime picking time.
A few minutes past noon, several Army planes quickly scrambled off the ground and buzzed toward Pupukea.
They returned shortly, escorting a monoplane. The planes circled the field, while the crowd strained to make out the winner against the sun. At 12:20 p.m., the flight landed and taxied up to the reviewing stand, nose-first.
Marguerite Jensen darted through the military police and ran toward the plane, almost hitting the whirling propellor. She was shouting something. A policeman grabbed her.
Wearing a plain, somewhat wrinkled business suit, Art Goebel popped out of Woolaroc. "Say folks, it's great to be here," he said, stretching. Army officers were pounding him on the back, and the mechanical clatter of airplane engines and skyrockets drowned out conversation. Davis also jumped out of the plane, wearing a blue Navy uniform.
Goebel looked around the field. "Well, honest to gosh ..." he said. "I'm the first one here? I thought surely some were ahead of us." He clasped his hands over his head like a victorious boxer, broke into a huge smile and danced back and forth.
Woolaroc had flown the distance in 26 hours, 17 minutes and 33 seconds.
Marguerite Jensen grabbed Goebel and kissed him. "God bless you! Oh, can you tell me something about Martin?" she demanded. "Is he still in the air? Where do you think he can be?" Better than anyone there, she knew the endurance of Jensen's plane, and she looked terrified.
Dole and Farrington pushed past Mrs. Jensen. Dole, relieved, was smiling as broadly as the flyers and gripped both of their hands. "I'm mighty happy, boys, that you arrived safely!" he shouted. Girls hung leis around their necks. The band began playing.
"There's nothing I can say, except that it's all very wonderful and I am going to wait for the other fliers," declared Farrington.
Desperately, Marguerite Jensen grabbed Goebel's arm. Goebel told her he hadn't seen Aloha since take-off. In fact, he hadn't seen anything on the way over, not even a ship.
Mrs. Jensen crumbled and began to cry. A couple of Army officers led her away from the celebration.
Happy and victorious, Art Goebel pretends to strum an ukulele in front of his Travelair Woolaroc.|
* * *
NIGHT, UNDER cloud cover, black and velvet and impossible. Martin leaned forward, his face nearly against the windshield. There was no reference, no horizon.
I hope Peg's home where she belongs, he thought. I hope she isn't out ringing doorbells for more nickels. We've gotten out of tough spots before.
He pulled back on the stick. Maybe above these clouds, some stars would show.
The engine began to race crazily, as if he were in a dive. No, no, the controls were set for climbing!
The altimeter unwound, down and down. He was falling, all right. Martin chopped the throttle, slammed his full weight on right rudder. Aloha staggered, stalled, began to fall out of the sky in a pattern Martin was familiar with.
This, he could fix. Vertigo and nausea robbed his senses, though, and Martin stalled the plane twice more before plummeting out of the clouds.
They were a few feet above the water, a roiling gray sheet merging into utter blackness. As long as the grayness was below him, Martin could stay upright. He carefully let Aloha drop as far as he dared.
Too low! Aloha jolted, slewed wildly, as a wheel smashed into a wave top.
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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