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Pioneer Pacific Fliers wrote Tragic Chapter In Air History

Call-Bulletin Staff Writer

It was foggy on Tuesday morning, August 16, 1927. The mist shrouded Oakland Airport, drifting close above eight little airplanes lined up in a semicircle at the head of the dusty runway.

Fifteen men and a girl were busy about their rickety craft, attending to last minute details, adjusting balky engines and tightening flimsy control wires.

A crowd of 75,000 to 100,000 persons clustered along the wooden fences, the chill breeze failing to dampen their eager excitement.

Great Day

For everyone who was there, it was a great day in the history of aviation and of the San Francisco Bay area–the day of the long-awaited Dole Race to Honolulu.

It was a bright and thrilling adventure – the daring conquest of the Pacific by pioneers of the air.

No one knew how close Death was hovering over the rough-surfaced airfield.

No one knew that the Dole Flight story, when it was all done, would be a classic of irony, of courage and folly, or valiant imprudence and of tragedy.

No one knew what Fate had read - frustration, death or glory - for pretty Mildred Doran, Art Goebel, Martin Jensen, Jack Frost; for straw-hatted Auggy Pedlar, for Alvin Eichwaldt and the rest of those who waited for the starter's checkered flag on that foggy August day.

Today, in retrospect, it seems unthinkable that such a flight should be tried, in tiny airplanes with inefficient engines, no safety equipment worth mentioning, and unskilled crews.

Today great four-engined craft span the conquered Pacific in around seven hours with the casual regularity of suburban commuter service.

Today flying the ocean is still something of an adventure-but it's been done so many times that no one thinks it's very daring.

Still A Baby

But the spirit of that day 28 years ago was born of different times. Aviation was still a baby; today's great DC-7's and Constellations were undreamed of; those were the days of the young, cocky and daredevil pioneers.

Charles A. Lindbergh had just flown the Atlantic, in a little airplane very much like those lined up at Oakland Airport on that Tuesday morning. The Pacific was still undefeated.

If he could do it from New York to Paris, the Dole fliers believed they could do it from California to Honolulu.

That was what impelled the Hawaii pineapple magnate, James D. Dole, to put up $35,000 in prizes for the first planes to make the Pacific crossing.

Immediately after Lindbergh's feat, he [Dole] offered $25,000 to the first ship to make it, and $10,000 to the second.

The reaction was quick, eager and enthusiastic. Pilot after pilot announced he was going after those riches.

It soon became clear that it would be a race-and so the rules were revised accordingly.

All hands agreed on a starting date; anyone who jumped the gun relinquished all rights to the prize money.

Two Goals

There were two goals. One, of course, was the money; the other was the glory of making the first flight across the 2,400 ocean miles which never before had been crossed in the air.

Almost immediately, in the first touch of irony in the Dole story, the "first flight" honor was snatched away.

On June 28, about a month after Dole posted the prizes, two young Army lieutenants took a big three-engine Fokker military monoplane up from Oakland Airport, headed west and made it safely to Wheeler Field, Oahu.

Vision of Glory

They were Lester J. Maitland, 29, and Albert F. Hegenberger, 32; it took them 25 hours and 50 minutes, and they were the first ever to complete the long and lonely trip.

But, the Dolebirds told themselves, Maitland and Hegenberger were Army. No civilians had yet flown the Pacific; that bit of glory was still for them.

They were wrong about that, as well.

A young airmail pilot named Ernie Smith and his navigator, Emory Bronte, in a monoplane called City of Oakland and only 27 feet long, made a lurching takeoff on the rutted Oakland field on July 14.

And then, out of gas, they crash-landed in a thorn tree on the island of Molokai 26 hours and 36 minutes later.

It wasn't exactly Honolulu, but it was Hawaii-and the first civilians had done it, too.

So some of the first fine bloom was off the peach, so to speak. But the Dolebirds were going anyway.

There was still the prize money, after all, and a good deal of glory could be had besides.

Omens Were Bad

Perhaps they should have sensed well ahead of time that their bright and adventurous dream was going to be a nightmare. They had plenty of forewarning.

On August 8, when the entry list closed with 15 planes in competition, the official drawing for starting positions took place in the office of Captain C.W. Saunders, California director of the National Aeronautics Association, in the Matson Building in San Francisco.

Position No. 13 went to Navy Lieutenants George D. Covell, 28, married and the father of two, and R.S. Waggener, a bachelor, both of San Diego.

They had an unnamed "mystery monoplane" reputed to be one of the best in the race.

Two days after their number was drawn from a paper-mache wastebasket on Captain Saunders' desk, Lieutenants Covell and Waggener died.

They took off from San Diego for Oakland, flew into a log fog, and slammed into an ocean cliff 15 minutes later.

They were dead in the flaming airplane when it struck the beach 75 feet below.

As though that were not enough to daunt the Dolebirds, the next of the deaths came the next day.

Fallen 'Angel'

Captain Arthur V. Rogers, 29, flier and decorated veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille in World War I, took his monoplane Angel of Los Angeles up for a test flight at Western Air Express Field at Montebello.

He circled, came about as though to prepare for landing, and then suddenly plunged 125 feet to the ground.

His wife, who was watching with their infant daughter Millicent in her arms, saw her husband die.

But there was no stopping the Dole Flight. The tragic forewarnings seemed to give a new edge to the fliers' appetite for the adventure.

And the public, its fancy now completely captured by the haphazard and perilous drama of it all, wouldn't have heard of a cancellation.

By the thousands, spectators gathered every day at the airport, cheering each arriving contestant and observing with interest every detail of the little planes.

Almost all of them ran into grief of one sort or another.

The pretty Mildred Doran had her share, but she smiled it all away. She was 22, a girl with hazel eyes, olive skin and dark curly hair, a Michigan State College graduate who had been teaching the fifth grate in Caro, Mich., until the Dole fever caught her.

Mildred wore five fraternity pins on her olive-drab flying suit, but when she was asked, she said she wasn't in love. The boys who gave them to her were just dancing partners, Mildred said.

Won The Toss

Her pilot was Auggy Pedlar, 24, a skinny and hot-tempered lad from Lincoln, Neb., who wore a battered straw hat and won the right to fly their little biplane, the Miss Doran, by tossing a coin with a fellow aviator.

The navigator was Lieutenant Vilas R. Knobe, 30, of San Diego, an Annapolis man.

En route to Oakland from the East, the Miss Doran had sparkplug trouble over the San Joaquin Valley, and came down in a wheat field.

Mildred blithely set the casual keynote of the whole affair by explaining they had a little trouble making repairs because they had no tools.

"We threw them off at Long Beach because they were in the way and cluttering things up," she said.

Other mishaps cut the entry list substantially before the fateful day.

One would-be competitor was Pride of Los Angeles, a plane with three wings. Dole aficionados called her a "stack of wheats," because of her three-layer appearance.

Her pilot was Captain J. L. Giffin, a Long Beach attorney, and her navigator, Theodore S. Lundgren, bond broker and former Army flier. But on August 11 as Giffin and Lundgren flew in from Long Beach, the unwieldy craft began its approach to the Oakland field, and fell clumsily into the bay 100 feet off the airport shore.

Giffin and Lundgren were unhurt, but there was no Dole Flight for the Pride of Los Angeles.

The field narrowed down to eight on the morning of August 16.

This was the lineup:

GOLDEN EAGLE, a handsome little Lockheed monoplane which stood out among the Dole entries because it had a metal, rather than cloth-covered fuselage. The pilot was Jack Frost, 29, of New York. When they assigned him the license number NX-913 and asked him whether he minded he quipped: "Heck, no, what's one more 13 in my life?" His navigator was Gordon Scott, 26, born in London.

ALOHA, a lemon yellow monoplane with a pink flower lei pained around the nose, whose pilot, Martin Jensen, 26, peppery little Honolulu commercial flier, purchased her only after his wife, Margaret, managed to raise the $15,000 price in a frantic last-minute effort in Hawaii. "God bless that darling wife of mine!" he fried when he learned of the financial success. "I've got to make it. I'll make it or die in the attempt." Captain Paul Schluter, seafaring man, was his navigator.

WOOLAROC, whose pilot was Art Goebel, 31, a big and handsome World War I flier who belonged to the "Thirteen Black Cats of Hollywood," movie stunt fliers who charged $80 for a parachute jump and $15,000 for blowing up a ship in mid-air. His navigator was Lieutenant William V. Davis Jr., an Annapolis man.

MISS DORAN, with the brown-haired Mildred, straw hatted Pedlar and Lieutenant Knope.

OKLAHOMA, a sister ship of Woolaroc, piloted by Bennett Griffin, former Army flier, with Al Henley as the navigator.

DALLAS SPIRIT, flown by Captain William P. Erwin, 31, World War I combat victor over nine German planes, and navigated by Alvin Eichwaldt, 27, of Hayward, onetime Navy seaman who survived three ship explosions during the war.

EL ENCANTO, the metal monoplane of Navy Lieutenants Norman A. Goddard and Kenneth C. Hawkins, of San Diego, one of the prettiest of the planes and one heavily favored in the pre-race odds.

PABCO FLYER, whose pilot, Major Livingston Irving of Berkeley, chose to go it alone without a navigator.

Just before 11 o'clock that morning the sun burned through the fog and all of them were ready to go.

Mildred Doran had raspberries, toast and coffee for breakfast and posted a letter to a friend in Flint, Mich. "We are sure going to be the first there," she wrote.

The crowd surged against the fences as the start whipped his flag down just before noon.

Oklahoma rumbled down the runway, struggled into the air, and the Dole race was on.

Turns To Shrieks

The big cheer that went up for Oklahoma turned to shrieks in a moment.

El Encanto rocked along the runway, shot off to the right, swerved and fell over on her left wing.

Goddard and Hawkins crawled out unhurt, but their plane had had it.

Irving's Pabco Flyer tried it next, lifted momentarily into the air, settled back, and bogged down in marshland 7,000 feet from the starting line.

Golden Eagle gave the spectators their big thrill. True to pre-race form, the sleek and handsome ship got off smoothly and went streaking off to the west.

A big roar went up for the trim and able craft. And Miss Doran, the next in line, looked almost pathetic by contrast.

Battered, flimsy and clumsy, the little biplane managed to rise - but no spectator was surprised when she came back in just 10 minutes.

Oklahoma came back, too. Something ripped in her fuselage over San Francisco and her crew figured it was better to be safe than sorry.

It was the same for Dallas Spirit. She went away in her turn, but something was wrong with her tail assembly, so Erwin and Eichwaldt brought her back.

Aloha got off all right; so did Woolaroc.

Two of the false-starters tried again: Miss Doran and Pabco Flyer. The latter cracked up for the second time, and that was it for Irving. Miss Doran rose slowly, went on our, and disappeared.

Win First Prize

So after all the long weeks and preparation and all the excitement, only four little airplanes were in the air over the Pacific that afternoon: Golden Eagle, Aloha, Woolaroc and Miss Doran.

The prayers, fears and hopes of that night had this answer the next day:

Goebel and Davis got their first in Woolaroc. It took 26 hours, 17 minutes, and won them Dole's $25,000.

Martin Jensen and Captain Schluter got there in 28 hours, 16 minutes, and won $10,000.

As for the Golden Eagle and Miss Doran - nobody ever saw them again.

Five more lives were given to the great adventure: the pretty Mildred Doran, Pedlar and Knope; Jack Frost and Gordon Scott.

But Death was not done with them yet.

Captain Erwin and young Eichwaldt fixed Dallas Spirit's tail assembly and took off three days later. The would look for the lost ships, they said, on the way to Honolulu.

But they, too, vanished over the ocean.

That made it 10 lives lost, altogether, before, during and after the race.

In the new Air Age, it may seem that they were wasted - useless sacrifices to adventure and pioneering.

But perhaps their epitaph is in the words that led them to make their valiant try:

Someone had to do it first.

San Francisco Call-Bulletin
Monday, October 10, 1955

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