The Dole Race

A Tragic Chapter In Aviation History

by JANE ESHLEMAN CONANT, Call-Bulletin Staff Writer (1955)
Edited and updated with relative information added (2006)

On Tuesday morning, August 16, 1927, a mist shrouded Oakland Airport, drifting close above eight airplanes lined up in a semicircle at the head of the dusty runway. Fifteen men and a girl were busy attending to last-minute details about their machines, adjusting balky engines and tightening control wires. A crowd of upwards to 100,000 persons clustered along the wooden fences, the chill breeze failing to dampen their eager excitement. For everyone there, on both sides of the fence, 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 to be a bright and thrilling adventure, the daring conquest of an ocean by pioneers of the air, but no one knew how close Death was hovering over the rough-surfaced airfield. No one knew that the Dole Race story, when it was done, would be a classic of irony, of courage and folly or valiant imprudence, and of tragedy.

    No one knew what Fate had in store for pretty Mildred Doran, or for Art Goebel, Martin Jensen, Jack Frost, for straw-hatted Augy Pedlar, or for Alvin Eichwaldt and the rest of those who waited for the starter's checkered flag.

    In retrospect it seems unthinkable that such a flight should be tried, especially in comparatively 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. Flying the ocean now is still has a cast of adventure, but it's been done so many times that no one thinks of it as particularly daring.

However, the spirit of that day was born of different times. Aviation was still an infant; sleek and powerful jets were undreamed of inthose days of the young, cocky and daredevil pioneers.

    Earlier that year Charles Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic in a little ship very much like those lined up at Oakland that Tuesday morning, but the Pacific was then 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 prompted Hawaii pineapple magnate James Dole to put up cash prizes for the first planes to make a Pacific crossing—at least to Hawaii. Immediately after Lindbergh's feat he offered $25,000 to the first ship to make the trip and $10,000 to the second. Reaction was quick, eager, and enthusiastic. Pilot after pilot announced he was going after what was a sizable fortune back in 1927.

    It soon became clear that it would be a race rather than a standing challenge, so the rules were revised accordingly. A starting date was agreed on; anyone who jumped the gun relinquished all rights to the prize money. There were two goals. One, of course, was the money. The other was the subsequent glory and prestige of making the first flight across 2400 ocean miles which had never been crossed by 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 on Oahu. Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger took 25 hours and 50 minutes to become the first to complete the long and lonely trip. But Maitland and Hegenberger were Army, the Dolebirds argued. No civilians had yet flown the Pacific; that bit of glory was still not in the books.

    They were wrong about that, as well. A young airmail pilot named Ernie Smith and his navigator, Emory Bronte, in the Travel Air monoplane City of Oakland made a lurching takeoff on the rutted Oakland field on July 14. Then, out of gas, they crash-landed in a tree on the island of Molokai 26 hours and 36 minutes later. Not exactly Honolulu, but it was Hawaii, and the first civilians had done it, too.

    Although some of the first bloom was off the rose, so to speak, the Dole pilots were not to be denied their place in history. There was still the prize money and a potential for glory.

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

    Position 13 went to Navy LtCdr George Covell, 28, married and the father of two, and Lt R S Waggener, a bachelor, both of San Diego. They had a "mystery monoplane," dubbed Hummingbird, reputed to be one of the best in the race (it was in reality a Tremaine built by Pacific Aircraft Co in Brea). But two days after their number was drawn from a waste basket on Saunders' desk, Covell and Waggener died. They took off from San Diego for Oakland, flew into a fog and slammed into an ocean cliff 15 minutes later. They were dead in the flaming airplane when it fell to the beach 75 feet below.

    As though that were not enough to daunt the Dolebirds, the next of the tragedies came a day later. Capt Arthur V Rogers, 29, decorated veteran of the Lafayette Escadrille in the Great War, took his twin-boom monoplane Angel of Los Angeles [X705] up for a test flight at Western Air Express Field at Montebello. He circled, came around as to prepare for landing, then suddenly plunged 125 feet to the ground. His wife, holding their infant daughter in her arms, watched her husband die.

Still there was no stopping the Dole Flight. The tragic forewarnings seemed to give a new edge to the fliers' appetite for adventure. And the public, its fancy 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 watching with interest every detail of the little planes.

    Most entrants ran into grief of one sort or another. 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 grade in Cairo MI until the Dole fever caught her.

    Her pilot was Augy Pedlar, 24, a skinny and quick-tempered Nebraska lad who wore a battered straw hat and won the right to fly their biplane, the Miss Doran, by tossing a coin with a fellow aviator. Navigator was Lt Vilas Knobe, 30, of San Diego, an Annapolis man.

    Enroute to Oakland, Miss Doran had sparkplug trouble over the San Joaquin Valley and was forced to land in a wheat field. Mildred blithely set the casual keynote of the whole affair by explaining they had trouble making repairs because they had no tools. "We threw them off at Long Beach because they were in the way, cluttering things up," she said.

    Other mishaps cut the entry list substantially before the fateful day. One would-be competitor was a triplane, The Pride of Los Angeles. Aficionados called it a "stack of wheatcakes" because of its three-layer appearance. Pilot was J L Giffin, a Long Beach attorney, and her navigator Theodore Lundgren, bond broker and former Army flier. But on August 11, as Giffin and Lundgren flew in from Long Beach, the unwieldy craft began a shaky approach to the Oakland field, then fell into the bay 100 feet off the airport shore. Giffin and Lundgren were unhurt, but their flight to Hawaii became a waist-deep wade back to land.

The field narrowed to eight on the morning of August 16, so the lineup was formed:

    Lockheed Vega [NC2788] Golden Eagle, a handsome monoplane that 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 CAA issued him pilots license number 913 and asked if he minded, he quipped: "Hell, no, what's one more 13 in my life?" His navigator was Gordon Scott, 26, born in London.

    Breese-Wilde [NC914] Aloha, a lemon yellow monoplane with a pink lei pained around its nose, whose pilot, Martin Jensen, 26, a peppery Honolulu commercial flier, purchased it only after his wife, Margaret, managed to raise its $15,000 price in a frantic last-minute effort. "God bless that darling wife of mine!" he said when he learned of her success. "I've got to make it. I'll make it or die in the attempt." Capt Paul Schluter, a seafarer, was his navigator.

    Travel Air [NC869] Woolaroc, piloted by Art Goebel, 31, a handsome World War veteran and member of the legendary "13 Black Cats" movie stunt fliers. His navigator was Lieutenant William V Davis Jr, another Annapolis man.

    Buhl Airsedan [NX2915] Miss Doran, with Pedlar, Knope and Mildred Doran, who had raspberries, toast and coffee for breakfast and posted a letter to a friend. "We are sure going to be the first there," she wrote.

    Travel Air [NX911] Oklahoma, a sister ship of Woolaroc, piloted by Bennett Griffin, former Army flier, with Al Henley as navigator.

    Swallow [NX1731] Dallas Spirit, flown by Capt William Erwin, 31, World War 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.

    Goddard [NC5074] El Encanto, the metal monoplane of Navy Lts Norman Goddard and Kenneth Hawkins, of San Diego, one of the prettiest of the planes and one heavily favored in the pre-race odds.

    Breese 5 [NC646] Pabco Flyer, piloted by Maj Livingston Irving of Berkeley, who chose to go without a navigator.

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

    A big cheer 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, heavy with fuel, tried next, momentarily staggered into the air, settled back, and bogged down in marshland 7000 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. And Miss Doran, next in line, looked almost pathetic by contrast. Battered, flimsy, and clumsy, the little biplane managed to become airborne, but no one was surprised when it returned in only 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. The same for Dallas Spirit. She flew away in her turn, but something was wrong with the 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 out over the bay and headed West.

So, after all the long weeks and preparation and all the excitement, only four airplanes were 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 there first in Woolaroc. It took 26 hours, 17 minutes and won them the $25,000 prize. Jensen and Schluter made it in 28 hours, 16 minutes and won $10,000.

    As for Golden Eagle and Miss Doran, they were never seen again. Five more lives were given to the great adventure: Mildred Doran, Pedlar, and Knope; Jack Frost and Gordon Scott. But Death was not done with them yet. Erwin and young Eichwaldt fixed Dallas Spirit's tail and took off three days later. They would look for the lost planes, they said, on the way to Honolulu, but they, as well, vanished. Sea searches for them that followed were futile.

    Ten lives were lost, before, during, and after the race. In the new Air Age, it may seem that they were wasted—needless 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.

ref: Glory Gamblers by Lesley Forden, AAHS Journals, and many news clips and magazine articles.
============= Other planes: International F-18 Miss Hollydale, Frank Clarke [N--] Air King City of Peoria, Capt Charles Parkhurst, Kenneth Lowes Jr [NX3070] Wasp Special, Henry Axton [NX7571] -- pre-race fatal crash