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The First Transoceanic Flights

By Alan Smith

Everyone knows about Charles Lindbergh and his 1927 flight from Long Island NY to Paris, but there were others that took on the Atlantic challenge and he was not the first to cross the Atlantic. The London Daily Mail had put up a fifty thousand dollar prize for the first non-stop crossing by air, and a number of pilots had their eye on that. The first actual Atlantic crossing had been made by a U.S. Navy NC-4 Curtiss flying boat in early 1919, but it was far from non-stop and took weeks with engine and navigation problems.  In June of 1919, two British teams were at St John’s, Newfoundland with converted biplane bombers. They had shipped the planes over to Newfoundland to attempt West to East crossings with prevailing winds as a tailwind.

Harry G. Hawker and McKenzie Grieve planned to try with a Handley-Page bomber powered by four Rolls Royce engines, while John Alcock and navigator Arthur W, Brown were preparing a Vickers Vimy twin-engined bomber that had been built too late to be used in WW I. Both crews, of course, were thirsting for the Daily Mail prize, and both were making preparations at Lester’s Field near St John’s.

One problem at Lester’s Field was the quality of water there. It was heavy in mineral content and contained lots of sediment. The Handley-Page crew thought they had a radiator problem in cooling the Rolls Royce engines, but Alcock realized it was the water. He had the water both filtered and distilled to clear it. It was the failure to take similar action that brought the big Handley-Page down in the Atlantic with clogged radiators and badly overheated engines. Fortunately, Hawker and Grieve were able to find a ship and ditch near it. They were rescued by boat, but the Berlin Bomber was lost as the ship had no equipment with which to lift it aboard.

Not that Alcock and Brown had an easy time of it. Far from it.  They took off from Lester’s field on June 14 with a full load of fuel (the bomb bay had been fitted with fuel tanks) for a non-stop flight to Ireland and before long found themselves in cloud and icing conditions. Alcock had to climb out between the wings six times to hang on to a strut with one hand and use the other to clear ice from the engines’ air intakes. On other occasions, he flew extremely low over heavy seas in the north Atlantic, hoping to find warmer air to melt ice that also formed on the wings. After 16.5 hours in the air, they found themselves over Ireland and spotted what looked like a smooth, grassy field near Clifden that would make a good place to land. Unfortunately the field turned out to be a bog. They had removed the nose wheel from the landing gear to save weight, and when the Vickers Vimy touched down and the main gear dug into the muddy bog, the airplane nosed over and planted the nose in the mud too. A very unceremonious arrival after successfully making the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic! Locals saw them come in and gathered around and asked them where they had come from. When they reported that they had just flown the Atlantic, everyone burst into laughter. Their welcoming group thought Alcock and Brown were joking.

Both men were celebrated throughout England. They were knighted by King George V, received the Northcliffe prized from then secretary of war Winston Churchill, and got to tell their tale at numerous dinner parties. Sadly, Alcock lost his life in a crash in December 1919. Navigator Brown never flew again, perhaps thinking he had exhausted his lifetime supply of good luck, and lived until the late 1940s.

Interestingly, in May 1919, a hotelier in New York offered a $25,000 prize for the first flight from Paris to New York or the reverse. His name was Raymond Orteig. He was French, and had looked on with a little envy at all the transatlantic aviation activity centered in both England and the United States. He was hoping that he could encourage a French aviator to accomplish the trip he proposed. It was this prize that was won by another American, Charles Lindbergh, when he made his famous 33 hour flight in 1927 from New York to Paris in a single seat monoplane designed in San Diego by Claude Ryan. It was named The Spirit of St. Louis in honor of Lindbergh’s sponsors.

The oceans of the world continued their magnetism in the growing world of aviation. Now the vast Pacific came into the picture and one event led to disaster. James D. Dole, of Hawaiian pineapple fame, decided to hold an air race across the Pacific. He offered $25,000 for first place and $10,000 for second. The prizes were for the first two fixed wing aircraft to make the 2400 mile flight from Oakland to Honolulu. Two pilots and their navigators were quick to take a shot at the money. Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger made it out to Hawaii in a tri-motor Fokker C-2 Army plane, and landed at Wheeler Army Airfield. Then Ernie Smith and Emory Bronte made the trip in a Travel Air 5000. They ran out of fuel over Molokai and crashed landed in a thorn tree. Both were disqualified because they did not land in Honolulu.

There was a total of fifteen entrants for the Dole Air Derby and a drawing for starting positions was scheduled for August 8, 1927 and held at the San Francisco office of the California director of the National Aeronautics Association. The starting date was set for August 16. As the contestants began to head for Oakland, trouble was right with them.

Two U.S. Navy Lieutenants, George D. Covell and R.S. Waggener, were killed on the way up from San Diego when they ran into fog and hit a seaside cliff. Arthur Rogers was killed during a test flight at Montebello CA.  Auggy Pedlar with Mildred Doran and navigator Manley Lawling made a forced landing in a San Joaquin Valley wheat field with engine trouble. Lack of tools on board delayed repairs but they finally made it into Oakland. Then, on August 11, J.L. Giffen and Theodore S. Lundgren were on approach to Oakland when their International CF-10 Triplane crashed in San Francisco Bay. Luckily they were not injured.

By the starting date of August 16, the field had shrunk to eight and problems continued. The Oklahoma took off but gave up over San Francisco and returned.  Auggy Pedlar attempted a takeoff in Miss Doran but engine problems persisted and he came back to Oakland after ten minutes of flight. There were two crashes on takeoff for Pabco Flyer and El Encanto without crew injuries. Pabco Flyer was repaired but crashed again on a second attempt. Both Woolarock and Aloha got off without trouble, as did Golden Eagle. Then Dallas Spirit had to return to Oakland. Pedlar finally got Miss Doran running right and they got off and headed out to sea.

Twenty six hours and 17 minutes later, Arthur Goebel and William Davis in Woolarock were the first to reach Honolulu. Just two hours behind them were Martin Jensen and Paul Schluter in Aloha. Sadly, no one else reached Hawaii. Miss Doran and Golden Eagle were lost somewhere in the Pacific. Three U.S. submarines carried out a search but found nothing. Dallas Spirit had been repaired and had left for Honolulu and William Erwin and Alex Eichwaldt said they would join the search. Unfortunately they, too, vanished and were never seen again.

The multiple loss of life cast a shroud of gloom over the Dole family. Five pilots and their navigators had been killed in crashes or lost at sea. The Dole Air Derby was never held again.

The Pacific was finally crossed completely non stop in 1931 by Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon in a Bellanca Skyrocket CH-400 named Miss Veedol. They flew from Japan to Washington State in 41 hours and 15 minutes. The trip had a few quirks including the fact that they spent some time in jail in Japan because they had apparently entered Japan in the Bellanca without proper documents and because they had photographed a few Japanese naval installations. They were finally released after paying a $1,000 fine and got the Bellanca modified for more fuel and generally prepared for the trip. They were after a $25,000 prize offered by a Japanese newspaper for the first non-stop flight from Japan across the Pacific.

They were then informed by Japanese authorities that they had just one chance to take off from Japan. If they returned, the airplane would be confiscated and they would be put back in jail. Then their charts, on which the flight had been laid out were stolen by a nationalist group that wanted a Japanese pilot to be the first to accomplish a non-stop trans Pacific flight. They had planned the flight in detail and knew there was no margin for error. The original destination was Seattle and the distance was 5500 miles. They would depart with 950 gallons of fuel and had decided to jettison the landing gear after takeoff to reduce drag. Skids were installed on the underside of the fuselage to minimize damage in the necessary belly landing at Seattle.

They finally got into the air on October 4, dumped the landing gear into the sea and climbed to their selected cruising altitude of 14,000 feet. Then they noticed that the jettison of the landing gear was incomplete; two root struts were still attached to the fuselage. Pangborn got the door open, climbed out onto the wing struts with his boots off to prevent slipping and, hanging on to the wing struts with one hand, he reached down and got rid of the gear struts with the other. Later, no one was dumb enough to ask him if it was cold out there.

After a little less than 40 hours, they crossed the west coast of the U.S. The fuel was holding out, and Pangborn wanted to go all the way across Washington State for a maximum distance record. Fog had made landing at Seattle or even at Vancouver B.C. impossible. Then they saw more fog to the east and turned back to Wenatchee in the central area of the state. There Pangborn made a relatively undamaged belly landing in Fancher Field just outside the town. The trip clock was stopped at 41 hours and 15 minutes. Their arrival was dated October 5 because they had crossed the international date line in the Pacific.

One reason Pangborn and Herndon were in Japan was that they had attempted a round the world flight to beat the record set by Wiley Post and Harold Gatty of eight days and fifteen hours in a Lockheed Vega. However they were forced to abandon that at the halfway point when they were hopelessly delayed by bad weather in western Siberia. When they learned of the $25,000 prize offered for a non-stop Pacific flight, they headed for Japan.

Now having achieved that goal, the Bellanca was shipped by truck to Seattle where the slight damage was repaired and a new landing gear installed. Pangborn and Herndon then flew on to New York to complete their trip around the world. Although their arrival got a lot of publicity, and unlike the non-stop Pacific flight, there was little financial gain to be enjoyed from the global trip.

Transocean flying continued to be popular and became the harbinger of world wide airline service. The last big attempt was in 1937 when Amelia Earhart tried to fly a Lockheed model 10 Electra around the world. Sadly, probably due to communication problems, she and her navigator Fred Noonan were lost on July 2 somewhere near Howland Island in the Pacific.


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Reader Comments (2)


October 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergeo

Great post and great history. Once in a while we have to remember the past.

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCheap Flights To Bali

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