by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the aftermath of Charles Lindbergh’s epochal solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1927, pineapple mogul James Dole announced an air race from Oakland to Hawaii to take place in mid-August with a $25,000 prize for the first craft to arrive in Paradise with $10,000 to go to the runner-up. Nearly three-dozen airplanes were signed up for the contest, from which fourteen were selected to participate. Then, it came down to inspections and tests to see which would actually leave the starting line for the 2,500-mile race.
In preparation for the meet, however, three local aircraft experienced tragedy in the days before the start of the competition. On 10 August, two pilots from San Diego, George Covell and Richard Waggener were only fifteen minutes in the air on their way north when their airship, built in the Orange County oil town of Brea, crashed into a cliff along the shore at Point Loma, killing the pair, as the crushed craft tumbled afire on to the beach below.
Two days later, Arthur V. Rogers, a decorated British ace during the First World War, was testing the new Angel of Los Angeles at the field operated by the commercial airliner, Western Air Express, and formerly known as Vail Field in Montebello, even as the craft had all manner of engine and other troubles. In fact, there were general problems with the race’s original start date and it was pushed back to the 16th.
He took off and was in the air only a matter of minutes and a couple of miles from the airport, when he suddenly circled back and then nosedived from only some 500 feet in the air. Reports suggested he either got his feet caught in a parachute or in the cockpit, but, in any event, he was able to exit the craft, but then slammed to the ground and died instantly just fifty or so feet from the mangled wreckage. A previous post here covered this horrific crash.
The third incident involved the Pride of Los Angeles, the only entrant that was a triplane and the largest of those planning to fly in the race, meaning it had three wings, and which was bankrolled by cowboy film star Edmund R. “Hoot” Gibson, who was in the same realm as Tom Mix when it came to popularity among Western movie heroes. While some accounts suggest Gibson was involved in flying the plane, he was not, though his name and likeness were painted on the fuselage as part of publicizing the craft.
In fact, it was reported that Gibson was brought in because the International Aircraft Company of Long Beach, original builders of the plane, were not able to raise the funds to finish it and needed $15,000 to see the project through. Among the original promoters was local sports promoter Percy H. “Puss” Halbriter, featured in this blog before concerning his work with auto racing earlier in 1927.
When it was revealed early in August that Gibson was the main backer of the plane, it was added by the Los Angeles Times that the pilots were Long Beach attorney and former army air service captain, James Giffin, while aviator and previous instructor for the Army, Theodore Lundgren joined Giffin in the cockpit as navigator. Purportedly named by Gibson, the Pride of Los Angeles was reported to have “the largest fuel capacity of any of the sixteen or seventeen ships entered in the Honolulu race” with some 834 gallons for its tanks.
At 1 a.m. on the 11th, Giffen and Lundgren took off from the Long Beach city airfield, named after pioneer flyer Earl Daugherty and which is now Long Beach Airport, and confidence ran high in the craft as its designer Edward Fisk proclaimed “that every navigating device known to science will be installed on the plane,” though he also averred that “navigating an airplane from the mainland to Hawaii is no less difficult than finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.” Giffin also told the press that if the trip to Hawaii was completed, the flyers would proceed via Australia and Rome to Paris, an audacious goal to be sure.
Yet, reported the Times, as the plane approached Bay Farm Airport, the predecessor to Oakland International, just prior to 1 p.m. on that day, some 4,000 persons lining the runway “were trampling each other in fleeing haste, gasping in fear and throwing themselves to the ground in a mad effort to escape the thing that swooped not more than fifteen feet over their heads and plunged with an eerie side slant into the bay at the south side of the airport.” It was added that, had the craft been just ten feet lower, the carnage would have been stunning.
When the plane landed in the water and much in the shallow section of the bay, it turned out that there was a passenger, Lawrence Weill, a resident of Bakersfield and friend of Giffin. The pilots clambered out of the wreckage, but Weill was tossed into the water and swam back to the craft, upon which the trio stood on the wings awaiting assistance before they were taken to shore, Weill first and the others subsequently, wet but remarkably without major injury. Giffin was credited for steering the craft away from the crowds and blamed faulty controls, telling the media:
The crash was due to the ship failing to control properly and the failure of the motors [twin 225-horsepower engines] to function properly. We came the entire distance from Bakersfield with the stick (control rod) tied forward to compensate for a heavy tail. As we came in over the field, the controls failed entirely.
As we settled, a puff of wind caught her and she lifted off the ground. We turned on both motors and she began to swing to the left. Then we cut out the right motor, hoping that the left motor would pull her up. This it failed to do.
Then we opened both motor throttles and both Weill and myself tried the right rudder and threw the stick entirely forward to the right. But she continued to swing to the left until she lost all her forward speed.
The left lower wing caught in the water, the ship was cross-winded, pulled into the water and cracked up.
While onlookers offered sympathy, Giffin shrugged his shoulders and merely called out “count us out” before changing out of his soggy clothes and directing whatever salvage efforts could be rendered. It was stated that a gas line leak developed and led to repairs in Bakersfield, but that, of course, is where Weill came aboard. The Times even noted that, when Lundgren was taken ashore he checked his wrist watch to find that a photo of his mother secreted inside was dry and then called her to let her know that he was safe, albeit soaked.
Despite Giffin’s assignation of blame, the manufacturer’s sales manager, H.A. Speer, claimed otherwise, stated that it was Weill’s presence, coupled with the light load on the craft, that caused overbalancing and put too much weight on the tail. Meanwhile, it was rumored that the pilot was in negotiations to secure the monoplane (single wing) Miss Hollydale, which was withdrawn from the race, and to reenter it in the competition, but that never happened.
The Dole race was plagued by more disaster, including the crash landing of one plane before the meet began and, when the race did finally start with eight planes, one lifted off, but returned because of engine trouble, while two craft crashed, though no one was injured in these incidents. The first plane to successfully take to the sky, the Golden Eagle, vanished as did the Miss Doran, which crash-landed before the race began—neither plane was ever found, nor was another entrant, the Dallas Spirit, which had to return to Oakland upon takeoff and then went out in search of the other two missing craft. Another plane that crashed before the start gave it a second try, but it again plummeted to earth, though injury was again avoided.
This left two other planes, the Aloha and the Woollaroc, which were the last to take off, but wound up the only to finish the race, with the latter, piloted by the famous Art Goebel, arriving in Honolulu first making the trip in 26 hours and 17 minutes, while the former touched down just about two hours later. The winning plane still survives and is in its namesake museum and wilderness preserve in Oklahoma.
Lundgren then published a plea in the Times on the 17th for federal testing of airplanes and observed that there were those who felt that the crashes (and there were more than the ones before the race, as noted below) with the Dole meet “have greatly hindered the progress of aviation.” The aviator, however, added that “new improvements are needed constantly to further progress” and observed that “the Dole race has caused an enormous amount of interest from all over” while thanking the federal Department of Commerce for inspecting planes before the meet was to begin as it kept our unworthy craft.
But, he continued, that “a more rigid test, however, should be made in the plants where new kinds of airplanes are built” and that “a strict inspection should be made by the government Department of Commerce as to the right material and equipment.” With this official analysis finished and the crafts considered airworthy, “when a plane has been passed a certificate of inspection and stability should be given.” Lundgren then added,
In the accidents of the three planes for this race in which three lives were lost it is almost certain that these could have been avoided if they had stood a rigid test and inspection before they were turned over to their respective pilots. It was a case of rush in all cases, with just the race in mind . . . Our entry was another odd type, although not a new design. It was not given a proper test, due also to a lack of time. Our lives were saved because we crashed in the water.
The aviator concluded by restating the necessity for detailed inspections and testing of airplanes before they took to the air and he said such procedures “will greatly eliminate unnecessary loss of life.” While there was an Air Commerce Act passed the prior year empowering the Secretary of Commerce to issue and enforce flying rules, license pilots and ensure that planes were certified, it was not until the mid-1930s that more sweeping changes took place within the rapidly growing commercial airline world after some high-profile crashes involving famed football coach Knute Rockne and a New Mexico senator.
In 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Authority was created followed two years later by a split forming the Civil Aeronautics Board, with the CAA handling airplane and pilot certification and safety enforcement with the latter developed safety rules and investigated accidents. After a midair collision in 1956 between two commercial airplanes over the Grand Canyon, the Federal Aviation Agency was established to better manage the nation’s airspace. In 1967, with the creation of the Department of Transportation, the agency was reconstituted as the Federal Aviation Administration, which manages the increasingly complex air transportation system in the United States.
Shown here are a pair of snapshots of the Pride of Los Angeles from 10 August, with one showing the plane from the front with its triple wing structure and two engines, as well as some of the crew at the left and a decent view of the surrounding landscape at Daugherty Field. The second view is taken from the side and gives us a clear view of Hoot Gibson’s likeness just below the cockpit’s windshield, while a pair of crew members are at the front of the craft at right and another contingent are at the tail apparently lifting the plane.
These photos are great documents of an unusual, if short-lived, aircraft and of the race for which the plane was entered, a notable, if tragedy-marred event taking place just a few months after Lindbergh’s famous solo excursion, which revolutionized aviation and subsequently spurred many to seek feats of endurance and distance in air travel.