From Point A to Point B: Finish Line Rules for the National Air Races, Los Angeles, 14 August 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Several previous posts on this blog have concerned the National Air Races held at Mines Field, now Los Angeles International Airport, from 8-16 September 1928 with this event being very important for the history of aviation regionally and nationally. A post earlier this year highlighted some of the planning through the pages of the 26 March 1928 issue of Aviation magazine and this one goes into more detail on the work done to prepare for the races through some of the papers of Dudley M. Steele (1892-1968), who was the chair of the contest committee for the California Air Race Association, which oversaw the the races.

Steele was a native of Omaha, Nebraska and appears to have been orphaned while a child, with part of his youth spent in St. Joseph, Missouri before he resided at Kansas City, where he was a bookkeeper and accountant, including for a bakery. When he registered for the draft on 5 May 1917, just a couple of weeks after the United States joined the Allies in the First World War, he listed himself as a student and residing in Dallas, Texas, but also employed by the government at Camp Funston, soon changed to Camp Stanley because there was a Kansas installation of the former name, in Leon Spring, Texas, northwest of San Antonio.

Steele in a diving competition, Los Angeles Times, 28 July 1924.

While he claimed an exemption because of his wife, Swannoa, and the impending birth of a baby (the couple had a son, Dudley, Jr. and a daughter, Suzanne before divorcing, probably in the early 1920s), Steele did serve in the military. It may have been during his service that he became interested in aviation, though, after the conclusion of his hitch, he returned with his family to Kansas City and worked for the bakery.

In October 1921, Steele was mentioned in a Los Angeles Times article about an upcoming American Legion (this veterans’ organization was formed after the end of the war) aviation meet at Kansas City, specifically regarding his announcement that prizes were to be offered to the flyer who would make the longest non-stop flight to the Missouri metropolis from anywhere within the country and the Times mentioned there was interest among the Los Angeles aviation community regarding this contest.

Within two years, and apparently after his marriage ended, Steele ended up in the Angel City, though he became known first, by fall 1923, for his prowess as a swimmer and diver, including competing for the athletic club of the Ambassador Hotel, which opened a couple of years earlier and was long a premier hostelry among fine ones in Los Angeles. It also appears he worked in real estate, during another of the many fabled booms in the region, being a member of the Greater Los Angeles Corporation, as well as the secretary of the chamber of commerce in the new San Fernando Valley town of Girard, now Woodland Hills. Later, he resigned from that position and was hired as director of aquatics at the Sea Breeze Beach Club in Santa Monica.

Times, 11 November 1927.

During his several professional moves, Steele maintained an avid aviation interest, including serving on a planning committee for an October 1925 “sky carnival” held at Clover Field, now Santa Monica Airport, and working as a starter for a November 1927 air race at the same facility. By the time he was involved in the latter, Steele had began working as head of the aviation department for the Richfield Oil Company, now the Atlantic-Richfield Company, or ARCO.

On New Year’s Eve 1927, the California Air Race Association, a non-profit, was organized to plan the upcoming national event, which was referred to at this early stage as the “Pulitzer races” as publisher Ralph Pulitzer began offering trophies for contests starting in 1920, and Steele was one of a seven directors, with the others coming from aircraft manufacturers, aeronautics associations and an aviation magazine. As noted above, and likely due to some of his prior experience in area meets, Steele was tasked with being responsible for organizing the contests, though the first priority was finding a site, with ones at El Monte and Long Beach considered before Mines Field was chosen.

Times,1 January 1928,

The 19 February 1928 edition of the Times reported that “a simultaneous attack on the world’s speed record by the planes of half a dozen nations” with the top expected to be above 300 mph and, as a race in England was postponed to the next year, it was “probable that all the fast planes which European nations planned to enter in that event will be available for the speed classics in Los Angeles.” It was added that “Mr. Steele’s plans involve gathering . . . the greatest aggregation of military and commercial aircraft that has ever been gathered together in a single locality in the world’s history,” which, in aviation, meant just a quarter of a century.

After observing that there were assurances of assistance from the air services of the Army and Navy (the Air Force was not created until 1947) and that the State Department and embassies were in discussions with foreign countries and manufacturers, the paper quoted Steele as saying,

An idea of the size of the aircraft gathering in September may be gained from the fact that there is not a field in the vicinity of Los Angeles, or an airport anywhere in the world large enough to accommodate all the planes. It will be necessary to quarter all the visiting planes at all the airports and fields around Los Angeles, bringing them to the main field only when they are actually on the program.

On 21 April, the Association officially made the announcement that Mines Field was to be the site of the event, adding that a vote for $6 million in bonds on the 1st of May, if approved, would apply those funds to it and two other airports, while Steele reported that there were to be five races, with $125,000 in prizes and an expectation of 1,500 craft and 15,000 pilots and crew on hand.

Los Angeles Express, 11 April 1928.

The contests were to be a non-stop transcontinental race from New York City; an air derby, also from the Big Apple, with three classes; an international contest from Windsor, Canada, adjacent to Detroit; a Pan-American race from México City; and a California contest from the Bay Area. Of the nine event days, three were to be for the national races and these under the auspices of the contest committee of the National Aeronautical Association, the chair of which was Orville Wright of the famous Wright Brothers.

Just prior to this, the Los Angeles Express of the 11th ran a photo and a very short article concerning Richfield’s purchase of a Waco biplane, painted the company colors of blue and gold, so that Steele could make a 12-city, two-week tour of the west coast “preparatory to compiling statistics and issuing maps for use of [by] commercial pilots.” Four days later, however, the Times added that the craft was also to be used by Steele so that he could “leave for New York” on the first of May “in the interest of the national air races.” He told the paper that “about 75 per cent of his time will be saved by using air transportation” as he made this national trip as part of the planning for the transcontinental race.

Steele seated at the far left in this article from the Times, 22 April 1928.

The 6 May issue of the Times, however, observed that Steele’s survey was of California and took three weeks and over 2,100 miles visiting 21 cities with the takeoff and landing for the survey being at the “American Airport,” otherwise long known as Rogers Airport on Angeles Mesa Drive, which is now Crenshaw Boulevard, north of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall. On his return, Steele commented, “second only to the perfection of California’s flying weather is the perfection of the Waco [model 10] plane . . . compared to the ships of ten years ago, the Waco is as easy to fly as an automobile is to drive.” He forecast that every sales department would have its own planes with salespeople licensed to fly them.

In late May, Steele and his relief pilot and mechanic Ralph Hall, departed on a month-long cross-country survey of the eighteen stations intended to be stops for the race in September. The purpose was to survey the fields, arrange for the care of the craft and their crew, and develop rules applying to the landing at each one, with some stations only being for a thirty-minute pit stop, while others were to be overnight layovers. A map, with an inset photo of Steele and his airplane, showed the eastbound route through Arizona and New Mexico to Texas and then northeast from Fort Worth to Kansas City and the eastbound section past St. Louis, Columbus, the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg to New York. The return was slightly different with the only alternate station being at Washington, D.C.

Times, 20 May 1928.

While on his trip, Steele reported to his compatriots back home that “the eyes of the East will be focused on Los Angeles” when the races were taking place adding that there was “enthusiasm in each of the eastern cities he has visited,” with expressions of cooperation and the provision for better fields in cities where airports were less than desirable. After he came back to the Angel City, Steele indicated that there were more than 1,500 planes and some 5,000 pilots and technicians expected, based on requests to date, with the non-stop transcontinental race alone receiving more than 350 applications—it was added that there still had been just one such flight ever completed.

For the trio of elapsed-time derbies cross-country at those 18 stations, more than 600 pilots and crew showed interest and competing, while a pair of state contests from San Francisco and Oakland attracted 1,225 inquiries. There was considerably less communication about the Pan-American race, likely because of the conditions of aviation in México, Central America and South America with 83 responses, but it was considered a good response thanks to recent flights there by Charles Lindbergh, the hero of the 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight, as well as by Emilio Carranza, the so-called “Lindbergh of México,” who, however, after making a historic flight from México City to New York was killed a crash in New Jersey on 12 July—he was expected to compete in the Los Angeles race. Lastly, the international contest from Canada led to 212 pilots there showing interest, while closed-contest races in the Mines Field area drew 700 requests for applications.

South Pasadena Foothill Review, 3 August 1928.

In July, Steele completed two more surveys: one for the derby from New York and the other for the Canadian race. The Times of the 15th observed that “for the first time in aviation history, so far as is known, contestants in a transcontinental air race are to have the benefit of a two-way log of the route.” It was added that Steele “has just completed the arrangement in tabulated form of the air data be obtained in flying the route back and forth across the country” with the stations reduced to 17 in number. These logs were to record distance and altitude; gas consumption; obstacles encountered; storms and detours forced by them; and landmarks for identifying landing fields over nearly 3,500 miles embraced in the course.

Meanwhile, July also included the grading of large runways, the building of grandstands, and the construction of an exhibition hall for displays by north of 400 aviation industry manufacturers, with these expected to begin installation in mid-August. It was also reported that Ruth Elder, the so-called “Miss America of Aviation,” though soon eclipsed in renown and popularity by Amelia Earhart was given a special invitation as a guest of honor at the meet. For their part as starting point of the state races, Oakland and San Francisco were to present special trophies, as reported by Steele who completed a jaunt to the Bay Area that month, as well.

By the first of August, a large scale model of Mines Field and the facilities for the air races was finished so that Steele, managing director Cliff Henderson and others from the Association could viscerally demonstrate the visual scope and scale of the meet. Steele then flew again to Windsor on another trial run for the international race and verifying details with stations along the way, including in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and Chicago—an air log like that mentioned above was to be completed and provided to pilots. On the 9th, Steele made another trip to the north “to make final confirmation of appointments of officials for the California air derbies,” with stops at Bakersfield, Visalia, Oakland and San Francisco.

Back home for the last time, Steele oversaw the creation of a general race committee, announced in the Los Angeles Express on the 14th, including thirty-two men, while San Diego, not to be excluded from prominence with its Golden State sister cities, was chosen as a “daylight station” on the transcontinental derby after a conference between Steele and members of the Chamber of Commerce. It was also arranged that a $500 lap prize and other details of the 30-minute stop were worked out during the meeting.

As for the Steele documents, one dated 14 August and marked “IMPORTANT” concerned changes in rules for those stations on the transcontinental derbies with it noted that

All airplanes upon reaching your city will FLY across a WHITE LINE, low enough for judges to distinguish numbers on wings.

This will constitute the FINISH at your point, and time should be taken as they cross this line.

The finish lines were to be painted white and be of lime or a similar material, as well as be two feet wide by 200 feet long and “at right angles to the prevailing wind.” Judges and timers were expected to be at the line “to catch the time of each plane as it FLIES across.” The explanation for these changes was that “safety was the paramount reason” given that several craft might land at the same time and, “in their eagerness to land, the pilots might , misjudge their distance and cause a serious crack-up.” After crossing the line, pilots were to circle and then land when there was a safe time to do so.

For pilots, a 21 August bulletin advised that two further major changes were made, with San Diego being added as a control stop after leaving Yuma, with landing to be at the North Island military field. “From that point,” instructions continued, “your last lap will be to Los Angeles, to the airport of the National air Races,” and revised maps provided in Yuma by a San Diego Chamber of Commerce member.

The other change was for timing to the control points so that “all pilots in all classes will fly across the finish line” with a copy of the 14 August document provided. There was also a warning to not “misinterpret the above” with respect to flying across finish lines and then circling before landing “at your convenience, excercising [sic] great care at all times.” Details about the prizes for each lap were not fully worked out at that time.

Also included is an “Air Tour Log” from New York City to Los Angeles with the seventeen stations, prior to the addition of San Diego, including the distance, expected flight times, anticipated wind conditions, gallons of fuel likely to be used, the payload allowed and the highest allowable altitude. Another document was the “Point of Emergency Call” with fields and phone numbers listed, though seven stations lacked fields at that point.

An undated three-page document to the transcontinental pilots was a summary by Steele, with his statement that he visited each station in his Waco 10 and that airports were carefully chosen and the addition that “he has had no trouble in landing at any of the points, and no trouble in crossing the mountains in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and the Alleghenies.” Appended to this was the air tour log. As for control stops, Steele noted that there would be a referee, experienced in aviation, whose “word is final in all disputes and controversies,” while protests could be filed in Los Angeles at the end of the races. Any violation of the rules brought disqualification and no prize participation.

As for the start in New York City, the McAlpin Hotel was the official one for the contest and all pilots were to report to an official at Roosevelt Field with two men designated as starters. While gas and oil was to be provided by pilots at the start, “at each Control point you will receive your gas and oil free” by those cities and “to those pilots who have signified their willingness to accept our service plan.” It was urged that pilots to be mindful of wind, traffic and the rules and regulations for the race and to adhere to all instructions as to landing and parking, while those 30-minute stops meant that it was critical to follow the established protocols. At overnight stations, transportation to and from town was provided “and you will be given special rates at hotels for your lodging and meals.”

No plane was to leave a station after 4 p.m., while lap prizes were to be awarded to the leader of the class at those points and be awarded at the finish in Los Angeles. It was asserted that the schedule was set up so that stops would take place “far enough in advance of actual darkness to give you plenty of time to work on your motor and your plane without penalties.” Steele’s experience in flying the route was assurance of these conditions and that the race was set up so that “the safety and dependability of aviation would be more greatly emphasized if 50 ships started and 50 ships finished” instead of a shorter route and only having a percentage of the planes complete the course.

Log books were enclosed with the letters and a note was provided concerning altitude readings and explaining the variation in terms of air lines as opposed to flying by railroads, with Steele saying he flew by the latter, which meant more miles but still kept within the flying time. With bad weather, there was a warning about the Allegheny Mountains, while, in good conditions, pilots were advised to be at least 1,200 feet over the range and to watch for down drafts. As flyers approached Los Angeles through San Gorgonio Pass, near Palm Springs, they were warned to watch for these down drafts, though at 2,000 feet “you should have no difficulty.”

The concluding statement included Steele’s admonition

that every pilot competing in the race give us his sincere co-operation to the extent of being sportsman, playing the game fair and square, taking no undue advantage of anyone, and of obeying the rules of both the Department of Commerce for air travel, and those of common sense and safety when flying. We here in Los Angeles have tried very hard to work out the plans for this race that will provide sufficient prizes for you to make the competition keen and worthwhile, and we also have provided to the best of our ability, competent officials at all Control points, to time your landing and take-off accurately. Obviously, however, this can all be undone by pilots not keeping the rules, and by unfair flying.

Finally, a “dummy wire” telegram from Western Union, also undated, concerned all pilots being made aware of the change in timing flyers as they crossed finish lines and asking them to confirm receipt of this recent emendation to the rules and regulations. Having these documents in the Homestead’s collection adds significantly to our interpretation of this important milestone of greater Los Angeles aviation history.

With respect to Steele, he continued in the employ of Richfield for several more years; managed the Union Air Terminal, now Hollywood-Burbank Airport; ran a window valance manufacturing company; was a president of the California Taxpayers Association; served on a committee for a commission tasked with recommending reforms to Los Angeles city government; and, after moving to Palm Desert, served on the Riverside County Airport Commission.

His son, Dudley, Jr., enlisted in the Army ten days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II and was training to be a pilot when his plane crashed in Indiana, killing him and his two fellow crew members. When Steele died in 1968, little was mentioned about his early aviation career and his central role in the National Air Races, which other posts here discussed in detail as to the events of those nine days.

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