by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the aftermath of the astounding achievement of Charles Lindbergh’s solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean in spring 1927, Hawaii pineapple magnate James Dole (I just had some Dole pineapple for dinner tonight) sponsored a contest for daring flyers to make the 2,400 mile trip from Oakland to Honolulu.
Dole offered $25,000 to the first plane to reach the islands and $10,000 for second place and a host of aviators signed up. Two military planes successfully made the crossing and a pair of civilians barely did so in mid-July, crash landing on Molokai after the craft ran out of fuel. After clearance was given by the federal government, fifteen entrants were in line to take part in the race. But, tragedy struck three of them before the race began.
On 10 August, two days before the race was originally scheduled to start (it was delayed until the 16th), a pair of pilots from San Diego took off for Oakland, but only 15 minutes into the flight and enshrouded in fog, the craft slammed into a cliff, caught fire with the aviators killed in the burning plane, which landed on the beach below.
Then, on the 11th, Long Beach-based attorney and pilot, J.L. Giffin, and his navigator were arriving in Oakland when their plane, the Pride of Los Angeles, crashed into San Francisco Bay, though the two men emerged alive from the wreckage.
The next day, Arthur V. Rogers, a British pilot who served with great distinction for his country during the First World War, was at the controls of the Angel of Los Angeles for a test flight, while the craft’s designer and navigator, architect Leland Bryant of the Bryant Aircraft Syndicate and Rogers’ wife and infant daughter watched.
The plane was constructed over the course of months and one of the photos highlighted here from the Homestead’s collection is a press photograph from probably July, judging from the near completion of the craft. It shows men working on the plane as it sat in a dirt area near some structures in a relatively undeveloped area. One gent in a suit stands at the rear of the unusually designed craft, while there are bystanders gawking nearby.
On 10 August, it was reported that the Angel of Los Angeles was christened in a public ceremony the previous day. It was described as “a British type plane, with the motors built in tandem, one in front of the pilot’s cockpit and the other squarely behind it..” Elsewhere it was observed that the positioning of the engines was to minimize vibration, though the wings were also said to be lower than normal. It was stated that only one engine was needed to keep the craft flying and its cruising speed was said to be about 110 miles per hour, according to Bryant.
Ominously, there were problems with the airplane and its engines in the days before the test flight, as reported in newspaper accounts. On the 11th, it was stated that “Rogers and a crew of mechanics labored over” the plane and were “hoping to complete repairs for an early take off for Oakland.” The explanation was generally that there was “motor trouble when the craft was being given its final tests,” but several hours of work was needed to make the plane airworthy.
A news article from the 12th added, when it was announced that the race was being pushed back four days by consent of the entrants, that Rogers “was meeting with little success” with the Angel of Los Angeles “which has been stubborn in the trial tests.”
Undeterred, Rogers climbed in the cockpit that day and took off from the Western Air Express field, formerly Vail Field, on the border of Montebello and today’s City of Commerce. Rogers was able to get the plane airborne and was out perhaps seven to ten minutes and a couple of miles from the field, when he circled the craft and then it abruptly nosedived from an altitude of about 500 feet.
Some reports suggested that Rogers was able to pull the plane out for a split second before it hurtled straight for the ground. Though he was equipped with a parachute, there was no time to deploy it and it was suggested that he leapt from the craft in desperation, moments before it crashed. Another account stated that his foot was caught in the cockpit before he could jump, though it is highly unlikely he could have survived even if he had leapt clear from it.
One particularly detailed description stated that Rogers’ head was nearly flattened by the impact and that nearly every bone in his body was broken. His wife jumped from the automobile in which she was sitting and ran to the crash site, only to find her husband’s broken and mangled body some 50 feet from the wreckage of the Angel of Los Angeles.
The second photo from the museum’s holdings shown here is another press photo, from N.E.A. that shows the wreckage of the doomed plane, which is not identified by name in an inscription on the reverse, though Rogers was noted as the pilot. As was commonly done, a dark strip of material was applied to highlight the wreckage, which was to be the focus of any reprinting in the media. There are several dozen onlookers in the background, but they were to be excised from the final printed image.
As it turned out, another photo of the crash site was commonly reprinted in papers and this view was not found in the newspaper articles located for this post. In any case, the stark destruction is palpable and testimony to the still very dangerous conditions for aviators a quarter century after the Wright Brothers’ landmark flight, especially for experimental craft. One article referred to the Angel of Los Angeles as a “freak plane” and added that Rogers “was never sure of his plane.”
With respect to the Dole Race, it did continue as scheduled on the 16th, but with eight entries lined up before up to 100,000 spectators. Tragedy continued to mark the competition as one plane’s engine overheated and it had to be grounded. Another craft failed to take off and crashed on the runway, while one plane managed to get airborne briefly and then plummeted to earth. A plane had torn fabric on its fuselage and returned to Oakland, though it did eventually get in the air. A craft even crashed twice at that site before it was grounded.
Four planes managed to make it in the air, but one of them, named Miss Doran after the sole female participant, 22-year old Mildred Doran, vanished somewhere in the vast Pacific and it and its three-member crew were never found. The same fate befell The Golden Eagle. While three submarines and the Dallas Spirit, one of the entrants that was grounded because of damage and then repaired, searched in vain for both craft. One managed to radio to the Dallas Spirit that it was in a tailspin.
This meant that only two planes finished the race, with Woolaroc, piloted by Art Goebel, one of the best-known flyers of the era, and navigator William C. Davis making it to Honolulu in 26 hours and 17 minutes and claiming the $25,000 first prize. Aloha, helmed by Martin Jensen with Paul Schluter as navigator, arrived two hours later, for the $10,000 second place finish (it was stated that Jensen only paid Schluter $25 for his efforts.)
If anything the ill-fated Dole race revealed the risks of early long-distance competitions and the need for much better planning and execution. Despite many advancements in aviation, there was clearly a long way to go to improve safety for flying in general, but especially for the dangerous races like the Dole that pushed aviators to the maximum of endurance.