Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1937:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we fly to Hawaii. The University of Houston's college of engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

When Lindbergh landed in Paris on May 21st, 1927, the world went mad. Four days later James Dole, the pineapple king, announced his own 25,000-dollar prize for the first person to fly from the U.S. mainland to Hawaii. Two reporters from the Honolulu Star Bulletin had seen how Lindbergh's feat had sold newspapers, and they talked Dole into it. But it quickly became clear that they had created a recipe for disaster. Inexperienced pilots would take the bait and kill themselves.

So Dole turned his offer into a race, and it would not begin until August 12th, when the airplanes might be ready. The flight, from Oakland, California, would be shorter than Lindbergh's. But a part of Lindbergh's success had been the navigational skill he'd gained during years as an airmail pilot. And, even then, he'd been over land and landmarks much of the time. This was open sea all the way. The flyers would have to navigate to a mere pinpoint in a vast ocean. No GPS, no radar.

Dole tried to lure Lindbergh into the race but he failed. Instead he got fifteen dubious airplanes and dubious crews. Mildred Doran, for example, had wanted to be the first woman to fly the Pacific. She hadn't yet learned to fly, but she got onto one of the airplanes as a navigator. The press had a field day with her until her team recognized the navigational challenge. They had to replace her; but by then her airplane was named Miss Doran. With all the press coverage, they had to keep her on as a passenger.

The day came and hardly anyone was really ready. Finally, four days later, eight airplanes had managed to qualify. Over-loaded with extra fuel tanks, they cued up in a departure order that'd been assigned by lot.

The first got off safely, the second crashed on takeoff -- lucky for its crew the fuel didn't ignite. The third couldn't get off the ground, the remaining five did. But three got into immediate mechanical trouble and had to return, including the Miss Doran. Only it could be repaired and sent back into the race. Mildred Doran was seen teary and ashen-faced as she re-boarded it.

Over twenty-six hours later, an airplane named Woolaroc made it to Honolulu and it won the prize. It had been designed jointly by Beech, Cessna, and Stearman. The Hawaiian entry, named Aloha, all dressed in brilliant yellow with a lei painted around its nose, got lost and arrived later with only four gallons of fuel remaining.

The other two airplanes that made it into the Oakland sky had both vanished. Mildred Doran was one of ten people who died in the race. And here is the crowing irony of the whole unhappy business:

While all this was going on, the Army Air service flew a Fokker Trimotor on that same route two months before Dole's race. One month before, two civilian pilots also made it. But they crash-landed on Island of Molokai. And, I suspect, we should not be surprised that the people who really got there first did so out of the public eye.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

T. Gwynn-Jones, Wings Across the Pacific: The Courageous Aviators Who Challenged and Conquered the Greatest Ocean. Aglen, PAShiffer Publishing Ltd., 1995, Chapter 5.

For a complete roster of the planes and crews that flew in the race, photos, and outcomes, see:

For more on the race, see:

the two prize-winning flight routes

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.