Guest Blogger: Jason Ryan -- Race to Hawaii

The San Francisco History Center is pleased to present Jason Ryan's author talk and book signing for Race to Hawaii: The 1927 Dole Air Derby and the Thrilling First Flights That Opened the Pacific. Ryan will share about his book project on Thursday, August 16* at 6:00pm in the Skylight Gallery on sixth floor of the Main Library.

Kirkus Review on Race to Hawaii:

A page-turning account of “the precarious, pioneering flights to Hawaii” during the late 1920s.            
Race to Hawaii book cover
Learning of Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight, Hawaii pineapple tycoon James Dole immediately offered $25,000 (the same amount won by Lindbergh) for the first nonstop from Oakland, California, to Honolulu. The result was a spectacular story featuring dozens of heroes, not all of whom survived. Journalist Ryan (Hell-Bent: One Man's Crusade to Crush the Hawaiian Mob, 2014) enthusiastically narrates the exciting tale. Though the Dole Derby doesn’t begin until Page 169, few readers will regret the author’s account of earlier attempts. In 1925, a small Navy crew left Oakland in a flying boat but landed 450 miles short when the gas ran out. They spent 10 days drifting slowly toward the islands until they were rescued within sight of land, starving and nearly dead of thirst. In early 1927, two Army fliers carefully prepared a Fokker trimotor and enjoyed a mostly uneventful flight, arriving a month after Dole’s announcement, making the derby an anticlimax. This did not discourage a crowd of eager applicants, and Ryan recounts their biographies, technical efforts, and flights, which include so many malfunctions that readers will conclude that Lindbergh was either a genius or very lucky. Of 15 planes that entered, seven dropped out because of mechanical problems, including several crashes. Eight left the starting line on Aug. 16, 1927; four aborted. Two of the four who continued landed in Honolulu, and two disappeared. One plane that aborted tried again and also disappeared. All told, 10 fliers died during the derby, causing James Dole to harbor “bitterness over his association with so many fliers’ deaths. 
A vivid portrait of 1920s American aviation, whose dazzling technical progress could never keep up with the dangerously adventurous fliers who tested the limits of their fragile craft and often died in the process.
In anticipation of his visit to the San Francisco Main Library, Jason Ryan wrote a guest blog post for the San Francisco History Center's blog.

Hawaii or Bust: Conquering the Pacific By Airplane by Jason Ryan

When Charles Lindbergh took off from New York in May 1927, he was an unremarkable American airmail pilot derided as the “Flyin’ Fool,” ridiculed for even thinking of crossing an ocean by himself in his small, single-engine plane. When he landed Spirit of St. Louis in Paris more than 33 hours later, his doubters were revealed as the true fools and Lindbergh was transformed instantly into a worldwide hero. Lindbergh’s nonstop, solo crossing of the Atlantic not only opened the skies, but also the imaginations of a new, and now air-minded, generation. Airplanes, the general public finally comprehended, could take us nearly anywhere!

The excitement over aviation generated by Lindbergh in Paris soon spilled west across the Atlantic and North America and pooled in a perhaps unexpected location: San Francisco and the Bay Area. This carried a certain logic in that if an American pilot just crossed the Atlantic, surely the next challenge was for some brave aviator to cross the Pacific. But while recent innovations in plane and engine design had helped Lindbergh cross a full ocean in one “hop,” crossing the entire Pacific in a single flight was still out out of the question. The Pacific is the world’s largest ocean, covering an entire third of the planet. Any plane loaded down with the massive amounts of fuel needed to cross the Pacific in 1927 would never get off the ground. Yet the right plane could carry enough fuel to reach Hawaii, and that would be crossing at least half the Pacific.

Hawaiian pineapple magnate James Dole was traveling in San Francisco when the news broke of Lindbergh’s flight. Deciding to spur along the conquering of the Pacific by airplane, Dole announced within days $35,000 in cash prizes to the operators of the first two airplanes to reach Hawaii in nonstop flight across (half) the Pacific. To Dole’s surprise, there was an exceptionally strong interest in his offer. So many fliers were itching to fly across the Pacific and claim the prizes, in fact, that Dole decided to organize a formal race to Hawaii in August of 1927 and hand off its administration to a special committee. Naturally, the competitors in the Dole Derby settled on the shortest route between the mainland and Hawaii’s capital – the 2,400 miles over open ocean that separated Honolulu and San Francisco.

This would not be the first attempt to fly across the Pacific. As I detail in my book, Race to Hawaii: The 1927 Dole Derby and the Thrilling First Flights That Opened the Pacific, the U.S. Navy actually attempted to fly nonstop across the Pacific two years before Lindbergh hopped the Atlantic. On August 31, 1925, tens of thousands of people gathered at vantage points around San Francisco Bay to witness the takeoff of two Navy flying boats.“Running parallel with the shore for a mile or more, they rose as gracefully as two birds,” said San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, who made sure to be on hand for the beginnings of the historic flights, each estimated to require 24 hours of flying time.

But while residents of Honolulu stayed awake through the night to await the planes, fate spoiled the fun. One flying boat ended its flight early when an oil line broke, requiring an emergency ocean landing and rescue just off the California coast. The other flying boat, PN-9 No.1, continued onward, only to be stymied by a stiff headwind that exhausted the flying boat’s fuel much sooner than expected, about 500 miles from Hawaii. The flying boat made an ocean landing, expecting to rendezvous and refuel with a nearby Navy ship, but radio mixups thwarted the rendezvous, leading the Navy to mistakenly believe PN-9 No.1 was lost for good. Forced to survive on their own, Commander John Rodgers and his crew of four ripped fabric from their plane and hung makeshift sails between the floating biplane’s wings, turning their flying boat into a slow-moving sailboat. Ten days later, after being followed by a menacing pack of sharks and barracuda, the Navy crew arrived to Kauai thirsty, starving and sunburned, but alive.

This miraculous tale of survival in 1925 seemed a forgotten memory for many of the men and single woman submitting their registration forms for the Dole Derby. All sorts of people across the world and country were intent on making the Hawaiian Hop, including a schoolteacher, a stockbroker, a World War I Ace, a pair of stunt fliers, and more. Nearly all of them dismissed the considerable dangers the trip presented. Beside the chance of running out of fuel, mechanical mishaps were possible during the long flight over open ocean, and pilots would also be prone to falling asleep as they flew through the night. Most of all, navigational challenges threatened the aviators. The wind changed speed and direction often across the wide Pacific, requiring a navigator to measure the gusts carefully and calculate its affect on the flight path. If a plane was off course more than three degrees leaving the long runway at the new Oakland airport, the pilot and navigator inside would never even spot the Hawaiian Islands, dooming them to an emergency ocean landing when the tanks ran dry.

Major Irving's Pabco Flyer and staff, Dole Derby 1927
As the Dole birds prepared for the air race, other aviators moved faster, angling to to reach Hawaii first, even before the contest officially began in August. The Army fielded an attempt, preparing to send a pair of aviators over the Pacific in the “Bird of Paradise,” a tri-motor Fokker C-2. An affable West Coast airmail pilot named Ernie Smith bought a Travel Air 5000 monoplane for the Hawaiian Hop, promising to race the Army fliers. And at the same time in Hawaii, a Hollywood stunt pilot named Dick Grace announced a bid to cross the Pacific but in reverse, flying from Hawaii to California.
These assorted pilots and planes would all take off across the Pacific during the summer of 1927, but not every pilot and plane would reach its destination. Ten people died during the Dole Derby, casting a significant pall over the ambitious and historic air race. But a few fliers did reach the islands and were celebrated as national heroes, just like Lindbergh. The air trail to Hawaii had been blazed, though at a steep cost.

Jason Ryan, author Race to Hawaii

At the end of the book talk, books will be available for purchase and author will do book signings.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 16, 1927

*On this day in history: August 16, 1927 is the day the Dole race began. Use your San Francisco Public Library card to search full-text articles in the San Francisco Chronicle Historical database, 1865 - current.