First civilian trans-Pacific flight ended on Molokai
New book chronicles Smith-Bronte flight, other aviation firsts
“Our gas gave out as we were skirting the southeast coast of Molokai, heading for Oahu. . . . At 11:27 (a.m PDT) the motor sputtered and stopped.
“Ernie swung to land, nosed down and motor started again for about 30 seconds, then stopped completely. Ernie headed back and swung sharp for the shore. At this time our altitude was about 75 feet and we were about 90 feet offshore.
“We headed for a soft looking clump of trees on the beach and crashed into them.”
And that is how the first civilian trans-Pacific flight to Hawaii ended July 15, 1927, on Molokai, according to the crew’s flight log. The City of Oakland, a single-engine Travel Air 5000 with Ernie Smith, 34, as pilot and Emory Bronte, 25, as navigator, crash-landed into a grove of kiawe trees near Mile Marker 11 on Kamehameha V Highway in Kamalo after taking off from its namesake city.
Both survived to tell their story, completing their flight log in Judge Ed McCorriston’s dining room in Kaunakakai several hours after walking away from the crash site with only a few scratches.
To put the City of Oakland fight into historical context, it came only two months after Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis and a little over two weeks after the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Bird of Paradise, piloted by Lester Maitland and navigated by Albert Hegenberger, landed at Wheeler Field on Oahu in the first trans-Pacific flight to Hawaii.
The story of the flights of the Bird of Paradise, the City of Oakland and the Dole Air Derby, all of which took place in 1927, are included in Jason Ryan’s recent book, “Race To Hawaii” (Chicago Review Press).
Ryan is a former South Carolina newspaper reporter and nonfiction writer who also wrote “Hell-Bent: One Man’s Crusade to Crush the Hawaiian Mob” about former Honolulu Prosecutor Charles Marsland and his fight against organized crime.
It was the exhibit “Hawaii by Air” by David Romanowski in 2014 at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., that piqued Ryan’s interest in the first trans-Pacific flights. He notes that air travel today from the West Coast to the small island chain in the Pacific is common. It was not so in 1927.
“Once upon a time, flying to Hawaii was not routine or commonplace and certainly not boring,” he writes in the author’s note to the book, which is based on published articles, government reports, pilot logs and other research and sources. “When aviators attempted the first flights to Hawaii in the 1920s, the Hawaiian Islands were not just a destination but salvation.
“After taking off from California and flying for 26 hours straight, pilots low on fuel and stamina were desperate to land.”
Race to the islands
According to “Race To Hawaii,” Smith learned to fly in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War I and was a flight instructor. After the war, he worked as a civilian pilot and flew in the forest air patrol for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1926, he took a job with Pacific Air Transport, flying mail and sometimes passengers along the West Coast.
He bought the Travel Air 5000 he would fly to Molokai from Pacific Air Transport and installed a Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine, the same one used by Lindbergh and the Army’s Maitland and Hegenberger.
The pilot organized an investment group with the aim of being the first to fly to Hawaii. He was in a race with the U.S. Army Corps to get into the air first.
On June 28, 1927, both the City of Oakland and the Bird of Paradise were on the Oakland runway on Bay Farm Island, wings nearly touching, revving up for the race to Hawaii.
At 7:09 a.m., the Bird of Paradise took off, leaving the City of Oakland behind. Smith stood in the center of the runway, watching. Federal inspectors required equipment installations before certifying City of Oakland for flight.
“He stared hard into the western sky at the spot where the Army plane had vanished,” Ryan writes of Smith. “There were tears in his eyes.”
But there still was hope of catching the Army plane because the smaller City of Oakland had one advantage — it was faster.
With the help of the Army, City of Oakland took to the air at 9:37 a.m., more than two hours behind the Bird of Paradise.
But an equipment problem forced the plane back to the runway. The City of Oakland landed about 10 minutes after it had taken off. Its chances of catching the Bird of Paradise, already remote, were totally dashed when navigator Charles Carter refused to fly after repairs were made.
Center of the islands
Although the Bird of Paradise and City of Oakland both planned to land at Wheeler Field on Oahu, planes flying to Hawaii set their sights on Maui. Ryan explained in an email that Maui and Molokai are essentially the midpoint of the 300-mile stretch between Kauai and Hawaii island.
“By aiming for the center of the islands, pilots sought to maximize their chance of spotting land in case they drifted unknowingly either too far north or too far south,” Ryan said.
As soon as the islands were spotted and the locations identified as the planes approached Maui, pilots would then make a turn to Wheeler Field, he said.
Haleakala would be a welcome sight for these early aviators.
Because of Maui’s navigational importance, the Army’s Signal Corps Aircraft Radio Laboratory developed a radio beacon for flyers and stationed one end in a sugar field in Hamakuapoko. The other side of the beacon was at Fort Winfield Scott near Chrissy Field in San Francisco.
The stations were automated to broadcast inverse tones in Morse code — an A (dot, dash) and an N (dash, dot). If directly in line between the two towers, the plane would receive a T (long dash), Ryan explains in the book.
If the plane drifted to the south, the A sound would be received. If it was north of the towers, an N sound was be heard.
According to government documents, Hegenberger, navigator for the Bird of Paradise, had been stationed in Hawaii and suggested Halawa Point on Molokai or Kahului for the Hawaii end of the beacon. A reconnaissance flight was made May 27, 1927.
Halawa was deemed unacceptable because of the steep cliffs, the lack of docking facilities and coral reefs making sea navigation into the site impossible. If materials were unloaded at the Molokai harbor, they would have to be packed on animals in a 15-mile trek, the report said.
Flights over the windward side of Maui were more promising, but landing at Kahului was unsafe due to water on the field.
The team flew back to Oahu and returned to Maui by steamer, arriving at Lahaina on May 30, 1927. They were brought ashore by lifeboats and traversed the 21 miles to Wailuku by vehicle.
Hiring a car for the day, the team drove out along the coast to Maliko Gulch.
“A reconnaissance was then made inland between Haiku and Paia, where there are numerous sugar cane and pineapple fields,” the documents said. “Towards noon a very desirable field was located near Hamakuapoko. This 55-acre field had been previously used for growing cane but was lying idle at the time.”
H.A. Baldwin of Maui Agricultural Co. was approached about the use of the field. He was amenable and arranged for power to be provided by the plantation’s power plant, Ryan said in his email.
The Maui beacon station was completed on June 21, 1927, and included a 93-foot-tall radio pole. Three days later, the chief signal officer was advised “that both beacon stations were operating in a satisfactory manner.”
A total of $500 was allotted for the installation and operation of the Maui navigational beacon, the documents show.
The Bird of Paradise and City of Oakland both had radios to utilize the beacon. As can be the case with new technology, the beacon proved ineffective on both flights due to a loss of signal, according to the book.
Plane takes flight
Smith continued his quest to fly to Hawaii and chose the 25-year-old Bronte as his navigator, having jettisoned Carter, according to Ryan’s book. Bronte was a master-rated marine captain, had served in the Navy during World War I, was the author of a marine navigation textbook and had begun taking flying lessons.
When the fateful day, July 14, 1927, arrived, Smith and Bronte received Maitland and Hegenberger, who had returned from the islands. Maitland suggested Smith take smelling salts to keep awake and to divide up the work.
“Don’t watch the instrument board too much — if you do, you’ll get batty,” Maitland said. “It bothers the eye and makes you nervous.”
Hegenberger described the silhouettes of the islands to Bronte. The men who had blazed the trail wished Smith and Bronte luck but were unable to stay for the takeoff.
Smith and Bronte took off from the Bay Farm runway at 10:25 a.m. (PDT), according to their flight log.
Fog dogged the flight and the navigational beacon was not working. Bronte turned to traditional methods, such as dead reckoning and celestial navigation.
By 9 p.m. (PDT), City of Oakland was flying at 2,600 feet above the fog with the moon above. Midnight arrived and Smith was getting sleepy. He nodded off and the plane went into a dive, but he awoke in time to right the plane.
At about 5 a.m. (PDT) the next day, a sound that Smith said “felt like I was hit on the head with a sledgehammer” spelled trouble. The engine began misfiring and the fuel gauge dropped toward empty.
Bronte began radioing an SOS. “We are going to land at sea. We have a rubber lifeboat, but send help.”
At 6 a.m. (PDT), the log said: “All gear ready to go into rubber boat when times comes. I doubt if the thing will float. Sending frequent calls . . . advising our positions and requesting ships and planes.”
Making preparations for a sea landing, Smith switched to an auxiliary fuel tank and began hand-pumping, thinking that the automatic fuel system could be malfunctioning. That did the trick, and the engine roared back to life.
Smith and Bronte figured they had about four hours of fuel left, but lost their radio connection when the plane got too low. They were unable to communicate and cancel their SOS.
With poor conditions near the surface of the ocean, Smith climbed to 7,200 feet in hopes of sighting land.
At 10 a.m. (PDT), the log reports: “Looks like mnt peak ahead but clouds deceiving.
“Land alright, if gas holds out we should make it.”
Minutes later, the City of Oakland was flying over Haleakala at 11,000 feet. Smith still intended to make for Wheeler Field, 120 miles away.
“He could tell Maui wasn’t the most hospitable terrain for an airplane to touch down, with much of the island covered in mountains, forest and sugar cane fields, all of which guaranteed a rough landing,” Ryan writes.
The plane headed north to the Pailolo Channel to Molokai. Because of low-hanging clouds and fog that made the island “invisible,” according to Bronte, they flew along the southern coast instead of flying directly over the island and turning toward Oahu.
Flying at 75 feet, the plane’s engine sputtered to a stop. Smith pointed the nose down, funneling whatever gas was left into the engine, which ran for another 30 seconds before stopping again.
As the plane glided lower, Smith had three landing options. One was in the shallows offshore, but the coral presented a problem. The second was to land on the muddy beach, but the landing gear likely would get stuck in the sand and the plane would flip. The last option was to set the City of Oakland down atop a thicket of kiawe trees inland, according to the book.
“Trees the most likely spot as my eyes were tired and distrusted the water due to the fact that we were likely to turn over,” the log said. “Trees the best plan to land with factor of safety at highest point. Depth of water could not be judged due to coral formations.
“Did my best.”
The plane came to a stop 55 yards later and was suspended between two trees in the kiawe grove next to Norman Maguire’s Kamalo Ranch.
The wings were partially torn off and the propeller dug into the ground. The fuselage was broken in two behind Bronte’s seat. Smith and Bronte exited the City of Oakland with only a few scratches at 9 a.m. (HST). Flight time from San Francisco: 25 hours, 2 minutes.
Initially, the flyers were scared of the locals on Molokai because of the fear of leprosy, Ryan said in his email. They were unaware that Hansen’s disease patients were at the remote Kalaupapa peninsula.
Smith kept a branch from a kiawe tree he crashed into as a souvenir. He called the crash landing on Molokai “the best damn landing I ever made, even if it was in a jungle,” Ryan said in the email.
A Honolulu Star-Bulletin account of the flight said that the City of Oakland would not be able to fly again and was too badly damaged to be repaired or salvaged. They would look to salvage the motor, Smith told the newspaper.
Smith and Bronte would choose not to try to cross the Pacific again in the Dole Air Derby a month later, despite the $25,000 prize for first and $10,000 for second. Smith would serve as honorary starter and Bronte honorary timekeeper for the race.
Their story would contrast with the results of the race and put into perspective the risk of flying to the speck of the Hawaiian Islands in the middle of the Pacific.
Eight planes crashed or went missing. Ten flyers died or were never found. Only two crews flew safely to Oahu to claim their prize.
Smith would go on to become a TWA pilot and executive. He died in San Francisco in 1963, and his ashes were scattered at Golden Gate National Cemetery, Ryan said.
Bronte moved to Honolulu and became a C. Brewer executive. He died in Honolulu in 1982 and is buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
On the makai side of Kamehameha V Highway, there is roadside marker with a sign reading “Historic Smith & Bronte Crash Landing Site 7-15-1927” at the place where the City of Oakland made its desperate landing into kiawe trees and put Molokai in the annals of aviation history.
* Lee Imada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.