Sixty years ago, the United States was worried about Latin America. The problem then was far simpler than those confronting the nation in 1986 and was solved by a dramatic exploit that has gone down in history as one of the great early feats of military aviation. One important participant was Ira C. Eaker, son of a Texas farmer, who had enlisted as a private in 1917 and who rose after a long and illustrious career to be a four-star general and one of the Air Force’s greatest leaders. In 1926, aged thirty, he was a captain serving in Washington as assistant executive officer on the staff of Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, then chief of the Army Air Corps.
“We got some very disturbing reports,” he explained in an oral history interview many years later. “By we I mean Washington, the political and military community, about in roads the Germans were making in South America with Junkers planes, some on floats. Somebody said: The only way we can stop this and keep the Germans from sending their airplanes into South America is for us to send a flight down there and interest these people in our programs.’
“We felt, even at that early time, that there ought to be some community of weapons between all the peoples of this hemisphere. It would be ridiculous to get into a war, defending the Western Hemisphere, and have the Brazilians armed with rifles that our ammunition wouldn’t fit. . . . They would have had European equipment, and they would have been cut off in a war situation from the source of it. That’s no good.”
When approval for the Pan-American Goodwill Flight came from the State Department and the White House, Maj. H. A. Dargue was appointed commander. His team consisted of three captains, of whom Eaker was one, and six first lieutenants.
One of the latter, Muir Fairchild, became Eaker’s copilot. A sober, scholarly young man who had flown bombers in France in World War I, Fairchild was destined, like Eaker, for greater distinction: He would become a lieutenant general and, after World War II, first commandant of the Air University. He was known as “Santy” because he had once gotten out of a cockpit in winter with his head, mustache, and uniform solidly frosted with snow.
The Pan-American Flight, begun in America’s sesquicentennial year, captured world attention. Captain Eaker and Lieutenant Fairchild won particular glory, since their plane, San Francisco, was the only one that completed the entire 23,000-mile journey, making every scheduled stop. The property now of the Smithsonian, it is on loan to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio.
The Pan-Am Flight was widely publicized at the time, with front-page coverage almost every day in all major US newspapers and many foreign ones. The National Geographic devoted fifty-one pages to it in October 1927, and Eaker added colorful details in an article he wrote for AIR FORCE Magazine in 1975. He recalled that “the idea for the flight came from General Patrick … who had earlier planned the round-the-world flight by four Douglas World Cruisers—a 26,000-mile journey that took 175 days in 1924.
“Our relations with Central and South America needed attention (a condition that seems to recur periodically). The purpose of the flight was to further friendly relations with Latin American countries, to encourage commercial aviation, to provide valuable training for Air Corps personnel, and to give an extensive test to the amphibian airplane. President Calvin Coolidge sent a goodwill letter to the president of each of the twenty-three Pan American countries, to be delivered by the flight.”
The plane was the OA-1A amphibian, newly designed by Grover Loening for observation work. Its canoe-shaped hull was duralumin over wood, with fuselage on top and two wings spreading forty-five feet. The engine was a water-cooled Liberty of 400 horsepower mounted upside-down so that the three-bladed aluminum propeller could clear the hull’s upturned beak. Fully loaded, the Loening amphibian weighed nearly three tons and could cruise at eighty-five to ninety mph.
Mounting the engine upside-down created special maintenance problems. Unless the piston rings were perfectly fitted, oil leaked past, fouling the spark plugs. It was normal at each stop to remove the twenty-four plugs and clean and replace them before starting the next leg of the journey.
Another time-consuming, laborious task was refueling. Gasoline had been stored in steel drums along the route. It had to be hand-pumped through a chamois-covered funnel into the tanks, at a normal rate of sixty gallons an hour. The Loening had a fuel capacity of 200 gallons.
The plan called for five Loenings, each crewed by two officers, a pilot and a copilot, one of whom should be an experienced engineer since there was no room for mechanics. Major Dargue set up five flight teams. Following the example of the 1924 World Flight, each plane was named for a prominent US city.
“Subsequent events,” Eaker’s memoir continued, “proved that this team pairing had special significance for the success of the mission. The two pilots had to be congenial in temperament, and they must complement each other’s qualifications. ‘Santy’ Fairchild and I developed a plan for joint labor during the training period. We also soon learned that we shared a determination, almost an obsession, to get the San Francisco home safely.
“We agreed that we were a two-man partnership in which each would invest his total assets—his reputation, his ambition, even his life. This shared realization ensured maximum effort of our team. I have no doubt the other plane crews devised similar plans. For example, all the pilots alternated daily in flying their planes.”
The flight route called for a diplomatic stop at the capitals of all the countries of Latin America except Bolivia, whose 13,000-foot altitude was too high for the Loening planes. Included were Great Britain’s Guiana, Jamaica, and Trinidad and France’s Guiana and Guadeloupe. The schedule included fifty-six flying days and seventy-seven days ashore for diplomatic ceremonies and maintenance—a total of 133 days. As actually executed, the journey took fifty-nine flying days and seventy-four delay days and thus was completed exactly on schedule.
Before the actual takeoff from San Antonio on December 21, 1926, Major Dargue and his nine companions worked hard for several weeks—and not just in training for the flight itself. To maximize the diplomatic value of the expedition and promote the cause of aviation generally, each plane’s chief pilot was expected to set up a cozy relationship with the city for which his plane was named.
In Eaker’s case, he wrote to the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce on December 1, 1926, outlining the purposes of the flight and how it could benefit the city and the state of California and offering to do business chores for them throughout Latin America. He also wrote the New York Times, offering to send regular reports from each way station. Since Eaker had been designated the official historian of the flight, he wound up doing this for most of the other crews as well as his own.
“It soon developed,” he wrote, “that, after pilot and engineering ability, the principal crew requirement was physical stamina. Usually we were awakened at 4:00 a.m. in order to begin the day’s flight by 6:00, since early morning hours provided the best flying weather. After a normal flight of four to six hours, we landed at primitive fields or in rivers or bays, then taxied onto beaches to facilitate maintenance and refueling, which normally required three to four hours. We thus arrived at our lodgings, arranged by the advance officers, late in the afternoon, discarded mechanic’s overalls, and prepared for social functions.
“There was a banquet every night given by the American colony or by the officials of the country. These usually lasted, with the dancing that habitually followed, until midnight. So, to bed by midnight for four hours of sleep before the 4:00 a.m. call for a new day of flying, mechanical maintenance, and social or protocol events. The latter could not be avoided or slighted since, after all, the first priority of our mission was diplomatic. Captain McDaniel remarked near the end of our flight that we had danced more miles than we had flown.”
The ten young men, average age thirty-two, had, of course, been exhaustively briefed in advance. State Department counselors instructed them not to attempt foreign languages: “Realize what we think of people who speak English ungrammatically. … This, Eaker observed, “was a great relief.” Flight surgeons admonished them to drink only boiled water and “to avoid native foods. An airplane on a long flight is a poor place to have diarrhea.”
They also received lectures on meteorology, “important since we were leaving the north temperate zone in winter, proceeding to the northern hemisphere tropics and, after crossing the equator in Ecuador, passing into the south temperate zone in southern Chile, crossing the high Andes, and reversing the process as we flew northward from southern Argentina. Communications were recognized as a problem, but there was little we could do since radios were not installed in aircraft until years later. We did work out a set of hand or plane signals.”
“As I relive the memories of this flight, the principal operational experiences involve a succession of aircraft accidents and mechanical problems. The first occurred when the New York crash-landed in Guatemala . . . shearing off its landing gear and damaging the pontoon. Through the engineering skill of Captain Woolsey and the combined effort of all of us, the hull was repaired and the plane shipped by rail to a nearby lake, from which it was flown to France Field, Panama, for complete repair. …
“The next plane to have serious difficulties was the San Antonio in Colombia . . . necessitating an engine change. . . . It was nineteen days before the spare engine arrived and a month before the San Antonio joined the flight in Brazil.
“Next came the turn of the San Francisco. From Valdivia, Chile, we were to turn east, flying across the Andes . . . which at that point had peaks rising to 9,000 feet. Our planes, loaded with fuel for the six-hour flight, had a maximum ceiling of 12,000 feet. Since the Andes were expected to be cloud-covered, we had agreed not to attempt formation flying but to negotiate this difficult leg singly.
“It was my turn to pilot. … There was solid cloud cover, as we anticipated. After about an hour, when we should have been halfway across the Andes, our engine began to lose power, and we started to settle into the clouds. I asked Fairchild if he wanted to take to his parachute. He shared my view that landing on an ice-covered Andean peak, probably with a broken leg, was scarcely to be preferred over sticking with our plane. I held the plane at seventy miles per hour, just above stalling speed at that altitude, and settled into the clouds, expecting to crash momentarily.
“At 7,000 feet we were out in the clear over a lake. Fairchild became very excited. He stood up in the rear cockpit and showed me a crude terrain sketch that contained a lake similar to the one we were over. He shouted, This looks like the lake on this sketch the British engineer gave me at the banquet last night. He was a member of a survey team exploring a prospective rail route across the Andes. He told me the Andes could be crossed east of Valdivia at 6,000 [feet] by following the pass containing this lake.’
“In the meantime, I was flying around the perimeter of the lake trying to bring our coughing engine back to normal power. When the ice in the carburetor melted, we turned east and soon came out over the plains of Patagonia. Four hours later we joined our companions, who had begun to worry.”
Accident in Argentina
The only tragic accident happened a few days later over Buenos Aires when two of the four remaining planes, the New York and the Detroit, collided while breaking out of a diamond formation. Major Dargue and Lieutenant Whitehead escaped by parachute from the New York, but Captain Woolsey and Lieutenant Benton went down with Detroit and were killed instantly.
The two remaining planes, St. Louis and San Francisco, flew on to Asunción, then back down the River Plate to Montevideo, where San Antonio rejoined them. The three-plane flotilla completed the remaining 10.000 miles up around the bulge of Brazil and the Carib islands without further accident beyond a forced landing for San Francisco. Captain Eaker described what happened next this way: “Waves threw us up on the beach, and about 100 natives rushed out of the bush. They got on a rope and, like a long team of horses, helped us pull the plane up on the shore.”
At Havana, the last foreign stop before Miami and on home, “a US citizen came up to me and said, ‘I am a representative of a group headed by a Mr. Juan Trippe that proposes to survey a civil aviation route over much of your Goodwill Flight. Could I borrow your maps?’ A few weeks later Pan American Airways began that survey.” It became the basis of Pan Am’s Latin routes.
Upon arrival at Boiling Field, Washington, the eight weary flyers lined up in their rumpled coveralls to be greeted by President Calvin Coolidge, who was wearing a gray Homburg perched squarely on his brow while other dignitaries wore toppers. Coolidge gave the eight flyers the first Distinguished Flying Crosses, a medal authorized by Congress a few months before.
Eaker summed up as follows: “There can be little question that the Pan-American Goodwill Flight accomplished its mission. At an estimated cost of about $100,000, it had aroused the aviation interest of Latin American nationals and heads of state. Many of them had never seen an airplane before.”
James Parton is a historian who lives in Hanover, N. H. During World War II, he served as Gen. Ira Eaker’s aide. He founded the American Heritage Publishing Co. in 1954. In 1980, he was the editor and publisher of the eight-volume set Impact, The Army Air Forces Confidential Picture History of World War II. This article is adapted with permission from the new book “Air Force Spoken Here,” General Ira Eaker and the Command of the Air, by James Parton, published this August by Adler & Adler.