In 1926, the Coolidge Administration, like many that were to follow, was intent on improving US relations with Latin America. Air Corps Chief Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick conceived the idea of dispatching a goodwill flight to 23 Central and South American countries–an idea approved immediately by the Secretaries of State and War and by the President.
The Air Corps chose the Loening OA-1 amphibian, a new observation plane, for the flight and Maj. Herbert A. Dargue, one of the early Army pilots, as its commander. Five OA-1s, each named for an American city and crewed by two pilots, one of whom was an engineering officer, were to make the 22,000-mile pioneering flight. Among the pilots were three officers who would retire after World War II as three- and four-star generals–Muir Fairchild, Ennis Whitehead, and Ira Eaker.
The expedition, known as the Pan American Goodwill Flight, left San Antonio, Texas, on Dec. 21, 1926, after the pilots had gone through an intensive course in diplomatic niceties, Spanish, meteorology, and geography. They carried whatever maps were available, cruised at 85 miles an hour over much uncharted territory and through unpredictable weather without radios or gyroscopic flight instruments, and did their own maintenance–between diplomatic receptions and state dinners.
Dargue, who rose to the rank of major general and who was killed in a crash on Dec. 12, 1941, while en route to Hawaii, recounted the flight in the October 1927 issue of National Geographic. His 50-page article sketched enough high adventure, flying exploits, close calls, humor, and tragedy to fill a book.
Tragedy at Buenos Aires
The tragedy occurred at Buenos Aires, at about the halfway point of the first aerial circumnavigation of South America. The flight had crossed the Andes from Valdivia, Chile, to Bahia Blanca on the Argentine coast, navigating with rudimentary instruments through very heavy weather. After a stop at Mar del Plata, they flew on to Buenos Aires, where the formation broke preparatory to landing. Dargue in New York started a descending turn to the left, his attention on an Argentine escort plane that was passing beneath him.
Capt. C. E. Woolsey and Lt. John Benton in Detroit, who had been flying on Dargue’s left wing, broke left, then inexplicably turned slowly to the right. The two planes collided and spun down, interlocked. As the spinning planes separated, Dargue and Whitehead were able to bail out of New York, but Woolsey and Benton went in with their plane.
In his Geographic article, Dargue wrote: “No man may ever fully explain how disaster came. It was all over too quickly.” Perhaps that was all the Air Corps would allow him to say. Fifty years later, General Eaker, writing for the September 1976 issue of AIR FORCE Magazine, told a story of unsurpassed heroism in his account of the tragedy. He had been flying on Dargue’s right wing and had a clear view of the crash.
At Mar del Plata, where the planes had landed on water, Woolsey’s OA-1 had broken a cable that raised and lowered the plane’s wheels. Since their first landing near Buenos Aires was to be on water for a reception aboard an Argentine battleship, Woolsey decided to proceed with the broken cable and the wheels retracted. After the reception, the plane would take off from water and fly to an Argentine Air Force base near Buenos Aires. At that point, Benton would climb out of the rear seat and go out on the wing to release the wheels–a maneuver all the crews had practiced in preparation for the flight.
When Dargue gave the signal to break formation, Benton took off his chute and went out on the wing. With his eyes on Benton, Woolsey apparently let Detroit drift to the right on a collision course with New York, while Dargue’s attention was focused on the Argentine plane below him. Detroit’s nose struck the left wing of Dargue’s plane.
“He Elected to Stay”
“Woolsey was sitting on his chute and could have saved himself,” Eaker wrote. “Instead, he elected to stay with the plane, since Benton was on the wing without his chute. I have never witnessed a more courageous self-sacrifice.”
Eight members of the flight, which won the Mackay Trophy’ landed at Bolling Field, D.C., on May 2, 1927, 133 days after they had left San Antonio. They were greeted by President Coolidge, who presented each man the new Distinguished Flying Cross, which had just been authorized by Congress. The Air Force Office of History has no record of posthumous awards to Woolsey and his friend, Benton, with whom he shared a great adventure and to whom he had given the greatest of all gifts.
Published September 1985. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.