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NOSTALGIA PLANE CRAZY

How Lone Star Bill lifted the Dallas Spirit
By Tom Peeler |

DALLAS WAS A little air wacky even before Charles Lindbergh’s fool flight. The town had turned out in 1918 to watch Billy Campbell set a new world’s record of 151 loop the loops at Love Field. When The Dallas Morning News announced in 1927 that Lucky Lindy had won his “gamble with death,” an aeronautical paranoia took hold, and before it let go, the city experienced a civic milestone and a disaster in the Pacific Ocean.

The sky was no place to be following the Lindbergh flight. There was a fatal crash somewhere in the country almost every day, and on some days there were several. In Fort Worth, a novice pilot and two joy-riding companions were killed when the pilot attempted “aerobatic convolutions.” The copilots of a flying craft were killed in North Carolina while wing-walking, each thinking that the other was at the controls. Even those on the ground were not safe, as evidenced by the death of a West Texas sheepherder who was chopped to pieces by a low-flying air cadet who was not even aware of the incident until he was told about it later.

Four days after the Lindbergh flight, James D. Dole, the pineapple king, announced that he would sponsor a great air race from California to Hawaii, with $25,000 going to the winner and $10,000 to the runner-up. Hollywood promoter Sid Grau-mann said that he would give $30,000 to the pilot of the first successful flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. And at that very moment, the civic leaders of Dallas were plotting a way to take advantage of the international frenzy resulting from Lindbergh’s feat.

The day after the dramatic announcements by Dole and Graumann, Col. William E. Easterwood announced the great Dallas-to-Hong Kong air race, which would feature $25,000 for the first pilot to complete the journey. Although no one knew exactly how far it was, it was believed to be about 10,000 miles, compared to the 3,600 miles that Lindbergh traveled between New York and Paris.

Although the contest was open to all nations, the airplane and its motor had to be American-made. The trip had to be completed in 144 hours or less, and there could be only two stops.

Easterwood was an ex-Marine who had settled in Dallas to engage in the merchandise brokerage business on South Akard Street. Easterwood himself flew an airplane in his business, and his younger brother had been a Marine aviator before being lost in a crash in the Caribbean.

The next day, during the Dallas Flying Club luncheon at the YWCA, Cap. William P. (“Lone Star Bill”) Erwin announced that he would enter the Dallas-to-Hong Kong race, and the civic leaders were ecstatic. Erwin was a born hero, an ex-World War I flying ace who downed 11 German aircraft and won the Distinguished Service Cross. He had the charm of Will Rogers and the determination of an early-day Ross Perot, and he would bring a lot of class to the race.

Dole, Graumann and Easterwood all delayed the start of their respective dashes across the Pacific until the return of Lindbergh, each hoping, of course, to entice Lin-dy to add another jewel to his crown. But Lindbergh would have none of it, and opted to return home aboard the U.S. cruiser Memphis rather than press his luck.

By early June, several daredevil pilots had signed up for the Easterwood race. Lindbergh’s long-distance record had already been broken by Clarence Chamberlain, who flew 3,800 miles across the Atlantic, landing in a German swamp. A female aeronaut known as the “Flying Fraulein” announced that she was considering a return flight in the Chamberlain plane to New York, and a masked lady known as “Senora X” told a reporter for The Dallas Morning News that she would enter the Easterwood scramble.

Little was known about the head winds in the Pacific, and there was a great deal of worry about the possibility of navigational miscalculations. On July 1, Cmdr. Richard E. Byrd missed Paris by 175 miles because of a fog, a spread much wider than most of the islands scheduled as refueling stops during the Pacific races. The promoters of the Dole race announced that they were considering releasing a flock of homing pigeons 300 miles from Honolulu to guide the contestants across the finish line. In Dallas, Easterwood said that all contestants would be required to carry along pistol flares, life vests and enough rations for three days at sea.

Bill Erwin had become such a heavy favorite to win the race that Dallas civic leaders threw in their lots with him. Ten of the city’s leading citizens contributed $1,000 each to buy a brand-new plane for Erwin, which would be the official plane of the City of Dallas. Fred Florence of Republic National Bank, Karl Hoblitzelle of Interstate Theaters, G.B. Dealey of The Dallas Morning News and W. A. Green, who represented the downtown merchants, were among the sponsors.

A specially built plane was ordered from the Swallow Aircraft Co. of Wichita, Kansas. “Within a few weeks,” reported the News, “there will come roaring into Dallas from the North a challenger of the heavens in the shape of a powerful monoplane to engage in man’s conflict with the elements.” From this moment on, Erwin was known as “a Dallas boy,” despite the fact that he was born in Ryan, Oklahoma.

The News announced that it would hold a statewide contest to name the magnificent Dallas entry in the Easterwood race. Florence, Hoblitzelle and Phil Prather of Prather Cadillac (another of the sponsors), were named to judge the entries. There was really no contest, since Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was in everyone’s mind; and the Dallas Spirit, which was suggested by 13 different entrants, was an easy winner.

The News, which had initially offered $50 for the winning entry, graciously contributed another $2 so that each of the winners could walk away with a $4 prize. Erwin was asked if he was concerned by the omen of 13 people coming up with the moniker for his plane, but he assured the inquirers that he was not, since he had been told that the Pacific Ocean was full of islands. “If you don’t hear from me, I’ll probably be on a tropical isle with natives bringing me coconuts and fruit,” said Erwin.

With all the excitement over Lindbergh’s flight and the upcoming race to Hong Kong, the city fathers decided that the time was ripe to plunge Dallas into air transportation in a big way. The city had been leasing Love Field since the end of World War I, when it outlived its usefulness as an Army pilot training center. It was suggested that it would be a good time to buy the facility.

Some did not agree. There was strong sentiment for building a new airport next to the downtown area in the Trinity River bottoms, since Love Field was so far out. Others argued that the city had no business running an airport anywhere, since this was not a municipal purpose. But the veteran City Attorney, J.J. Collins, said that anything that the mayor and the city commission decide to do is a municipal purpose, and thus the 173-acre tract was purchased for $432,500- about $2,500 an acre. One old-timer shook his head, claiming that the city officials must be daft, for he himself had sold that same land 60 years earlier for $2.50 an acre.

It was generally agreed that the future for transcontinental air travel would rest with dirigibles, and that Dallas could become an international air center by concentrating on the development of helium gas manufacturing facilities around the airport. In the meantime, for the sake of publicity, it was extremely important for the Dallas Spirit to win all of the Pacific air races.

Erwin pointed out that there was a slight problem with the rules in the Easterwood race. It would be convenient, Erwin said, if he could make the Easterwood race and the Dole race in the same flight, rather than having to fly back to Dallas to start all over again. But this would mean stopping in Oakland and Honolulu, which would consume the two stops of the Easterwood quota, and it was impossible to fly non-stop from Honolulu to Hong Kong. To accommodate the Spirit, Easterwood said that three stops would be permissible.

Erwin was so exuberant over the prospect of doubling the glory that he said he would continue on around the world, making it a Dallas-to-Dallas flight by way of Oakland, Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bombay, Baghdad, Paris, Lisbon, Martinique and New York. The News published a detailed itinerary, showing where the Spirit could be found at any given moment.

On August 5 at 7:35 p.m., Erwin arrived in the Dallas Spirit from the factory in Wichita. Designed by Ira Beech, the Spirit was green and wilver, with a 48-foot wing span and a Wright Whirlwind motor, and could cruise at 105 mph. The plane was quickly sequestered upon arrival so as not to detract from its unveiling scheduled for the following day.

On August 9, Erwin left to conquer the world, only to return a few hours later when his fuel pump went out over Abilene. The next day he left again, taking a more southerly route. To his amazement, he encountered mountains near El Paso, which he did not know were there. The fuel pump went out again, but the tenacious war hero pumped gas all night with his right hand while flying with his left. He finally landed, exhausted, in a wheat field near Beaumont, California, 80 miles southeast of Los Angeles. When he arrived in Oakland, Erwin was so stiff that he could barely extract himself from the plane. (And incidentally, the News reported, the Flying Fraulein had crashed in the Hudson River while trying to fly under a suspension bridge near Poughkeepsie.)

There were 13 entries in the Dole race. Arthur Rogers, pilot of the Angel of Los Angeles, crashed in a test spin and was killed. George Covell and Richard Waggener buried the Hummingbird in a sand dune while tuning up for takeoff, killing both. Two entrants failed to meet the barest minimum inspection requirements, which left eight contestants for the August 16 takeoff.

El Canto and the Pabco Pacific Flyer crashed in ground loops without ever getting off the ground. The next five planes managed to get in the air, which left only the Dallas Spirit. Erwin had planned to take along his young, pregnant wife, Constance, but authorities would not let her go because she wasn’t 21, so Alvin Eichwaldt, a navigator from nearby Alameda, was named as a substitute to accompany Lone Star Bill. Eichwaldt came up with the brilliant idea of cutting a trap door in the bottom of the plane to drop smoke bombs through to gauge wind direction. Erwin was cleared for takeoff, and the Dallas Spirit was in the air,

Ted Dealey, who was in Oakland to cover the event for the News, later recalled that when he saw the Spirit, it looked more like a ghost than an airplane. “All the fabric was stripped away, from the cabin to the tail,” said Dealey. “The wooden framework of the plane was exposed like scaffolding on an unfinished building.” The trap door blew open during the flight, creating somewhat of a whirlwind inside the plane.

Art Goebel, aboard the Woolaroc, landed first in Hawaii to claim the $25,000 prize, and was followed two hours later by Martin Jensen in the Aloha. Mildred Doran, known as the “Flying Schoolmarm,” and her two copilots were missing, as were Jack Frost and Gordon Scott aboard the Golden Eagle.

The Dole prize was gone, and it had been ruled when Erwin landed in the Beaumont wheat field that he could not qualify for the Easterwood award. Three people were known dead, and five more were missing, presumed lost at sea, but on August 18 Col. Easterwood sent a wire to Erwin that read: “For the sake of Dallas, am willing to waive Beaumont stop.” Erwin, dismayed over the loss of his competitors, ignored the wire.

On August 19th, Easterwood sent another cable, telling Erwin that “Dallas wants hop to Hong Kong. Offer expires at 6 p.m. Dallas time if you have not hopped.” Erwin advised the colonel that he was going back out to look for his comrades and that he would proceed to Hong Kong only if they had been found by the time he reached Honolulu. Otherwise, he would fly back to the mainland, continuing his search.

On August 19, 1927, at 2:15 p.m. California time, the Dallas Spirit lifted off of the Oakland runway and headed across the Pacific. A shortwave transmitter had been installed on the Spirit, allowing Erwin and Eichwaldt to send a series of chatty reports.

The final message came through at 9:06 p.m: “SOS. We are in a tailspin,” cried Eichwaldt. “We came out of it OK, but were sure scared. It sure was a close call.. The light on the instrument board went out and it was so dark that Bill cou-.” The Dole race had claimed its ninth and 10th victims.

Erwin had left a note for his mother: “I believe with my whole heart that we will make it. I believed it when I first conceived it, and I believe it even more strongly now. We will win because Dallas Spirit always wins. But if it be His will that we should not make it, and from our exploration of the Pacific we should suddenly be called upon to chart our course over the Great Ocean of Eternity, then be of good cheer. I hold life dear, but I do not fear death. It is the last and most wonderful adventure of life.”

Col. Easterwood tried for several years to entice someone to fly from Dallas to Tokyo, and then redirected his attention to the Atlantic. Since the Lindbergh flight, French pilots had attempted to return the compliment, but all their efforts had ended in failure. The French government finally outlawed such attempts, but on September 1, 1930, a plane called the Question Mark slipped away from Le Bourget Field in Paris, where Lindbergh had landed. After a brief stop in New York, Dieudonne Costes and Maurice Bellonte departed for Dallas, where they landed to collect the $25,000 Easterwood prize for the first flight from Paris to Dallas.

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