In 1926 a crack team of U.S. Army airmen set out in amphibious biplanes on a 22,000-mile marathon flight to 23 countries.
The Four Loening OA-1A amphibians had just flown over the Andes from Chile on February 26, 1927, arriving in Buenos Aires, Argentina. En route to nearby Palomar Field, a crewman of the OA-1A dubbed out onto the lower wing to release his plane’s damaged Detroit inched landing gear. But as the amphibians, flying in a tight diamond formation, approached the airfield and peeled off to land, Detroit suddenly veered off course and plowed into another of the Loenings, New York. The two aircraft spun toward the ground, locked together in a death spiral. Just that quickly, the Pan American Goodwill Flight, an ambitious effort to advance U.S. aviation interests in Latin America, descended into tragedy.
During the 1920s, in the face of mounting European influence, the U.S. government sought to improve diplomatic and business relationships in Latin America. The American aviation industry was likewise concerned about the prospect of falling behind the Europeans in both export sales and in the operation of commercial air routes to and within South America.
As a result, in 1926 Army Air Corps chief Maj. Gen. Mason Patrick, who had previously backed the Army’s 1924 around-the-world-flight, proposed a goodwill flight around South America. Since no one had ever circumnavigated the continent by air, Patrick argued that such a flight would be a public relations coup for the Air Corps and the aviation industry, a diplomatic boost for U.S. foreign relations and a positive step toward promoting U.S.–Latin American business in general.
From an aviation perspective, Patrick believed the Pan American Goodwill Flight would not only provide valuable training experience for the Air Corps, but could also double as a survey mission, to pinpoint prospective airline routes between North and South America. In addition, it would showcase improvements in U.S. aircraft technology.
The planned 22,000-mile flight through 23 countries, to be carried out by five aircraft, was an extremely ambitious undertaking for its day. To lead the 10 airmen, Patrick chose Major Herbert A. Dargue, one of the Army’s most experienced pilots. Since few aviation facilities were available in Latin America, the pilots selected for the project had to be trained mechanics as well. Their motto became “No Work, No Ride.” The airmen were expected to divide their time between flying, maintaining their aircraft and attending innumerable dinners, ceremonies and public relations events in the countries they visited.
Captain Ross G. Hoyt was assigned to handle the complex administrative, diplomatic, logistical and operational details involved. Three months prior to the flight’s departure date, Hoyt dispatched a team of six officers to South America. They visited the proposed stops, where they selected land and water landing areas and secured the best available maps. They also stored advance shipments of tools, engine spares, paint, hoist chains, propellers, tubing, lumber, sheet metal, 50,000 gallons of gasoline and 5,000 gallons of lubricants.
In addition to Major Dargue, the pilots chosen for the flight were Captains Ira Eaker, Arthur McDaniel and Clinton Woolsey, and 1st Lts. Muir Fairchild, Ennis Whitehead, Bernard Thompson, Charles Robinson, John Benton and Leonard Weddington. The team members were all well qualified for the mission. Whitehead, who had served as an Army test pilot in France and in 1921 participated in Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell’s demonstration of aerial bombardment on the former German battleship Ostfriesland, was appointed the flight’s supply officer. Fairchild had been a bomber pilot in World War I. Eaker had served as commanding officer of the air station in the Philippines, subsequently leading the 5th Aero Squadron and then becoming executive assistant to the Office of the Air Service in Washington.
Designed by Grover Loening, the flight’s OA-1A two-seat amphibious biplanes were considered extraordinary for their time. The seaplane float was faired into the bottom of the fuselage, so that the two were a single unit. A pair of landing wheels were arranged to retract into the sides of the float while in the air or in the water, making the OA-1A one of the first production airplanes with retractable landing gear, as well as the first truly practical amphibian. A tail skid, fitted to the rear of the main float, doubled as a stabilizing skeg when the plane was maneuvering in the water. Additional floats were fitted beneath the lower wings. A 400-hp Liberty V-12 engine, mounted upside down to allow sufficient room for the propeller to clear the main float, provided power. The engine drove a new-type metal propeller, the three blades of which were adjustable in pitch. Unlike subsequent controllable-pitch propellers, however, the Loenings’ airscrew pitch had to be adjusted on the ground rather than from the cockpit during flight.
Each of the five planes was named after an American city. Dargue and Whitehead piloted the expedition’s flagship, New York; McDaniel and Robinson flew San Antonio; Woolsey and Benton Detroit; Thompson and Weddington St. Louis; and Eaker and Fairchild San Francisco.
After three months of intensive training, the Pan American Goodwill Flight departed from Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas, on December 21, 1926. The lengthy journey was to be completed in relatively short stages. No less than 75 stops in 23 Latin American and Caribbean countries would be made during the course of their adventure around South America, back through the Caribbean and up the U.S. East Coast, finally finishing in the capital city.
Since the airmen lacked detailed maps of many of the regions where they would fly—and some sparsely populated areas were not yet mapped at all—they plotted their basic route using maps furnished by the National Geographic Society. They also relied on nautical charts provided by the Naval Hydrographic Office. Intended for ship navigation, these were highly detailed when it came to the shapes of coastlines and harbors, but included little information about inland topography. When they flew across Mexico to the Pacific Coast, up the Magdelena River in Colombia and over the Andes from Chile to Argentina, the aircrews had to rely on information gleaned from local sources. As they traveled, they made notations and marked important topographical features on their charts, all of which would later prove useful in planning future commercial air routes.
The flight began by following the Gulf of Mexico’s coastline to Tampico and Vera Cruz. The OA-1As then crossed over to the Pacific side of Mexico and made their way down to Panama. During their New Year’s Day flight across Mexico, they encountered strong tailwinds. Major Dargue recounted: “Borne by a howling gale, we made that 150-mile hop in 75 minutes flat, including the climb south of Mount Zempoaltepec, more than 11,000 feet high! With the wind twisting our tails, we raced over swamps, jungles, and mountains.” They then reentered the Caribbean for a side trip up Colombia’s Magdalena River as far as Girador. Returning to Panama, the fliers proceeded south along South America’s west coast.
Over the Gulf of Darien, Thompson and Weddington in St. Louis signaled they were having engine trouble. As the Loenings neared the Colombian coast, St. Louis began to lose altitude. “I gave it up for lost,” Dargue wrote. “I did not see how any plane could alight in such tumbling seas and not be pounded to pieces.” But hours after the other amphibians reached the mouth of the Magdalena River, Dargue said, “Imagine our relief and delight to see the good old St. Louis come roaring in!”
“We couldn’t get her ashore,” Thompson explained,“so we decided we’d just as well break her up trying to fly as to hang on until she went to pieces under us. So we just gave her the gun and bounced from wave to wave till a big one threw us about fifty feet in the air. That was our chance! We nosed over the next incoming roller, and here we are!”
“The battered old St. Louis plainly showed a beating,”Dargue wrote. “Its radiator was bent and leaky and the steel propeller was twisted like a scimitar.”Nevertheless, the men managed to repair the plane and continued their aerial visits to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. San Antonio was laid up on a beach in Ecuador for 19 days due to a bad thrust bearing, and did not rejoin the flight for a month. While they awaited delivery of a new engine from Panama, McDaniel and Robinson amused themselves by climbing the surrounding trees and picking coconuts to keep them from falling and pounding holes in their biplane’s fabric wings. “A flyer’s education is constantly expanded,” commented Dargue.
The only country to which they didn’t fly was Bolivia.“The altitude of the Bolivian flying field was somewhat higher than we cared to climb our heavy planes,” explained Dargue. Instead they traveled by train to the Bolivian capital of La Paz, where they received a hero’s welcome anyway. Once there, Dargue remarked,“What interested us very much as aviators was the excellent flying of the Bolivian Army airmen, taking off from a field 13,500 feet above sea level!”
The flight eventually did cross the Andes, at an altitude of 12,000 feet, hundreds of miles farther south, in a 650- mile nonstop passage from Valdivia, Chile, to Bahía Blanca, Argentina. The airmen faced their Andes passage with some trepidation. “To poke our noses into those dark heights, where steep walls or unseen peaks might any instant leap from the gloom to wreck us, was no pleasing prospect,” Dargue noted.
During that challenging flight, made in bitter cold, thick clouds, heavy turbulence and low visibility, San Francisco’s engine lost power due to carburetor icing. “We had either to take our parachutes and jump out or else nose the plane down and trust blind luck not to crash on some invisible peak,” Eaker wrote. “For 8,000 feet we slid down through obscurity. Each second, we knew the next might be our last. But that day the air gods were kind. Like a glimpse of paradise, through a cloud gap a lake appeared below us.” That lake pointed the way to a pass, which Eaker followed to the plains of Patagonia.
On their arrival at Buenos Aires, the airmen initially landed in the harbor and refueled. They soon took off once more, headed for an official reception at the military airfield in nearby Palomar, accompanied by three Argentine warplanes. The cable controlling Detroit’s landing gear retraction mechanism had broken during the water landing, but Woolsey and Benton elected to take off anyway, with the gear rigged in the retracted position. The fliers had practiced an emergency procedure for extending the wheels manually in midair, which involved one of the crew climbing out onto the lower wing. The whole formation was just beginning its landing approach when suddenly, for reasons that are still not altogether clear, Detroit turned right across the path of New York, which had just begun to turn left.
“After seeing the Detroit turn up and away and going apparently far to my left rear,” reported Dargue, who was piloting New York,“I glided gently downward and started a very slight turn to get in a position to make a landing. My attention was given to locating, over the right side of my plane, an Argentine flyer who had passed diagonally beneath me.
“It was only a matter of seconds when I glanced up and to the left. I caught a flash of black and yellow slightly higher and just off the rear of my left wing.
“Then we crashed.”
The two planes became entangled in midair. In a letter to his wife, Ennis Whitehead, who was in New York’s rear cockpit, described what happened next:
The planes fell as one for a few seconds…spinning quite fast. Maps, tools and spare parts were flying out of both cockpits of the New York….In a second or two the way was clear and I unbuckled the [seat] belt. Something went out of the front cockpit, but whether it was the Major [Dargue] or some papers I couldn’t be sure….It was difficult to keep from being thrown out bodily but I did manage to throw myself, giving a shove with my right foot as I went overboard. The stabilizer of the New York gave me quite a rap on the right instep and bruised and cut the ankle a bit. Also something hit me across the back of the neck.
I was falling head down and spinning a bit in the air but located the New York. I had my right hand on the ripcord but the New York made a turn of her spin and it seemed to me that if I pulled the ripcord that my descent and forward speed would be checked and the New York might hit me. I waited until the New York turned away from me in her spin and jerked the ripcord….The New York passed directly under me in her next turn of the spin. It was about 100 feet below me. The Detroit was at least 200 feet near the ground at that time and hit the ground quite a little before the New York.
I located another parachute which was descending faster than myself. Also it had several bad tears in the panels. I still did not know for sure who it was for I thought Major Dargue opened his chute too soon and got caught in the tail as he left. That did happen, but the parachute was his. He landed before me and ran towards the planes which were 150 yards away. As soon as I landed I got free of my chute and went to the planes. I stopped en route and looked at the name on the other chute and then knew that Woolsey and Benton were dead for I had watched the air carefully during my descent and knew that no other parachutes were out….Detroit had hit first and burst into flames…Benton had fallen free and was about 75 yards from the wrecks which were within 50 yards of each other.
Major Dargue was terribly shocked and broke down completely. I quieted him as best I could and got a guard around the wrecks. Eaker came over along with Fairchild, Thompson, and Weddington in a few minutes. Eaker and I took Dargue to the military field and to the club. Fairchild came with us and we talked Dargue into going into the Plaza Hotel with Eaker.
Accounts of the accident vary among the witnesses. According to an article by Eaker, written 50 years after the event for the September 1976 issue of Air Force magazine, Woolsey deliberately went down with Detroit because he refused to abandon his friend Benton, who had removed his parachute before climbing out onto the wing to lower the broken landing gear. “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.”
But in his letter Whitehead recalled the mishap differently:“Neither [Woolsey] nor Benton had been wearing their parachutes regularly and of course in order to climb forward Joe [Woolsey] had to go out with no parachute on. He had time of course to put on his chute after he got back into the cockpit.” So according to Whitehead, it was Woolsey, not Benton, who climbed out to release the gear, and both of Detroit’s crewmen were actually seated in their respective cockpits at the time of the crash.
Whitehead also speculated that Detroit’s sudden turn might have been due to a control failure, or Woolsey “might just have been demonstrating the maneuverability of the plane for he liked to do that when he came into a stop. He was a fine pilot but as we say almost too good. I have seen him do some showy stuff this trip. That is always fine as long as one gets away with it. He might have turned his plane rapidly and neglected to look for the New York….” He also staunchly maintained that the accident “was in no way the fault of Major Dargue.”
While Whitehead recuperated from his injuries, the two remaining Loenings, St. Louis and San Francisco, continued on, their crews still devastated from the loss of their comrades. After an 800-mile side trip to Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, they stopped in Montevideo, Uruguay, where San Antonio rejoined the flight. The three amphibians then headed up the east coast of Brazil. They landed in the French, Dutch and British Guiana colonies, as well as in Venezuela, where Whitehead and Weddington (whom Dargue had replaced in St. Louis) met them in a Loening the pair had picked up in Panama. Following the curving line of the Antilles across the Caribbean, they stopped at numerous West Indian island nations, including the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, before flying from Havana to Miami and continuing up the East Coast.
On May 2, 1927, the Army pilots finally finished their 22,065-mile journey at Washington, D.C.’s Bolling Field. They were welcomed by a huge crowd, including President Calvin Coolidge, who presented the Distinguished Flying Cross to each of the fliers and announced post humous awards for Woolsey and Benton. These were the very first American DFCs ever awarded—so new, in fact, that the aviators had to make do with certificates, pending the medals’ being struck. They were also awarded the MacKay Trophy, the highest honor for American military aviation achievement.
Although the flight had a positive effect on U.S. relations with South America, it took a toll on the men and machines involved.“There was a banquet every night given by the American colony or by the officials of the country,” Eaker noted. “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….Captain McDaniel remarked near the end of our flight that we had danced more miles than we had flown.” Only San Francisco completed the entire journey without a breakdown. Today it is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The Pan American Goodwill Flight, constantly in the news during the five months when it was taking place, was quickly eclipsed by Charles Lindbergh’s non-stop solo transatlantic flight just three weeks later. San Francisco did make one more notable flight on June 13, when it transported Lindbergh—newly returned from his Paris triumph and a Washington reception— from Mitchel Field on Long Island to New York City. Eaker once again served as San Francisco’s pilot for that jaunt, but he let Lindbergh take the controls and land in the harbor, his first water landing.
Several members of the Goodwill Flight went on to distinguish themselves in the Army Air Forces. Herbert Dargue would eventually be promoted to major general. He was killed in a crash on December 12, 1941, while flying to Hawaii after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Ennis Whitehead, who became deputy commander of the Fifth Air Force in New Guinea in July 1942, has been credited for much of the Allies’ success against the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific. He assumed command of the Fifth Air Force in June 1944, supporting General Douglas MacArthur’s Philippines campaign. Whitehead finished his military career as a lieutenant general.
Muir Fairchild spent World War II in Washington. He eventually became vice chief of staff of the Air Force, with a four-star general’s rank, before he died in 1950.
Arguably the most famous of the Pan American fliers, Ira Eaker commanded the Eighth Air Force from its beginnings in early 1942 until December 1943, when he was transferred to command the Ninth and then the Fifteenth Air Force. Retiring as a lieutenant general, Eaker was retroactively awarded a fourth star in 1985.
Frequent contributor Robert Guttman consulted Herbert Dargue’s 51- page account in the October 1927 issue of The National Geographic Magazine while researching this article. He also drew from a previously unpublished letter by Ennis Whitehead that was generously provided by Whitehead’s grandson Scott Hinsch Jr. and Scott’s wife, Marsha.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.