Remember Arthur Goebel Jr., contemporary of the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh, stunt pilot extraordinaire? Like many, I had never even heard of Goebel until a series of seemingly unrelated events first brought this pioneering pilot to my attention four decades ago. Since then, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the challenges and perils of Golden Age fliers.
One evening in 1965, as I was grading historical essays at home, the telephone rang. After answering it, my wife yelled: ‘You’d better come quick. There’s an angry man on the phone demanding to speak to you.’ When I identified myself, a gruff voice said, ‘You published a picture of my father’s store, and I want to talk to you about it.’ Arthur Goebel Jr. told me that he was staying at a local motel and wanted to see me posthaste. Thus began an unusual friendship.
It happened that one of the many old photographs I had included in a Socorro County, N.M., Historical Society publication showed a Fourth of July parade on the Socorro plaza in 1884. In the background was a building with a sign advertising the Goebel Mercantile Company, Arthur Goebel Proprietor. The rest of that evening I spent with Art, talking about that photo and many others I had collected, as well as his father’s contribution to the history of old Socorro and Belen, N.M.
In the years following that first conversation, Goebel stopped by to visit me on several occasions while traveling from Los Angeles to Llano, Texas, where he owned a small ranch. I learned that he had been born on October 19, 1895, and had spent his early youth in New Mexico. His father, a German immigrant, had tried his luck in several mining camps in Colorado before moving to Socorro and opening a store in 1880. He later moved his family to Belen, where Arthur Jr. was born, then back to Colorado and finally to Los Angeles.
It was some time before I learned anything about his flying career. One day he casually mentioned that in 1927 he had won the Dole Race from Oakland to Honolulu. He also divulged that he had worked as a barnstormer. But I sensed that his memories of those early days in the air were less than happy. In 1968 he finally gave me some photos documenting his flying escapades. They included several that depicted the Dole Race, as well as others that related to the early days of aviation in Hollywood.
It was in Southern California that Art Goebel Jr. became involved in flying. Having served with the Allied ground forces during World War I, where he got an occasional glimpse of American pilots dueling with German fliers in the skies over Europe, he returned to Los Angeles after the November 11, 1918, armistice, determined to take flying lessons. He became a familiar figure at local airports — Rogers Field, on Wilshire Boulevard, and Glove Field — joining the throng of other young men and women eager to get into the new field of aviation.
The planes that were available for those brand-new aviators to fly were pretty primitive, and at first there were limited job opportunities for those bold enough to risk their necks in the early flying contraptions. A few lucky fliers managed to land paying positions with the U.S. Postal Service in its fledgling airmail program. Most, however, eked out a living barnstorming around the country. They routinely played one-night stands, also participating in races that offered money prizes, giving flying lessons, selling members of their audiences rides — if their planes had room for more than one person in the cockpit — and doing a variety of stunts at what they called ‘air meets.’
Aside from working for the Postal Service, Goebel tried most of those jobs. He was tall and good-looking, the picture-perfect swashbuckling pilot, so he fit in well in Hollywood, where he found a variety of stunting jobs. But he was also on the lookout for other opportunities to put his newly developed flying skills to the test in something other than stunt flying. Early in 1920, a threatened war between Chile and Peru attracted his attention. Goebel flew to South America, hoping to become a soldier of fortune. Disappointed when a conflict failed to develop, he took a job in Lima and also taught flying. He remained there for 14 months before returning to Los Angeles in 1921.
Goebel quickly earned a sterling reputation as a movie pilot. By 1924, he was known as the ace of Pacific Coast stunt fliers, especially celebrated for his prowess in flying upside-down. He did seemingly every trick that could be done with an airplane at the time. He carried wing-walkers such as Gladys Ingle and Ivan Unger, who wowed crowds with thrilling plane changes. He also performed hair-raising tricks such as diving under Pasadena’s Colorado Street Bridge while women were standing on the top wing of his biplane. As one reporter put it, Goebel was ‘known to every director and actor for his breathtaking stunts before a camera.’ His jaunty pilot’s garb might well have served as the pattern for the costumes worn by movie fliers of his day.
Goebel may also have been a member, perhaps even a founding member, of an unusual organization known as the 13 Black Cats (sources disagree on his involvement). This was a group of pilots who specialized in stunt flying, parachute jumping, wing-walking and other aerial acrobatics in the early days of Hollywood aviation. The group apparently never numbered more than 13 members, and it included women as well as men. In addition to appearing in films, the Black Cats would perform their crazy stunts for anyone — for a price. For example, at one point they reportedly charged $500 for an upside-down plane change (the stuntman would transfer from a plane flying upside down to one flying right side up), $200 for an automobile to plane change, $1,200 to crash an aircraft into a tree or house, and $1,500 to blow up an aircraft they were piloting, then parachute to the ground.
There were plenty of flying contests for ambitious stuntmen and women to participate in during the 1920s and ’30s. For example, at the Elks’ annual air meet at La Brea, Calif., in April 1936, Goebel was the hero of the day. He finished first in a ‘Jenny’ Scramble, first in an upside-down flying event and second in the day’s final race over a measured course.
In 1924 and ’26, Goebel returned to South America and barnstormed across much of the continent. He also taught flying and did stunts for the crowds of curious locals who showed up to watch his daredevil antics. Later in life, he would return to South America and travel extensively. Some of the photos he passed on to me show scenes from those trips.
By the summer of 1927, Goebel was ready for a new challenge when he heard about an air race from Oakland, Calif., to Hickam Field in Honolulu, then being organized by James J. Dole of the Dole Pineapple Company. The contest — inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s successful transatlantic flight in May of that year — was scheduled for August, with first-place prize money set at $25,000. This was just what Goebel was looking for. The race offered him a chance to do something noteworthy and at the same time make a substantial amount of money. He apparently had no doubt that he would win.
Up to that time, there had been only two Pacific crossing flights, both of which had been sponsored by the military. In September 1925, a U.S. Naval Aircraft Factory PN-9 flying boat piloted by Commander John P. Rodgers made it to within 55 miles of the Hawaiian Islands (a world record for seaplanes) before experiencing engine trouble. In June 1927, U.S. Army Air Corps Lieutenants Lester J. Maitland and Albert F. Hegenberger flew all the way to Honolulu in the Fokker Trimotor Bird of Paradise.
Now that civilian pilots were lining up to try for a Pacific crossing, the American press jumped on the story. For weeks before the projected takeoff date, the newspapers covered every possible aspect of the contest, touting it as the greatest sporting event of the century.
The preparations for the race were extensive. All pilots were required to have a navigator. Pilots as well as navigators were given navigation tests, and the planes had to be checked out by mechanics in order to qualify for the overwater flight. Fuel tests were run over measured distances, in an effort to accurately determine how much would be required by each plane. Then each competitor had to add additional fuel tanks to the standard ones so that each aircraft could carry 15 percent more gas than was estimated as needed for the trip.
Each plane was also required to be equipped with an air-to-ground radio. The aircraft piloted by Goebel and navigator Bill Davis, a Travel Air monoplane, carried a 50-watt radio with a wavelength of 608 meters. For each aircraft that made it into the race, an estimated $500 had to be spent on preparations. That expense was in addition to the acquisition cost for the aircraft and the cost of getting plane and crew to Oakland.
Although he had been the first pilot to sign up for the race, Goebel was the last to arrive in Oakland and the last to qualify for the race, due to difficulties in securing financial support for his attempt. He had ordered the Travel Air, which was constructed in Wichita, Kan., without knowing exactly where the money would come from to pay for it. At the last moment he located an additional sponsor who would become a lifelong friend — Frank Phillips, president of Phillips Petroleum Company — who loaned him the $4,500 needed to take delivery of the plane. Goebel agreed to name the plane Woolaroc after Phillips’ Oklahoma estate (also the name of an Osage Indian chief). In addition, Goebel agreed to use a new aviation fuel developed by Phillips.
On August 14, 1927, 11 aircraft were qualified for the race. Their fuel requirements had been tested and auxiliary tanks installed. The navigators had honed their skills for the challenge, and all seemed ready. However, the weather refused to cooperate, which resulted in the takeoff being delayed for two days. By the 16th, conditions had improved somewhat, and nine of the aircraft were lined up, ready to take off one at a time.
The weather was still pretty bad — leaden skies, a low ceiling and fog all seemed likely to make flying risky. The planes were heavily laden with extra fuel, and wet, muddy field conditions made their takeoff doubly difficult.
Two of the racers did not even attempt to take off, reducing the field further. Two other planes did not make it off the ground due to the excess weight they were carrying and the muddy conditions. One plane experienced engine trouble within a few miles of takeoff, forcing its crew to Oakland for hurried repairs before returning to the contest. Three of the aircraft disappeared over the Pacific. The radio equipment installed on the planes was primitive and unreliable, and no messages were ever heard from the lost crews. Moreover, the weather was so bad that crews of ships stationed along the route of the race never saw any of the planes. All efforts to find the lost racers would prove unsuccessful.
Only two of the planes made it to Honolulu — Goebel and Davis in Woolaroc, arriving 27 hours, 17 minutes and 33 seconds after taking off, and Martin Jensen and his navigator Paul Schluter in the Breese monoplane Aloha, who arrived two hours later.
For Woolaroc‘s crew, the 2,439-mile flight had been anything but easy or comfortable. The auxiliary gas tanks had been placed inside the cabin, between the pilot and the navigator. They could neither see nor hear each other, and radio contact between them was impossible, since the radio was only supposed to be capable of contacting stations on the ships spaced along the route — but it didn’t work well at that, either. The two crewmen ended up passing each other notes back and forth along a line strung over the fuel tank. Goebel later gave me a photograph of one of the notes, the only one to survive the trip. He explained that just as he had passed a note requesting their arrival time to Davis, he caught sight of Hawaii’s mountains. Since the note needed no answer, Davis discarded it through a vent. By chance, the note caught on one of the tail struts, where it was recovered on the ground. Goebel recorded how the note was preserved on the photo itself.
Although Goebel had triumphed and won $25,000, the worldwide recognition he had expected to garner from the race never materialized. In all, 10 people died in the course of the contest, clouding the public’s perception of the event. The search for the lost planes lasted several weeks and riveted the attention of the media and the public. The race was generally regarded as a disaster. Goebel’s momentary notoriety was quickly eclipsed by the bad press the affair received, leaving the pilot bitter about its outcome for the rest of his life.
Goebel repaid his sponsors for their contributions to the effort, then gave half of the remaining money to his navigator and bought a new aircraft with the rest. He returned to flying stunts in the movies, and even achieved the rare distinction — for a stuntman — of getting a role and a screen credit in The Air Patrol and Won in the Clouds, both released in 1928.
Also during 1928, however, he embarked on what would be his most outstanding year as a record-setting flier. Not content merely to wow crowds with aerial tricks, he undertook the role of aviation advocate. ‘I am an aviation preacher,’ he declared, ‘and I am going to broadcast the possibilities of the air to everyone I meet. It is the greatest thing of the age. We can’t begin to realize how great it is going to become. The first thing you know we will be stepping into planes and flying around the world.’
In March 1928, he set out on a goodwill tour of Japan, accompanied by Ernest Robertson of the Fairchild Aviation Company. Flying a Fairchild monoplane, they began a well-publicized trek from Curtis Field on Long Island, stopping in Washington, D.C., Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Los Angeles. At each stop they demonstrated the aircraft and gave interviews. After sailing to Tokyo, they barnstormed around Japan, giving rides, performing stunts and selling the Japanese on the idea of flying. In an interview with The New York Times after their return to the United States in June 1928, Goebel noted, ‘The Japanese are somewhat skeptical about flying due to the number of crashes, yet they have developed excellent airfields.’
In August 1928, Goebel and Harry J. Tucker made the first nonstop crossing of the United States from west to east, flying a Lockheed Vega 5 monoplane dubbed Yankee Doodle. The Vega, which had not been modified for the flight, had a cruising speed of 135 mph, with a top speed of 170. Taking off from Mines Field in Los Angeles and landing at Curtis Field on Long Island, they averaged 142 mph. The extra fuel they needed to complete the long flight was carried in 5-gallon cans, then hand-pumped by Tucker into the main fuel tank as they needed it. Goebel and Tucker were met on arrival by Aero Digest publisher Frank Tichenor. After they landed, Goebel reportedly greeted Tichenor with ‘Good morning, Frank. It’s 7:04. I reckon we are 18 hours and 58 minutes from Los Angeles, and it’s about time for breakfast.’ On August 24, Tucker became the first person to fly round-trip across the continent. He returned to the West Coast in Yankee Doodle with a different pilot, Charles Collyer.
Goebel traveled widely to participate in races, hoping to garner additional prize money. Some races he flew in Yankee Doodle, while others he flew in Woolaroc, sponsored by Phillips. On September 14, 1928, Goebel and Frank Tucker of Lockheed entered a nonstop race from Long Island to Los Angeles. Due to incorrect estimates of the fuel needed, they were forced to land in Arizona. Although they were the only participants to finish the race, they were disqualified because they had not made the trip nonstop.
A few days after that disappointment, Goebel and Tucker entered Yankee Doodle in a nonstop race from Los Angeles to Cincinnati, Ohio. They won the contest in 15 hours, 17 minutes, taking $3,000 in prize money. Goebel commented, ‘We ran into severe weather over Arizona and New Mexico, but since the Dole Race, severe weather has had little terror for me.’
September 1929 saw Goebel in Mexico City, the only American entrant in a race from there to Kansas City, Mo. Most of the other participants were members of the Mexican Army Air Force. There were several control points where the racers had to land. The winner would be determined by total elapsed time in the air. Storms forced all the racers but Goebel to land short of the first control point, and the race was nearly called off. Finally the racers were reassembled at the first checkpoint and the race continued. The bad weather continued, but Goebel’s experience and skill led to another victory. He beat one of the Mexican pilots to Kansas City by only two minutes, winning $3,000.
In 1931 he flew a Lockheed design in the Bendix Trophy race from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Ohio, completing the flight in 11 hours, 55 minutes and 48 seconds, at an average speed of 171.5 mph. He placed fifth, the winner of the $7,500 first prize being James H. Doolittle in his Laird Super Solution, going the distance in 9 hours, 10 minutes and 21 seconds at an average of 233.058 mph.
During the 1930s Goebel entered the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserves and rose to the rank of colonel. He served as a pilot during World War II in the Pacific theater. In 1941 he married Ann Jergens, heir to the Jergens cosmetics empire. But their marriage lasted only six years; they were divorced in 1947, and Goebel never remarried.Arthur Goebel Jr. died in Los Angeles on December 3, 1973. By the time his life ended, he had seen his prophecies about how aviation would change the world come true. People indeed did travel round the world in airplanes.
This article was written by Paige W. Christianse and originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History magazine. For more great articles subscribe to Aviation History magazine today!