Harold Bromley, a former Royal Air Force pilot, understood the importance of navigation. Rather than join up with another pilot, he asked Australian navigator Harold Gatty to accompany him on his transpacific flight attempt. A former ship’s officer, Gatty was making a lean living teaching air navigation in Los Angeles.
Early on September 15, 1930, Bromley and Gatty prepared for takeoff from Sabishiro Beach. The Emsco monoplane, City of Tacoma, strained against a thick rope as Bromley checked the engine. Satisfied that it was delivering full power, Bromley dropped his hand and an axman severed the rope. Even with the ramp’s assistance, the airplane was barely airborne by the end of the sands. For several hours, it required full power just to remain clear of the waves.
Four hours out, they encountered persistent fog and clouds. Soon after, the exhaust system’s collector ring fractured, and exhaust fumes began to seep into the cockpit. Neither of the crewmen realized the dangers this posed. Later in the flight, the insidious effects of the carbon monoxide had Bromley laughing uncontrollably and Gatty coughing.
Unable to climb above the cloud cover, Gatty relied on dead reckoning navigation. Bromley’s blind flying was not helped when the artificial horizon “turned over on its back and died.” Soon after, the wind-driven fuel pump failed, forcing Gatty to operate the emergency hand pump to keep the engine’s main fuel tank topped up. A break in the clouds enabled Gatty to fix their position by sextant and discover that they had covered only 1,250 miles. The anticipated tail wind had not materialized, and calculations showed their plane would run out of fuel well short of the North American coast. Bromley and Gatty had no option but to return to Japan.
As the Emsco headed back, leaks developed in the fuel lines, which the airmen repaired with friction tape. Nearing the coast, Bromley noticed a hole in the clouds. Diving down through it, they broke into the clear and spotted a red-and-white striped lighthouse directly ahead. It was the same one they had passed shortly after takeoff the previous day. After 22 hours of almost continuous blind flying, their position was a testimony to the accuracy of Gatty’s navigation and Bromley’s flying.
They landed on the first clear stretch of beach. The moment the Emsco came to a stop, a clearly irrational Bromley grabbed a life raft and dashed toward the water. Gatty chased after him, and a few yards from the water’s edge, Bromley passed out. When he awoke eight hours later, he told Gatty that he had taken the raft because he thought they had ditched in the sea. A doctor diagnosed that Bromley had suffered mental problems brought on by the leaking exhaust system. Three days after they landed, Gatty collapsed from the delayed action of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Gatty crossed the northern fringe of the Pacific Ocean in 1931–hopping across the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska–as he navigated Wiley Post’s Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae on its epic flight around the world. He later became a consultant to Pan American Airways and the U.S. government. Recalling his 1930 flight aboard City of Tacoma, Gatty said, “Harold Bromley never made the big time, but he was a magnificent pilot.”