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Flight of the Spokane Sun God

By Daniel L. Rust
5/23/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

Battling violent storms, forest fire smoke, head winds and fatigue, a pair of aviators flew nonstop across America and back to establish a new world record.

The swaying hose slowly approached as pilot Nicholas B. Mamer eased the single-engine Buhl CA-6 Airsedan into position beneath the tanker aircraft. Arthur E. Walker Spokane Sun God reached up from his hatch on the sesquiplane’s spine, grasped the hose and pulled it down into the cabin. Suddenly Walker found himself hanging from the hose and nearly pulled from the plane. He instinctively released his grip and dropped back through the hatch. Only a split-second reaction had saved him from falling to his death over the hills of eastern Washington. The incident, which took place in August 1929 during a practice refueling run, was a warning of the difficulties Mamer and Walker would face in their efforts to push the envelope of long-distance flight.

The first airborne transfer of fuel in the United States had come eight years earlier, when stuntman Wesley May strapped a full can of gasoline to his back and stepped from the wing of one aircraft to another. On November 18, 1923, the U.S. Army managed to keep an aircraft aloft for more than 37 hours thanks to aerial refueling. But those experiments ceased following a public demonstration of refueling in which one man died. The receiving plane’s propeller sliced the hose dangling from the tanker aircraft, resulting in a fatal crash.

Five years later a group of Army aviators including Elwood Quesada, Ira Eaker and Carl Spaatz again attempted aerial refueling. In January 1929, a modified Fokker C-2 trimotor dubbed Question Mark remained in the air for more than 150 hours. Question Mark’s success sparked a frenzy of nearly 40 endurance flights in 1929. Private pilots stretched the record for time aloft to over 170 hours less than six months after Question Mark’s flight. July witnessed the record extending to nearly 250 hours and then over 420 hours. Those feats demonstrated the reliability of state-of-the-art engine construction as well as the utility of aerial refueling. Yet up to that point endurance aircraft had circled above a small geographic area during their record attempts. Could aerial refueling enable a plane to fly nonstop over great distances along commercial air routes?

Two aviators set out to answer that question in August 1929. Starting out from Spokane, Wash., Nick Mamer and Art Walker attempted a nonstop, round-trip, transcontinental flight. They took off from Spokane in a single-engine aircraft, flew southwest to Portland, Ore., south to San Francisco, then east to Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Cleveland and New York City before returning westbound over Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., Miles City and Missoula, Mont., finally landing back at Spokane.

A World War I aviator and an experienced barnstormer, Mamer ran the premier flight school in Spokane. A pioneer of aviation applications for the U.S. Forest Service, he also operated an airline in the Pacific Northwest, Mamer Air Transport. Walker, a top-rated aircraft mechanic, worked for Mamer.

Their flight had several sponsors, including the National Air Derby Association of Spokane, which had been responsible for bringing the National Air Races to Spokane in 1927. That group planned and coordinated preparations for the flight with Mamer and Walker, also serving as mission control during the attempt, coordinating refueling efforts and tracking their progress. Texas Oil Company, known as Texaco, provided fuel, lubricating oil and two refueling aircraft. The prominent Texaco star logo adorned all of the aircraft involved in the attempt, including the additional refueling plane and crews Mamer provided. Buhl Aircraft Company of Marysville, Mich., donated the new Airsedan sesquiplane, christened Spokane Sun God. The name seemed appropriate on more than one level, since Spokane is an American Indian word meaning “children of the sun,” and the endurance attempt would start and end in that city.

In the days leading up to their flight, Mamer and Walker practiced with some of the crews. Air-to-air refueling in 1929 was a mixture of crude science and art. The tanker aircraft flew in front of and above the receiving plane. A hose trailed from the tanker while the receiving craft positioned itself so as to place the end of the hose in the hands of a crew member at an open hatch. This carefully orchestrated aerial ballet at nearly 90 mph required calm weather, good visibility, superb piloting skills and a lot of luck.

Sun God emerged from its hangar at 2 p.m. on August 15, its brilliant red paint, resplendent white lettering and prominent Texaco symbols glittering in the afternoon sun. Hundreds of cars lined the road south of the Spokane airfield as people streamed toward the plane and a brightly decorated stand complete with American flags and loudspeakers. Several officials gave brief speeches, including Chief Ignace Garry of the Spokane Indian Nation, who pronounced a blessing upon the red aircraft and its crew in his native tongue.

After the ceremony Mamer and Walker appeared wearing sunglasses and street clothing. To one news reporter the crewmen looked as if they were about to take an afternoon drive in an automobile. Neither man needed a bulky flight suit, since Sun God had an enclosed cabin and the weather was warm.

The two men squeezed into the cabin, where a custom-made 200-gallon fuel tank, supplementing wing tanks holding 120 gallons, replaced passenger seats in the middle of the cramped interior. Mamer occupied a small cockpit in front of the tank. Directly behind the tank was space for a cot, as well as room for Walker to stand during refueling. A narrow passage between the tank and the side of the fuselage allowed the two men to trade places. The plane had a radio receiver capable of picking up weather reports on commercial broadcasts but lacked a two-way radio (in 1929 radios were bulky and unreliable). In fact, Sun God’s radio receiver proved to be unreliable, too. It ceased working only hours into the flight. Mamer opted to communicate with people on the ground via written messages tied to heavy objects and dropped on select airfields en route or passed to refueling aircraft.

A veritable flying gas tank, Sun God was about 500 pounds overweight when Mamer opened the throttle on the air-cooled Wright Whirlwind engine. The Whirlwind had gained fame when an example powered Charles Lindbergh’s Ryan NYP monoplane Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris in 1927. Like Lindbergh, Mamer appreciated the engine’s rugged design, dependability and good power-to-weight ratio. After a 4,000-foot takeoff run, shorter than many anticipated, Mamer coaxed the plane into the sky while the crowd below cheered.

Sun God flew west toward Portland through dense smoke from raging forest fires. Over the Columbia River Gorge, the trusty Whirlwind sputtered and died. Mamer and Walker hastily donned their parachutes before they realized the cause of the problem: A gas tank had gone dry. The flip of a switch restored the engine’s fuel supply, and both men breathed a sigh of relief when the deafening roar of the Whirlwind once again filled the cabin.

Near Portland they turned south toward San Francisco. Shortly after 1 a.m. over northern California, the two aviators briefly became wedged together in the tight spot next to the oversized gas tank while attempting to change places. They decided that the next time they exchanged positions they would both remove their parachutes to ease the transition.

Sun God arrived over San Francisco Bay at 3 a.m. on August 16, but fog and darkness prevented the refueling plane from rendezvousing with them at that juncture. Mamer and Walker circled over Mines Field, snacking on nuts and drinking coffee, until the tanker plane appeared after daybreak.

After an uneventful refueling, Sun God headed east along the transcontinental airmail route, bound for New York. The flight had gone well thus far, but many difficulties lay ahead. Instead of catching an anticipated tail wind to push Sun God eastward, Mamer and Walker encountered a significant head wind as they flew toward their next scheduled refueling point, Cheyenne. Because the plane was consuming more gasoline than expected, they needed to refuel before Cheyenne. Over Elko, Nev., Mamer dropped a note requesting an emergency refueling at Rock Springs, Wyo., about 300 miles west of Cheyenne. Members of Spokane’s Air Derby Association ordered the refueling team in Cheyenne to meet Sun God at Rock Springs.

The two planes rendezvoused somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level over Rock Springs as the sun dipped low on the western horizon, when Sun God had less than 30 minutes of fuel remaining. The thin air at that altitude restricted the tanker aircraft from bringing more than 100 gallons at one time to the Airsedan. During the delicate high-altitude ballet, both planes narrowly escaped disaster when Sun God’s propeller sliced through the swaying hose, spraying the Airsedan with gasoline. Amazingly enough, sparks from the plane’s exhaust did not ignite the flammable liquid blanketing the fuselage. After repairing what was left of the hose (about 20 feet) and attaching a flashlight to its end, the refueling team once again joined Sun God in the inky darkness above Wyoming. While the flashlight had seemed a good idea on the ground, at altitude its light blended with the stars when viewed from below. And the refueling plane itself was equipped with only one exterior light. Relying on the two small lights dancing in the sky above his cockpit, Mamer had to use all his skill to stay in position. At one point the two aircraft drifted so close together that Walker reached up while standing in his hatch and pushed the planes apart. After three successful refueling forays, Mamer dropped a note over the Rock Springs airfield explaining he now had enough fuel to continue the flight eastward after sunrise.

Over North Platte, Neb., and Cleveland, Sun God received more gasoline and oil, as well as watermelon, fried chicken—and also a bottle of eyewash that one man had requested. On Sunday afternoon, August 18, the 10,000 spectators who had gathered to watch aerial spectacles at Roosevelt Field near New York City spotted Sun God approaching from the west. Mamer buzzed the airfield and dropped a letter from the mayor of San Francisco to his counterpart in New York.

Under the leadership of famed aviator Captain Frank Hawks, C. Ray Wassall and P.V. Chaffee—who had kept Dale Jackson and Forrest O’Brine’s St. Louis Robin refueled during 420 hours of continuous flight in July 1929—rendezvoused with Sun God high above Long Island. They quickly replenished the Airsedan’s gas and oil, also delivering ice water, fried chicken, a cantaloupe, two apple pies, some tomatoes and cakes and a gallon of ice cream. Stripped to the waist to cope with the heat, Mamer and Walker enjoyed their feast before beginning their flight back to the West Coast. By that time they had spent 65 continuous hours in the air.

Flashing navigation beacons kept the plane on course through the night sky over Pennsylvania. Near Bellefonte, along the section of the transcontinental airmail route pilots called the “hell stretch,” Mamer and Walker became disoriented when they flew into a severe electrical storm. Mamer later recalled: “We dodged, detoured and outrode one squall after another. Repeatedly we tried to break through, but the storm was too tough and too extensive.” Lightning bolts struck all around the plane. More than once the aviators considered bailing out, but they eventually emerged from the storm unscathed.

Conditions improved as they headed out of Pennsylvania. Within the next 24 hours Sun God refueled over Cleveland and St. Paul. They arrived over Miles City, Mont., just before 10 p.m. on August 19, and Mamer dropped a note onto the airfield there complaining about problems they were having due to smoke from forest fires: “Visibility is hellish tonight. [I] cannot see a thing on ground such as contours [or] mountains.” Mamer added that he and Walker were about to give up and land. In addition to the visibility problems, their navigation lights had stopped working. He requested that a large bonfire be lit in the middle of the airfield if the support staff believed they could refuel Sun God at daybreak; in the meantime, they would circle the airport until the plane ran out of gas. Peering through the hazy darkness, the pair soon spied the faint glow of a bonfire.

As dawn broke over Miles City, a new J5 Eaglerock biplane laden with eight five-gallon cream cans filled with gasoline took off to meet the weary fliers. While airport manager Frank Wiley piloted the refueling plane, local cowboy Tommy Matthews cinched a telephone lineman’s belt tight around his waist. The belt was all that kept him from falling out of the cockpit as he slowly lowered a can of gas attached to the rope in his hands. Appearing to Wiley “like a prairie dog in helmet and goggles,” Walker stood with arms outstretched in Sun God’s hatch, ready to receive the precious gift. By the time Walker emptied the first can into the Airsedan’s gas tank, Matthews had another full can ready. The cans repeatedly struck Sun God’s fuselage, but inflicted only minor damage. Within 25 minutes all eight gasoline cans were empty. The refueling operation had come none to soon: Their main tank had registered only 2 inches of fuel after circling Miles City all night.

Wiley and Matthews delivered two more loads, both in less time than the first. After each of the three refueling operations, Mamer flew over the Yellowstone River and Walker tossed the empty cans into the water.

Sun God continued west through the smoke to Belgrade, Mont., where they refueled again before flying on to Missoula. Fifty gallons of gas, some oil and six chicken sandwiches later, Nick Mamer wearily pointed Sun God toward Spokane for the final leg of their journey.

Five days after departing Spokane, the red aircraft appeared over the city once again, just before 2 p.m. on August 20. An estimated 10,000 spectators crowded the airfield to greet the returning heroes. Factory whistles sounded across the city, signaling the joyous news. Rather than immediately landing, however, Sun God loitered over Spokane, taking on more fuel and food. Members of the Air Derby Association denied Mamer’s request for soap, water and clean clothes, because they wanted the aviators to look disheveled at the conclusion of their flight. During an exchange of messages and fuel, Mamer Air Transport’s Ford TriMotors brought up load after load of passengers—charging $5 a person to observe Sun God in flight. Mamer, although bone tired, was happy to stay in the air as his company raked in the spectators’ cash.

Mamer and Walker finally landed after 115 hours and 45 minutes of continuous flight. While the time spent in the air was far from record-breaking, the Airsedan had flown a lineal distance of 7,200 miles over some of the most diverse terrain in the United States to establish a new world’s record for the longest nonstop flight. Due to all the necessary detours, the actual distance flown was about 10,000 miles. The trip had also proved that air-to-air refueling was possible over established air routes.

Capitalizing on the flight, Texaco hoped to expand its aerial refueling network. The New York Times reported that the company planned to keep its air-to-air refueling operations “fully equipped to continue in the business in case there is a demand for them.” As Mamer saw it, the demand for such operations would only grow. In an article published by Texaco soon after the flight, Manner outlined his vision of aviation’s future. He believed airports along established routes would soon boast refueling planes ready to serve transcontinental airliners. At prearranged times scheduled airliners would accept gasoline and oil, in addition to food, without wasting precious minutes on the ground.

For a variety of reasons, that vision never materialized. Instead of inspiring others to employ aerial refueling, Sun God’s experience served as a deterrent. The perils of transferring gasoline between aircraft at night in the thin air over Wyoming and stories of cream cans being lowered by rope over Montana reinforced the notion that aerial refueling was a dangerous business.

On the heels of Sun God’s success, however, Boeing Air Transport and the U.S. Army Air Corps sponsored Ira Eaker’s nonstop transcontinental attempts in a modified Boeing mailplane, Boeing Hornet Shuttle. A series of accidents prevented Shuttle from ever flying from coast to coast without stopping: A full can of oil dropped from a tanker aircraft punctured Shuttle’s wing, forcing the plane to land; an engine fire ended a second attempt; and the aircraft crashed after its engine quit during a third flight. That confirmation of the obvious perils of aerial refueling only compounded the public’s perception that air travel was inherently unsafe.

In addition to their safety concerns, passengers on long flights wanted some reprieve from the discomforts of flying. Airline passengers of the era typically had to endure noise levels over 115 decibels, bumpy rides at altitudes under 10,000 feet, significant temperature variations and cold food. Refueling stops gave them some relief from all that. Most people would have found it nearly unbearable to spend 24 hours in a 1929 airliner while it crossed the continent nonstop.

Moreover, technological advances soon obviated the need for a commercial application of aerial refueling. Aircraft manufacturers found other ways to extend airliners’ range. Variable-pitch propellers, more efficient engines, cowled nacelles, retractable landing gear, high wing loading, better airframe weight control and larger tanks that carried high-octane fuel enabled airliners to fly farther. The Boeing 247 and the Douglas DC-2 were among the first aircraft to incorporate these features in their design. The DC-2’s larger, more capacious successor, the DC-3 of 1935, boasted a range of 1,000 miles. State-of-the-art airliners from just five years earlier could fly unrefueled only half that distance.

After their record-setting flight, Mamer and Walker remained in the aviation industry. Mamer, who became a pilot for Northwest Airlines, was at the controls of a Lockheed 14 Super Electra over Montana in January 1938 when structural failure due to harmonic vibration brought down the plane, killing him, the co-pilot and all eight passengers. Walker enjoyed a long career flying for airlines and corporations. He eventually served as director of aviation for Standard Oil Company, and in 1979 attended a Seattle celebration of the 50th anniversary of his 1929 odyssey.

Spokane Sun God’s flight represented the apex of enthusiasm for the commercial use of aerial refueling. Less than a decade later, the endurance records of 1929 seemed strangely quaint, a curiosity belonging to an era of flappers, jazz music and flagpole sitting. But the basic concept became important to military operations worldwide. During the tension-filled years of the Cold War, aerial refueling techniques made it possible for America to project its power around the globe. And today U.S. military aircraft routinely fly combat missions requiring multiple air-to-air refuelings over distances more than double that of Mamer and Walker’s record-breaking flight.

 

Daniel L. Rust is the assistant director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. His book about airline passenger experiences is forthcoming from the University of Oklahoma Press. Additional reading: Marathon Flyers, by Russell Plehinger; Seventy-Five Years of Inflight Re-fueling, by Richard K. Smith; and Range Unlimited: A History of Aerial Refueling, by Bill Holder and Mike Wallace.

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here

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