After becoming the first to fly across the Caribbean Sea, Paul Redfern vanished in the Amazon jungle, spawning a dozen search expeditions and an unsolved mystery.
More than 3,000 spectators lined the dunes and hard-packed sand beach of Sea Island, Ga., as Paul Redfern walked slowly around a brightly colored Stinson monoplane gleaming in the afternoon sun. Reporters jostled in close, firing questions as the young pilot carefully checked the airframe, fuel tanks and engine for the last time. His expression was stern and focused, trying to appear confident without the obvious anxiety he surely felt over his planned 4,600-mile nonstop flight across the Caribbean Sea and South American jungle to Brazil.
The date was August 25, 1927, three months since Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris had inspired many aviators of his generation to seek their own fame and glory. The Caribbean had yet to be crossed by air, and to do so by flying from the United States to South America would set a new distance record. Flying the route solo would be another first, but even more difficult with fatigue potentially playing a major role. Whether the plane could carry enough fuel for the nonstop flight or its pilot could remain alert for more than 48 hours were questions yet unanswered.
Paul Rinaldo Redfern was 25 years old, the same age as Lindbergh and with the same slim build. As a teenager in Columbia, S.C., he had constructed and flown a small glider. During his sophomore year of high school he built a full-size replica airplane that was displayed at the University of South Carolina. After completing his sophomore year, Redfern quit school to work for the Standard Aircraft factory assembling planes for the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. When the plant closed at the end of the war he returned home to finish high school. The following summer he purchased a surplus engine and some wrecked-plane parts to construct his own biplane, and upon graduation began carrying passengers and performing at airshows.
Redfern barnstormed across the country and went on to establish the first commercial airfield in Columbia. Relocating to Ohio, he started another flying business and worked as a pilot for wealthy businessman Charles Hillabrand. In 1925 he married Hillabrand’s daughter Gertrude and moved to Savannah, Ga., where he flew for the U.S. Customs Service spotting illegal stills and ships smuggling bootleg liquor.
By 1927 aspirations of aviation glory were on the minds of many pilots, especially the young and bold like Redfern. Lindbergh’s success only fueled the fire.
Whether Redfern or someone else was the first to propose the idea is unclear, but when the Board of Trade in Brunswick, Ga., offered a $25,000 prize for a nonstop flight to Rio de Janeiro, he was the only pilot to accept the challenge. The city of Brunswick hoped the record flight would entice new investors and help make their port a major East Coast shipping center.
The flight from Brunswick to Rio was a significant undertaking. Roughly half the distance was over water and the other half over the dense Amazon jungle. Landing sites were limited to beaches on a few islands and coastal areas, mostly well off the intended route. Any emergency landing in the sea or jungle would leave the pilot with little hope of rescue. Fuel would be critical, requiring accurate navigation. No radio would be carried to save weight and flying solo required staying awake for the duration. Many individuals in the aviation community considered the flight dangerous and irresponsible.
For the attempt Redfern chose a new Stinson SM-1 Detroiter, a reliable single-engine monoplane. Powered by a 220-hp Wright J-5 Whirlwind 9-cylinder radial—the same engine Lindbergh used—the SM-1’s top speed was 122 mph and normal cruise speed 105 mph. Redfern purchased the aircraft directly from the Detroit factory with additional fuel tanks installed in the cabin, increasing capacity from 90 gallons to 525.
During his nonstop flight from the factory to Georgia, Redfern tested the fuel system with the tanks near capacity. He was accompanied by company owner Eddie Stinson, an experienced aviator in his own right. The plane performed well, averaging 86 mph over the 780-mile route. Based on a fuel consumption of 10 gallons an hour, the aircraft’s endurance would be about 52 hours.
Stinson’s only recommendation to Redfern was for another pilot to go along on the flight, since he thought going without sleep for such an extended period “was more than a man could stand.” Redfern ignored the advice, convinced he could safely deal with sleep deprivation for 50-plus hours.
In his autobiography The Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh recounted his struggle to stay awake during his 33½-hour flight to Paris. He described falling asleep several times with his eyes open, prolonged periods of drowsiness and episodes of hallucination. Redfern would be flying much longer. His father, Dr. Frederick Redfern, stated in simple yet prophetic terms what he thought about his son’s intention to fly to Brazil: “It is a matter of endurance, pure and simple; continuous running on the part of the machine and the man.”
After Redfern arrived in Georgia, the plane was painted green and yellow—the Brazilian flag’s colors—with Port of Brunswick stenciled in white letters on each side of the cowling. The inscription “Brunswick to Brazil” was added to the fuselage.
As reckless as the endeavor appeared, Redfern was meticulous in his flight planning. He plotted the most direct route to the South American continent, minimizing his time over water while passing close enough to larger islands to aid in navigation. His friend and fellow pilot Myron Hutchinson, who helped with preparations, told reporters, “Paul will make it if anybody can….he possesses a sort of sixth sense to guide him in the air.”
Navigation would be by dead reckoning alone. Redfern obtained a detailed weather briefing and plotted an alternate destination in case of low fuel or unexpected winds. He also carried survival equipment—including flares, life raft, solar water distiller, netting, weapons and enough food for 10 days—in case of an emergency ditching at sea or forced landing in the jungle.
Winds were the biggest concern during the long overwater stretch, as even a slight variation in heading could force the plane well off course. Crossing the thick jungle and inland mountains at night was the main challenge once over land. Redfern would need to identify his exact position upon reaching the South American coast and from there navigate another 2,000 miles of mostly unmapped, inhospitable territory if he hoped to arrive at his destination.
Redfern estimated a flight time of 50 hours to reach Rio. With a forecast headwind over the Caribbean Sea factored in, however, that seemed overly optimistic. Even with a favorable tailwind over South America, he needed to average 92 mph for the entire flight. At best he figured he had a two-hour fuel reserve.
Ten hours of flight would be at night over the ocean, a point newspaper articles stressed as foolish because the moon was at its lowest phase of illumination. Redfern’s attempt would also be in the middle of hurricane season, another reason newspapers cast doubt on the flight. Weather reporting and forecasts in 1927 were primitive, dependent on reports from ships at sea and local observations on land. Storms could appear without notice.
Redfern’s intended flight track from Georgia would maintain a southeast heading past the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands and cross Puerto Rico at night after covering nearly 1,300 miles. He would use San Juan’s city lights and coastal lighthouses to verify his position before continuing southeast over the Caribbean, roughly paralleling the inside arc of islands known as the Lesser Antilles.
The stretch of open water between Puerto Rico and Trinidad, covering more than 700 miles, was expected to have the worst weather and would be flown mostly during the day. From Trinidad he would continue to the South American mainland at British Guiana (now Guyana), before turning inland along the coast to Macapá in northern Brazil, near the mouth of the Amazon River.
By then Redfern would have traveled nearly 3,000 miles and depending on his remaining fuel and weather would either turn south toward Rio or southeast toward Recife on the Brazilian coast. He would signal his intent when over Macapá by dropping a green flare if proceeding to Rio or a red flare if diverting to Recife. The distance to Rio was another 1,674 miles and Recife 1,249 miles.
Shortly before Redfern departed from Sea Island, a journalist asked him what he would do if his engine quit over the jungle. “Don’t lose hope of my return for at least six months or more…,” he said. “If I should be forced down over the Amazon Valley, I believe I can live for months with the equipment I am carrying….”
A gentle breeze was blowing across the beach as Redfern’s Detroiter was carefully pushed into the wind on August 25. All the available cabin space was filled with fuel tanks and survival gear. In addition to his emergency food, he carried two gallons of water, two thermoses of coffee and a large bundle of sandwiches, all stashed within arm’s reach.
For the previous two days Redfern had been anxious to depart, waiting for a hurricane off the Bahamas to move away from his intended flight path. By the 25th it was well to the north, providing the window of opportunity he needed. He kissed and embraced Gertrude before climbing into the cramped cockpit and starting the engine. Redfern waved from the open window, pushed the throttle forward and raced down the beach before slowly lifting into the summer sky at 12:46 p.m. The crowd cheered as the plane climbed and turned out over the Atlantic, fading from view in the distance.
The first sighting of Redfern’s plane was by shrimp boats off the Georgia coast, then nothing for five hours until a freighter 110 miles east of the Bahamas reported seeing the green-and-yellow Stinson flying at 2,000 feet in a southerly direction. That position was 550 miles from Sea Island, reflecting a ground speed of 105 mph—better than planned but aided by a favorable wind trailing behind the hurricane. At that speed Redfern would pass Puerto Rico before sunrise the next morning. Factoring in the expected moderate headwinds over the Caribbean, he should have arrived over Macapá later that afternoon.
Redfern never arrived over Macapá, but he did make contact with the Norwegian steamship Christian Krohg after midday on August 26, 160 miles north of Trinidad between the islands of Saint Vincent and Barbados. He circled the ship for 45 minutes, dropping five messages, the last asking the captain to point the ship’s bow toward the mainland and to wave a flag once for each 100 miles in distance. The captain obliged by turning south and signaling twice. Redfern rocked the wings in thanks and continued in the direction indicated.
The position and time of the sighting meant that Redfern had encountered strong headwinds or gone off course a considerable distance after passing the Bahamas. His overall time and distance since leaving Georgia reflected a ground speed of only 69 mph. Even with favorable winds over South America, he needed to average 100 mph over the remaining distance to Rio, with no fuel reserve. His alternate destination of Recife was more realistic, requiring an average of 84 mph. In any case, arriving safely over Macapá shouldn’t have been in doubt.
Later that day local residents saw a plane flying inland near the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, and American engineer Lee Dennison also observed it from Bolivar City, 150 miles farther upriver. Dennison confirmed the plane as Port of Brunswick by the registration number painted in large letters on the wing. He observed a thin trail of black smoke coming from the engine as it circled and then headed in a southeasterly direction.
Redfern’s arrival over the Orinoco River Delta was off track by well over 100 miles. There was no reason he should have headed inland along the Orinoco River unless he had misidentified his position. Georgetown, Guiana’s capital, was 200 miles farther southeast, and Macapá another 670 miles. Had Redfern been aware of his exact position he could also have easily flown to Caracas, some 400 miles in the opposite direction. But by then he had been awake for nearly 40 hours.
With a lack of sleep impairing his reasoning ability, Redfern likely confused the Orinoco with the Amazon, since both opened into large deltas and flowed in the same direction. Falsely assuming he was off course to the south instead of north, he headed upriver toward what he thought was Macapá. After arriving over Bolivar City he turned southeast over the featureless jungle, probably still believing he was over the Amazon and heading for Rio de Janeiro. If Redfern had realized his mistake he would surely have turned back to the coast instead of continuing inland.
Flying southeast from Bolivar City would have taken Redfern into the Guiana Highlands, a large mountain range bordering Venezuela and Brazil with peaks rising above 10,000 feet. His second night aloft was fast approaching. A successful crossing would have been required with minimal illumination and while under increasing symptoms of sleep deprivation. He never arrived in Rio or any other city, and instead vanished somewhere in the South American jungle.
A limited search ensued on August 28, primarily focused along the coast after additional reports came forward of an airplane flying over the Orinoco Delta and near St. Cuthbert’s in British Guiana on the 27th. Later that same day a plane was also heard 60 miles south of Bolivar City on the Caroní River. By then Redfern’s fuel would have been nearly exhausted. Some search planes flew a short distance inland over the Amazon Basin, but the vast territory and thick jungle made spotting a downed aircraft almost impossible.
Whether the sightings on the 27th were of Redfern’s plane or not is unknown, but if accurate he would have been without sleep for nearly 60 hours and at the limit of physical endurance. Finding a place to land would have been a priority. Cultivated fields around the few scattered communities were suitable for at least an emergency landing, but by then he was likely experiencing extreme mental confusion.
Over the years rumors and secondhand reports told of a white man, thought to be Redfern, living with a tribe of Indians deep in the Amazon jungle. Most of the stories described how a man fell from the sky in an airplane and was being held captive by the natives. Other accounts claimed the man was hobbled by broken limbs or living peacefully with an Indian wife who had borne him a son. A dozen expeditions were launched into the Amazon Basin over an 11-year period ending in 1938 in an attempt to find and rescue him, including searches sponsored by the U.S. government and the Smithsonian Institution. No confirmed evidence of Redfern’s fate was ever found.
Questionable sightings were also reported by two pilots who frequently flew over the area where Redfern likely disappeared. While conducting an aerial survey of Brazil’s Tumuc Humac Mountains in January 1936, pilot Art Williams overflew a remote village and said the natives had hid from the sound of his plane but a white man remained out in the open waving excitedly as he circled overhead. He plotted the location on his map and later borrowed a boat to travel upriver with a companion, but on arrival several heavily armed tribesmen forced them to leave before they reached the settlement.
Pilot Jimmie Angel, noted for his discovery of Angel Falls in Venezuela, claimed he often passed over Redfern’s crashed plane while flying back and forth from the Guiana Highlands. He even provided a latitude/longitude coordinate for the site that was approximately 120 miles southeast of Bolivar City. Unfortunately, because of his tendency to stretch the truth, Angel was never believed. After he died his wife verified the story, claiming she had accompanied her husband on two flights during which she observed Redfern’s green-and-yellow Stinson submerged in a swamp. She said the wreckage had sunk deeper into the marsh on each occasion until only the top of the cabin was visible.
Pilot/author Robert Carlin and author Dale Titler conducted a thorough investigation and aerial search for Redfern’s aircraft in 1982. They were convinced the pilot had died after crashing in the jungle where Jimmie Angel said. They overflew the area several times searching for evidence, but nothing was visible after 55 years.
For many years after Redfern vanished his wife and family believed he had survived and was living with Indians in the Amazon jungle. Only after Redfern’s parents sponsored their own expedition in 1937, which found no verifiable proof of his or the plane’s whereabouts, did they finally give up hope. He was pronounced dead in 1938.
Although he is mostly forgotten, Paul Redfern’s legacy lives on. He was unquestionably the first pilot to fly nonstop across the Caribbean Sea. A city street in Rio de Janeiro and an airfield on St. Simons Island (today site of the Redfern Village shopping center) were named in his honor. A movie loosely based on Redfern’s flight, Too Hot to Handle, was released in 1938.
A week after Redfern vanished, in referencing the recent losses of aircraft on long-distance flight attempts, Eddie Stinson said it best: “The success of Colonel Lindbergh should not be accepted as a standard….the very men who are good enough to attempt such hops are the very men whom aviation today can not afford to sacrifice.”
Gregory Liefer is a retired military and civilian pilot with 32 years’ flying experience. His books include Aviation Mysteries of the North, Broken Wings: Aviation Disasters in Alaska and The Last Flight: A Novel. Further reading: Wings of Mystery: True Stories of Aviation History, by Dale M. Titler; and Oceans, Poles and Airmen, by Richard Montague.
This feature originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here!