An aerial adventure

A decade after the Army’s pioneering flight to Alaska, two adventurous young men embarked on a month-long, 12,000-mile journey to Alaska in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth named “Flit,” a small two-seat biplane with open cockpits and a 90-hp, four-cylinder engine. The pilots were on their summer vacation and wanted to see if they could fly out to Alaska, get in some bear hunting and return.

Laurence Lombard, left, and Frederick Blodgett prepare to depart Portland, Oregon, for Seattle. In the background is the Stinson “On-to-Oregon” that Tex Rankin of Portland was using to try to set an endurance record.

Laurence Lombard, the pilot, who had logged 150 hours before takeoff, was an attorney at a Boston law firm; while co-pilot Frederick Blodgett, who had five hours in the air, worked for a bank in the city.

Unlike the major Army expedition to Alaska in 1920 that took three months, the Boston fliers were on their own with no pre-planned fuel sources, maintenance or supply support.

Their aircraft, an American-built de Havilland Gipsy Moth, was one of the first practical light aircraft designs intended for civilian training and recreational use, rather than for military buyers. The Moth was also one of the first light aircraft to be mass-produced and was available to a much wider section of the general public than previous aircraft designs. It was a two-seat biplane capable of withstanding the hard knocks of instructional work, but large enough — and comfortable enough — for cross-country flying.

Though the Moth carried a crew of two, it was quite a contrast to the de Havillands used by the Army to fly to Alaska in 1920. The Moth had a 90-hp engine versus the 400-hp engine for the DH-4, while its total weight was about that of the useful load of the DH-4: 1,600 pounds. On the other hand, it had a range of 320 miles, a little better than the Liberty Plane.

The Boston fliers landed in Ketchikan, Alaska, on Aug. 30, 1930. They had flown the Gipsy Moth across country on wheels, had floats installed in Seattle, and then headed north to Alaska.

The “Flit” had a 23-gallon tank in the upper wing center section and a reserve tank in the front cockpit. The tank’s combined fuel capacity gave the plane a range of 400 miles at a cruising speed of 80 miles per hour.

The plan was to take the “Flit” across the United States to Seattle, install floats, and continue up to Alaska for their vacation. Their plans for the return were just as ambitious, planning to head down the West Coast to San Diego before heading east back to Boston.

The fliers departed from East Boston Airport Sunday, Aug. 17, 1930. They flew cross-country to the west by way of Cleveland, Chicago and Des Moines. They then flew from Cheyenne across the mountains to Salt Lake City, where they turned northwest towards Boise, where they had their first emergency on the trip.

Route of the Gipsy Moth, “Flit,” on Lombard and Blodgett’s 1930 flight across the United States to Alaska.

It seems the oil was low and the engine was overheating. The pilots realized they were about 40 miles from the nearest airfield and on the way they would face canyons and a rough river valley, so they decided they better land before they lost the engine and didn’t lose a good chance for a safe landing. They headed for a large cultivated field with a ranch house. Coming in low over the house they aimed for a small alfalfa field only to find they were landing across new furrows about 2 feet deep. To their amazement, they didn’t turn over on landing and didn’t break the landing gear.

They found themselves at the town of Bliss, Idaho, facing the problems of getting oil and getting out of the rough field. A local farmer provided a horse and a skid and dragged the plane out to a nearby road. Fortunately a car came by and Lombard got a ride into town and was able to obtain the needed oil.

Even in 1930, aircraft were rare in Idaho as witnessed by the fact that a Union Pacific freight train stopped alongside the road to see what was going on. After taking off down the road in a tailwind, they continued on to Mountain Home, where they landed in a Varney Air Lines emergency field and spent the night before continuing on to Boise.

After arriving in Boise on Sunday morning a week after departing Boston, they refueled and headed on to Pendleton, Oregon, where they picked up the Columbia River, which they followed to Portland, where they were the guests of Lee Jameson of The Boeing Co. They then headed north to Seattle where there was a set of floats awaiting them.

After some trial flights on floats, the pilots where given charts and briefed by Ansel Eckmann, chief pilot of the Alaska-Washington Airways, on the route to Alaska. Eckmann pointed out the canneries and settlements along the way to Juneau where they could get gas and tie up for the night.

Departing Seattle on Wednesday, Aug. 27, they headed north on a wandering route up the coast, arriving at Ketchikan on Saturday morning. They then continued on to Mole Harbor on Admiralty Island, where they hired a guide and spent a few days hunting in the area with still and movie cameras. The pair then made a two-day flight to Juneau, their furthest stop north on the trip, for supplies. Returning to Mole Harbor they went hunting with their guide and each of the pilots killed a black bear as trophies of their adventurous trip to Alaska.

On Sept. 5 the two aviators headed south to Seattle where they had the floats replaced by wheels for the return trip to Boston.

Still not through having adventures in flying, the two took the long way home. From Seattle they headed south down the Pacific Coast to San Diego, then headed east to Gila Bend, Arizona. The next intended destination was Roswell, New Mexico, but they got blown off course and had to make a forced landing near Orla, Texas, Sept. 15. The next day, after getting five gallons of car gas, they were on their way again, making it to Roswell where they spotted an oil pipe line that lead them to Wichita, Kansas. The remainder of the trip to Boston was relatively uneventful, each day being a race to keep on their scheduled return home.

After getting blown off course and running low on fuel, the pilots made an emergency landing in a field of Mesquite brush near Orla, Texas. They were rescued by some employees of a nearby Standard Oil pipeline pumping station.

The Boston fliers were back at home on Sept. 19 after a 12,000-mile aerial adventure. For over a month the pilots’ skill and stamina, along with the Gipsy Moth’s mettle, demonstrated that the light airplane had come of age.

Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at dennis@generalaviationnews.com.

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