Prior to 1927, many well-informed people — as well as the general public — continued to think of aviation as a stunt to be marveled at or an amusement, but not something of concrete accomplishment.
These attitudes changed during 1927 with many epic flights that proved the capability of modern aircraft and powerplants — flights that saw distance and duration records broken on a regular basis.
Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic to Paris was the first epic flight to grip the attention of the public. His flight was soon followed by more Atlantic crossings, flights over the Pacific to Hawaii, and a tour around the world to Tokyo.
The Aircraft Yearbook for 1927 listed 25 such epic flights, which included four crossings of the North Atlantic and four of the South Atlantic, and an 8,000-mile circumnavigation of Australia.
New York to Germany
One of Lindbergh’s competitors for the Orteig Prize was Clarence Chamberlin. On June 4, Chamberlin, along with Charles Levine, owner of the “Columbia,” a Wright-Bellanca monoplane, departed Long Island for a flight to Europe. Chamberlin was a former Army pilot and barnstormer who had hoped to become the first to fly from New York to Paris. Levine was a scrap metal dealer from New York.
The Wright-Bellanca was a cabin monoplane designed by Bellanca for the Wright Company to be used as a test aircraft for the new Wright Whirlwind J-5 radial engine. Lindbergh had approached Levine about buying the plane for his Paris flight, but they couldn’t come to an agreement.
With Lindbergh having already successfully flown to Paris, the goal of Chamberlin’s flight to Europe was to set a new record for a non-stop fight. After departing New York June 4, the goal was accomplished on June 6 when Chamberlin and Levine landed at Eisleben, Germany, after flying 3,905 miles in 42 hours and 45 minutes. The next day the Columbia was flown to Berlin where a crowd of 150,000 people gave them a rousing reception.
Chamberlin was the second trans-Atlantic crossing in two weeks by an American pilot and the first to carry a passenger. The arrival of the Columbia in Germany closely following Lindbergh’s flight to Paris strengthened confidence in American aircraft.
With the Atlantic having been crossed twice within two weeks, interest began to shift to the Paciﬁc. Prizes of $25,000 and $10,000 were offered for the ﬁrst and second ﬂights from the mainland of the United States to Hawaii by James Dole of Honolulu. The Dole Prize drew many entrants, but before any of the contestants got underway, the Army Air Corps achieved the feat first.
The Army ﬂight began June 28 at Oakland, California, and was successfully completed on the morning of June 29, by Lieutenants Lester Maitland and Albert Hegenberger, after being in the air 25 hours and 50 minutes, and covering, in uninterrupted ﬂight, 2,400 miles of open ocean.
The aircraft used was a large Army tri-motored Fokker transport, powered by three Wright J5 Whirlwind engines. This particular Fokker, “Bird of Paradise,” was built as a long-range machine.
This remarkable ﬂight not only set a record in uninterrupted ocean ﬂight, but it demonstrated the value of the radio beacon “beam” for checking a ﬂight course, a development of importance for commercial aviation. The splendid navigation displayed by these two pilots in finding the small island in the mid-Paciﬁc at the end of a 2,400-mile flight won wide admiration.
Also noteworthy to the public was that this was the third successful trans-oceanic achievement in five weeks.
The Atlantic again
On the morning of June 29, while Maitland and Hegenberger were still over the Pacific heading towards Hawaii, Commander Richard Byrd, US Navy, and his crew — Bert Acosta, Bernt Balchen and Flight Engineer George W. Noville — took off from Roosevelt Field in New York, headed for Paris. Byrd had previously won undying fame for his ﬂight from Spitzbergen to the North Pole in 1926.
The aircraft for the Paris flight was a Fokker named “America,” which was similar to the Army plane approaching Hawaii. It also was powered by three Wright Whirlwind engines.
The expedition sought not only to make a “goodwill” ﬂight to France, but also to accumulate meteorological and navigational data to serve in the development of future commercial trans-Atlantic operations. After takeoff there was an endless battle with the elements, beginning with heavy fog over Newfoundland and ending with a ceaseless downpour in the black night over France, which made a safe descent to Paris impossible.
After cruising for hours over France, unable to obtain exact bearings due to the darkness and the terriﬁc storm, Byrd ordered a return to the coast where the plane might be landed within safe reach of the shore.
At 2:30 on the morning of July 1 a glimmer from a lighthouse on the north coast of France guided the crew’s way. The plane was set down in the surf at the end of 42 hours and 6 minutes in the air.
The distance from Roosevelt Field to the coast of France was 3,477 miles, but Byrd estimated the distance actually ﬂown at 4,200 miles. He then predicted there would be commercial trans-Atlantic flights within 10 years. He only missed by two years. In March 1939, Pan American flew the first passengers across the Atlantic.
Detroit to Tokyo
The series of American epochal ﬂights of 1927 came to its apogee with the airplane tour of Edward S. Schlee, a Detroit business man, and his pilot, William Brock, who ﬂew from Detroit to Tokyo. This ﬂight differed from all other long-distance ventures of the air in its purpose and in its execution.
It was planned to demonstrate the practical possibilities of girdling the world in a single-motored airplane without the advance work of preparing landing ﬁelds or storing supplies. Wells and Evans used steamship, train and airplane in establishing their record, which beat the previous world record of 28 days set by Edward Evans and Linton Wells in 1926.
The aircraft used for the flight was the first Stinson Detroiter cabin monoplane built. It had been flown by Eddie Stinson to a first place win in the 1927 Ford Air Tour. Known as the “Pride of Detroit,” it was then modified for long-distance flight, powered by a 200-hp Wright Whirlwind J5 engine.
The ﬂight officially started from Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, Aug. 28, and ended at Tokyo on Sept. 14, a distance of 12,295 miles in 18 days.
Actually, the ﬂight began in Detroit with a trip to New York being made in six hours. After preparing for the trans-Atlantic hop, the two men ﬂew from New York to Newfoundland, where they awaited improvement in the weather over the Atlantic. The ﬂights across the ocean, over Europe and Asia to Japan were accomplished without mishap and created great interest as they flew around the world.
Many of the legs of the trip were made without adequate maps. Brock reported to The New York Times that they were just “aerial hobos.”
From Tokyo, they intended to fly to the Midway Islands some 2,480 miles distant. However, poor weather conditions and pleas from friends and relatives convinced the two flyers to prematurely end their “globe girdling” flight in Japan.
This was a reasonable decision as 10 lives had recently been lost in the Dole competition to fly to Hawaii from California. Brock and Schlee were praised for their flight to Japan and also praised for their decision to halt the flight.
All the aircraft for these epic flights used the relatively new Wright Whirlwind engine. This engine was a nine-cylinder radial air-cooled engine. It developed 220 horsepower and, for its day, was considered to be light and highly reliable.
It was lighter in weight than the previously liquid-cooled engines due to the elimination of cylinder water jackets, radiator and cooling liquid, with its attendant plumbing and pumps. Radials made it feasible to build airplanes with larger payloads and greater range. The weight saving on the Whirlwind meant an increase in fuel capacity on an ordinary plane that enabled it to extend its range by at least 200 miles.
The outstanding performance of the engine was apply demonstrated by the many record flights made during 1927. Such accomplishments resulted in widespread public confidence and interest in aviation.
In recognition of the merits of the Whirlwind engine, in 1928 the Collier Trophy for “the greatest achievement in aviation” was awarded to Charles Lawrance of the Wright Corporation, acknowledged as a pioneer in the development of the air-cooled engine.