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August 17th, 2012
Bartee Haile: Demolition Derby in the sky claims ten lives

This Week in Texas History: A column

After spending a week trying to convince the sponsor and contestants to call off a dangerous California-to-Hawaii air race, federal aviation officials threw up their hands on Aug. 21, 1927 and grudgingly gave permission for the daredevils to take off.

On the heels of Charles Lindbergh’s sensational New York-to-Paris solo in May 1927, the whole world went crazy over aviation. Air races became the hottest spectator sport as the super-rich offered fabulous pots to barnstormers, who usually risked their necks for next to nothing.

When pineapple tycoon James Dole put up a $25,000 prize for a dangerous dash to Hawaii, a Dallas millionaire promised the same tempting sum to the first flier to make it in one piece from Big D to Hong Kong. Capt. William P. Erwin, a World War I combat ace credited with nine kills, declared his intention to collect the entire $50,000.

Ten thousand Texans gathered at Love Field on Aug. 6, 1927 for the unveiling of the Spirit of Dallas. Eager to duplicate the international renown enjoyed by the Missouri backers of the Spirit of St. Louis, local business leaders had picked up the tab for the expensive adventure.

As radio listeners across the Lone Star State tuned in for live coverage of the ceremony, Gov. Dan Moody proudly introduced Capt. Erwin as a native Texan overlooking the inconvenient fact that the hero was born in Oklahoma. Erwin had, however, long since erased this “blemish” from his otherwise perfect record by graduating high school in Amarillo.

Three days later in front of another enormous crowd, the Spirit of Dallas took off for the West Coast only to turn around because of a fuel-system malfunction. Repairs were completed in record time, and Erwin was again aloft for the 19-hour red-eye to San Francisco.

Exhausted by the ordeal, the pooped pilot muttered, “I would rather take a trip across the water anytime than make it across the mountains to California from Texas.” But The Spirit at least reached the starting line in tragic contrast to two other aircraft that went down en route. Even before it officially began, the doomed Dole Flight already had cost three lives.

In a vain attempt to talk the sponsor and participants into calling the whole thing off, government watchdogs delayed the race for nine days. Dole and the pilots stood their ground though eventually bowing to the feds’ demand that a trained navigator accompany each contestant. This last-minute compromise bumped Bill Erwin’s pregnant wife from the passenger list of The Spirit.

The Dole derby started at noon on Aug. 23. The first plane cleared the runway, but the second and third crashed on take-off. Half an hour later, the Spirit of Dallas was the sixth and last to wing its way toward Hawaii.

Miss Doran, the Michigan representative named for a popular schoolteacher along for the hazardous ride, soon returned for a fresh set of spark plugs. Moments later the pilot, navigator and petite passenger vanished over the Pacific never to be seen again.

No sooner had Miss Doran reentered the race than the Spirit of Dallas suddenly reappeared with its shredded canvas skin flapping in the wind. Unable to jettison his 400 gallons of gasoline, the cool-headed Erwin slowly circled the field before gently touching down for a perfect landing.

A second airplane also safely withdrew leaving just four crews still in the running. Of the remaining entries, only two ever reached Hawaii.

Bill Erwin and his navigator Alvin Eichwaldt joined the desperate search for the missing planes. Over a newly installed short-wave, the talkative pair kept earthbound associates posted on their progress.

At six o’clock that evening, Erwin reported good-humoredly, “Please tell the gentleman who furnished our lunch that it is fine, but we can’t find the toothpicks.” Two hours later the mood changed dramatically, when The Spirit flew right into the teeth of an unexpected storm.

After an SOS came the alarming message, “We are in a tailspin.” A long pause preceded an encouraging postscript: “We came out of it okay but were sure scared. It sure was a close call.” But the Spirit of Dallas was not out of the woods.

The navigator interrupted a transmission with the ominous announcement, “We are in another tailspin.” Mainland monitors huddled around the short-wave anxiously awaiting word Erwin had somehow pulled out of the dive before plunging into the ocean. But the eerie silence was the bitter obituary for the Spirit of Dallas.

The deaths of Capt. Bill Erwin and navigator Eichwaldt brought to ten the final toll of the disastrous Dole Flight. Much like the space shuttle tragedies six decades later, Americans learned the hard way that new frontiers are never conquered without casualties.

Visit Bartee Haile’s “General Store” at or request list of “Best of This Week in Texas History” collections at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.

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