The First Successful Pacific Flight

Air Line Pilot, February 2000, page 22
By Don Kerr

A little more than a year after Charles Lindbergh's dramatic flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris on May 20-21, 1927, four men in a three-engine airplane, Southern Cross, conquered the Pacific.

Between May 31 and June 10, 1928, they flew from Oakland, Calif., to Sydney, Australia, in four legs--from Oakland to Hawaii; Hawaii to Fiji; Fiji to Brisbane, Australia; and Brisbane to Sydney.

The trip was a daring one. Even flying to Hawaii was considered a high risk. Harry Lyon, an American who was the navigator on the flight, recalled years later, "The betting was 11 to 1 against our reaching Honolulu when we took off from Oakland."

Only four flyers had reached Hawaii from the U.S. mainland before this, and many others had died in the attempt. In August 1927, 10 people had died during a contest to fly from California to Hawaii and collect a $25,000 prize for the first to make it.

The transpacific flight received as much news coverage as Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon. When the flight was completed, Frank Kellogg, the U.S. Secretary of State at the time under President Calvin Coolidge, sent a wire to Stanley Bruce, the prime minister of Australia, saying, "The bridging of the Pacific by air, as accomplished in the flight of Southern Cross, I consider one of the greatest achievements of modern times."

The flight was the brainchild of two Australian flyers, Charles Kingsford-Smith and Charles Ulm. Both were veterans of World War I. Kingsford-Smith had been a pilot and shot down six German airplanes before being shot down himself. Ulm, who took up flying after the war, saw ground action and was wounded three times.

The pair had teamed up after the war and achieved several firsts in Australia, including a 10-day, 7,530-mile circumnavigation of that continent.

Kingsford-Smith, 31, was able to persuade a Los Angeles capitalist, G. Allen Hancock, to pay for the airplane and finance the flight. Kingsford-Smith was to be the pilot on the flight and Ulm, 30, the copilot.

After securing the financing, they hired two Americans at $500 per flying day to take care of the navigation and the radio.

Navigator Lyon, 41, had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and had skippered many merchant marine ships, spending several years in the Hawaiian Islands before the war. During the war, he was a lieutenant aboard a cruiser.

Radioman James Warner, 36, had spent 16 years in the Navy in which he had learned about radios. Neither he nor Lyon had ever flown before the trip to Australia.

The blue and silver Southern Cross weighed 14,400 pounds and could carry 1,120 gallons of gasoline. The airplane had a wing spread of 72 feet, was 49 feet 2 inches long, and stood 12 feet 2 inches high. Powered by three Wright Whirlwind engines, producing a total of 675 horsepower, the airplane had a cruising speed of 100 miles an hour, with a high speed of 122 mph.

For communication, the airplane had three transmission sets to send radio signals and two to receive them, and for navigation, six compasses (two Earth, one periodic, two ship, and one magnetic), two sextants (one ship, one bubble), a radio direction finder, and a drift indicator.

As part of the carefully planned mission, Kingsford-Smith had provided emergency equipment. If Southern Cross went down, he planned to dump what gas was left from the wings and use them as rafts. He put aboard urgency distress signals and water and enough food to last a week.

A crowd estimated at l,000-plus turned out to watch the airplane take off on its first leg from Oakland to Hawaii just before 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 31, 1928.

After warming up, the airplane roared down the runway and stopped. Copilot Ulm had accidentally shut off the center engine when his clothing caught in a switch.

Field personnel ran to the airplane and got the engines restarted and ready to go again. Navigator Lyon stuck his head out the window during the proceedings and took a puff from a reporter's cigarette. "It may be my last drag," he joked.

The airplane roared down the runway again and into the air. The crew members were on their way to Hawaii.

Both on-shore and ship radio carefully monitored their flight, and occasional messages indicated all was well at the start.

Then, later in the flight came the ominous message: "Guess we are lost."

Southern Cross lost its radio beacon 300 miles into the flight and was never able to pick up the signal from Oahu's Wheeler Field, where the airplane eventually landed. So, for the next 2,100 miles, navigator Lyon was flying by dead reckoning.

A heavy cloud bank as the airplane drew near Hawaii didn't help any; but then the crew spotted Mt. Mauna Kea, and Lyon, familiar with the area from his years there in the merchant marine, had no trouble finding Wheeler Field. In fact, the airplane landed within 10 minutes of the time he said it would.

The crew had some concern that the fuel was running low, but when it was checked after the airplane landed, 170 gallons remained, enough to fly for 3 more hours.

The flight from Oakland to Hawaii had taken 27 hours 28 minutes.

The next leg, to Fiji, projected as the most perilous, would be 3,138 miles over the ocean. If completed, that leg would be the longest flight ever made across open water.

After resting in Hawaii, the crew set out at 5:20 a.m. on Sunday, June 3, with a full load of gasoline.

After passing the equator, the airplane ran into a strong headwind and severe storms that blew it off course. A message said: "Just gray dawn--in combat with elements--it's rough riding."

The stormy weather continued through the day, and later another distressful message read, "It's a race between us and the clouds to the 10,000 elevation. It's going to be a bad night. The motors doing heavy pulling. Getting dark."

One of the engines began to run rough. A generator failed and the airplane had to use its auxiliary lights. Then, with 2,638 of the 3,138 miles traveled came this ominous message: "May be able to reach Suva (the capital of Fiji) yet doubtful."

In anticipation of the airplane's arrival, a holiday had been proclaimed on Fiji. No airplane had ever landed there before, and now it looked doubtful that any would.

But the weather improved, and when the crew got their bearings (they had been blown 200 miles off course), they were able to bring Southern Cross in for a landing on a cricket field with 30 gallons of gas left. The flight of 3,138 miles had taken them 34 hours 33 minutes.

When the four men tumbled from the airplane, their clothes wrinkled and their faces unshaven, they appeared exhausted and dazed from listening to the droning of three large engines for 34 hours.

Warner was first out of the airplane, and Ulm came next, asking, "Anybody got a smoke?"

The Fiji natives were awed by the airplane, although one was overheard asking, "But what are they doing it for?"

"We never want to go through another such night," Kingsford-Smith said. "After midnight, we could not get any signals, and we ran into a storm. We dropped down to near the sea, but could not rise again and flew very close to the sea for some time.

"We all felt very anxious. The engines were our least worry. They finished in perfect order, and they ran without hitch, except that the starboard engine fluttered once or twice."

Kingsford-Smith had hired the two Americans, Lyon and Warner, to accompany Southern Cross only to Fiji. But now he asked them to continue on to Australia. The two agreed, but wondered whether their passports would be in order. But the U.S. consul, a Mr. Roberts, told them not to worry. "The whole world is yours without a passport," Mr. Roberts said.

The crew left Fiji for Brisbane, Australia, on Thursday, June 7 (they had lost a day crossing the International Date Line on the way to Fiji).

After all of the trouble they had been through, the four flyers expected this last leg, 1,762 miles from Fiji to Brisbane, would be a snap.

But when they landed at Brisbane, 21 hours 18 minutes later (an hour later than expected by the anxious crowd on hand to greet them), they said that, during that leg, they had endured the worst flying conditions of the entire trip.

They had downplayed their problems on the radio because the Australians didn't want to alarm their friends awaiting them.

The storms the crew ran into were ferocious, sometimes tossing the airplane violently in one direction or another. When morning arrived, they found they were 150 miles off course. This was why they were an hour behind schedule.

Although their final destination was to be Sydney, reaching Australia was good enough for Kingsford-Smith and U.S. President Calvin Coolidge.

"This big moment is the fulfillment of my life's greatest ambition," Kingsford-Smith said. "We had a rotten time for several hours last night."

He added, "I desire to pay tribute to the skill, operation, and pluck of my Yankee comrades."

Coolidge sent this wire to Kingsford-Smith: "Hearty congratulations to you and your companions on successful flight Oakland to Australia. Your brilliant and courageous pioneering has advanced the cause of aviation and strengthened bonds between your commonwealth and our country."

Hancock wired Kingsford-Smith that the pilot did not need to pay back the money Hancock had put up to finance the trip and, in addition that he was giving the airplane to Kingsford-Smith.

On Sunday, June 10, the airplane flew along the coast on the final leg to Sydney where escort pilots met the crew, sirens wailing and ships blowing whistles greeted them, and they could look down on the tops of buildings black with people waving their arms.

After the airplane landed, Kingsford-Smith was greeted in an emotional embrace by his parents; the crowd called for the two Americans who were hanging back to allow the Australians to reap the applause they justly deserved.

As Kingsford-Smith pulled the Americans from the airplane, the crowd cheered, and the four conquerors of the Pacific were paraded into the city where local dignitaries met them.

Ulm cadged a cigarette, lit it, and said, "Well, that's that. We could do it again."

But fate would prove Ulm wrong.

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Southern Cross is housed in a glass-walled building at Brisbane Airport in Australia.

Following this flight, Ulm worked on establishing commercial airlines in Australia, sometimes in conjunction with Kingsford-Smith.

In 1934, he decided to retrace his 1928 flight from Oakland to Australia. This time, he left Oakland on Dec. 4, 1934, with a crew of two--copilot George Littlejohn and navigator-radioman J. Leon Skilling--on board the twin-engine Star of Australia.

He was cautioned to take along a raft and life preservers, but he said the airplane had the capacity to float for up to 2 days if he ran into trouble and, besides, "I don't intend to get my feet wet."

At first, messages from the airplane gave assurances that all was well.

Then came bad weather and the terse bulletin: "Have no position. Must be badly lost."

This was followed by the announcement that the airplane was going down into the Pacific. "Come and get us. On the water now. We are using the radio on the surface."

The radio continued to send SOS signals for 45 minutes. And then silence. Despite an exhaustive search over several days, nothing of the airplane or the men on board was ever found.

Kingsford-Smith was to meet a similar fate the following year, in 1935.

After the successful 1928 flight, Kingsford-Smith had continued to set worldwide records--including trips from England to Australia and Australia to England.

In 1934, he had flown from Australia to the United States, reversing the course of his 1928 flight.

He had been knighted "for his service to aviation in the Commonwealth of Australia."

In November 1935, he set out with copilot Tom Pethybridge in an attempt to break the England–Australia speed record. But they ran into monsoon weather over the Bay of Bengal, and the airplane was lost at sea. No one heard any message, and although a thorough search was made, no trace of pilots or airplane was ever found.

As for the two Americans, Lyon and Warner, they returned to the United States by ship after the 1928 flight. Several dignitaries greeted them on their arrival at San Francisco, and they were given a purse of $12,000 that the San Francisco Examiner had raised for them. The Australian government had given Kingsford-Smith $25,000 for his feat, and another Australian citizen had given him an additional $25,000, but neither American would accept any share of that money.

Lyon went back home to Paris Hill, Maine. He died there at the age of 78 on May 31, 1963--35 years to the day that the Southern Cross lifted off from Oakland to Hawaii.

Warner remained in California and died in 1970 at the age of 79.

Southern Cross took 83 hours to go from Oakland to Brisbane. Airliners now routinely make nonstop flights from California to Australia in 15 hours.

Note: Quotations are from the New York Times, June 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, and 11, 1928; Dec. 4, 1934; and June 1, 1963.

Don Kerr has written short stories for several magazines.