May 2, 1927 - The Story of the Pan-American Flight

  • Published
  • By Andy Stephens
  • 11th Wing Historian
On May 2, 1927, the first Distinguished Flying Cross was presented at Bolling Field to the men who had flown the Pan-American Flight from San Antonio to Washington by way of Central and South America and Caribbean (then called the West Indies). They had flown 20,500 miles in 133 days.

The Distinguished Flying Cross is given to a military aviator, regardless of rank, who distinguishes him or herself in actual combat in support of operations by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight. The medal was authorized by an act of Congress on July 2, 1926 and was later awarded to Capt. Charles A. Lindbergh, Army Air Corps Reserve, for his solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1927. Aviator Amelia Earhart also received the Cross as well, one of only two civilian aviators to ever earn the award.

In 1927, aeronautics and engineering science had only gone so far. Pushing the envelope of that technology were three men: Maj. Herbert A. Dargue, Capt. Ira C. Eaker, and Capt. Arthur B. McDaniel. These men were the heart of the Pan-American Flight, a 20,500-mile endeavor where they hand delivered letters of good will from President Calvin Coolidge to the leaders of 23 countries.

During the mid-1920s, anti-American sentiments were common in Central and South American countries. Many South American nations had been exploited by American businesses in their recent history and were wary to the idea of the flight - many countries saw the flight as a scouting or spy mission, instead of a goodwill flight, but acted on good faith.

The airplane of choice for the missions had been the OA-1A airplane and the one flown by Eaker and his co-pilot, Lt. Muir S. Fairchild, received a special recognition: it was the only plane to complete every scheduled stop on the 133-day journey. Other aviators flying on the mission were Capt. Clinton F. Woolsey, Lts. Ennis C. Whitehead, John W. Benton Charles Robinson, Bernard S. Thompson, and Leonard D. Weddington.

Each of the five OA-1As was named after a large American city in an effort to generate public interest and pride in the flight. The trip began on Dec. 21, 1926 and made flew through Mexico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and the Panama Canal Zone. They then flew along the west coast of America, delivering Coolidge's letters to leaders in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. After Valentine's Day, the flight crossed over the Andes and to Argentina.

But as the planes prepared to land in Buenos Aires, cables on the Detroit snapped, making it impossible to lower the landing gear. Benton, the Detroit's flight mechanic, climbed out on the wing to manually pull the gear cables. While he was on the wing, his plane collided with the New York. Both airplanes were locked together and crashed to the ground. Dargue and Whitehead parachuted to safety, but Woolsey and Benton both died in the crash.

The Pan-American flyers returned to the United States flying along the East Coast of South America and through the Caribbean. The San Antonio was unable to finish the mission.

On May 2, 1927, the two remaining OA-1As (the San Francisco and the St. Louis) flew into Bolling Field. The Pan-American Flyers had finished their mission and were welcomed by a crowd of thousands as well as a grateful President and Mrs. Coolidge. The flyers were accompanied on the last leg of their flight by a host of airplanes from Langley Field, including those carrying Assistant Secretary of War Trubee Davison and Maj. Gen. Mason M. Patrick, Chief of the Army Air Corps.

The flight schedule included 56 flying days and 77 delay days for maintenance, diplomatic meetings and ceremonies for a total of 133 days. As actually executed, the journey took 59 flying days and 74 delay days, and was completed exactly on schedule.

"There can be little question that the Pan-American Goodwill Flight accomplished its mission," Eaker later said. "At an estimated cost of $100,000, it aroused the aviation interests of Latin American nationals and heads of state. Many of them had never seen an airplane before."

According to the Air Service Newsletter, the official publication of the Army Air Corps, celebration activities on the flightline included aviation displays in both hangars and aerial demonstrations, featuring a "flying rodeo simulating broncos entering a ring and endeavoring to throw the riders."

The Pan-American flight was awarded the Mackay Trophy for 1927. The National Museum of the USAF at Wright-Patterson has one of the original Pan-American OA-1As, the San Francisco, on display. It is the same one Eaker and Fairchild flew.