Just days after Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic triumph, the Honolulu Star Bulletin announced a new challenge. Hawaii’s “Pineapple King” James Dole was offering cash prizes to the first and second person or crew to fly nonstop from North America to Honolulu.
But before the race even got off the ground, the Army’s Lieutenant Lester J Maitland (pilot) and Lieutenant Albert F Hegenberger (navigator) became the first to reach Hawaii by air flying the ‘Bird of Paradise.’ (So with that glory claimed, the Dole Derby, as it became known, evolved into a one-time race for cash.) (Smithsonian)
Ernest L Smith dreamt of becoming the ‘Lindbergh of the Pacific.’ But after the Army’s Maitland and Hegenberger reached Hawai‘i before him, he settled on becoming the first civilian to do so. Emory Bronte was his navigator.
Smith, born in Reno, Nevada, had moved with his family to San Francisco in time to experience the great earthquake of 1906. Later the Smiths moved to Oakland, where ‘Ernie’ graduated from high school and spent two years at the University of California at Berkeley.
He then went on to dental training, which was interrupted by the US entry into World War I. After serving briefly in the medical corps, Smith transferred to the new US Army Air Service and learned to fly at Rockwell Field in San Diego.
He spent the rest of the war as an instructor at March Field in Riverside, then joined the Army’s aviation reserve while flying for the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest. In 1926 he worked for Pacific Air Transport as a pilot.
Bronte, a native of New York, had gone to sea at age 15 before entering the Navy in World War I. After the war he joined Isthmian Steamship Company, working his way up from third mate to master.
In 1923 he relocated to San Francisco to work for McCormick Steamship Company, after which he became the Pacific Coast representative of the Inland Waterways Corporation.
Along the way he had authored a book on navigation, but government service had also whetted his interest in the law, a field he planned to study after the 1927 flight was over. He had taken flying lessons and had soloed in a Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny’ but had no actual pilot’s license.
“The crowd of 10,000 that had assembled at Bay Farm Island across the bay from San Francisco watched intently on July 14, 1927, as (Smith and Bronte’s) Travel Air 5000 high-winged monoplane dubbed City of Oakland warmed up on the runway at Oakland Airport, preparing for a transpacific flight attempt.” (Grover)
“Smith and navigator Emory Bronte took off from Oakland, California, in a single-engine Travelair on July 14, 1927. Aside from radio earphone problems, their 25-hour trip went well ….” (Smithsonian)
At 3:45 pm they transmitted an “all’s-well” message. The SS Maunaloa received a message from the City Of Oakland at about 6:00 pm, by which time the flyers were about 500 miles out and doing well.
At 3:00 am one of Bronte’s transmissions was picked up by the SS Wilhelmina and the Army transport Kenowis. The signals were quite weak. However, the SS Waniwa later heard from Bronte’s transmitter with a stronger signal.
Now quite close to the Hawaiian Islands and a place to land, the flyers’ spirits soared only to be momentarily dampened by the sounds of their only engine sputtering and coughing.
They were running out of fuel …
Smith switched to another tank and hand-pumped fuel to it. Within seconds, the engine roared back to life. Smith checked his supply and calculated that only about one hour’s fuel remained … but, they had four hours of flying time to the Islands.
Bronte sent SOS messages to all listeners, marking the plane’s latitude and longitude where they expected to ditch.
Methodical Bronte made a close check of the navigational problem about 500 miles from Hawai‘i and learned that Maui, much closer than their O‘ahu destination, could be reached if their fuel wasn’t depleted beforehand.
Smith took measures to conserve what fuel remained by retarding his throttle, showing down to 100 miles per hour. On they flew, straining for a sight of land.
Reaching Molokai’s southern coast, the engine continued to turn. Smith flew on, parallel to the east coast, then they could see the southwestern side of the island to be heavily wooded and uneven.
Smith headed for the softest looking clump of trees he could find, as the engine quit running entirely. (Horvat; Hawaii Aviation)
“Kiawenui, a desolate, rocky stretch along the southeast coast of Molokai, aptly taking its name from the deep covering of kiawe trees that bristles on beach and hills, has been added to Hawaii’s famous spots—and the kiawe tree has become a famous species in the minds of Ernest Smith, pilot, and Emory Bronte Jr., navigation.”
“It was on this lonely stretch, about two miles east of Kamalo landing that Smith, running out of gasoline, in a last desperate effort to bring his silver monoplane City of Oakland to Oahu from the Pacific coast, was forced to land.”
“And it was the thick, thorn-encrusted limbs of a kiawe that extended Hawaii’s initial welcome to the daring birdmen.”
“Cheering thousands watched the Travelair monoplane take off from the Oakland airport at 10:40 a.m. Pacific time, Thursday. Startled mynah birds and a terrified flock of quail constituted the reception committee for Hawaii 24 hours later.” (Buckley, Star Bulletin, July 16, 1927; Hawaii Aviation)
Pilot and navigator were shaken but unhurt except for scratches from the tree thorns. It was 8:47 am, Hawaiian Standard Time, July 15, 1927.
There was no prize money to be collected, the plane was unusable. But the pair was later honored, along with Lindbergh, Maitland and Hegenberger and other famous flyers, by the President of the United States for their feat and contribution to the development of aviation. The airplane was returned to the US and repaired.
Smith became an executive of Trans World Airways. Bronte was given a Navy reserve lieutenant’s commission. Ten years later, he returned with Mrs. Bronte to the Islands aboard Pan America‘s China Clipper.
During World War II, Bronte went through the Navy’s flight training program as a commander. The pioneer flyer went on to command three naval air stations and an island in the Admiralty group off New Guinea. (Horvat; Hawaii Aviation)