Lieutenant Lester J Maitland (pilot) and Lieutenant Albert F Hegenberger (navigator) were selected to fulfill the Army’s dreams to successfully cross the Pacific Ocean to Hawai‘i.
Since 1919, Hegenberger tested every known navigation instrument and method, including regular “blind” flying tests and engineering of the equipment’s development. He completed a course of instruction in navigation at the Navy’s school at Pensacola in February, 1920.
Lieutenant Hegenberger was given responsibility to prepare the plane, including installation of special equipment, final arrangements of fuel system, engines, pumps and airborne facilities, among other requirements.
Because the navigator had to function as radio operator and pilot as well, a special passageway was provided between the front cockpit and the navigator’s cabin in the rear, necessitating the removal of one fuel tank.
Maitland and Hegenberger denied any interest in racing, prizes or “first” distinction. They felt the interest to link up Hawai‘i and the mainland by air was purely for the advancement of aviation, stating this flight would be a test of the navigation equipment Hegenberger and his Army unit had been developing for years.
Another stated objective of the long-range flight was to test the performance of the new radio beacon installed by the Army Signal Corps on the island of Maui and reaching to San Francisco.
Finally, it was felt that valuable data could be obtained for use in the establishment of regular commercial airline service over the route. Encouraging commercial aviation by the use of airways was the job of the military, they said; this flight fell in the Army’s peacetime mission.
Shortly after 7 am on June 28, 1927, the Army pair shook hands with their crews and climbed into positions in the airplane. Left behind were their parachutes, mandatory in the Army since 1922; they would be of little use in open seas.
At the 4,600-foot mark, and a speed of 93 mph, the huge plane lifted off the ground. At the 2,000 foot altitude, Maitland and Hegenberger passed over the Golden Gate then headed on the first course of the Great Circle to Maui, where the radio beacon was to tie in with the station in San Francisco.
For the first 500-miles they encountered strong crosswinds and after that a very strong tailwind which increased their airspeed to 108-mph. They flew close to the sea during daylight hours at an altitude of 300 feet.
They flew without incident until about half-way, at this point relaxing sufficiently to discover hunger pangs. Searching for food that was supposed to have been stowed aboard for them, none could be found by either flyer.
At 3:20 am, they saw the lighthouse on Kauai five degrees to the left of the plane’s nose. When they reached the shoreline, the island’s contour became familiar – one they knew well from past inter-island flights.
Oʻahu was 75-miles from Kauai; daybreak would not occur for about another hour. Maitland and Hegenberger chose not to jeopardize a successful completion to their flight by approaching mountainous Oʻahu in heavy clouds, rain and total darkness. They decided to circle Kauai until daybreak, slowing down to 65-mph.
Crossing the channel to Oʻahu at 750-feet, just below an unbroken cloud layer, their speed was boosted to 115-mph and soon they found themselves 500-feet over Schofield Barracks. Below them at Wheeler Field were thousands of people.
Maitland circled the field once for the anxious spectators then came to a landing at 6:29 am, June 29, 1927, 2,425-miles having been flown from California to Kauai in 23 hours. It was a total of 25-hours and 49-minutes when the three-engine plane touched down at Wheeler.
The flight was an unprecedented success.
The feat was hailed by the War Department and the press. The Honorable F Trubee Davison, Assistant Secretary of War, stated, “a new vista of communication between America and its overseas positions” had been opened by the Army, underscoring the progress made in aerial navigation. He went on, “The flight is unquestioningly one of the greatest of aerial accomplishments ever made.”
Davison was “particularly pleased that two Army Air Corps officers, operating an Army plane built for no other purpose than Regular Army use, were the first to negotiate the flight to Hawai‘i.” (Lots of info and images here from hawaii-gov.)
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