Gone Girl

The Short and Tragic Life of America’s First Aviatrix

Before there was Amelia Earhart, there was Mildred Doran: young, sexy, and airplane crazy—but no pilot. That was enough to put her in the crew for a daredevil and disastrous race.

George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty

Lindbergh fever swept the nation 90 years ago. For the first time a man had flown solo across the Atlantic and in the summer of 1927 Lucky Lindy was the most famous man in the world. The tabloids, radio, and newsreels competed to find new heroes to take wing and tempt the fates.

What if that person were a woman? That would really be a story.

Nobody had thought of that until an oil mogul in Michigan caught sight of Mildred Doran. She was a 23-year-old fifth grade teacher in Flint and she was airplane crazy, from the first time she took a free ride from a friend at the local airfield.

Now, with the Atlantic conquered, attention switched to the Pacific. James Dole, patriarch of the family that owned the world’s largest pineapple plantation in Hawaii, saw the opportunity to set up the Pacific as the next big challenge for transoceanic flight. He announced a race from California to Hawaii with a prize of $35,000: $25,000 for the first to make it and $10,000 for the second.

Several compelling forces now came together to amp up the public appetite. As soon as she read about Dole’s race, Doran began a campaign to get Michigan to enter an airplane. After all, the state was one of the nation’s great engineering centers and aviation was the future.

William Malloska agreed. He was president of a prospering company, Lincoln Oil in Flint, and was prepared to bankroll an airplane and a crew recruited from local talent. Moreover, he saw that the newspaper cameras loved Doran: she was a petite beauty with olive skin, hazel eyes and a dimple when she laughed. Why not add her to the crew?

It was also a great opportunity for California. The same virtue that had taken early moviemakers to the West Coast, far better year-round weather for shooting outdoors, had also attracted the pioneers of aviation. Instead of being grounded by weather, sometimes for weeks, test flying was possible on most days of the year.

Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was custom-built for him by a small company based in San Diego’s docks. Other aviation start-ups were incubating in Hollywood, Santa Monica, Oakland and San Francisco. Banks were open to backing a new industry that they were persuaded had only one way to go: up. The Dole race was just the catalyst that was needed to boost the state’s role in aviation.

Within a few weeks the coming event took on the atmosphere of a carnival, with all the excesses of promotion that that implied. This, too, was in keeping with the mood of California, where Hollywood was recruiting stunt pilots (the William Wellman silent epic Wings was being shot using 300 pilots) and flying circuses were thriving.

In such an atmosphere it was easy to underestimate how dangerous the Dole race would be. Hawaii was some 2,400 miles from California. There was no possibility of a route like the one that Lindbergh had plotted across the Atlantic, an arc that kept close to shorelines for the first and final legs of the flight. This one required flying directly across a large stretch of the Pacific with no diversions to land possible and weather conditions that were volatile and not well reported. The challenges to a pilot’s navigation skills were formidable.

Nowhere was that understood better than among the pilots of the Army Air Corps. And as 33 teams applied to enter the Dole race, the Air Corps pre-empted them by launching its own mission to fly from California to Hawaii. The purpose was to test a new navigation technology in which the pilots would follow radio signals transmitted between two beacons, one in the hills above San Francisco and the other on Hawaii.

The Air Corps disdained the priority given to speed in the Dole race. They chose a lumbering Dutch-designed Fokker trimotor for the flight, with a top speed of barely more than 100 mph but with a reputation for reliability over long distances. They named it Bird of Paradise and at 7:15 a.m. on June 28 it took off from Oakland and headed out over the Pacific.

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They were expected to reach Wheeler Field at the center of Oahu around 3 a.m. Hawaiian Standard Time on June 29. Mirroring the excitement generated by Lindbergh’s arrival at Le Bourget, thousands of Hawaiians and hundreds of military personnel turned up at the airfield, many bringing picnic baskets, aware of the historic importance of the flight, not just for aviation but for the future of Hawaii with the promise that its dependency solely on ships for connecting to the mainland would one day be over.

But at the appointed hour there was no sound or sight of Bird of Paradise, nor in the following hours as the dawn approached. The crowds, dejected, slipped away, fearing a catastrophe. In fact, the pilot had hit his first landmark, the Kauai lighthouse, precisely on time but decided to circle offshore for three hours until he had clear visibility for a landing after first light. He landed at 6:29 a.m., having flown 2,407 miles in 25 hours and 50 minutes.

It was a signal feat of airmanship but the experimental mission of the flight had been a total failure. Soon after takeoff the radio failed, making use of the radio directional beams impossible (and confirming Lindbergh’s view that radio, which he had rejected, was as yet far from fit for purpose). The Air Corps navigator had done it the old-fashioned way, using celestial navigation, making sextant observations through a small port in the top of the Fokker’s fuselage.

This should have sent a sobering message to the Dole contenders, who had been winnowed down to 14. Navigating across the Pacific required a high level of experience and competence.

But by the time the race began, on August 16, 1927, it already had the elements of a dark fiasco. The number of entrants able to reach Oakland had fallen to eight. Three flyers were killed before they even reached the airfield, two Navy lieutenants who flew into a cliff after getting lost in heavy fog and another pilot who leapt to his death from a height of 100 feet when he lost control of his airplane on takeoff from Montebello, California.

No doubt a morbid expectation of more tragedies to come encouraged a crowd of around 100,000 to turn up. A wide and very long dirt runway had been prepared—at 7,000 feet it was as long as today’s main runway at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. This length was needed because all the entrants would be heavy with fuel—far more than they would normally carry—and they needed a long run to reach takeoff speed.

All the airplanes were modified versions of existing single-engine designs except for one, an innovative prototype that had been constructed in a Hollywood garage for a small company making its debut. That company combined two names that would become iconic in American aviation, Lockheed and Northrop.

Lockheed was the new public name for the brothers Allan and Malcolm Loughead who had been dabbling in the aviation business since 1913. Jack Northrop was a true visionary with radical ideas about how airplanes should be built, and the Lockheed prototype he produced for the race, the Vega, painted gold all over, was one of the sexiest looking machines in the air—so sexy that when it was spotted on a trial flight over San Francisco by George Hearst, son of the press baron William Randolph Hearst, he bought it and it was he who entered it in the race, christening it Golden Eagle.

The Vega was the most aerodynamically advanced machine on view. Instead of a boxy fuselage it was streamlined like a bullet with its engine buried in a sharp nose. The pilot sat in an enclosed cockpit with a raked windshield high under the single wing. The fuselage had been built in two length-wise halves of plywood molded in concrete forms—each continuous shell looking a bit like a canoe. Unlike every other machine in the race the Vega had wings with no supporting struts.

Not only did the smooth shape make for speed—the Vega’s top speed was high for the time, 138 mph—but the structure combined strength and lightness in such a way that from that moment onward no airplane designer could afford to ignore Northrop’s ideas.

However, it was not the Vega that most of the spectators were drawn to. The publicity barrage generated by Malloska for Doran had culminated in his naming her as the third member of the crew and naming his entry, a bulky sesquiplane (a design with one main wing and a stunted second wing beneath) named a Buhl Air Sedan, Miss Doran. She had taken a few flights as a student but brought no skills of use during the flight.

The whole set-up was hasty and dubious. The pilot, John Pedlar, had been more renowned as a wing walker in a flying circus rather than as an aviator and it seems that he faked a document certifying that he had flown for more than 200 hours, the minimum needed to qualify for the race. The navigator, Navy Lt. Vilas Knope, was recruited at the last minute to replace one who was abjectly incompetent. He was more experienced but neither he nor Pedlar carried out anything resembling due diligence in preparing the airplane.

But the crowds and the reporters loved Doran on sight. She was, indeed, fetching in her chosen costume of jodhpurs, a military tunic with the Lincoln Oil decal on one sleeve, Sam Browne belt and a leather flying helmet—looking every bit as glamorous as the ingénues recruited by Hollywood for bit parts in silent movies.

The pilots had drawn lots for the order in which they would takeoff. The first three all crashed, though with no loss of life.

The next at the starting line was the Vega. Lockheed had provided a skilled ground crew to prepare the airplane and an equally experienced flight crew, John Frost as the pilot and Gordon Scott the navigator. After a long takeoff run it lifted off smoothly and headed out toward the Pacific, followed by an airplane hired by a newsreel company that caught the flying bullet glinting in the sun as it reached its cruising speed—a flickering elegy to a promising new age.

Next to go was Miss Doran. It, too, lifted off but there was something wrong in the sound of the engine that was sputtering badly. After 10 minutes Pedlar turned back and landed. The problem was dirty spark plugs and while new plugs were fitted Mildred Doran stood by the airplane looking a lot less sure of herself.

Pedlar suggested that it might be better if she stayed on the ground, but she did not agree, telling a reporter, “A woman should fly just as easily as a man. Women certainly have the courage and tenacity required for long flights” then, after a pause, she added, more in keeping with her mood, “Life is nothing but a chance.” This time the engine sounded fine and, like the Vega, Miss Doran was briefly tailed by a newsreel camera as it cruised off toward Hawaii.

The next machine to leave soon turned back with engine trouble but the final two, one a bright yellow monoplane named Aloha and another monoplane named Woolaroc left without incident. As it turned out, they were the only two to reach Hawaii. Woolaroc was the first, winning $25,000, taking 26 hours and 17 minutes, and Aloha second, winning $10,000 and taking 28 hours and 16 minutes.

But the celebrations in Hawaii for the winners were greatly overshadowed in the news by the disappearance of both the Vega and Miss Doran. This tragedy was multiplied when one of the airplanes that had originally turned back later took off to join a massive sea search and it, too, vanished with its crew of two, after sending a radio distress call.

More than 40 ships and three submarines joined the search for the seven missing aviators, the first of any scale for airplanes over water. A newspaper ran a front page graphic strip briefly portraying Doran’s life, including the fact that she had paid for college by working as a telephonist. Malloska offered a reward of $10,000 to anyone finding any trace of Miss Doran but the gesture was futile. There were some reports that the Vega had made it to Hawaii only to crash into the massive Mauna Lao volcano, but subsequent efforts to find evidence of a wreck there were unsuccessful.

Once the searchers gave up, flags were flown at half mast in Doran’s hometown of Flint and factories shut down for prayers. A memorial service was held for her at San Francisco’s Pier 30.

If nothing else, Mildred Doran had instigated one big idea that the promoters of aviation appreciated: the daring aviatrix.

In 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland. And she did it in a later and hotter version of the Lockheed Vega. For Lockheed the disaster of the Dole race was not the setback they feared. Hundreds of various models of the Vega were sold.

But if the form of the Vega intimated the future, 90 years ago the technical challenges of surviving long distance flights over the ocean remained unsolved, particularly reliable radio equipment. As Earhart herself would later find to her cost while flying the Pacific in another Lockheed, navigation over water was the heart of the problem. Pilots could still lose any sense of where they were—and if, like young Mildred Doran, they went to a watery grave nobody else would know where they were, either.