The Story Of The First Flight To Hawaii Is A Crazy Tale

The crew was still alive when they heard bad news over their radio: “Twenty-one aviators on the Langley concur that the plane has sunk and the search should be discontinued.” This is the story of the first flight to Hawaii.

In the 1920s, while Matson’s SS Malolo cruiseliner docked at Honolulu Harbor, the Wright Brothers (and their nemesis Glenn Curtis) raced to control the skies and Charles Lindbergh was virtually worshipped for showing how possible it is to fly across the Atlantic ocean. But there still existed a dream to other aviators that they, too, could break records if only they could figure out how to fly nonstop, west to Hawaii.

An exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, titled “Hawaii By Air,” looks at the history of how people got to Hawaii — namely tourists, specifically flying — and how tourism changed Hawaii forever.

Since Hawaii is the most isolated landmass in the world, flying there proved to be a challenge. The first group to have enough funding, equipment, and manpower to try it was America’s military (because, of course). So it was on the Navy to figure out how to fly the 2,400 miles from San Francisco to Hawaii over open seas without stopping.

On August 31, 1925, a crew led by Commander John Rodgers, traveled in two Navy seaplanes. Three hundred miles out, one plane went down due to mechanical problems. The other plane, a PN-9 with Rodgers inside, made it much further, but still fell short — they ran out of fuel just 310 miles from Honolulu.

Despite the Navy’s stationing of 200 ships along the route to refuel or rescue the planes as needed, Rodgers’s plane of five men seemed to disappear.

A search ensued. The plane’s radio transmitter barely worked, ironically allowing the crew to only hear search messages, but not send them — they clung to the wreckage in the water, listening hopelessly on as the search was called off.

Food supplies were depleted after three days and water after six; but the sky smiled down upon the crew and sent a rainstorm to save them from dehydration. The industrious crew was able to transform the plane into a makeshift ship. According to the Smithsonian, “The crew had stripped fabric from the lower wing, rigged it between the two wings, and sailed some 400 miles.”

A Navy submarine cruising near Kauai spotted the PN-9. After nine days at sea, the crew was finally saved; a newsreel dated Sept. 14, 1925 (below) shows Rodgers with the PN-9 in flight, and the crew on rowboats (wrecked plane in the background) making landfall. The unharmed men were later given a hero’s welcome in Honolulu.

“Hawaii By Air” is on view at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, Dc through July, 2015.

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