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Pan American Good Will Flight

The Mission
The mission of the Pan American Good Will Flight of 1926-1927 was to take messages of friendship from the United States to the governments and people of Central and South America, promote U.S. commercial aviation and forge aerial navigation routes through the Americas.

The Men
The Air Corps' leadership selected the 10 Pan American flyers from a pool of volunteers. Each man had to be a skilled pilot and an expert mechanic because there were very few airfields or repair facilities along the route. The Pan American aircrews chose as their motto, "No Work, No Ride."

Crew of the New York: Maj. Herbert Dargue, Lt. Ennis Whitehead
Crew of the San Antonio: Capt. Arthur McDaniel, Lt. Charles Robinson
Crew of the San Francisco: Capt. Ira Eaker, Lt. Muir Fairchild
Crew of the Detroit: Capt. Clinton Woolsey, Lt. John Benton
Crew of the St. Louis: Lt. Bernard Thompson, Lt. Leonard Weddington

The Aircraft: Loening OA-1A
The Pan American flyers flew Loening OA-1A amphibians, which had features of both a landplane and seaplane by combining the fuselage and hull into a single structure. To allow the propeller to clear the hull, their specially modified Liberty engines were mounted upside down. The OA-1A had a wood interior structure with an aluminum-covered fuselage and fabric-covered wings. Between 1924 and 1926, the Army ordered 45 OA-1s primarily for use in the Hawaiian and Philippine Islands and regions with numerous lakes and large rivers. The San Francisco was the only aircraft to complete the journey without an interruption from mechanical breakdown.

The Flight
Before the Pan American flight, several Air Corps officers traveled ahead to pre-position 50,000 gallons of aviation fuel and 5,000 gallons of oil along the route. They also coordinated official good will events in each country.

On Dec. 21, 1926, the five Pan American aircraft took off from Kelly Field, Texas, to begin their journey. The Good Will Flight progressed relatively slowly. In each country, the flyers stayed for a few days to attend ceremonies in their honor. Although there were instances where the local populations did not greet them warmly, their reception by officials in each country was usually enthusiastic.
Accident in Buenos Aires
"My sweetheart, if I live through all of this you can consider that your friend is a man of steel -- (we) work like dogs from daylight to dark ..."
- Letter from Pan American flyer Lt. Benton to his wife, Zelma, dated "January I-don't-know?, 1927," two months before he was killed

After a ceremony in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the flyers left for an overnight stay at a flying field in nearby Palomar. As the aircraft prepared for landing, Lt. Benton went out on the wing to lower the landing gear by hand (the Detroit's landing gear had been damaged and could not be hand-cranked down by the pilot). To increase his freedom of movement, Benton chose not to wear a bulky parachute.

As the formation descended to 1,500 feet, the Detroit accidentally drifted into the New York. The aircraft locked together and spun out of control. Maj. Dargue and Lt. Whitehead parachuted to safety. Rather than use his own parachute, Capt. Woolsley chose to stay with the helpless Lt. Benton, and they both perished when the Detroit hit the ground. 

Despite the accident, the Pan American flyers pressed ahead.

Coming Home
"There can be little question that the Pan American Good Will Flight accomplished its mission ... it aroused the aviation interest of Latin American nationals and heads of state. Many of them had never seen an airplane before."
- Capt. Ira C. Eaker, Pan American Flight historian and crew member of the San Francisco

The Pan American Flyers arrived at Bolling Field, Washington, D.C., on May 2, 1927, at the opening of the Pan American Air Commission Conference. President Calvin Coolidge, Cabinet members, diplomats from Central and Latin America, and a cheering crowd greeted them upon their return. For their achievement, President Coolidge awarded each Pan American flyer with citations for the Distinguished Flying Cross, which Congress had only recently created on July 2, 1926. (Three weeks later, while their medals were being struck, Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and the first medal made was presented to him.) The Pan American flyers also received the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious of 1926.

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