Charles Stoffer

Charles Stoffer came to Hawaii at the invitation of Ben Stoddard who wrote to his ex-flying instructor in Woodland, California, informing Stoffer that Charles Fern left their flight business to take up another position in Kauai. He asked Stoffer to bring his seaplane to the islands to fly for the company.

Stoddard felt it would be very profitable in Hilo where the military had installed, but rarely used, a fine seaplane ramp equipped with tow gear. Stoffer arrived in December and the aircraft was freighted to Hilo the following month. There, Stoffer began barnstorming. On August 13, 1921, Stoffer made the first flight of a proposed commercial service between the islands of Hawaii and Oahu. It took him one hour and 35 minutes to arrive at Lahaina, Maui. Reaching next the island of Molokai, the winds were so strong that he and his remaining passenger (one got off at Maui) were forced to remain there overnight The plane took off the following morning.

Charles Stoffer Picture“Hilo operating was conducted with a Curtiss N9 seaplane, which was originally a Navy primary trainer equipped with a Curtiss OXX6 engine. We removed the 100 HP (OXX6) and installed a Hispara Suiza rated at 220 HP. It was a reduction gear job which powered the SPAD 13 in WWI.

The forward Deperdussin type controls were moved in order to ‘jam’ two passengers in the forward cockpit.”

“It was very difficult to swing the geared propeller fast enough to start the engine as the rounded pontoon was the only footing. Self-starters had not yet been introduced. On one passenger flight, the engine stopped after a landing off Hilo Bay.”

“I dropped the sea anchor, stripped to my shorts and swim around and climbed on the flat tip to swing the ‘prop.’ When the motor started, I hopped overboard and the pilotless plane, with its frantic passengers, commenced taxiing in circles at a fairly rapid rate, pivoted by the anchor. I was submerged several times, trying to grasp a strut, before I was able to climb on board and take control.”

“To improve starting, a line was run from a pressure Presto tank, which allowed dry gas to enter the carburetor while the pilot churned on a hand magneto to ignite a starting charge.”

“Starting troubles were not so bad in California because we operated from sand beaches. The plane was quite performable and had made a 120-mile flight over the Sierras to Lake Tahoe which was considered a record flight over land by a seaplane and was recorded as such in the NAA year book.”

“Mr. Stoddard failed to meet his commitment and a Ralph King (non-flyer) purchased half interest and we decided to fly to Honolulu and convert the plane to a land plane.”

“The N9’s wind and landing gear fitting were interchangeable with the JN4’s and we planned to replace the 220 Hisso with a 150 HP direct drive job We installed an automobile gas tank on the center section to augment our 20 gal. fuel tank in order to reach Honolulu.”

“The August 13, 1921 flight carried Ed Searle of Hilo (brother of Pump, Honolulu Stadium director) and Van Dyke Johns, a noted Stanford tennis player who temporarily resided in Hilo. When the plane was launched, a strong side-wind caused it to drift onto a lava ledge but I didn’t think that hull damage occurred and took off. The flight progressed to approximately midway between Hawaii and Maui when the auxiliary fuel tank ran dry and when I attempted to turn on the main supply the bronze handle on the main line sheared and we commenced a glide from 5,000 feet, while Ed Searle, who luckily had a pair of pliers in his pocket, climbed out of the cockpit and opened a small inspection door adjacent to the valve and attempted to twist the small remaining portion of the valve handle. At about 75 feet above the waves, he had it opened enough so that I could power-glide and at approx. 25 ft it was open sufficiently to ascend again.”

“We alighted at Kewalo Basin (approximately where Magic Island is located and taxied to an area approximately 4 feet deep and anchored. We went to a nearby restaurant for coffee when a youngster came rushing in to report that the plane was sinking. There was plenty of help available to move it to safety before the vital parts were submerged.”

“Examination revealed several large holes in the pontoon, which had occurred following the Hilo launching. It wasn’t pleasant to reflect what would have transpired if it were not for Ed Searles’ presence of mind and his ability to twist the small remaining fuel value shank into an ‘On’ position.”

“The seaplane was converted as planned and operated from both Kapiolani Park and later the Territorial Fair Grounds. Several flights were made to Kahului, Maui, and also to Molokai. Schedules were usually set up to coincide with paydays at the plantations.

Stoffer became well known in Hawaii. Using what affectionately got to be known as “Charley’s Crate,” he flew to such an extent that he can be credited with encouraging air-mindedness in Hawaii, along with the military efforts of Army and Navy units. He laid the foundation for civilian flying in the Islands with eight years of aerial demonstrations (he left for two periods totaling 18 months for Los Angeles where he flew in motion pictures). Anything that could be done in Hawaiian skies, Stoffer did.

Starting the first flying school in Hawaii (1921), many residents made their first flight with the aviator. When the Territory established new rules for civilian pilots (only citizens, those honorably discharged from the Army or Navy air services, the Signal Corps, the Reserve Corps, or those who held unrevoked pilot’s licenses from other states), Governor Farrington issued the first to Stoffer.

His airborne passengers included all age groups, from children to a man of 80; movie stars, royalty, businessmen, people from various walks of life. All were pleased with the experience and sensation of flying with Stoffer at the controls.

Charles Stoffer Picture(2)Continuing interisland commercial flying, Stoffer showed an airplane to spectators at the famed Maui County Fair, in October of 1923, and stayed on to give passen-ger hops at a rate charged according to length of time in the air. En route, he delivered the Sunday morning Advertiser to Molokai, then landed at Camp One near Spreckelsville, Maui, in 95 minutes where Mauians, too, were given “the novel sensation of reading Sunday’s paper on the morning of issue. (The supply lasted only 20 minutes.)

It was a significant accomplishment for islands residing so far from the center of industry and commerce, another island also bounded by ocean waters. The achievement excited the people, and for newspapermen hinted of an expanded customer area. One reader summed up Maui’s reactions with a prophesy, “I bet anything that within a year we will have mail twice a day from Honolulu. We will read the Honolulu dailies a couple of hours after they are printed, morning and evening.”

The project was pursued by the Honolulu chapter of the NAA. Mail, as with newspapers and other cargo, ordinarily took at least six hours in transit by ship, an easy mark to beat by airplane. NAA considered utilizing a more modern plane than that flown by Stoffer, the Loening Air Yacht amphibian such as was received recently by the Army at Luke Field, with a 400 hp Liberty engine and capable of speeds up to 120 mph.

Stoffer continued to go to Molokai and Maui via the air route. On occasion the Navy helped by covering the watery course with an emergency ship, the USS TANAGER, and a plane. The accommodating naval officer was a soon-to-be famous over-water spanner involving Hawaii, Commander John Rodgers. Stoffer flew to Molokai to make an aerial survey for a proposed harbor and dock site contemplated by a concern which had large pineapple interests on that island, another service of commercial interest.

Intraisland flying, however, occupied most of the enterprising pilot’s time. He set an altitude record for civilians by climbing to 12,600 feet in Honolulu, after loading up with 25 gallons of gasoline. Then he pursued a variety of missions with his airplane.

Incoming ships, including the CALIFORNIA, FRANCONIA, MATSONIA, HALEAKALA, EMPRESS OF FRANCE, with their hundreds of people on board – including dignitaries and luminaries – were greeted by “Charley’s Crate.” The plane would circle the great ships, swoop and soar in an aloha display, to the pleasure of travelers craning their necks and following the biplane maneuvering all about them. The darling pilot thrilled the people on occasion by dropping newspapers on the deck, sometimes one-by-one. (One hundred ADVERTISERS were dropped on the CALIFORNIA, with less than 10 missing the ship.) He dropped lei from the aircraft, as well.
For the opening of the Oahu baseball league season, Stoffer delivered Miss Ada Wilson to Atkinson Park where the young woman handed Mayor Wilson a Wilson baseball.

The aviator joined in an island-wide search for kidnapped 10-year-old Gill Jamieson, swooping over foothills and valleys for sight of the lad. Bootleggers and their stills became targets for searching authorities in Stoffer’s aircraft, prohibition officers armed with a rifle and binoculars scanning Oahu’s inner corners for the illicit operations.

Handbills were dropped by him from the air. One day his coat was lost in the process of releasing printed American Legion Carnival announcements over Honolulu (it was found and returned).

One day Stoffer took into the air with him a local resident, Charles N. Marques, suddenly dropped 7,000 feet in altitude with the hope that this would cure him of deafness. The procedure had been followed in the mainland “with some success,” but for Hawaii this was the first attempt. The deafness was not cured.

Salesmen on route taking orders from plantations were flown by Stoffer, from one side of the island to the other.

Entering next the “Wing-walking’ stunting field, so infamous in American in the 1920s, Stoffer took into the air noted American acrobat F. E. “Daredevil” Martish under sponsorship of the von Hamm-Young Company. Martish performed headstands in the air, hanging by one hand, among other hair–raising feats.

Always available for emergency flights, in January of 1923 Stoffer’s plane became the communications link between Waimanalo and Honolulu when storms made roads impassible to use on the windward side of Oahu. Hired by the Waimanalo Sugar Company, Stoffer made three round trip ferry flights with company dignitaries and business proceeded as usual—if not quicker. H.S. Gray and Company also partook of this service. Businessmen saw first hand the possibilities of aviation for business purposes, as well as emergencies and pleasure.

In 1924, Stoffer went to California to crash airplanes for motion picture productions. But he returned to the lovely islands of Hawaii. While he was gone, aviation had grown locally. Other civilian flyers took his number one position by fine achievements of their own. Relegated to transportation flying in a modernizing community, Stoffer went to the United States to participate in air mail flying and the risks of stunt flying for the movies.
In association with eight others, the first flying squadron for Hollywood motion pictures was formed, called “THE BUZZARDS.” Within too short a time, only the Chief Buzzard, Dick Grace, and Stoffer were still alive. The latter returned once more to Hawaii but only for a short time. On the mainland, Stoffer flew the mail route and helped pioneer airlines in a flying capacity. Most notable was his position as Chief Pilot for Eastern Air Express.

Stoffer remained active in aviation. In response to the brewing world situation, prior to the start of World War II, he returned to military flying with the Army Air Corps. He retired as a colonel, now residing in California. Those who followed in Hawaii owe their footing to this flyer, a legend in his time—a real Mokulele bird-man!

Excerpted from the book Above the Pacific by Lieutenant Colonel William Joseph Horvat, 1966.