Smith & Bronte Reach Oahu in Safety

First Civilians to Fly Between California and Hawaii

Honolulu Star Bulletin
July 16, 1927

By Edmund Buckley

Kiawenui, a desolate, rocky stretch along the southeast coast of Molokai, aptly taking its name from the deep covering of kiawe trees that bristles on beach and hills, has been added to Hawaii’s famous spots—and the kiawe tree has become a famous species in the minds of Ernest Smith, pilot, and Emory Bronte Jr., navigation.

It was on this lonely stretch, about two miles east of Kamalo landing that Smith, running out of gasoline, in a last desperate effort to bring his silver monoplane City of Oakland to Oahu from the Pacific coast, was forced to land.

And it was the thick, thorn-encrusted limbs of a kiawe that extended Hawaii’s initial welcome to the daring birdmen.

Cheering thousands watched the Travelair monoplane take off from the Oakland airport at 10:40 a.m. Pacific time, Thursday.  Startled mynah birds and a terrified flock of quail constituted the reception committee for Hawaii 24 hours later.

Landing a Miracle

Smith’s landing without injury to himself or his navigator was nothing short of miraculous.  The flier had evidently been heading north along the west coast of the Lonely Island when the last sputter of his powerful engine informed him that at last the end, expected for the past four hours, had arrived.

He turned the plane sharply toward the coast and brought it crashing down on a narrow strip of tree covered beach, between the road and the sea.

Smith explained that if he had landed in the shallow water along the beach the plane would have turned over, probably killing Bronte in the rear cockpit.  A few feet higher and the City of Oakland would have crossed the road to be met by a steep boulder strewn hillside, with certain destruction for its occupants.

The trees were the only alternative.  A terrifying alternative—but the pilot had no time to waste in contemplation of the results.

Crashes in Tree

The Travelair machine crashed into the thicket on top of a kiawe whose trunk measured six inches through.  Fortunately the nose of the plane missed the heavy trunks of the tree.  The branches armed with thorns, clutched the wings and broke the fall of the ship.

The nose struck the ground and ended its long journey just four inches from a steep mound of sunbaked earth about five feet high.  Another four inches of forward momentum and the plane would have stopped a great deal more suddenly and with probably serious consequences for its occupants.

The right wing of the ship was splintered, its shreds hanging on the trees at right angle to the other wing.  The left wing, also badly smashed, remained attached to the plane.

Fuselage Partly Wrecked

The fuselage was not as badly wrecked as would be expected.  One lower longeron (long central beam) was buckled—the fuselage is of metal tubing construction—but the other three appeared to be uninjured.

One blade of the steel propeller was buried four or five inches in the ground apparently unhurt. The other blade pointed skyward, undamaged.

The thorny kiawes had taken care that very little of the silver painted covering on the wings and fuselage was not ripped and torn.

The powerful nine cylinder Wright-Whirlwind motor that had done its part faithfully while the gasoline lasted was not at all injured.

Covered With Branches

When Molokai residents who were near the scene rushed to the fallen plane, the City of Oakland was entirely covered with limbs of the trees she had chosen for her final resting place.

A heavy branch spread across the fuselage just to the rear of the navigator’s seat and a few inches above the top of the cockpits. A few inches higher as she entered the grove and the branch would have torn off the heads of the airway pioneers.

Several minutes work with an ax cutting away the thorns and branches was necessary before the aviators could climb from their seats.  Neither was hurt, though each bore a tiny scratch on the cheek—an unnecessary reminder that they had landed.

An inspection of the plane yesterday left the observer at a loss to explain how it could have landed on that stretch of the coast without being totally destroyed and without death to pilot and navigator.

Few Feet From Tragedy

Due to the great size of the tree trunks—Molokai is noted for its husky kiawes or algarrobas—and the presence of the earth mound directly in front of the nose, a few feet right or left, forward or backward, up or down, would certainly have spelled death or serious injury for the bird men.

I’ve met many kinds of trees,” Smith said, after climbing out of the thorn thicket, “but this is the first time I’ve made the intimate acquaintance of these watchamacallits.  They are thorny and hostile but this old tree surely proved a godsend for us.”

Smith took a branch of the kiawe with him as a souvenir of the end of his trans-Pacific flight.

Smith Crashed to Give Chance

“We took our chances together all the way across the Pacific and so you can bet your life that we were both going to have the same chance of getting out when the planed cracked up,”  Thus did Ernie Smith explain today why he deliberately crashed into a kiawe tree yesterday in landing on the lonely island of Molokai.

“I could have landed in the mud,” Smith said, “but there was a strong possibility that the plane would have turned over, and in that case it would have trapped Bronte. So I thought it was best to smash the ship in the tree where we would both have the same chance of coming through to tell about it.”

Smith was asked if he was disappointed that he hadn’t been able to get away the first time so that he would have had a chance to beat the army fliers in being the first to fly to Hawaii.

“Yes,” he replied, “it was a big disappointment that my first start wasn’t a success, but about these other boys . . . Let me tell you, Maitland and Hegenberger are a couple of mighty fine boys and first-class aviators. I’m glad they made it.”

Trip Well Worth While

“The trip was mighty well worth while in every way,” Smith repeated several times as well wishes crowded about him to shake his hand and slap his back.

After the crowd had given him a chance to catch a breathing spell, Smith told interviewers that they had not had the least sign of motor trouble during the entire trip and that their only worries had been fog and the lack of gasoline.

“I want to say here and now that all the credit for this flight should go to Bronte.  It was he who kept us on our course and plotted out our route.”

Bronte denied the compliment with a smile, but Smith insisted before the assembled hundreds that it was the navigator who “pulled them through”.

“We were exactly 24 hours in the air when we sighted Molokai and realized that our gasoline supply was exhausted.  We picked out what looked like the ‘softest’ spot in the island, made what we think was a successful landing under the circumstances, since neither of us was injured.”

“The gas pump faltered for a while and that is when we sent out that the plane was about 180 miles out of Oakland, at which position the receiving set refused to function properly.

“We were both pretty busy every minute I can tell you,” said Smith.

The pilot said the army radio beacon had worked satisfactory until first call for aid.  We never saw water until 8:30 o’clock this morning.  The first land we saw was the mountain tops on Hawaii. The land looked mighty good, too, for we didn’t know at what moment our gas would give out.

Plane Is a Total Wreck

“It was sort of hard to have the ship wrecked after it had carried us so far, but we will never be able to fly her again.  She is too badly wrecked to rebuild or salvage.  But we’re going to go back to Molokai and salvage the motor if we can.”

Related content

1927 Flight Recalled Article in the Star Bulletin July 14, 1977, recalls the Smith-Bronte flight.
Pilot of ’27 Race Tells of Brush With Tragedy Article by Bob Krauss in the Honolulu Advertiser, May 19, 1982