A Broken Propeller
Baz Bagby and America’s First Transcontinental Air Race

 2018  Betty Goerke  157 pages


Our research department came across newspapers articles about the first transcontinental air race which was held in 1919.  “Transcontinental” always grabs the staff because Donner Summit is the “host” of so many transcontinental crossings: the first wagons to get to California, the first highway, the first telephone line, the first air route and of course the first railroad.   Feeling left out, the first transcontinental telegraph line left its route, over So. Lake Tahoe and to Placerville, to come up and join the others.

Diving past the headlines to the map of the first transcontinental air race showed that the route traveled over Donner Summit.  Subsequent research showed that the pilots followed the transcontinental railroad from Omaha to San Francisco so that cinched it and led to the May, 2018 Heirloom’s article, “Flyers Cross Continent.”  We thought that was that.

Then regular reader Chuck Oldenburg weighed in with an email about a friend of his who had just written a whole book about the air race, A Broken Propeller.  Serendipity.

There was a broken propeller in Betty Goerke’s home when she grew up.  It had followed the family from house to house.  It was her father’s propeller, from his participation in the air race.  This book is about the air race which was the origin of the propeller.

First we’ve got to cover Mr. Bagby.  He must have been pretty amazing. He was a graduate of MIT, played professional baseball, had been a hobo, and had parachuted into France on D-Day while AWOL. You have to read the book for details – no “spoilers” here.

The first part of the book is a lot of background of the race: air pioneers and a quick history of flight; World War I and air power;  Baz’s war exploits and medals; the state of flying in those days; and then later some information on the war: casualties, cavalry use, size of the air force, disease, etc.

Goerke also puts the race the wider context of society by talking about suffrage, prohibition, race relations and lynching, the fear of Bolshevism, and the 1919 army truck convoy across the country which included Dwight Eisenhower.

General Billy Mitchell came up with the idea of the transcontinental air race as a way to show off the capabilities of the U.S. Army Air Service.  He thought that another war was inevitable and that air power would play a key part.  The race would serve to convince Congress that legislation to form an independent air force should pass.

On October 8, 1919 pilots took off from the two coasts,from Long Island and from San Francisco. The object was the fly across the country and back.  The race was covered by the press nationwide. Flying was still new and apparently captured the public’s attention.  There were crashes, missing planes, lost pilots, and deaths all of which the book details.

Baz Bagby had flown 111 missions in WWI and was co-pilot of the first plane to disappear.  By the time Bagby and his pilot had been reported missing they’d already had a forced landing due to bad weather and the plane was damaged.

Here Goerke provides a vivid description which shows how brave or foolhardy the early pioneers were.

The plane was in trouble and they had to make an emergency landing.  Bagby was in the back seat and could see much better than the pilot, “…the farmer’s field awash in mud. The rocking continued, even stronger, putting the plane and both men in additional peril. Baz crawled out of his cockpit and worked his way back along the fuselage toward the rudder so that his body would act as a counterweight to the nose of the plane.  This desperate maneuver had already caused the deaths of two airmen en route from San Francisco… and that same day would kill another…” I had no idea they did things like that.

The race was actually titled the “Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test.”  Pilots flew across the country and some flew the return also.  There were 21 required stops about 123 miles apart in order to fuel up and check planes.  There was no flying on Sunday.  The different models of planes were all open cockpit.  The race was more difficult than just military flying since pilots landed at different air fields each night and had to take care of obtaining replacement parts and sometimes fixing their own planes. They carried no maps so from time to time pilots got lost.

After describing the rules and regulations of the race Goerke tells the back stories of some of the pilots and the stories of the race.   There was the guy who was captured by the Germans twice and shot in the back once.  He still escaped and went on to be an ace and be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.  During the race one pilot was trapped in his plane.  His co-pilot pulled him out and they continued flying in another plane even though the pilot had broken ribs.  There was the plane stuck in the mud and which had to be pulled out and towed two miles by a locomotive.

Goerke reports on the litany of crashes, deaths, danger, rain, mud, mountains, and mechanical problems.  She uses Bagby’s own logs and letters. It’s amazing that all that survived to tell the story.  She also has clearly done a lot of research and the book is full of old photographs and quotes.

In the race to test reliability only eight of fifty-nine entries finished the round trip.  Seven men died during the race (along with another two on their ways to the race). There were fifty-four wrecks and many mechanical problems but the race did encourage the opening of a transcontinental air route for mail in 1920.  That route, of course, included Donner Summit.

Instead of the good publicity Billy Mitchell was hoping for, the public focused on the accidents and deaths. There was a lot of bad publicity.  Mayor LaGuardia of New York called the race, a “most pathetic display of selfish interests.  The death toll in this race is beyond all expectation.”  The race clearly did not show flying as safe.  Congress did not pass a bill  forming an independent air service.  That would wait a couple of decades.

The book ends with Billy Mitchell pushing to convince the nation of the effectiveness of air power.   That new idea was disparaged at  the time by the establishment but of course he was proved right.  He was also approved right about another war and the danger of the Japanese.