Race to Hawaii

RACE TO HAWAII: The 1927 Dole Air Derby and the Thrilling First Flights That Opened the Pacific. By Jason Ryan. Chicago Review Press. 320 pages. $26.99.

In his new book “Race to Hawaii,” Charleston author Jason Ryan has delivered a heart-stopping narrative of the 1927 Dole Air Derby, the first-ever aviation race from California to Oahu, which opened the Pacific for air travel.

Ryan’s first book, “Jackpot,” was one of the most popular local stories in the last decade, focusing on the so-called “Gentlemen Smugglers,” who ran a billion-dollar drug-smuggling ring through the Lowcountry in the 1980s.

The Spartanburg native followed that with “Hell-Bent,” the true story of prosecutor Charles Marsland who, after the murder of his son, led a one-man quest to take down the Hawaiian mob.

Now with his third book, Ryan has dug deeper into American history, and we should all be thankful, for he has uncovered a gem of a story.

American aviators throughout the 1920s were on a mission to conquer the skies and set new records, spurred on by pioneers like Jimmy Doolittle, the first to fly cross-country in less than a day, and Charles Lindbergh, the first solo pilot to tackle the Atlantic nonstop.

Amid all the exciting news, pineapple magnate James Dole entered the fray, offering a $25,000 prize for the first aviator to fly nonstop from California to Hawaii.

That promise set off a cannonball run of airmen, each out to win the cash and the glory. This hodgepodge of aviators, who ranged from military pilots to barnstormers and even a female school teacher, make up the eccentric cast of this gripping story.

Unlike Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, which tracked north over Canada and Newfoundland, the flight from Oakland to Oahu was 2,400 miles across open ocean.

Not only were there no islands to land on in the event of trouble, but these early aviators were armed only with sextants and compasses, relying on rudimentary star shots in their aim for a volcanic speck of dirt in the middle of a 65 million-square-mile ocean.

To tell this terrific story, Ryan mined hundreds of newspaper clippings and military records, and he sifted through archives at the Smithsonian Institute, National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Naval Academy and others.

He even tracked down the last surviving plane from the race, the Woolaroc, which he found suspended from cables in a museum in rural Bartlesville, Okla. The curator went so far as to elevate him on a lift so he could peer into the cramped cockpit and run his hands over the delicate fabric of the plane’s wings.

Ryan’s exhaustive research shows in the wonderful mix of dialogue and characters who come alive and make this a historical page-turner.

One of the best characters was Mildred Doran, a sassy Michigan schoolteacher in her early 20s who wore a leather flying helmet and gave most of America a crush.

“What are your last words to the world, in case you don’t come back?” a reporter asked her shortly before takeoff.

“Why,” she confidently replied, “I am coming back.”

Ryan likewise dives into the fascinating background of James Dole, showing how this Harvard-educated entrepreneur who landed in Hawaii with just $1,500 managed to turn an otherwise obscure fruit in its day into a pineapple empire.

Beyond the characters are the stories of the flights. While much of the book centers on the actual Dole Air Derby, Ryan does delve into earlier failed efforts to make the voyage, including the incredible flight led by Navy Commander John Rodgers, who was forced to put down in shark-infested waters 400 miles from Oahu.

For 10 days, while the world mourned the loss of the airmen, Rodgers and his men stripped the fabric from the plane’s wings and turned their ill-fated aircraft into a sailboat, ultimately making landfall on Kauai.

Ryan’s thrilling book is an absolute joy to read, capturing the excitement, wonder and tragedy of this pioneering age of aviation.

It particularly shines given today’s toxic era of political infighting, throwing open a window into our nation’s past when Americans set audacious, seemingly impossible goals and were cheered on by the millions.

Nearly a century later, readers will find themselves rooting for these characters, everyday Americans who set out to conquer the world’s largest ocean.

This is one of those rare books, like Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” and Daniel James Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat.” Do yourself a favor and read it. You won’t be disappointed.

Reviewer James Scott is the author of “Target Tokyo,” “The War Below” and “The Attack on the Liberty.” He lives in Mount Pleasant.