The Accidental Record Setter

How a moonlighting ferry pilot landed in the history books, and other trans-Pacific tales.

Richard Wiese revisits mementos of his flying career. In 1959 he set a major distance record, but not many noticed. (Brad Trent)
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Richard Wiese is sitting on the sofa in his son’s living room in Connecticut. His voice is suffused with more than 80 years of a Long Island lifetime. He’s speaking casually, but he is telling an epic story in full detail for the first time: the story of his record-setting flight across the Pacific.

Ask yourself the question: Who was the Lindbergh of the Pacific—the first pilot to fly that ocean solo? Charles Kingsford-Smith flew across in 1928, but he had a three-man crew. In 1935, Amelia Earhart flew alone from Hawaii to San Francisco—not the whole way. Clyde Pangborn did the whole thing in 1931, but with a copilot.

The first truly solo flight across the Pacific Ocean wasn’t made until after World War II, and by then, it got little attention. How could such an accomplishment be overlooked? It just wasn’t a shock, the way Lindbergh’s flight had been. The age of the jet airliner was dawning. In 1959, the year Wiese made the first solo flight from the United States to Australia, Qantas made the first airliner flight—with a 707—from Australia to the United States. Between 1947 and 1959, a handful of pilots made solo flights that crossed the Pacific on the way to various destinations, and each was, in its own way, a first.

Manhasset Bay in Long Island, 1938, site of a hangar for Pan Am’s Clipper flying boats. A year later, a young Wiese watched a Clipper take off from here and thought I’d like to do that some day. (Port Washington Public Library)
A Cessna 310B, the aircraft type Wiese flew. Modified with an additional fuel tank, Wiese’s 310B had a range of 17 hours at “economy cruise,” according to the manufacturer, and 2,800 miles under no-wind conditions. (NASM (SI-2003-4822))
Courtesy of the Smithsonian: A loan of a Beech 35 Bonanza enabled Congressman Peter Mack to fly to 30 countries. (NASM)
For Pan Am, Wiese flew in DC-4s and 707s. A Qantas 707 mirrored his Cessna flight, flying from Australia to the U.S. in 1959. (Courtesy California Aviation Alliance)
In the Piper Super Cruiser The City of Washington, flight instructor Clifford Evans circled the world in 1947. Bad weather required B-17s to escort Evans and his trip partner across the Pacific. (NASM (SI-A-2004-A))
Wiese’s U.S.-to-Australia flight was sometimes mischaracterized as the first solo flight across the Pacific. Peter Mack made that one, seven years earlier. (Courtesy Richard Wiese)
Retired and living on Long Island, Wiese is modest about his historic flight, which earned him $300. (Brad Trent)
Richard Wiese revisits mementos of his flying career. In 1959 he set a major distance record, but not many noticed. (Brad Trent)

The first time an airplane flew across the Pacific Ocean with a crew of one, it wasn’t completely alone. On October 28, 1947, George Truman and Clifford Evans set out from Nemoro, Japan, each in a Piper Super Cruiser, aiming for the shore of Alaska. They had already come a very long way—almost all the way around the world.

In 1946, Evans and Truman were flight instructors at College Park Airport in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. One day, Evans offhandedly commented that a Piper Cub could be flown around the world. The comment sparked a conversation, then a plan. On August 9, 1947, the two took off in their Pipers from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey for the rest of the world. Eleven weeks and two days later, having crossed the Atlantic, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, they stopped on a little peninsula of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. For the Pacific leg of their journey, they chose a northern route, aiming to make a few stops through the Aleutian Islands to get to Alaska.

The two faced terrible weather, so a local U.S. Air Force commander ordered a pair of B-17s from the Third Emergency Rescue Squadron to escort the little Pipers to their first stop: Shemya Island, one of the Near Islands to the west of the Aleutians.

The escorts took turns circling the Pipers when the far slower airplanes were in view. In the dense precipitation, the bombers lost the Pipers several times. Evans and Truman reached Shemya in 13 hours and 35 minutes. Three days later, they made it to Adak, Alaska. Another three days passed before the final leg to the Alaskan mainland—Fort Randall in Cold Bay. The entire crossing took 211-plus hours of flying over six days.

Truman and Evans landed back at Teterboro on December 10, 1947. They made a brief splash in the press, were hosted by President Truman (no relation to George) at the White House, and just as quickly faded from public view. Although neither was ever completely alone on the Pacific crossing, they proved it could be done. (Evans’ airplane, The City of Washington, is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.)

From Japan to California in a Borrowed Bonanza
Congressman Peter Mack of Illinois looked down at me from his portrait on the wall of his widow Romona’s living room in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The painting had his trademarks—impeccable suit with a red bow tie, and behind him, a Beech Bonanza. Beneath the picture sat his daughter Melanie, and next to her sat Romona. Melanie did most of the talking. “I grew up in an airplane, flying between Springfield and Washington,” she said. “When we would leave Washington, I’d be crying, because all my friends were here. When we left Springfield, my sister would cry, because all her friends were there.”

A naval aviator in World War II, Mack was elected to Congress in 1949. In an article he wrote for Collier’s magazine, he recalled a conversation with a constituent, who said, “The trouble is…our top brass just talks to the top brass of other countries. They never get down to the level of the people themselves, so those people in foreign countries don’t understand us.” Then the man asked Mack: “Why not fly to some of these countries and talk to the people?” The idea stuck.

His constituents raised money to support the flight, and Mack threw himself into the planning. He only needed one thing: an airplane. His friend, Smithsonian curator Paul Garber, had a novel solution. The National Air Museum had recently acquired the Beech Bonanza Waikiki Beach, which pilot Bill Odom had used to make a record nonstop flight from Hawaii to Teterboro in 1949. Garber simply offered the airplane to Mack—as long as Mack would pay for the reconditioning of the airplane. His constituents’ donations paid for the work. Mack renamed the ship Friendship Flame—Abraham Lincoln Good Will Tour.

Mack wrote that his mission was “not to set aviation records, but to try to convince the ordinary people of the world that the United States is only interested in peace and friendship with everyone….” On October 7, 1951, Mack took off from Springfield, Illinois.

Making numerous stops, Mack made his way from Portugal to Japan. He had no staff, no security, and no press entourage. He walked alone through the streets, casually starting up conversations and sharing his good will message.

But then he too faced the Pacific. On January 8 he set out from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. After his first stop, at Iwo Jima, he left for Wake Island. He got caught in a storm, and as he tried to stay on course, his artificial horizon failed. For the next 10 1/2 hours, he clung to the “needle, ball, and airspeed” method of instrument flying, his eyes “riveted on two dashboard indicators every instant.” When he calculated that he was 150 miles from the island, he also realized he was 30 minutes past his scheduled arrival time, raising the terrifying possibility that he was lost. “Other planes, alerted to expect me, called over the radio, and I tried in vain to acknowledge their calls,” he wrote. “Then a horrible period of radio silence nearly convinced me that I had passed Wake Island.”

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor who writes from Silver Spring, Maryland. He created education programs for the Wright Experience and Discovery of Flight foundation, and is the co-writer and co-director of the documentary The Lafayette Escadrille.

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