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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On July 28, he flew the Cessna to San Francisco, then left San Francisco after midnight the next day, lifting his heavy little airplane into the fog. When he was in clear skies, Wiese checked his course with his sextant, which was something of a gymnastic feat. “I only had a two-axis autopilot,” he remembers, “so when I leaned forward to take a star shot through the windshield, I’d push the column forward and nose the airplane down.” He would take a deep breath, hold the column steady with his knees, and take the shot. Wiese landed in Hawaii in the early afternoon, more than 14 hours after takeoff, farther than he’d ever flown before. He’d kept himself awake by occasionally banging his head against the window.

After Hawaii, Wiese stopped at Kanton Island, then Fiji. At each stop, he noticed something. In Kanton, the men who helped him refuel said they’d never seen anyone come through solo before. At Fiji, he heard the same thing—and had something of a close call. As he tied down his airplane, two Americans approached him, surprised to see another American flying alone. They were a Pan Am crew, working a freight circuit in the South Pacific. Wiese said nothing about being with Pan Am.

The next day, Wiese passed over the southern tip of New Caledonia, then Brisbane, and after 10 hours, he landed at Kingsford-Smith Airport, in Sydney. “It was just about turning dark,” says Wiese, “and I see these lights—spotlights and whatnot—and there was a crowd of people there.”

The comments he’d heard in Kanton and Fiji about flying solo had arrived before him: Some of the journalists at the airport believed Wiese had just completed the first solo flight across the Pacific. Others got it right: He had made the first solo flight from the United States to Australia.

“They took pictures and so on and so forth,” Wiese continues, “and they asked me my name, and I said ‘Richard Merrick.’ They had had a party for me at the hotel, but I was pretty tired so I went to bed early. And the next day, there were all these newspapers shoved under my door, and there was my real name, Richard Wiese!” (The reporters got his name from the import documents.)

Wiese’s cover was completely blown, but as with all the other trans-Pacific first flights, few took notice. His return flight was on a Pan Am airliner, and when he boarded, Wiese was surprised to see the crew: his new Pan Am friends from Fiji. They graciously invited him up to the cockpit, assuming he’d never been in one before. He never let on otherwise.

As Wiese tells his story today, his son, Richard Wiese Jr., sits next to him, listening. Richard Jr. is the host of ABC’s “Born to Explore,” a television show that follows him around the world. Each program ends with a slightly enigmatic dedication to “The Lone Eagle of the Pacific.” That’s his father.

Richard Jr. remarks on his father’s modesty: “This is the first time I’ve heard this complete story,” he says. “I’ve known bits and pieces. It’s not like growing up my father would sit and we’d go, ‘Here’s this story again.’ There was never any bravado about it.”

Pioneer to Pioneer
Wiese and Boling never met, but years later, they shared another experience, albeit separately. While each was on a routine airline trip, a knock came at the cockpit door. It opened, and in walked Charles Lindbergh.

It was an extraordinary opportunity to hear directly from the man who in 1927 had made the very first solo flight across an ocean, to share with him their own pioneering transoceanic experiences, to connect directly to his legacy. So what did Wiese and Boling say about their flights? Each had exactly the same answer. “Nothing.”

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor and writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.

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