Wings of Desire

In 1927, two pilots with high hopes of breaking a record set off to fly around the world in the ‘Pride of Detroit.’ They didn’t meet their goal, but their adventurous spirit still made Detroiters proud
Illustration by Arthur Giron

In aviation circles, 1927 is remembered as the “summer of eagles,” though the Pride of Detroit could be more aptly described as a giant yellow canary, the brightly colored monoplane that darted across headlines for several weeks as its pilots attempted to set a record for flying around the world. Some thought Ed Schlee and Billy Brock were nuts — or worse, sane but suicidal. But Schlee and Brock were as dauntless a pair of adventurers ever to do Detroit proud. They were determined to see their dream through, or, as so many other aviators had done, die trying. Friends and family were equally determined to keep them alive.

The story of the Schlee-Brock world flight really begins with the exploits of an infinitely more famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh, a native Detroiter brought up in Minnesota. In 1927, on May 20 and 21, Lindbergh flew the  Spirit of St. Louis  from New York to Paris. Young, tall, handsome, and modest, Lindbergh was tailor-made for the role of the modern world’s first great international hero. His feat — the first direct flight between the two great cities and the first solo ocean crossing — touched off an unprecedented wave of public celebration and mindless idolatry and inspired a slew of copycat flights. It seems almost incredible that something as dangerous and expensive as transoceanic flying could become a fad, but it did. Some were flights straight into oblivion.

Edward F. Schlee was a balding 39-year-old risk-taker who owned about 100 gas stations around Detroit. He had made his fortune by “picking the right corners.” He also was an amateur pilot who used the golf course as an airfield when he visited Mackinac Island — a sign of how far aviation still had to go to be mainstream.

To help sell the public on the idea of traveling by air, Henry Ford — who in the 1920s had opened the world’s most modern airport on Oakwood in Dearborn — created the Ford Reliability Tour. The annual event showcased aviation’s commercial possibilities as contenders flew thousands of miles between cities. Schlee operated a small air-taxi service of Stinson biplanes, manufactured locally. His chief pilot was William S. Brock, a chubby, jovial Ohio native who had some 4,500 hours of flying experience.

“My dad was on Mackinac Island when he heard the news about Lindbergh,” remembers Ted Schlee, now 83 and living in northern Michigan. “He basically said, ‘Well, if he’s going to fly the ocean, I’m going to fly around the world.’ ” Brock, 31, was always open to new flying challenges. He had flown a pet collie to Mrs. Calvin (Grace) Coolidge at the summer White House in the Black Hills of South Dakota and rushed a medical team to Bath, Mich., after a schoolhouse explosion had killed and injured scores of children.

Schlee and Brock devised a plan to break the existing record for circumnavigating the globe, which was 28 days, 14 hours, and 30 minutes. While Brock worked on navigational charts, Schlee arranged for fuel and supplies to be stored at 20 stops along the way. Their mode of transportation was to be a single-engine Stinson monoplane that had already been put through its paces in the Ford air tour. Originally called the Miss Wayco, it was re-christened the Pride of Detroit. The fuselage was “doped” fabric stretched over a frame. Inside, every possible inch of space was given over to storing several hundred gallons of fuel and oil. The instrumentation was primeval. There was no radio. “You look at that plane today,” Ted Schlee says, “and you wouldn’t go to Flint in it, much less around the world.”

The fliers left Detroit on Aug. 23, bound for Harbor Grace, Newfoundland, the jumping-off point for crossing the Atlantic. “Our flight is not a stunt,” Schlee insisted. “Our main purpose is to demonstrate, dramatically perhaps, but definitely, how practical and serviceable travel by air is today.”

Early on the morning of Aug. 26, the Pride of Detroit rolled down the gravel runway at Harbor Grace. It climbed steadily until it was at 1,500 feet, flying into the rising sun. Gulping coffee and munching on bananas and sandwiches, the men guided the plane through rain, fog, and mist for much of the next 20 hours. After almost a full day in the air, they dropped through the overcast and found themselves over a coastline. But where? England? France? Ireland?

After trying in vain to locate an identifiable landmark, they circled a lighthouse. Brock wrote a note on a piece of cardboard asking someone on the ground to spell out the location’s name in the sand, attached it to a rag, and threw it out the window. It fluttered away, unnoticed. He tried again, bundling a new message in some cloth and weighing it down with an orange. This time several men came out and chalked some letters on the street, but the fliers couldn’t read them. Finally, somebody thought to run the Union Jack up the flagpole. Brock and Schlee got their bearings and adjusted course for Croydon Airfield in London.

Landing safely in England was a feat in itself for the would-be world fliers. Today, transoceanic flights are as common and safe as a stroll to the corner store, but at the time the Pride of Detroit was one of only a handful of planes to safely cross the Atlantic. However, this was just the first leg of their dangerously ambitious itinerary.

Brock was confident, saying, “With every break of luck, and allowing four or five hours’ sleep a night with no time out for accidents, engine trouble, or other unforeseen contingency, we might make it under 18 days.”

The following day it was on to Munich. Die Amerikanischen flieger were photographed clinking mugs of beer with the mayor, an image that caused a mixture of outrage and jealousy back in the States, where Prohibition was the law of the land.

The next morning, they set out for Belgrade, Yugoslavia, intending to refuel bodies and plane before quickly heading to Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey. However, bad weather and red tape kept them grounded for the better part of two days. “Flying over the Atlantic is a cinch compared with crossing Turkey,” Brock grumbled before the Pride of Detroit was finally allowed to depart Constantinople for Baghdad, 1,075 miles away. Schlee blamed the costly delays in obtaining government permits on the “good luck bead” given him in Turkey, which somehow was working against the rabbit’s foot he had carried since leaving Detroit.

On they flew, touching down in Bender Abbas, Persia (present-day Iran), one day and in Karachi, India, the next. By the time the self-described “aerial hoboes” reached Rangoon on Sept. 7, a revolt was brewing. Since late August, an unremitting string of tragedies had the public finally questioning the sanity and purpose of transoceanic flying. The biggest catastrophe was the Dole Race, in which 10 people — including 22-year-old Flint schoolteacher Mildred Doran, riding along as a gimmick — lost their lives during a mad dash from California to Hawaii. Despite the toll, nearly a dozen more long-distance flights between various points on the globe would be launched through the end of September. Some of the planes were forced down by bad weather or mechanical problems; others were never seen again. Not a single one would complete its journey.

Schlee and Brock each had a wife and two young children worrying about them at home. However, of immediate concern as they darted from Hanoi to Hong Kong to Shanghai was making up lost time. Head winds cut into their speed. From China, the Pride of Detroit winged its way toward Japan. A thunderstorm forced them down on Kiushiu Island, 600 miles shy of their destination, Tokyo. A typhoon and tidal wave hit Kiushiu, killing 791 people and keeping the plane in its hangar until Sept. 14, when the fliers finally reached Tokyo.

By now, they were hopelessly behind schedule. They had flown 12,275 miles in 19 days, averaging 646 miles a day. They needed to nearly double that pace over the next nine days if they were to break the record — an impossible task. Nonetheless, they stubbornly insisted on continuing. They started talking about the $50,000 prize being offered for the first flight between Hong Kong and Dallas.

 

To continue home by air, Schlee and Brock still had to make it over the Pacific, a series of water jumps that was the most intimidating part of their journey. Locating Midway Island, a speck of sand about 2,500 miles from Tokyo, was a Herculean task, especially without the aid of a radio beacon. It was made more hazardous by the early arrival of typhoon season, whose winds could easily blow the plane off course. After Midway, there was a 1,440-mile hop to Honolulu, to be followed by a 2,400-mile flight to San Francisco, flying the same stretch of the Pacific that had just swallowed up several Dole racers.

Amid a flurry of frantic messages from Detroit asking the government to intercede, Washington officials said they had no authority over the movements of private citizens. However, the Department of the Navy could — and did — withhold any offers of help, including shipping fuel to Midway and having its vessels provide navigational assistance. Over the last several weeks, the Navy had spent millions of dollars searching for lost fliers, but now the Detroit airmen were on their own.

Telegrams continued to pour into the U.S. embassy in Tokyo. Friends, family, and politicians beseeched the fliers to stop what the press and top aviation experts were now calling a suicide flight. “In the name of the people of Detroit … I beg you to abandon your intended flight over the Pacific,” cabled Detroit Mayor John W. Smith. “Daddy,” pleaded 10-year-old Rosemarie Schlee, “please take the next boat home to us. We want you.”

Finally, on Sept. 15, the men caved in. They announced they would take a liner back to the States. “We quit,” said Brock, “because the whole world is fighting us.” Two weeks later, the Korea Maru pulled into San Francisco Harbor, the Pride of Detroit “hanging tailless by ropes on the upper afterdeck, looking like a yellow jacket that had alighted in the rigging.” The dejected pilots criticized the Navy, but Ted Schlee sees things differently. “It’s a good thing the Navy decided not to cooperate. They probably wouldn’t have made it.” Ted Schlee points out that the pilots gained more admiration for their near-triumph than if they had completed the trip. One aviation publication praised their decision to quit as “a sane interlude in a succession of disastrous ventures.”

The fliers reassembled their plane and flew home, landing at Ford Airport on the afternoon of Oct. 4. “As they landed, crowds surged in upon them,” reported Time magazine, which had followed the men’s exploits. “Into Mr. Schlee’s arms rushed his wife. As he was pushed through the crowds on his way to City Hall, congratulatory hands clapped him on the back, hundreds of people shouted at him from all directions, automobile sirens shrieked in his ears.” After being received by Mayor Smith and other dignitaries, the pilots attended a banquet given by their friends. Schlee was called upon to speak, but he could get out only a half-dozen words before collapsing. The strain of the adventure had finally caught up with him. The mayor helped carry him out of the room and the banquet was adjourned.

Was the truncated flight a legitimate attempt to push aviation’s envelope or just two more pilots succumbing to the siren call of fame? Detroit dailies gave the local heroes the benefit of the doubt. The Free Press reminded readers: “Schlee and Brock flew more than halfway around the world with only brief stops, traversing oceans and continents, mountain ranges and deserts, combating fierce storms in strange lands and waters. Their skill and courage never failed them and their machine proved staunch. They demonstrated the practicability of sustained, long-distance flying. All these things combine to make their trip ‘the greatest flight.’ ”

Over the next couple of years, Schlee and Brock undertook various endurance and distance flights around the country, though nothing nearly as ambitious as their globe-girdling “greatest flight.” Bad luck continued to dog them. One summer day in 1929, Schlee was hand-starting a plane when the propeller kicked back. The blades sliced his shoulder, fractured his arm, cracked his skull, and left him permanently deaf in one ear. He survived, but the small aircraft company he and Brock operated didn’t. The Great Depression hit both men hard. In 1931, the Pride of Detroit — which Schlee had once praised as “more faithful than a woman” — was auctioned by the county sheriff to satisfy a debt. It sold for $700. The following year, Brock died of cancer at 36. Schlee drifted into obscurity. His last job was working as an aircraft inspector at Packard during World War II. He died in 1969, the year Apollo XI traveled to the moon and back.

Today, the flying machine that once carried two dreamers halfway around the world hangs inside the Henry Ford Museum, though its original canvas skin — bearing the faded signatures of new friends made in Belgrade, Baghdad, Karachi, and other exotic locales along the journey — was unaccountably replaced by a curator. Tucked away in the archives is a full-page newspaper tribute published the day of the airmen’s homecoming: “Detroit is proud of the Pride of Detroit and its Intrepid Pilots — Ed Schlee and Billy Brock.”

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