Issue 7.5: October/November 2004

Early Birds

by Peter N. Forman


Stanley Kennedy, pictured here
on the day Interisland Airways
launched itself skyward
(photo: Hawaiian Airlines Archives)

8:30 a.m. November 11, 1929. Honolulu’s John Rodgers Field. Outside the hangar of Inter-Island Airways, two Sikorsky S-38s sat nose to nose, awaiting their christenings. The sun glinted off the planes, odd-shaped crafts that each carried eight passengers and had wheels to touch down on land and hulls to land on water. Though it was early in the day, thousands were in attendance. Honored guests took their seats facing the podium where Governor Lawrence Judd would soon address the crowd. Off to the side, greeting well-wishers, stood the man who had the most at stake this day. A little over six feet tall with a trim frame, he could have been mistaken for someone younger than his thirty-nine years if it weren’t for the scarcity of hair on his head. His name was Stanley Kennedy, and within a couple of hours he would launch Hawaii’s first scheduled air service—and the company that is today Hawaiian Airlines.

It had been nineteen years since a daredevil named Bud Mars became the first person in Hawaii to take flight, soaring skyward from a polo field northwest of Honolulu in 1910. A few months later, a young Kennedy, home in Hawaii on break from studying business at Stanford, watched aviator Didier Masson overfly Honolulu and arc down to land on the soft grass of Kapi‘olani Park before a cheering crowd of 10,000. Kennedy also saw Tom Gunn fly the territory’s first seaplane. He was hooked. When he realized, a few years later, that America would soon enter World War I, Kennedy signed up for pilot training in the Naval Reserve. He captured a wartime assignment flying H-16 flying boats over the North Sea, searching for submarines. Aloft over water and land day after day, it occurred to him that air travel would work perfectly in the Islands. And so, on this November day a decade later, Governor Judd’s daughter Betty broke a bottle of champagne on the nose of Sikorsky Hawaii, the Maui received a similar blessing, and the two S-38 amphibians lifted into the air and headed east for Hilo—accompanied to Diamond Head by a noisy formation of forty-nine Army and Navy planes.

 
Charles Elliott, pictured
with a five-passenger Bellanca
(courtesy Charles Elliott collection)

Former naval aviator Charles Elliott—or "Captain Sam," as he became known—commanded one of those inaugural flights. A tall, slender man, Elliott was one of the first pilots in the history of the U.S. Navy; he had come to Hawaii when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor in the 1920s. Now he had taken a huge personal risk by leaving the Navy to become chief pilot for a private airline, a questionable enterprise at best (this was, remember, 1929). But by 1930, Captain Sam’s decision looked like a good one. Inter-Island Airways’ fleet had grown to three S-38s. Flights to Hilo operated daily except Sunday and Kauai trips departed three times a week. A typical Hilo trip departed Honolulu at 8 a.m., stopped at Maui’s Maalaea Field to drop off or pick up passengers, and arrived into Hilo before noon. Landings on Moloka‘i or Läna‘i were by prior arrangement only.

To understand just how adventurous it was to start an airline in those early days, consider Hawaii’s early airfields. Most encompassed marginal lands near the ocean, because the territory’s businessmen couldn’t fathom the idea of wasting good cane land for something as trivial as an airport. Maalaea Field, set on a tidal flat, often became waterlogged during heavy rains; when that happened, Inter-Island Airways crews headed to Kahului Harbor for a water landing—fine with Captain Sam, who loved water landings and take-offs.

The Depression cut into the fledgling airline’s success. By 1932, the number of people flying Inter-Island Airways was down by half, and every passenger counted. At John Rodgers Field, the airline sometimes stationed a flagman by the road from Honolulu—when pilots taxiing out to the crushed-coral takeoff area saw the flag waving, they stopped, because it meant an automobile was approaching, perhaps with a tardy passenger in the backseat. Charter flights also helped during the lean years, and if the trip was to Kona, you could bet that Captain Sam was at the controls since Kona didn’t have an airport and the S-38 would set down on the water. For departure from Kona, Sam would bring the Sikorsky into the wind and check for boats. Then the engines roared and a wall of green water flooded over the windshield. Once the aircraft began planing atop the surface of the ocean, visibility returned and then it was skip, skip, skip on a few small waves and the machine was airborne, climbing from the bay.

 
Sikorsky S-38
(Hawaiian Airlines Archives)

By 1935, Hawaii’s economy had improved, and Inter-Island Airways had secured a contract to carry air mail. These two events brought profits to the young airline, and the company responded by purchasing a newer, larger aircraft, the S-43 Sikorsky, a plane that carried twice the number of passengers as the S-38 and cruised half again as fast. Only problem? The S-43’s powerful engines produced a pronounced tendency to turn the plane left on takeoff. It was a young pilot named Jim Hogg who figured out how to finesse the throttles and stabilize the plane. Hogg had grown up on Kaua‘i and first tasted flight in the years immediately following World War I when he was taken into the sky by Charlie Fern, one of the territory’s two barnstormers. He slaved in a garage to earn money for flying lessons, then obtained his mechanic’s credentials in Oakland. Captain Sam hired Hogg first as a mechanic and later as a mate—a combination mechanic, copilot and jack-of-all-trades. When a mate flew, his duties included loading and unloading baggage and going back into the cabin between flights to clean up. His efforts earned him the copilot’s seat in a Sikorsky and a paycheck of $125 a month.

In later years, Hogg helped to test a newly installed navigation station on Maui. In return, the FAA offered to name the station after him. The name could only contain three letters, the FAA said; did Hogg want it to be HOG or OGG? Jim, of course, chose the latter. The OGG initials eventually came to signify Maui’s airport, and to this day, perplexed Maui-bound travelers wonder where in the world OGG is and why their bags are going there.

In 1941, the airline introduced the Douglas DC-3. Each aircraft carried the company’s new name on its fuselage: Hawaiian Airlines. The DC-3s and the Sikorskys came under attack on December 7, but survived to provide the territory’s only inter-island transportation during the war years. During those years, the military called up a good number of the airline’s pilots, many of whom had trained in the military and were still reservists. One of those pilots was Budd Murray. After Murray was called to Pearl Harbor for a meeting with the Navy brass, Elliott inquired about his status.

"The admiral told me I was going to be recalled shortly," Budd told Elliott, "and my response was ‘Oh, horse manure’—but when it came out of my mouth, it sounded more like ‘Aye, aye sir.’" Like Elliott, Murray loved to fly from the water. During the war, he flew four-engine sea planes all over the Pacific, as far east as Manila and as far south as Auckland. By the end of the war, he had achieved the respected position of command pilot on the Navy’s mighty Martin Mars flying boats. But when the war ended, he was back at Hawaiian, and he continued to fly for the airline until 1969. Often he flew as a copilot with Captain Gilbert Tefft.

 
Sikorsky S-43
(Hawaiian Airlines Archives)

To call Tefft a quiet man would be an understatement. When he wished to pass control of the aircraft to the copilot, Tefft tapped his fingers on his shoulders, a signal used back in the days of open-cockpit biplanes. Tefft felt no obligation to share takeoffs and landings with copilots, even with veterans like Murray. On a typical flight to Hilo, Tefft took off and then passed control to the copilot while he cracked open his ventilation window, lit up a White Owl cigar and read the newspaper.

Tefft is best remembered today for his extraordinary passion for orchids. He was known, his friend Murray remembers fondly, as "Johnny Orchidseed." As his copilots flew along the east side of the Big Island, Tefft tossed orchid seeds out his window, to take root all over the Hamakua Coast. Wild pig hunters still find Tefft’s orchids growing in the undergrowth.

 
Passenger's eye view
of a Sikorsky S-38
(Charles Eliott collection)

Today, seventy-five years after Stanley Kennedy first boarded one of his Sikorskys to fly east to Hilo, Hawaiian Airlines has expanded across the Pacific and grown into a strong, vibrant company. Before November 11, 1929, anyone traveling from Honolulu to Hilo boarded a steamer at 5 p.m. and reached the Big Island the following day after crossing the Alenuihaha Channel—a body of water so rough that even seasoned travelers could fall prey to seasickness. Kennedy lived to see Hawaiian Airlines introduce DC-9 jet service in 1966—and to enter an era when the trip took slightly more than thirty minutes and offered a smooth, air-conditioned ride all the way.

Peter N. Forman is author of the up-coming book Wings of Paradise, Hawaii’s Incomparable Airlines (www.airlinesofhawaii.com).