by Mike Corrigan
Spokane's Felts Field has an illustrious history infused with likewise illustrious characters and aircraft. Among the many aviation firsts connected with the airfield was the flight of the Spokane Sun-God, a 1929 Buhl CA-6 sesqui-plane that made history by logging the first ever non-stop transcontinental round-trip flight. The Sun-God, piloted by the intrepid team of Nick Mamer and Art Walker, left Felts Field on August 15, 1929, and flew a route that took it to San Francisco, then to New York before touching down once again in Spokane five days later. The plane was refueled in flight dozens of times without such niceties as two-way radio (notes to ground crews were often attached to rocks and thrown out of the plane).
The trip was sponsored by the National Air Derby Association, Buhl Aircraft, several Spokane businessmen and Texaco, which supplied the fuel. To commemorate the flight, Texaco has recently commissioned the creation of an authentically scaled replica of the Spokane Sun-God as the latest addition to the company's "Wings of Texaco" die-cast collectibles line (now available at Texaco stations).
Estelle West of Outwest Promotions handles promotion for Shell/Texaco and was enlisted to create advertising for the debut of the model plane.
"In doing the research, I discovered how phenomenal the story is," she says. "And how many people who remember the flight are still based in Spokane, such as Jim McGouldrick, who has written a book about Spokane's aviation history and who was a young fellow when the flight took off."
During the course of her investigation, West interviewed local historians (such as antique airplane collectors Skeeter Carlson and Addison Pemberton), friends of Mamer and Walker, and witnesses who were there at the time the Sun-God left the field.
The entire transcontinental odyssey was fraught with peril. Refueling planes would meet the Sun-God at pre-determined locations, fly overhead and (typically) drop a hose down through a hole in the top of the Buhl's fuselage. Often, however, this plan ran awry. Perhaps the most harrowing incident occurred during a refueling over Rock Springs, Wyo. The fuel transfer had to be made at night (another first for aviation) because a strong headwind had too quickly depleted the airplane's reserves. During the refueling procedure, the fuel hose was severed by the plane's propeller and spewed the highly volatile gasoline all over the Sun-God. Astonishingly, the fuel did not catch fire and the refueling was completed -- albeit with a much shorter hose -- with the two planes flying within 20 feet of each other. On another occasion over Miles City, Mont., an emergency volunteer refuel team brought gasoline to the Sun-God in five-gallon milk cans.
"It's an unbelievable story," says West. "This particular flight not only made history but also led to the beginning of the Strategic Air Command program for the military."
So it's somewhat fitting that the Air Force's largest refueling station is based at Fairchild, just a few miles from where it all started.