Optimism soared in Tacoma during the 1920’s and people were more than happy to buy into it. After venturing into public owned power with the LaGrande hydroelectric dam on the Nisqually in 1912 and then a bond issue to buy 70,000 acres of land for Fort Lewis in 1917, Tacomans were into pooling their money for big projects. Headed into the 1920’s bond issues, local taxes and early day crowd sourcing were used to build the Winthrop Hotel in 1925, Cushman Dam and the spectacular cable crossing of the Narrows completed in 1926, a motion picture studio at Titlow Beach (H.C.Weaver Productions), and, after Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in May 1927, a shot at flying across the biggest ocean on earth.
The story begins at some unknown point when Canadian born lumberman John Buffelen met a former barn storming aviator named Harold Bromley in Tacoma. Bromley was in his late 20’s, born in British Columbia, dapper indeed and operating a flying school over Tacoma while picking up extra cash as a test pilot for Lockeed in California. Together they hatched the idea of raising $25,000 to buy and fly a single engine low wing monoplane non-stop from Tacoma to Tokyo. By July 19, 1929, Tacomans had ponied up and after an 8 hour 17 minute flight from Los Angeles, Bromley landed a bright orange Lockeed Vega mono-plane on a freshly cleared airfield in Tacoma. Painted across its ridiculously cool looking fuselage, made of spruce and stretched canvas, was the spirited name “City of Tacoma”.
A few days later, on July 25th, nine year old Clasina Buffelen and kimono clad seven year old Evelyn Miyazaki christened the Art Deco aircraft with flowers, U.S and Japanese flags and a bottle of water from Puget Sound. Steamships and passenger vessels traveled between Tacoma and Japan almost daily but the voyages took a week or more. The little girls and the big airplane symbolized a civic leap of faith, a flight 1000 miles farther than Lindbergh’s, sailing west into the prevailing winds and weather. In the background Bromley put a gold watch in his pocket engraved from the people of Tacoma to the Emperor of Japan. The real excitement was about to begin.
At about 4 a.m. on July 28, 1929, crews began pumping 900 gallons of gasoline into the tanks of the City of Tacoma. Already 25,000 people had gathered for the take off of the 4750 mile flight. With the plane perched atop a steep timber ramp intended to help with acceleration on take off the crowd continued to grow and the launch was pushed back into the warming summer morning. Finally at 6:08 a.m. a crewman pulled down on the propeller, Bromley gunned the 450 horsepower engine and released the brakes as the plane started down the ramp onto the 4500 foot runway. As he hit the level ground at the bottom of the ramp a spray of gasoline covered the windshield from the fuel tanks that were expanding in the morning sun. Bromley lifted his head above the windshield and pulled down his soaked goggles and was immediately blinded by a splash of corrosive petroleum. Then things began to go really wrong.
As the plane picked up speed and the tail lifted, it began to wander from the center of the runway and when the blind pilot corrected under full power, the wheels pulled the heavily loaded plane into a sideways careen before it could fully lift off. In a terrifying moment for the 70,000 spectators, the City of Tacoma, with its 45 foot wingspan, nose dived into the gravel edge of the runway about 1500 feet from the ramp leaving sightless Bromley 10 feet in the air and gas pouring out of the ruptured tanks. But finally something went right. The engine stalled and there was neither spark nor fire. The plane was a total loss but Bromley was O K and Buffelen and the Tacoma investors were willing to be talked into another Trans-Pacific attempt.
The second City of Tacoma was another Lockeed Vega and again Bromley went down to California to bring it north. In September, it crashed on a street near the Lockeed plant in Burbank when the specially designed tail assembly broke lose. Harold Bromley had good reason to question his luck, especially after being quoted in a Tacoma paper as saying ” I find it difficult to convince many persons that this proposed flight is not sheer suicide”. Bromley took a job flying mail and passengers between El Paso and Mexico City while he waited for a third City of Tacoma airplane to be readied for a trans Pacific flight. Then in May 1930 a Lockeed Sirius undergoing final test flights and freshly painted with the name City of Tacoma under its wing crashed in the Mojave Desert. Bromley was not at the stick but the pilot was killed.
It was time to move on for Bromley , Buffelen and the Tacoma sponsors. Amazingly, on July 11, 1930, less than a year after the first failed attempt, $15,000 was paid for a fourth aircraft which was painted bright red with the name City of Tacoma emblazoned across the fuselage. Unlike the first three Lockeed airplanes, this was a much larger single engine mono plane with a 60 foot wingspan and 1000 gallon fuel capacity made by Emsco Aircraft Company in Downey California (the twelfth plane they ever made).
The other big changes were the decision to dismantle the plane and ship it via the steamship Abraham Lincoln to Tokyo. The forth attempt would be with the wind-headed east from Japan to Tacoma and this time Bromley would be accompanied by an experienced navigator and radio operator, Australian Harold Gatty. With a favoring wind at their tail, a cruising speed of 115 miles per hour and 1020 gallons of gas in the plane they calculated the City of Tacoma could cover a range of 4,840 miles. The distance from Tokyo to Tacoma was only 4,779 miles leaving them a comfortable margin of 61 miles. What could go wrong?
On August 30, 1930 Bromley and Gatty started down Japan’s longest runway in a flying gas tank that weight 10,000 pounds and about the time it became airborne they realized it had no chance of clearing a stand of trees just ahead. Bromley dumped fuel to clear the trees but with it went any chance of crossing the Pacific. Plan B was to fly the City of Tacoma to Sabishiro Beach, 350 miles north of Tokyo,and try the take off again at night from a 6,800-foot stretch of hard-packed sand lighted by paper lanterns. At least the take off went well this time.
Gatty had plotted a course out over Japan’s Kurile Islands, then north of the Aleutian Islands and down the coast over water into Tacoma. About 12 hours and 1,200 miles out over the Pacific, on September 14, 1930 their exhaust system split and began pouring fumes into the enclosed cabin. Opening the windows to get ventilation, their eyes burning, Mr. Bromley steered the City back to Japan, landing on a beach just 35 miles north of their starting point. They were both found on the sand outside the plane by fishermen, semiconscious and dazed. The last City of Tacoma was moved to a hanger in Tokyo, sold in 1932 and later scrapped.
Harold Bromley became an American citizen, made one more try at a trans pacific flight but gave up after it was successfully accomplished in October 1931 by Clyde Pangborn, a veteran barnstormer, and Hugh Herndon, a wealthy New Yorker who financed the flight. Their route follow the one Gatty had planned taking off from the same Sabishiro Beach but ending on the other side of the Cascades in Wenatchee. Harold kept flying. He helped familiarize Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Doolittle and Wiley Post with the Lockheed Vega monoplane. He flew for mining companies in Mexico and then became a federal aviation inspector in Oakland. In 1997 he passed away in Palm Desert less than a year from his 100th birthday.
Harold Gatty went on to join Wiley Post on the flight which set the record for aerial circumnavigation of the world, flying a distance of 15,747 miles (24,903 km) in a Lockheed Vega named the Winnie Mae, in 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes. And Wiley Post was flying with Will Rogers when he stopped in Tacoma during the summer of 1935 to visit friends and then fly on to Alaska and tragedy. (See story, Movietimes)
And remember that airfield where Bromley crashed the first City of Tacoma in July 1929? It was there because Tacoman’s and Pierce County voters had passed a $300,000 bond issue in November 1927 to purchase 770 acres of prairie land for a municipal airport. In those days folks not only invested in the ground they went for the clouds. After serving as Tacoma Field it was transferred to the war department in 1938 and later named McChord Airfield.