Above & Beyond: Aunt Mildred

A race across the Pacific

Left to right: Bill Malloska, the airplane’s owner; Augie Pedlar, pilot; Manley Lawling, navigator, later replaced by Vilas Knope; and Mildred Doran, in classic uniform.
Left to right: Bill Malloska, the airplane’s owner; Augie Pedlar, pilot; Manley Lawling, navigator, later replaced by Vilas Knope; and Mildred Doran, in classic uniform. Courtesy Richard A. Durose

In 1927, during the Dole Trans-Pacific Air Race, Mildred Doran was lost over the Pacific. Her little sister, Helen—my mother—was so grief-stricken by the loss of her sister that she never talked about Mildred. In 1948, when I was 10, while visiting relatives in Flint, Michigan, my parents announced that we would drive by the Doran Tower, named in Mildred’s memory. The three-story, six-sided wood building was tapered at the top like a windmill. As a child, I thought it odd that a building housing a gas station would be designated a memorial.

A couple of years ago, when I retired, I looked into the picture albums, scrapbooks, and memorabilia my mother had kept and tracked down books and magazine articles about the Dole race. I learned that only a year before the race, while still in college, Mildred and a friend attended an airshow, where they were offered a ride. In a newspaper clipping, Mildred later recounted: “I could have just prayed for someone to forbid me to go,” but since her friend was willing, she would not back out. She told the Detroit Times, “I am nothing of a hoyden and yet the first time I went up, I wasn’t a bit afraid.”

Lincoln Oils, which operated a chain of gas stations in Michigan, was owned by Bill Malloska, a former carnival owner. The flamboyant marketer was always looking for ways to promote his business and was well known around Flint as the generous sponsor of baseball and bowling teams. Though not a pilot, three miles from downtown Flint he constructed a hangar and airstrip, called Lincoln Field, simply for the publicity potential.

Soon an airshow out of Lincoln, Nebraska, made Lincoln Field its headquarters. The Air Circus, an adjunct of the Lincoln Standard Aircraft Company, picked Flint because of its central Michigan location: The well-paid auto workers made excellent customers. The circus advertised air races, stunt flying, wingwalking, parachute jumps, and rides for patrons.

Malloska approached the Circus with a proposition. He would supply free fuel and oil to the performers if they would paint “Lincoln Oils—Flint” on the fuselages of their airplanes.

Mildred started bringing the latest flying news to the airshow performers at Lincoln Field—and in 1927, there was plenty to talk about. Just four days after Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris, James Dole, the “Pineapple King,” announced a prize of $25,000 for the first pilot to fly from California to Hawaii, 2,400 miles over the Pacific. Mildred begged Malloska to enter the Dole race—and let her go along. Malloska agreed to sign up. It would be a publicity bonanza.

When Lincoln Standard could not deliver an airplane in time, Malloska purchased a Buhl Airsedan CA-5, made in nearby Marysville, Michigan. At a dedication ceremony, which included the mayor and other dignitaries from Flint, the name of the Buhl was revealed: Miss Doran. Mildred would sit in the back. A large Lincoln Oils logo was on both sides of the red, white, and blue sesquiplane—a design in which the lower wing is smaller than the upper. It was christened with—thanks to Prohibition—a bottle of ginger ale.

Two Air Circus pilots, Slonnie Sloniger and Augie Pedlar, wanted to fly Miss Doran. A coin toss won Pedlar the job. In his memoirs, Sloniger referred to Pedlar as primarily a wingwalker who flew only occasionally, and had far fewer than the 200 hours required by race officials. Pedlar himself claimed an extensive flying background. Whether it was fact or fiction, he convinced race officials of his qualifications. Lieutenant Vilas “Cy” Knope was later appointed navigator.

Mildred, a schoolteacher, was the only woman to participate in the Dole race. The wisdom of the day questioned permitting a woman to fly, even as a passenger. Mildred shrugged off the issue, saying “A woman should fly just as easily as a man.… Women certainly have the courage and tenacity required for long flights.” On the hazards of the long flight over water, she told the Flint Journal: “Life is nothing but a chance.”

When asked about Mildred’s courage in making the flight, Pedlar recalled an incident at an airshow in Lansing. Sloniger told a crowd he was about to take his airplane up to 7,000 feet, shut down the engine, and land right on the spot where he was standing. “Who wants to go?” The crowd nervously backed away, leaving one diminutive figure in front of him. Sloniger chuckled. “All right. Come on, Mil.”

Reporters interviewed Mildred at every stop on the way to California. One reporter wrote, “But although she photographs remarkably well, it’s hard for a camera to suggest her wide hazel eyes and warm olive coloring or the dimple that comes with her infrequent smiles.” For the race, Mildred wore khaki jodhpurs and a tunic with a Sam Browne belt. The Lincoln Oils logo was embroidered on each arm. She sported a handful of fraternity pins sent by admiring college boys.

At noon on August 16, 1927, eight aircraft lined up at Oakland Field in front of 50,000 spectators. Two airplanes, Pabco Pacific Flyer and El Encanto, crashed on takeoff (with no casualties). Six airplanes took off, but three returned in minutes because of mechanical problems—including Miss Doran, its engine “sputtering like a Tin Lizzie.” Mechanics hurriedly replaced its spark plugs. Mildred, waiting nearby, was advised that Pedlar thought it best that she not come along for his second attempt. Still Mildred boarded. While some reporters wrote that Mildred looked ashen and in tears as she got on the airplane, a reporter/sorority sister who spoke to her while she waited wrote that Mildred said, “There’s no use making a fuss about it. You have to take things as they come.”

Of the eight aircraft that qualified, four set out for Honolulu. Art Goebel’s Woolaroc and Martin Jensen’s Aloha made it, but Golden Eagle and Miss Doran disappeared. Malloska offered $10,000 for Miss Doran’s recovery. The U.S. Navy searched for 12 days and found nothing. Ten aviators died—three preparing for the race, five during it, and two in the search for survivors.

Memorials and ceremonies were held in honor of those lost. In Flint, factories shut down for prayers. Flags flew at half mast. Thousands attended a memorial at San Francisco’s Pier 30. Another tribute was held at sea, aboard the SS Maui, and Mildred’s fifth grade students sent a floral arrangement with the inscription “God Bless You Every One.” Some 5,000 floral pieces were set afloat on the Pacific Ocean.

The Boston Daily Advertiser wrote: “When the spark has passed from the bodies of all who read these lines, admirers of valor and of noble spirit will be celebrating the name of Mildred Doran.” The Canadian province of Ontario named a lake in her honor. Among the tributes her family received was a poem by Marcel Ducout, a writer for L’Aérophile, the journal of the Aéro Club de France.

In 1929, Malloska had the Doran Tower constructed adjacent to Lincoln Field as a memorial to Mildred, vowing it would stand for 100 years. Next to the building was a large stone with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “Only those are fit to live who do not fear to die.” Malloska later sold his oil business to Cities Service Company (now Citgo). In 1932, Lincoln Field was bought by a developer and named Lincoln Manor Subdivision. The tower was moved and the plaque was lost. In 1973, the relocated tower was torn down because the owner could not afford municipal fees and taxes.

I wish Mildred had backed out when urged to do so. She would have had many other flying opportunities like the Dole race. And I would have gotten to know a very interesting aunt.

Mildred Doran, in classic uniform. Courtesy Richard A. Durose
Left to right: Bill Malloska, the airplane’s owner; Augie Pedlar, pilot; Manley Lawling, navigator, later replaced by Vilas Knope; and Mildred Doran, in classic uniform. Courtesy Richard A. Durose

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