The Spokane Sun-God

  • Published
  • By Daniel Simmons
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Historian
Long before there was an air refueling wing in this area -- long before there was even an Air Force Base here -- the Spokane, Wash., community was helping to pioneer the art and science of mid-air refuelings. In fact, Spokane will forever be known for one particularly significant air refueling mission that occurred 80 years ago. During a 5-day period in August 1929, a Buhl CA-6 aircraft, now known as the Spokane Sun-God, became the first airplane to make a non-stop transcontinental round-trip flight--a flight that required 11 mid-air refuelings.

The historic mission had a number of sponsors, including the National Air Derby Association, Texaco, and many Spokane citizens and businessmen. The Spokane Sun-God departed Felts Field, Spokane, Aug. 15, 1929, with two pilots onboard--Nick Mamer and Art Walker. The pilots were to fly south to San Francisco, Calif., and begin their eastward trek to New York before heading home to Spokane.

Tankers would meet the Spokane Sun-God at predetermined points along the route. To accomplish the refueling, the tanker pilots would lower a hose while flying over the Sun-God. Mamer and Walker positioned the hose nozzle into their tanks where the fuel gravitationally flowed; all the while the two aircraft flew in "piggyback" formation.

The air refueling locations had to be arranged beforehand, primarily because there was no established air-to-ground radio communication during this time. To counter unexpected problems during the mission, the Sun-God pilots had to drop notes to people on the ground or tie messages to the end of the refueling hose.

On Aug. 18, 1929, after a number of setbacks along the way, the Sun-God pilots arrived over Roosevelt Field in New York, met by hundreds of planes that flew up to welcome them. The return trip to Spokane was hampered by bad weather in Pennsylvania and intense smoke from forest fires in Montana. The smoke was so thick near Miles City, Mont., it nearly blinded the pilots. To make matters worse, the Sun-God began to develop engine problems and the pilots began to feel they may not make it back to Spokane.

But Mamer and Walker did not give up. Although Miles City was not a scheduled refueling site, the pilots dropped a note to the residents asking if they could figure out a way to refuel them in flight. The response was five-gallon milk cans from a local creamery. Filled with fuel, the cans were lowered one at a time from another aircraft using detachable rope slings. The pilots then flew low over the Yellowstone River and tossed the empty cans into the water, where a boy in a rowboat picked them up as they floated by a bridge in Miles City.

At 2 p.m., Aug. 20, 1929, the Spokane Sun-God arrived over Felts Field, where 10,000 spectators formed to welcome home the record-setting pilots. When the aircraft finally touched down, it had flown for 120 hours and 10,000 air miles and had set a world record for a non-stop flight of 7,200 point-to-point miles.

Spokane received significant national attention for helping sponsor this historic flight. The city's support, along with the thorough flight planning and the tenacity of the two pilots, earned the credit for the success of this record-setting mission, a record that would stand for many years.

Yes, it seems that Spokane was destined to have an air refueling wing in its backyard. Eighty years after the Sun-God mission, the Spokane community is still a strong supporter of the nation's air refueling mission.