To the pilot of a small plane, the gap between Coad and Penncock mountains is not especially daunting. Oberg Pass, in the Medicine Bow range about 15 miles northeast of Saratoga, is a saddle nearly three miles wide, and the sides are gently sloped. Should the need arise — from a sudden onset of bad weather, for example — there is plenty of room to make a 180-degree turn and fly yourself out of trouble.
Still, I was feeling a little nervous.
As I approached the pass in my two-seat light-sport aircraft one morning in June, I couldn’t help but think of another pilot, Edward V. Wales, who attempted the same route in an open-cockpit biplane almost a century ago, on the morning of Oct. 9, 1919. Wales, 26, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Service, the precursor of today’s Air Force. The day before, he and another aviator riding in the rear cockpit, Lt. William G. Goldsborough, had departed San Francisco’s Crissy Field on the first leg of an unprecedented race across the continent. Theirs was among 15 aircraft that left the field that morning. At the same time, a larger contingent of 48 planes had taken off from an Army airfield in Mineola, N.Y., on Long Island, and headed west.
If all went according to plan, the planes would cross somewhere in the middle of the continent, then return to their points of origin after reaching the opposite coast.
Americans were riveted by the spectacle, which newspapers called “the world’s greatest air race,” or sometimes simply “the air derby.” The coverage made instant celebrities of the military aviators — “birdmen” — who volunteered for the contest. Wales and Goldsborough left San Francisco in a buoyant mood, with plans to see a Broadway show once they reached New York. Wales had recently gotten engaged and promised his fiancee that they would marry upon his return to the West Coast.
Yet for all the glamour and excitement that attended the contest, its purpose was deadly serious. Conceived by Brig. Gen. William G. “Billy” Mitchell, a flamboyant World War I hero and airpower visionary, the “Endurance and Reliability Test,” as the race was officially known, was intended to galvanize public and congressional support for aviation — commercial as well as military — at a time when the country was rapidly demobilizing after the Great War. The Wright brothers’ achievement notwithstanding, the United States had fallen far behind Europe in its development of this essential new technology, and Mitchell was desperate to close the gap. In particular, he hoped the race would boost his crusade for a new, cabinet-level department of aeronautics, to include an independent air force that he wanted to run.
After some debate, Mitchell and his colleagues decided that the route would follow the Union Pacific railroad, both to ease the distribution of fuel and spare parts and also to serve as a navigation aid that pilots called the “iron compass.” But where would the pilots land? There were few airfields in 1919, and those that did exist were little more than dirt rectangles with windsocks. Many of the 18 towns and cities designated as mandatory “control stops” between the coasts could not even claim to have one of these. Among them were the three stops in Wyoming — Green River, Rawlins, and Cheyenne.
With considerable cheek, the Air Service made clear to these communities, like others on the route, that if they wanted to be part of the race they would need to build airfields at their own expense. It helped that the U.S. Postal Service had recently announced plans to extend its fledgling airmail service along essentially the same route.
Green River did not want to be left behind. On Oct. 6, just two days before the start, 150 volunteers and 20 teams of horses turned out to clear sagebrush from a narrow bench of land overlooking the river that gave the railroad town its name. As racers arrived, according to a contemporaneous account in the archives of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, members of the local Boy Scout troop shuttled gas to newly arrived planes in five-gallon jerry cans and patrolled the field to protect the aircraft from vandals and souvenir hunters. The Couzens family, meanwhile, offered hot meals and beds to pilots who remained in Green River overnight.
The contestants got a similarly warm reception in Cheyenne, where a landing area was hastily scraped and rolled on the grounds of Fort D.A. Russell, the Army post built in the 1860s to protect workers on the transcontinental railroad. The local chapter of the Red Cross welcomed the fliers with hot coffee, meals, cigarettes, cigars and candy, and provided them with heavy sweaters and socks to prepare for cold mountain crossings. Alerted by the unfamiliar sound of aircraft engines, townspeople flocked to the field in motorcars to watch the airplanes come and go.
In Rawlins, by contrast, plans for the race initially were received with skepticism — an attitude that the Air Service “control officer” assigned to the town ascribed to the insularity of its citizens. “Very few of them have had an occasion to leave its immediate vicinity and only a limited number had even seen an airplane prior to this flight,” he wrote in a report to his superiors in Washington. Even those who had doubted that any plane would be powerful enough to reach the town’s altitude of 7000 feet. Still, the mayor was supportive, and by the morning of Oct. 8, the town had prepared an airfield — albeit a “very, very poor” one — in the center of its oval horse track just north of the railroad tracks.
Wales and Goldsborough left San Francisco shortly after dawn. Like most aviators in the race, they were flying a British-designed DeHavilland DH-4, a wood-and-fabric biplane intended for observation and bombing and nicknamed the “Flaming Coffin” because of its propensity to catch fire. Their trip across the Sierras went smoothly, and that afternoon they landed in Salt Lake City, where they spent the night. They resumed their journey the next morning and headed for Rawlins, having been ordered to skip Green River because it was soggy from a recent snowfall. The men were among the first to land at Rawlins, where their plane was replenished with fuel and oil as they waited restlessly on the ground for the required 30 minutes.
At 11:40 a.m. they took off for Cheyenne 131 miles to the east. Eager to preserve their position in the race, they had elected to fly the “compass line” across the Medicine Bow range, rather than following a safer but longer route along the railroad tracks that skirted the mountains to the north. There are several routes through the mountains, and Wales and Goldsborough may have been slightly south of their intended course when they encountered what Goldsborough later described as a “terrific snowstorm.” In the middle of Oberg Pass, Wales apparently became disoriented and veered toward Coad mountain on the north side of the gap. With the snow-covered flank looming in front of him, he sought to turn away, lost airspeed, and crashed into a ravine from an altitude of about 200 feet, according to interviews that Goldsborough later gave to the Wyoming press.
Unconscious and bleeding from a deep head wound, Wales slumped motionless in the front cockpit. Goldsborough, too, was injured, though not seriously. After extricating Wales from the wreckage, he bandaged the pilot’s wounds, built a fire to keep him warm, then stumbled down the mountainside for help. Several hours later, Goldsborough, who had shed his leather flying coat to keep his friend warm, reached an isolated ranch. Cowhands on horseback retraced his tracks through the snow, but by the time they reached the wrecked biplane Wales was dead.
Now it was my turn to fly the same pass. Several weeks earlier, as part of my research for a book on the transcontinental race, I had departed Long Island in my plane to retrace the original route, landing at the same towns and cities that served as control stops. With fewer than 200 hours of total flight time under my belt — much of it acquired decades ago — I was still a novice, with no experience in mountain flying. Flying between Cheyenne and Rawlins on my trip west, I had taken a cautious approach, following Interstate 80 — which roughly parallels the Union Pacific tracks — to the north of the Medicine Bow range.
After reaching San Francisco and beginning my return trip, I resolved that I would fly the direct route through the mountains. In preparation, I called Steve Wolff, a retired professional pilot and amateur aviation historian who has extensively researched the Wales crash. Steve generously shared GPS coordinates for the crash site, which I then located on an aviation chart. He confirmed my view that the pass could easily be navigated in clear weather, though he warned that “it’s always windy” in the area and that I should expect a little turbulence.
I was feeling pretty cocky until I shared my plan with a journalist friend — WyoFile co-founder Rone Tempest — who accused me of tempting fate. “Remember the irony factor,” he said. Indeed, we could both imagine the headline: “Reenactment of Fatal 1919 Flight Proves All Too Realistic for Inexperienced Pilot.”
I assured him that I would take every precaution. I spent the night in Rock Springs and the next morning called the FAA’s Flight Services number for a weather briefing. The briefer reported broken overcast at 12,000 feet or so, well above my 9,500-foot cruising altitude, and light winds, though he urged me to leave early to avoid thunderstorms forecast for later in the morning. Once aloft, I had no difficulty spotting Oberg Pass, in part because it is situated just a few miles south of Elk Mountain — at 11,162 feet one of the highest peaks in the range and a landmark that is impossible to miss, at least in clear weather.
And now, dear reader, if you were hoping for disaster, I am sorry to disappoint. A mile or two west of the pass I reduced power and descended to about 700 feet above the lowest point in the saddle. Just off my left wing, several ravines creased the flank of Coad mountain, which was green from recent rains and dotted with clumps of lodgepole pine. It gave me chills to think that Wales had crashed in one of those very same gullies. I imagined the broken fuselage and wings, the swirling snow, and Goldsborough’s desperate, skidding descent down the mountainside in search of help.
I coasted above the treetops for another minute or so, then shoved the throttle forward and resumed my journey, landing in Cheyenne about 30 minutes later.
Wales was the first man to die in a plane crash in Wyoming, according to Wolff’s research. But the next fatalities would come quickly. On Oct. 15, two more pilots in the race, Lieutenants French Kirby and Stanley C. Miller, died instantly when their DH-4 crashed in a snowstorm just west of Evanston. Their deaths brought the total number of aviators killed in the race to seven.
The deaths fueled a public backlash against the race. Editorialists all but accused Mitchell of murder. In the end, only eight planes completed the roundtrip journey. Nevertheless, Mitchell could claim at least a small measure of vindication when the U.S. Postal Service, 11 months later, began flying the mail along the same route his aviators had pioneered.
Today there are few, if any, signs of their passage. The airfield in Green River is now a housing development called Hutton Heights. The race track and its airfield in Rawlins are long gone. Same for the dirt airfield at Fort D.A. Russell, which is now part of the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, with its silos full of strategic missiles.
Oberg Pass, though, looks exactly as it did a century ago. In that sense, there is no more fitting memorial.