Flight of the Woolaroc
It was a foggy Tuesday morning, August 16, 1927, as eight airplanes prepared for takeoff before a crowd of more than 50,000 at the Oakland Airport in California. Aviation history was about to be made with a race to Honolulu – thanks to a revolutionary petroleum product: Phillips Nu-Aviation Gasoline.
Four days after Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight in May of 1927, James Dole of the Dole Pineapple Company offered a $25,000 first prize for an air race of its own – across the Pacific from Oakland to Honolulu, Hawaii.
Arthur Goebel Jr., a veteran barnstormer and Hollywood stunt pilot joined seven other aircraft in the race, which took place just three months after Lindbergh’s historic flight. Goebel found a sponsor and friend in Frank Phillips, president of Phillips Petroleum Company, Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
Phillips Petroleum – now ConocoPhillips – was involved early in aviation fuel research and had already provided high gravity gasoline for some of the first mail-carrying airplanes after World War I. But in 1927, aviation fuel technology was still in its infancy.
Phillips loaned Goebel $4,500 needed to take delivery of a Travel Air 5000 monoplane. Goebel promised to use a new aviation fuel developed by Phillips Petroleum for the planned 2,439-mile flight over the Pacific. They named the airplane “Woolaroc,” the name of Frank Phillips’ ranch near Bartlesville.
With an enthusiastic crowd of more than 50,000 cheering them on, the eight competing aircraft attempted to take off from the muddy Oakland Airport field at about noon on August 16, 1927. Two of the fuel-heavy planes crashed on takeoff and others soon returned to the airport for repairs.
Early aviation was dangerous. Five aircraft eventually headed out over the Pacific. Only two would make it to Hawaii. Three aircraft and their crews disappeared forever over the ocean.
The Woolaroc arrived after 27 hours, 17 minutes and 33 seconds in flight, winning the race. The only other survivor, Aloha, a monoplane piloted by Martin Jensen, landed just over two hours later – with only four gallons of fuel remaining in its tanks.
Goebel won the $25,000 Dole prize, but six men and one aspiring “aviatrix,” Mildred Doran, had died in the disastrous race. Sixty naval and merchant ships as well as navy and army aircraft searched for two weeks. No traces were ever found.
Despite the tragedy, Phillips Petroleum continued to pursue the aviation market. Today, the Phillips 66 Aviation name remains well known to pilots.
Editor’s Note – In fact, Phillips Petroleum Company produced aviation fuels before it produced automotive fuels. The company’s gasoline came from the high-quality oil produced during the Osage County oil boom, which began in 1917. As Jenk Jones Jr. notes in his Osage County History in March 2003:
“The Osage fields were an oilman’s dream. The oil was a high grade, with a good conversion to gasoline ratio. It was easily refined, with a very high percentage of kerosene. It was free of sulfur and asphalt, and it came from several thick producing sands at relatively shallow depths. Phillips used it to produce the aviation gasoline that he proclaimed the best.”
Two years after the 1927 Dole Air Race, Frank Phillips brought his winning plane back to his Osage Hills ranch and built a hangar for it – the first building in what would become today’s Woolaroc Ranch and Wildlife Preserve.
The name Woolaroc combines three words – the woods, lakes and rocks that make up the beautiful Osage Hills of northeast Oklahoma where Woolaroc is located. The name, originally intended for the rustic lodge, soon became the name for the entire Frank Phillips ranch.
Will Rogers once said, “When you are visiting the beauty spots of this country, don’t overlook Frank Phillips’ ranch and game preserve in Bartlesville. It’s the most unique place in this country.”
Phillips built a stone pavilion on the hill above the ranch’s lodge to house the plane. At first, the structure was just an open shelter with no door or windows. Before long, glass display cases around the plane exhibited the overflow of guns, Indian relics, and other gifts not needed for decorating the lodge, which Phillips called his “airplane museum.”
Art acquisitions would later encroach on the space for the small aircraft. The museum expanded with additions in 1932 and 1939. The art collection also began to expand to achieve Phillips’ vision of “preserving the history of the West that he knew as a young man.”
With increased tourism in Oklahoma, people began asking to see Woolaroc. In 1938, a professional museum director began overseeing the preservation and presentation of the museum’s growing collection. Six years before his death in 1950, Phillips dedicated the Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve with these words:
“Those of us who have been more fortunate have a debt to society, which I believe can best be paid by training and educating the youth of the nation. I dedicate this museum to the boys and girls of today– the fathers and mothers of tomorrow. May they profit by a knowledge of man’s past and be enabled to plan and live a happier future.”
Woolaroc preserves the history of the Oklahoma oil and natural gas industry from the early teens through mid-century. The Oil Patch exhibit includes an authentic working powerhouse that uses rod lines to operate various working equipment on the lease.
Phillips Petroleum’s history with aviation fuel extends well beyond the Dole Air Race. On July 22, 1933, before 50,000 cheering New York City onlookers, famed aviator Wiley Post landed his Lockheed Vega “Winnie Mae” — becoming the first man to fly solo around the world.
Post’s trademark eye-patch resulted from his days working as an oilfield roustabout near Seminole, Oklahoma. When a metal splinter damaged his eye in 1926, he used the $1,700 workman’s compensation check to buy his first airplane. Post developed a close relationship with Frank Phillips, who sponsored Post’s long-distance and high-altitude test flights.
Post’s pressure suit and helmet are on display in the Phillips Petroleum Company Museum in Bartlesville.
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