The First Flight to Hawai'i

The First Flight to Hawai'i

Originally Appearing in "Hawai'i Intrigue" (Abstract 4)
Text by Nicholas Augusta // Images from the Hawai
ʻi State Archives


Four hundred and fifty miles away from Maui, the first plane ever to attempt to fly from the continental United States to Hawai‘i runs out of fuel. Commander John Rodgers—the second U.S. Navy pilot to earn his wings—brings the PN-9 down on the open ocean.

Rodgers, who came from a long line of naval officers and several months earlier had been in command of the Naval Airfield on Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, was chosen by the U.S. Navy to attempt the first flight from the United States to Hawai‘i. The Navy believed the time was right to push the limits of their “flying boats”–so called because they could take off and land on water–and prove once and for all that the capabilities of Naval aviation was superior to the U.S. Army's.

On Aug. 31, 1925, Rodgers and a crew of four boarded the PN-9 at San Pedro Bay near San Francisco. Among their limited supplies was a small thermos of poi given to Rodgers by some Hawaiian friends for good luck.

Once in the air, the flying boat performed well but faced stronger than predicted headwinds. It soon became clear that it wouldn’t be able to reach Hawai’i. Rodgers made the call to land on the open ocean and wait for one of the many U.S. Navy ships placed along the route. He planned to refuel and continue to Honolulu.

The plane made a successful hard landing on the rough seas—but the naval ships were nowhere to be seen. Rodgers, also a master Navy navigator, had his crew rig a sail using the fabric from the plane’s wings and decided they would sail the rest of the way to Honolulu. Based on the winds and the ocean currents, he estimated they could make landfall on Oʻahu in two days.

Two days turned into five and five into 10. The crew endured with limited food, and only a passing rain shower on the ninth day saved them from dying of thirst. Even the “lucky” thermos of poi soured on the second day and became inedible.

After more than a week spent searching for Rodgers’ plane, Navy officials and the general public assumed that either the plane had crashed and all on board were lost at sea, or that the plane had missed the islands completely.

As the Navy and the public began to lose hope, Rodgers and his crew managed to sail their PN-9 in a line that would pass Oʻahu, bringing them off the shores of Kauaʻi. They were sighted by the Navy submarine the R-4 and taken under tow—with Rodgers and his crew remaining on their battered flying boat. They “arrived” in Hawai’i by plane, just as they had originally planned, 10 days after departing from San Francisco. The crew arrived at Nāwiliwili Harbor to a hero’s welcome, with word spreading to Honolulu that the crew had been rescued and was safe.

Their flight made history.

Less than a year after his incredible journey, John Rodgers died in a plane crash in Delaware. But today his name lives on. The main terminal at the Honolulu International Airport is named for him, as is the airport at Kalaeloa. The five Navy crewmen on the PN-9 paved the way for the more than 7 million people who visit the Hawaiian Islands by air every year.