Look up Harold Bromley in the history books and you’ll find photos of a man ready to take off for Tokyo from Tacoma Field. There are shots of the crowd of thousands, which began gathering at 2 a.m. on July 28 of 1929 to see the pilot off on the historic 4,762 mile flight.
There are also photos of his Lockheed Vega monoplane, the “City of Tacoma,” wrecked on the runway.
This flight turned out to be just one of several ill-fated attempts Bromley would make to become the first person to fly solo across the Pacific.
Though his plane had been designed with a 48 foot wing span, a 425 horse power engine, and tanks that held 900 gallons of fuel. The long process of filling up the plane began at 4 a.m. and continued for hours. As the day grew warmer the gas expanded.
Everything went wrong during takeoff. According to the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room:
“The over-filled gas tanks drenched gasoline onto the windshield; as Bromley leaned to the side for a better look, gasoline spewed onto his goggles and into his eyes. The plane veered off the runway and crashed.”
Though Bromley escaped personally unharmed, the plane he’d persuaded local businessmen to invest $25,000 in was a loss.
Financial backers (including local residents who approved a $300,000 bond issue to build the airstrip) had hoped the flight would make Tacoma famous, much like Charles Lindbergh and the “Spirit of St. Louis” brought to that city.
In the following years three more “City of Tacoma” monoplanes were commissioned from Lockheed, but Bromley never completed the record-breaking flight.
In September 1929, the second plane being tested for Bromley crashed into a Burbank street when a specially designed tail assembly loosened, seriously injuring the test pilot.
In the spring of 1930 the third plane being readied for the trip crashed into Muroc Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert, killing the test pilot.
A later attempt, in the opposite direction, from Tokyo to Tacoma also ended in failure.
Harold Bromley died at the age of 99 in 1997, after a full life as a pilot, a federal aviation inspector, a grape and date farmer and a real estate salesman.
Tacoma Field, which in the 1930s included an Inn that served “Notter’s Chicken Dinners” and Medosweet ice cream, is now part of McChord Air Force Base.
Images courtesy of the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room.