Header image including Roy Ammel's MHS Yearbook Entry and a Photo with the Blue Flash

By Brian Cole

Roy Ammel, a 1916 graduate of Moorhead High School, became the first person to fly from New York City to the Panama Canal when he accomplished the feat in November 1930.

Ammel was born in Canby, Minnesota and began school in Moorhead in 1912 as an eighth grader. He lived with his physician uncle, Dr. E.W. Humphrey, who was one of Moorhead’s most prominent citizens in the early part of the 1900s. While a student at MHS, Ammel excelled in math and mechanical drawing. He was the class president during his senior year.

Following his high school graduation Ammel pursued a degree in medicine at NDSU, then known as North Dakota Agricultural College. In 1917, Ammel made the decision to leave college and enlist in the armed services. The army selected him for the air service. He started his flight training in the Illinois National Guard and made his first solo flight after only four hours of instruction. Ammel was named a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and was assigned to the seventh air squadron in the Panama Canal Zone. In 1919, he established an altitude world record by flying at 19,800 feet.

In 1930, the Pure Oil Company hired Ammel to fly a Lockheed plane—the “Blue Flash”—around the country for promotional purposes. The plane had originally been built for stunt pilot Arthur Goebels who was hoping to break Charles Lindbergh’s flight time from New York to Paris.

Ammel made plans to use the Blue Flash for the same attempt and, in September 1930, newspapers and newsreels all across the country reported on the excitement of Ammel’s planned flight. One touching story that appeared in print was how one of Ammel’s high school classmates came out to New York’s Roosevelt flying field to cheer on Ammel. One of these classmates was Dr. William Nemzek, brother of Alex Nemzek who was the namesake of the athletic building on the campus of Minnesota State University Moorhead. Dr. Nemzek was an ear, nose and throat specialist who practiced in the New York City area. The following quote is from the Moorhead Daily News:

“As Ammel once cheered Nemzek among other performers on Moorhead High School football and baseball teams, the latter will be among those cheering Captain Roy Ammel when word comes that he has safely left for Europe.”

Due to harsh weather conditions over the Atlantic, Ammel never made the flight. He and his team regrouped and decided to attempt the New York City to Panama Canal flight later in the fall of 1930. He took off on November 9 and landed in Panama on November 10.  The front page of the New York Times reported that Ammel had 703 gallons of fuel and the plane weighed more than two tons. Ammel reported, “I was flying south of Washington D.C. when the sun set. After a brief twilight, darkness came and I discovered that my lights were not working. I read the instrument board with a pocket flashlight and flew all night in darkness.”

NBC radio featured Ammel during its nightly newscast that was broadcast across the country. Moorhead residents were thrilled to hear Captain Ammel’s voice describing his 3,189 mile flight that was recorded in 24 hours and 31 minutes. His return flight to the United States nearly ended in tragedy. There were no concrete runways in Panama so Ammel and the Blue Flash were set to use a large field for their take off. Unfortunately, Ammel’s plane hit a deep hole and the plane flipped and broke apart. Ammel was not seriously injured but the plane was beyond repair. 

Ammel would eventually become president of an Ohio telephone company and was active in the hotel business in the West Indies. It is not known if Ammel ever returned to Moorhead. Ammel passed away on December 5, 1963.

Information for this article was taken from the following institutions and publications, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Moorhead Daily News, New York Times, University of Southern California Archives, Smithsonian Annals of Flight, 1916 MHS Cho-Kio Yearbook and Popular Aviation Archives.