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First Flight Around the World

The Douglas Cloudster.  

 (San Diego Air & Space Museum) 

 

The First Flight Around the World

In 1923, the Air Service approached Donald Douglas for a bid, based on his first design, the Davis-Douglas Cloudster, for the world flight aircraft. To expedite this project, Douglas and his young engineer, Jack Northrup, redesigned a then-current, successful aircraft, the Douglas DT-2, Navy torpedo plane. Forty-five days later, the DT-2 had evolved into a trimmer, more field-serviceable design, capable of carrying much more fuel and oil on both wheels and floats. 

With Air Service acceptance, the prototype was built and tested. This became the trainer for the world flight crews and four additional DWC's (Douglas World Cruisers, as they became known,) were built in Santa Monica. These were flown by two-man, pilot and mechanic, crews to Sand Point, Washington, for the official start. The flight up the coast was the group's first cross-country formation flight together. Much was learned about the aircraft, each other, and some hint of what lay ahead. In Seattle, with the committed help of The Boeing Company, final outfitting took place. The DWC's were mounted on floats and underwent many last minute adjustments and repairs. 

 

Crowds gather to see the aircraft at Clover Field, Santa Monica California on March 17th 1924. 

 The four Douglas World Cruisers were christened at Sand Point, in a grand, jubilant celebration. Due to Prohibition, however, water was substituted for champagne, but it was water special to each aircraft's name. The lead aircraft, Number One, was christened The Seattle, with water from Lake Washington. Number Two, The Chicago, was applied with Lake Michigan water; Number Three, The Boston, received water from Boston Harbor; and finally, Number Four, The New Orleans, was christened with Mississippi River water. 

 

After some delays, both weather and mechanical, the DWCs departed Sand Point on 6 April 1924. The weather played havoc with the large, open cockpit biplanes and crews. Engine trouble and landing accidents ensued. The Alaska-Aleutian weather, worst in ten years, continued to challenge man, machine, and luck. Major Martin and Crew Chief, Sergeant Harvey, in the Number One lead ship, Seattle, got lost in a snow storm and crashed. Their flight was over, but their luck held. Ten days later, they walked out, joyous news for a relieved world. The remaining three DWC's were ordered on, with The Chicago and Lieutenant Smith now taking the lead. 

One of the Cruisers flies over the Port of Kushimoto, Japan. The large ship is the American four-funnel destroyer USS Pope (DD-225).  The Pope was on a goodwill tour to Japan in 1924 to back up the coincident arrival of the Douglas World Cruisers flight.

In Japan, tremendous ovations greeted the first crossing of the Pacific by aircraft, but the huge Japanese celebrations had to be cut short as the pilots were ever mindful of a long trip ahead, and a slipping schedule. With monsoons coming on, they hurriedly changed engines and floats, and were off. 

 

The tropical climate was a great relief from the freezing Arctic, but it only brought on new mechanical delays. Engine overheating and failure in conjunction with poor performance caused their schedule to slip more and more. In Calcutta, at last, floats were exchanged for wheels, new engines and wings installed. In the sweltering heat, they continued to agonize over thoughts that an early winter would halt their North Atlantic crossing. They pressed on, across India, continually battling the elements and engine problems with skill, grit, and luck. The three World Cruisers flew on to Karachi, Baghdad, Turkey, Vienna, and finally, arrived in Paris on Bastille Day. The French citizens and dignitaries, both public and military, showered the aviators with flowers, honors, gifts, and many banquets. At the next stop, the Londoners were ecstatic with the world flyers, and especially applauded the great sportsmanship they had shown in giving assistance to the English world flight crew, who had troubles in the Far East. 

The crews had made good time and were almost back on schedule, but winter was coming on. Before the crossing was made, much work had to be done. In Hull, England, floats replaced wheels, new engines were installed, and extensive overhaul inspections quickly placed all the parties, medals, and awards recently enjoyed in Paris and London, far behind them. 

The most dangerous leg lay ahead: home across the great, stormy North Atlantic. Engine failure brought the Boston down between the Faeroe Islands and Iceland. The crew was rescued, but the aircraft, lost. It was an early winter and challenged the remaining two aircraft, The Chicago and The New Orleans. Ice-blocked harbors, fog to the water, icebergs and head winds, with still more mechanical problems, almost ended the flight. But the flyers, feeling their goal so close, strove on, as the whole world held its breath. 

On 31 August, a collective sigh of relief was heard around the world, as the two remaining DWC's landed at Icy Tickle, Labrador. They were soon joined by The Boston's crew, in the prototype DWC, newly-named Boston II, as a tribute to the crew's tenacity and bravery. At Boston, they landed to change, for the last time, floats to wheels. The crews were overwhelmed by the tumultuous turnout of well-wishers and celebrations. They were home, and on the final leg; it was amazing. 

Next: Washington DC, to meet with President Coolidge and his Cabinet, who waited hours in the rain, refusing to miss this great event. The U.S. tour was a triumph; everyone wanted to see them. The response was, that they were rare human beings, as if they had been to other worlds, and, indeed, they had. Aviation was born, in that it could accomplish new, great, and exciting feats. The world was conquered. Man had wrapped his wings around the globe and it was now, for the first time, really his world. The first flight ended in Seattle on 28 September 1924, but a great event never really ends. For a First is a celebration for all time. History had been made and the world was full of new possibilities.

 

 

In this video short from the National Archives, Prologue magazine staff writer Rob Crotty tells of the journey of eight Army airmen as they set out in 1924 to be the first humans to ever circle the globe by air.

Dr. Jeremy Kinney, curator in the Aeronautics Division at the National Air and Space Museum, discusses the Douglas World Cruiser "Chicago" and the first flights around the world. This informal gallery talk was recorded on October 20, 2010 as part of the National Air and Space Museum's "Ask an Expert" lecture series.

Vintage silent newsreel documenting the original journey. (National Archives)