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First Flight Around the World

The Australian team is pictured here with their Vickers Vimy twin engine biplane. From left to right are brothers Ross and Keith Smith and their mechanics, James Bennett and Wally Shiers. The flight took 28 days to traverse the 17,911 kilometers (11,123 miles) from London to Darwin.  (Australian War Memorial)

A Brief History of the First Flight Around the World

   In the aftermath of World War I, Europeans pursued the airplane as a means of visiting overseas places far more vigorously than Americans.  In 1919, two Brits, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, first flew the Atlantic.  Later that same year, two Australians first flew from England to Australia. In 1923, two U.S. Army Air Service fliers made the first nonstop U.S. Transcontinental flight in a modified Fokker T-2. 1923 also saw several European flyers attempting to circumnavigate the globe by air. All were unsuccessful in their efforts.

Undaunted by these failures, the U.S. Army Air Service was drawing up plans of their own to stake their claim as the first fliers to make the flight around the world. In a team effort that some historians have equated with the 1960s' effort to put a man on the moon, Army planners in less than a year acquired suitable aircraft, researched an efficient but unorthodox route and devised a logistics network to support the flight. Working with the Douglas Airplane Company of Santa Monica, California, the Army purchased five highly modified Navy torpedo bombers capable of flying on wheels or pontoons -- a critical factor since they aircraft would switch between the two depending on which part of the world to be covered -- over land or along coastlines. One served as a prototype with the remaining four expected to make the journey, each with a pilot and mechanic. Douglas dubbed the aircraft the Douglas World Cruiser (DWC).

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

Unlike the other attempts which relied on prevailing winds to fly an easterly course, the Army chose the alternative, a westerly route.  Weather experts concluded the most favorable weather for crossing the treacherous North Pacific occurred in the spring while the best chance to span the Atlantic appeared to be in late summer.  To accommodate these considerations, Major General Mason Patrick, commander of the Air Service, declared the flight would start and end at Sand Point, a small military airfield a few miles northeast of downtown Seattle on the shore of Lake Washington. 

On April 6, 1924, the four DWCs -- the Seattle, Boston, Chicago and New Orleans -- departed Sand Point for southeast Alaska and points west.  Despite horrible weather, the eight crewmembers pushed on.  Unfortunately, the Seattle, piloted by the mission commander, Major Frederick. Martin, crashed into a mountain on the Alaska Peninsula.  Surviving 10 days in the wilderness, Martin and Staff Sergeant Alva Harvey were rescued.  Their flight was over'; the three others continued on to Japan.

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.

As the first aviators to cross the Pacific, the Army fliers received an incredible welcome from the Japanese.  With little time to spare in their efforts to beat the monsoons in South Asia, they departed after replacing their engines and pontoons.  With Martin left behind, Lt. Lowell Smith in the Chicago became mission commander.

While the tropical climate offered some relief from the chilly weather previously experienced, the aircraft proved less reliable than expected, prompting unscheduled delays for maintenance.  Finally reaching Kolkata (Calcutta) on India's East Coast, the aircraft underwent major changes -- the engines and wings were replaced and the pontoons swapped for wheels.

 

 

Relying on limited navigation aids and overcoming unfavorable weather and mechanical headaches, the crews battled their way westward across modern-day Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and into Turkey.  From there they made their way across Europe, arriving in Paris on Bastille Day, July 14.  Nearly back on schedule, they continued to London and then to Hull, where they transitioned back to pontoons before attempting the first successful east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic by airplane.

Between the Faeroe Islands and Iceland, engine failure prompted the Boston to land. A Navy destroyer positioned along the route for just such an eventuality rescued Lt. Leigh Wade and Sergeant Henry Ogden, then took Boston under tow, but the aircraft eventually sank.  On August 31, the two surviving aircraft reached Icy Tickle, Labrador. The world expressed a collective sigh of relief.  The prototype aircraft, renamed Boston II, with Wade and Ogden at the controls, rejoined the surviving pair for their victory lap across North America.

 

 On September 28th, 1924 they touched down to a jubilant reception at Sand Point. They had come full circle to complete their long journey around the globe and into the history books. 

Last landing of the World Flight. Sand Point September 28th, 1924.


Video Histories

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. You can read his wonderful extended overview of the entire flight at this link from the National Archives site: Magellans of the Sky

Dr. Jeremy Kinney, a curator with the Aeronautics Division of the National Air and Space Museum, discusses the Douglas World Cruiser "Chicago" and the first flight 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. Dr. Kinney and the National Air & Space Museum have been an invaluable source of information for our project.

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