US Planes Embark on First Successful Aerial Circumnavigation Attempt (1924)
In the early 1920s several countries were vying to be the first to fly around the world. The British had made one unsuccessful around-the-world air flight attempt in 1922. The following year, a French team had tried; the Italians, Portuguese, and British also announced plans for a world-circling flight. In the spring of 1923, the U.S. Army Air Service became interested in having a squadron of military aircraft undertake a round-the-world flight. It assigned a group of officers in the War Department planning group, the job of finding a suitable aircraft and planning the mission.
The War Department instructed the Air Service to look at both the Fokker T-2 transport and the Davis-Douglas Cloudster to see if either would be suitable and to acquire examples for testing.[N 1] Although deemed satisfactory, the planning group considered other U.S. Air Service military aircraft both in service and production, with a view that a dedicated design that could be fitted with interchangeable landing gear, wheeled and pontoons for water landings, would be preferable.
When the head of Davis-Douglas, Donald Douglas, was asked for information on the Davis-Douglas Cloudster, he instead submitted data on a modified DT-2, a torpedo bomber that Douglas had built for the U.S. Navy in 1921 and 1922. The DT-2 had proven to be a sturdy aircraft that could accommodate interchangeable wheeled and pontoon landing gear. Since the aircraft was an existing model, Douglas stated that a new aircraft, which he named the Douglas World Cruiser (DWC), could be delivered within 45 days after a contract was awarded. The Air Service agreed and sent Lieutenant Erik Henning Nelson (1888–1970), a member of the planning group, to California to work out the details with Douglas. [N 2]
Douglas, assisted by Jack Northrop, began to modify a DT-2 to suit the circumnavigation requirements. The main modification involved its fuel capacity. All the internal bomb carrying structures were removed with additional fuel tanks added to the wings and fuselage fuel tanks enlarged in the aircraft. The total fuel capacity went from 115 gallons (435 liters) to 644 gallons (2,438 liters).
Lieutenant Nelson took the Douglas proposal to Washington where Major General Mason M. Patrick, Chief of the Air Service, approved it on 1 August 1923. The War Department awarded an initial contract to Douglas for the construction of a single prototype. The prototype met all expectations, and a contract was awarded for four more production aircraft and spare parts. The last DWC was delivered on 11 March 1924. The spare parts included 15 extra Liberty engines, 14 extra sets of pontoons, and enough replacement airframe parts for two more aircraft. These spare parts were sent ahead to locations along the route around the world the aircraft planned to follow.
Douglas World Cruiser aircraft and crew
- Seattle (No. 1): Maj. Frederick L. Martin (1882–1956), pilot and flight commander, and SSgt. Alva L. Harvey (1900–1992), flight mechanic
- Chicago (No. 2): Lt. Lowell H. Smith (1892–1945), pilot, subsequent flight commander, and 1st Lt. Leslie P. Arnold (1893–1961), co-pilot
- Boston (No. 3)/Boston II (prototype): 1st Lt. Leigh P. Wade (1897–1991), pilot, and SSgt. Henry H. Ogden (1900–1986), flight mechanic
- New Orleans (No. 4): Lt. Erik H. Nelson (1888–1970), pilot, and Lt. John Harding Jr. (c.1897–1968), co-pilot
The pilots trained in meteorology and navigation at Langley Field in Virginia, where they also practiced in the prototype. The crews then practiced on the production aircraft in Los Angeles and San Diego.
Four aircraft, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and New Orleans, left Santa Monica, California, on 4 April 1924, for Sand Point, Washington, near Seattle, Washington, the official start of the journey.[N 3]
On 6 April 1924, they left Seattle for Alaska. After reaching Prince Rupert Island, the lead aircraft Seattle, flown by Maj. Frederick Martin with SSgt. Alva Harvey (the only fully qualified mechanic in the flight), needed repairs and remained behind. When it was repaired, the crew attempted to catch up with the other three aircraft, but on 30 April, Seattle crashed in dense fog into a mountainside near Port Moller, Alaska on the Alaska Peninsula. The crew survived and were picked up on 10 May, but the aircraft was destroyed.
The three remaining aircraft continued, with Chicago flown by Lt. Smith and 1st Lt. Arnold, assuming the lead. [N 4] Taking off from the Aleutian Islands, the flight traveled across the North Pacific archipelago. Avoiding the Soviet Union, which had not given permission for the expedition to cross into their airspace, they crossed Japan, Korea, the coast of China, Hong Kong, French Indochina, Thailand, Burma, and India, and proceeded into the Middle East and then Europe.
During the mission, due to a broken connecting rod, the Chicago was forced to land in a lagoon off the Gulf of Tonkin in French Indochina (now Vietnam). The aircraft was considered a novelty in this region of the world, so missionary priests supplied the pilots with food and wine and locals climbed aboard the pontoons to see the biplane. The other flyers searching for the Chicago by boat found the crew sitting on the wing in the early morning hours. Three paddle powered sampans with local crews towed the aircraft for 10 hours, and 25 miles (40 km), to the city of Hue, where repairs were effected. “[T]he fastest – and undoubtedly the first – engine change that had ever been made in Indochina.” Misfortune was again to strike the Chicago as later in the mission, while inspecting the aircraft in Calcutta, Smith slipped and broke a rib but insisted on completing the mission.
On 3 August 1924, while flying across the Atlantic, Boston was forced down. The Chicago was able to contact a navy destroyer and dropped a note about the troubled aircraft, tied to the Chicago’s only life preserver. While being towed by the U.S. Navy light cruiserUSS Richmond, which had picked up the crew, the Boston capsized and sank.
The Chicago with Lt. Lowell Smith and 1st Lt. Leslie Arnold still in the lead, and the New Orleans, with Lt. Erik Nelson and Lt. Jack Harding, continued and crossed the Atlantic via Iceland and Greenland and reached Canada. The original prototype, now named Boston II, reunited with the Boston’s crew, Lt. Leigh Wade (pilot) and SSgt. Henry Ogden, met them in Pictou, Nova Scotia, and the three aircraft flew on to Washington DC. After a hero’s welcome in the capital, the three Douglas World Cruisers flew to the West Coast, on a multi-city tour, stopping briefly in Santa Monica and finally landing in Seattle on 28 September 1924.
The trip had taken 175 days, and covered 27,553 miles (44,342 km). The Douglas Aircraft Company adopted the motto, “First Around the World – First the World Around”.[N 5] The American team had greatly increased their chances of success by using several aircraft and pre-positioning large caches of fuel, spare parts, and other support equipment along the route. At prearranged way points, the World Flight’s aircraft had their engines changed five times and new wings fitted twice.
The flight traveled largely from East to West, beginning in the United States in April 1924 and returning to its start point in September. It flew northwest to Alaska across northern-Pacific islands to Japan and then south-Asia, across to Europe and the Atlantic Ocean.
At the request of the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. War Department transferred ownership of the Chicago to the museum for display. It made its last flight from Dayton, Ohioto Washington, D.C. on 25 September 1925. It was almost immediately put on display in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. In 1974, the Chicago was restored under the direction of Walter Roderick, and transferred to the new National Air and Space Museum building for display in their Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight exhibition gallery.
Beginning in 1957, the New Orleans was displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton. The aircraft was on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and was returned in 2005. Since February 2012, the New Orleans is a part of the exhibits at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, California.
The wreckage of the Seattle was recovered and is now on display in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum. The original Boston sank in the North Atlantic, and it is thought that the only surviving piece of the original prototype, the Boston II, is the aircraft data plate, now in a private collection, and a scrap of fuselage skin, in the collection of the Vintage Wings & Wheels Museum in Poplar Grove, Illinois.
The best in flight Mackay Trophy for 1924 was awarded to Lowell Smith, Leslie Arnold, Leigh Wade, Erik Nelson and Henry Ogden. Later, Major Martin was in command of Army aviation units in Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His mechanic Alva Harvey was commissioned and commanded heavy bomb groups duringWorld War II. Lt. Nelson rose to the rank of colonel and became one of General Henry Arnold‘s chief trouble-shooters on the development and operational deployment of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.
After completing the first trans-Pacific crossing on 9 June 1928, flying from Oakland, California to Brisbane, Australia, Charles Kingsford Smithand Charles Ulm spent several months making other long-distance flights across Australia and to New Zealand. They decided to use their trans-Pacific flight as the first leg of a globe-circling flight. They flew the Southern Cross to England in June 1929, then across the Atlantic and North America, returning to Oakland where their trans-Pacific flight had begun.
Before Kingsford Smith’s death in 1935, he donated the Southern Cross to the Commonwealth of Australia, for display in a museum. The aircraft is preserved in a special glass ‘hangar‘ memorial on Airport Drive, near the International Terminal at Brisbane Airport in Queensland, Australia.
- During 1922–1923, the Fokker T-2 was used by the U.S. Army to set a series of long distance and endurance records.
- Lt. Nelson was eventually assigned to the World Flight as the pilot of DWC #4.
- The aircraft names were chosen to represent “the four corners of the United States.” The individual aircraft were formally christened with waters from their namesake cities, prior to departure from Seattle where Boeing Company technicians configured the aircraft for the long over-water portion of the flight, by exchanging wheels for pontoon floats.
- One of the Army’s best aviators, 1st. Lieutenant Lowell H. Smith, was named to pilot the Chicago and was permitted to choose his own co-pilot, 1st Lt. Leslie P. Arnold, who would double as a flight mechanic.
- The Douglas logo evolved into an aircraft, a rocket, and a globe and was adopted by the McDonnell Douglas Corporation following the merger of Douglas and the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in 1967, and then became the basis of the logo of the Boeing Company following its acquisition of McDonnell Douglas in 1997.
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