Tired of Diplomacy as Usual, This Congressman Flew Solo to Promote World Peace

Representative Peter F. Mack’s soaring diplomatic ambitions made aviation history as he traveled through Europe, South Asia, Japan and then across the vast Pacific Ocean

a colorful illustrated portrait
Illustration by Scott Bakal

In May 1951, Representative Peter F. Mack was in his southern Illinois district on what promised to be an unremarkable listening tour among his constituents. Amid the usual glad-handing and baby-kissing, Mack received a surprising challenge from his friend John W. Hobbs, an automobile parts manufacturer.

Hobbs noted how scary things looked worldwide: Europe was still a mess after World War II, the Soviet Union had recently gotten the bomb, conflicts were raging in Korea and French Indochina, and anti-Western protests had begun in Iran. Conventional diplomacy had failed at the mighty task of bringing peace, Hobbs argued, in large part because U.S. diplomats rarely tried to communicate with ordinary citizens in other countries.

“Our top brass just talks to the top brass of other countries,” Hobbs told Mack. “They never get down to the level of the people themselves.” Hobbs had a novel suggestion for solving the problem. “Why don’t you fly to some of these countries and talk to the people?” he asked his friend. Hobbs knew the 34-year-old Mack had a deep passion for helping others—as well as a passion for flying.

So Mack and Hobbs worked out an idea for an unusual global goodwill tour, starting and ending in Springfield, Illinois. Mack would fly around the world alone, serving as both daring pilot and unofficial ambassador as he represented the people of his district and extended their wishes for peace.

When Mack returned to Washington, D.C. for that spring’s congressional session, he discussed the idea of the globe-trotting tour with his friend Paul Garber, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Air Museum (now the National Air and Space Museum). Garber had recently acquired an airplane that was perfect for the journey: a single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza, which racing pilot Bill Odom had used in 1949 to set a world record for nonstop long distance in a light plane, flying 4,957 miles from Honolulu to Teterboro, New Jersey. The Bonanza’s extra gas tanks on the wingtips and in the cabin would serve Mack’s mission well. But now the Bonanza was in storage. Not in the habit of loaning out artifacts, the Smithsonian temporarily gave custody of the airplane back to the Beech company. Mack paid Beech $3,200 to have the airplane reconditioned, and the company agreed to let him use it for the flight.

an antique red and silver airplane sits in a hanger
Before Mack’s trip, the same airplane was flown by Bill Odom to set a light-plane, nonstop distance record, from Hawaii to New Jersey, in 1949. NASM

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $19.99

This article is a selection from the July/August 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Mack and Hobbs budgeted $10,000 for the trip, largely raised through $5 and $10 donations from constituents. Once Congress went into recess, on October 7, 1951, Mack set off on his adventure. On the way, he became one of the very first humans to complete a solo flight around the world, and the first to cross the Pacific Ocean alone in a light airplane. Today, his unique and perhaps quixotic quest stands for a simple but powerful notion: the potential each person has to make the world a better place. As Mack said at the time, “Goodwill is everyone’s job, and I am thoroughly convinced that it is the responsibility of every American citizen.”

Mack was born in rural Carlinville, Illinois, in 1916, and from a young age he worked in coal mines and in the family business—the local Ford dealership. A devout Catholic, Mack “was always interested in others and what he could do for them,” recalls Mona Mack Melampy, one of his two daughters. His passion for aviation started early, and after a first ride at age 13 in an old World War I trainer, Mack was hooked. He served in the Navy in World War II as a flight instructor, though he never flew overseas in combat.

Once peace was declared, Mack found another way to serve. He was elected to Congress in 1948, gaining acclaim for his promise to provide underprivileged children a free trip to Washington, D.C. to see Congress in action—at his own expense. (It was a promise he kept throughout his congressional career, ultimately bringing more than 1,200 kids.) He also gained fame for campaigning by air throughout his district, with “Mack for Congress” splashed on the side of the plane he owned at the time.

a man waves while exiting an airplane
Congressman and pilot Peter F. Mack arrives in Hawaii in the Friendship Flame in January 1952, on the final leg of his global goodwill journey.  Courtesy the Mack Family

Ahead of the 1951 flight, Mack rechristened the Bonanza the Friendship Flame and painted “The Abraham Lincoln Goodwill Tour” on the side. (Lincoln’s name then, as now, was known around the world, and Mack’s district was home to Lincoln’s longtime residence.) At Springfield airport on October 7, Governor Adlai Stevenson, Hobbs, Mack’s parents and some 2,000 well-wishers bade him goodbye. As Mack later recalled in a speech following his flight, “I climbed into the smallest airplane ever to attempt to make a solo flight around the world.” At the controls, he felt galvanized: “filled with enthusiasm, and with the determination to carry out the idea of the citizens of this area—to express their friendship to people throughout the world.”

What faced him, though, was an entirely new challenge. Mack had never flown across oceans or deserts and, for the next 113 days, would face extreme tests of his endurance and concentration as pilot, navigator and goodwill ambassador. The airplane cabin was cramped with the extra gas tank. There was no room to stretch, and little for any luggage. He’d packed only a couple of suits, several small knives, a flashlight, some cash, a parachute and a small movie camera.

Mack made brief stops in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., before heading to a U.S. naval base in Newfoundland. Well-fed on lobster, he headed out over the Atlantic, first to the Azores islands to refuel. “Hurricane-inspired tail winds carried me along at speeds up to 210 miles per hour” before he reached the Azores, he later wrote in Collier’s Weekly. At his next stop, Lisbon, he found a large crowd waiting, as he also did in Madrid, Amsterdam, Oslo and Helsinki. Unable to gain entry to the Soviet Union, Mack then zipped off to the epicenter of the Cold War: West Berlin. He noted wryly that the ordinary Germans with whom he spoke displayed a newfound appreciation for the United States, thanks to the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift of 1948-49: When Mack met a retired Berlin schoolteacher, he later wrote, the teacher “ostentatiously announced, ‘I take off my hat to you!’”—and promptly did.

Mack’s tour of Europe also included London, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, Paris, Luxembourg, Bonn, Geneva, Nice, Rome and Athens. At each stop, his routine was the same: check into a local hotel, deliver a “friendship scroll” to the mayor from the people of his district, and then head into the streets and shops, speaking to anyone who would talk to him.

In Belgium, he visited a coal mine similar to those he’d worked in back in Carlinville. He descended 4,500 feet into the earth, talking with miners as they toiled in sweltering heat. When he resurfaced, a huge crowd had gathered to marvel: Local officials had never bothered to make the descent. “They welcomed me to their village and had a reception in the city hall.”

Mack had his first close calls in the air during the European leg. While flying from Madrid to Amsterdam, he was terrified to find he’d fallen asleep at the controls. “The towering Pyrenees were below me, and every time I nodded, the plane’s nose headed toward them. I dozed, fought my way back to consciousness, dozed … drank black coffee, dozed and caught myself again,” he recalled. More troubling, Mack narrowly avoided death when the engine quit over the unforgiving Alps—because he had forgotten to reroute the fuel from depleted tanks to full ones; he adjusted just in time. He had to contend with dangerous icing while flying from Dublin to Paris, not to mention a bouncy landing in Switzerland “in a cow-pasture airport so rough that I’ll bet even the cows couldn’t keep their feet.”

Throughout the journey, Mack shot footage with his movie camera—the canals of Amsterdam, palm trees in Lisbon, and bustling streets in Madrid and Helsinki. Moving on to the Middle Eastern leg of the trip, he filmed the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as he flew down into Baghdad.

Flying south, Mack filmed the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, where he made a brief refueling stop at the Dhahran Air Force Base. He then skipped due east across the Persian Gulf and, hugging the coastline of southern Iran, made his way to India and Pakistan in early December. The countries were still reeling from partition in 1947, which had led to war and millions of displaced Muslims and Hindus on either side of the border. Yet Mack saw each country’s vibrant, bustling streets and schoolchildren playing and “was impressed with the enthusiasm and vitality of these new nations,” he later recalled. Still, he recorded: “The poverty was awe-inspiring. … I got the impression that if Russia wanted to move into any part of South Asia east of Turkey, it would be like walking through a paper bag.”

Mack made brief stops in Rangoon and Bangkok before arriving in Saigon. The First Indochina War had been raging since 1946 between France and the Communist army of Ho Chi Minh. Given China’s intensifying involvement in Korea on the side of the North, there was growing fear China might offer similar aid to Vietnamese Communists. But Mack also found hostility against the U.S. One man he met on the street in Hanoi was a nationalist who told the congressman: “We don’t like the United States because you forget your own struggle for independence and do not support ours.”

Although Mack found a warm welcome in the Philippines, “The physical strain of the trip had caught up with me, and as I stepped from my plane, my knees buckled,” he recalled. “A doctor in Manila had warned me that I was near collapse, so I spent the rest of that day in bed.” But the following day was Christmas Eve, so despite his fatigue, Mack pressed on. He attended midnight Mass in a little church in Taipei, then flew 900 miles into the Korean battle zone on Christmas Day. He landed at a U.S. Navy base in terrible weather and had Christmas dinner on the base with two constituents who happened to be stationed there. “I didn’t expect you to come halfway around the world to hear a constituent’s complaints,” one of them joked.

a map painted onto the side of an airplane
Mack’s Friendship Flame on display at the National Air and Space Museum. Introduced in 1947, the Beechcraft boasted retractable landing gear. NASM

Mack spent around a week in Japan, and although he filmed the busy streets of Tokyo and the devastation of Hiroshima, the goodwill portion of the journey was over. Mack transitioned to preparing himself and the Friendship Flame for the most challenging part of the trip—the trans-Pacific leg. He would have to navigate with absolute precision in order to find tiny islands—mere specks in the vast ocean—where he would rest and refuel.

On January 8, 1952, Mack started for his first trans-Pacific stop, Iwo Jima, and encountered turbulence and rain squalls “all of the 660 miles.” He landed on the little island in the dark, grateful for his high-functioning instruments.

That luck didn’t hold. The next day, Mack set out for Wake Island. Soon, his artificial horizon—an instrument that tracks the airplane’s orientation to the earth’s horizon—failed, and even after he spent ten and a half hours using other instruments to keep the plane level, the tiny atoll was nowhere in sight. “It was then that I thought for the first time of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance near this same area of the Pacific,” he recalled. “I could hear other airplanes calling to me by radio, but I could not get through to them—and I couldn’t find the tiny island. I never felt so lonely in my life.” After another torturous 30 minutes, Wake came into view. Mack pointed the movie camera out the window as he circled before landing—grateful to be alive.

The rest of the trans-Pacific leg was exacting but uneventful: Midway, then Hawaii, where he stayed for a week for repairs and well-deserved rest. On January 21, after flying 2,400 miles from Hawaii, Mack landed in San Francisco—completing the world’s first solo crossing of the Pacific in a light plane. After stops in Tucson and Dallas, he returned to Springfield on January 27, 1952. He had flown 33,000 miles, and visited 45 cities and 35 countries. This time, Stevenson, Hobbs and Mack’s parents awaited him—along with 10,000 joyful citizens. Mack returned the airplane to the Smithsonian and himself to Congress, where he served until early 1963.

Mack himself could be surprisingly diffident, especially by the standards of a politician, and he never really exploited the trip for personal gain. He wrote two articles about the adventure and gave a few talks, but he sought no further publicity or notice. As his daughter Melampy told me, “Once he had done something, he moved on.” Put a different way, “He was a workhorse, not a show horse,” says Congresswoman Nikki Budzinski, who represents Mack’s Springfield area today.

Reflecting later on what he’d accomplished in his article for Collier’s, Mack recorded how the long hours in the air had given him a new perspective—and hopes for peace. “From where I sat, I could see no international boundaries and no squabbles among nations,” he wrote. “During those lonely hours, I thought more and more of peace and of the folly of man fighting man, and wherever I went I found people echoing my sentiments.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.