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How The U.S. Won the Race to Circumnavigate the Globe by Air

The first round-the-world flight was an achievement but also a surprise

The 'Chicago,' one of four aircraft to attempt the round-the-world trip. The others were named 'Seattle', 'Boston,' and 'New Orleans.' (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

This week in 1924—September 28, to be exact—the remaining two airplanes that made up the the first round-the-world flight landed in Seattle, Washington, the city they had left almost six months before. “The world never forgets its pathfinders,” New York Senator James Wadsworth said at a stop near the end of their trip. “Those who trod the wilderness and cross the seas filled with dangers are never forgotten by posterity.”

From a technical perspective, the first round-the world flight wasn’t that big of a deal. After all, the flight took 175 days, with the planes making 76 hops to complete the journey. But it did matter from a perspective of international relations. The airplane opened up borders in a new way, and the ability of a plane to fly around the world, even in this limited way, was a demonstration of the fact that air flight had strong potential for international travel–and that countries would have to find new ways to interact with one another in light of that fact.

“The aerial circumnavigation of the planet was the latest in a global pursuit to conquer the skies,” writes Rob Crotty for Prologue Magazine. “Since the Wright brothers at the turn of the century, flying had become a hobby of nations, and the rush of aerial developments during World War I had turned hobby to obsession.” The globe had been circumnavigated before and in far less time. Journalist Nellie Bly, for example, had circumnavigated the globe in 72 days by land and sea almost a generation before. But this was about seeing if it was possible to do it with some of the newest technology.

The trip also offered the fledgling U.S. Army Air Service, a precursor to the Air Force, an opportunity to prove its usefulness in peacetime, writes Pamela Feltus for the  U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission. One of the United States’ wartime planes, the Douglas DT torpedo bomber, was modified to make the round-the-world flight and rechristened the Douglas World Cruiser.

Planning the mission was a huge undertaking, writes the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: “Thousands of gallons of fuel and oil, 35 replacement engines, and numerous spare parts had to be distributed throughout the world, including places where airplanes had never before flown.” The logistics of refueling and resting had to be established: in the end, writes Crotty, the planes basically hopped from place to place in flights of less than 1000 miles. The countries they landed in–all 22 of them–had to give their permission, a significant diplomatic undertaking.

But despite all this planning, confidence in the airplanes was thin. In Seattle at the time of launch, Crotty writes, people were betting that only one plane would return from the mission. The four open-cockpit planes could only carry under 300 pounds of supplies, writes the National Air and Space Museum, which meant no life preservers and no parachutes. Less than a month out, the lead plane crashed, containing the expedition leader. Although he and his mechanic both survived, the other three planes had to go on without him. A second plane failed over Karachi, which was then part of India: Its crew also survived, but they were out of the flight.

That two planes made it back was an achievement. On the way, they broke another record, writes Crotty, being the first airplanes to fly across the Pacific.

“Americans were wild about aviation in the 1920s and ‘30s, the period between the two world wars that came to be known as the Golden Age of Flight,” writes the National Air and Space Museum. “Air races and daring record-setting flights dominated the news.”  With this flight, the United States asserted its place in the air race.

Editor's note: This article originally misstated the date that the flight completed: the pilots landed in Seattle on September 28, 1924.

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