Avgeek Alert: The 100th Anniversary of the First Flight Around the World

30/04/2024

Behind more than a few of the great feats carried out by humankind have been thinly veiled or downright frank races between countries to be the first to achieve glory. A prime example is the moon landings of 1969, the product of a fierce rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States to surpass each other technologically. Well, 45 years earlier, there was another competition, to circumnavigate the planet by plane, and it was in 1924 that it was achieved for the first time.

What Came Before

Twenty-one years earlier, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first manned flight after several failed attempts. Granted, that flight only lasted twelve seconds and covered thirty-six meters (118 feet), but it laid the foundation for the development of aviation.

From that moment on, engineers of the time set out to achieve faster, lighter, and more resilient aircraft. Meanwhile, early aviators were adding new heroic deeds, suggesting that airplanes would soon become the most coveted mode of transportation: crossing the English Channel (33 kilometres/20 miles), the first commercial flight (30 kilometres/18 miles), and coast-to-coast flights across the United States (in 47 days, mind you).

Each new goal pushed aircraft to improve upon their predecessors in terms of endurance and speed. In the early 20th century when aeronautical engineering was just taking off, so to speak, aircraft flew low and needed to stop every few kilometers. And then came the dream of circumnavigating the world by plane.

Around the World by Plane… in 80 Days?

Actually, no: it took these intrepid aviators more than double that time: 175 days. But it’s quite possible they were partly inspired by the adventurous spirit of Jules Verne‘s Around the World in 80 Days imagined half a century earlier. Or who knows, maybe by the expedition four centuries prior led by Juan Sebastián Elcano, after whom one of Iberia’s A350s is named.

But how do you circumnavigate the world in aircraft that, at best, could cover distances of just over a thousand kilometres, needing to refuel many times, and were far from resembling the ones we use today to go on holiday? How do you achieve such a feat with aircraft whose cruising altitude was nine hundred meters, twelve or thirteen times less than today’s? Let’s find out!

Only One Can Remain

In this case, two. But we mean there were several countries vying to achieve this aerial circumnavigation. One of them (the one that succeeded, in fact) was the United States. They wanted to claim that medal, and so the U.S. Air Force asked the Douglas Aircraft Company to build an aircraft capable of circumnavigating the globe.

The model adapted for this feat was a torpedo bomber, the Douglas DT, with its weaponry replaced by fuel tanks, so the World Cruiser created for the occasion held nearly six times more fuel than the DT.

The World Cruiser was also equipped with an additional landing gear and floats that would allow it to land on water if necessary (which it was, as we’ll see later).

From Seattle to Seattle, Flying Across the Entire Planet

Four airplanes promised to complete the round-the-world journey by air. The Seattle was piloted by Major F.L. Martin, accompanied by Sergeant Mechanic A.L. Harvey. The Chicago carried First Lieutenant L.H. Smith and Sergeant Mechanic A.H. Turner. The Boston had Leigh Wade at the controls and H.H. Ogden as the mechanic. And the New Orleans was piloted by First Lieutenant E.H. Nelson, with Second Lieutenant J. Harding Jr. alongside.

On April 6th, the expedition departed from Seattle to Alaska. But right at the starting point, the Seattle had to drop out due to various repairs. From there, the other three aircraft crossed the United States; traveled the East Coast to Canada; reached Europe via Greenland; crossed the United Kingdom from north to south, then France, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe. Since the Soviet Union had denied them airspace, they flew over the Middle East (Aleppo, Syria; Baghdad in Iraq, and the southern coast of Iran); reached India, crossing it from the north: traveled through Southeast Asia; flew over Japan; the crossed the Pacific Ocean from south to north until reaching Alaska and returning to Seattle, with a stop in Washington DC, where an excited crowd awaited them.

Only two aircraft completed the full journey, Chicago and New Orleans: the first Boston was forced to land in the Atlantic, and both Wade and Ogden were rescued, but in Canada, the Boston II joined them and reached the finish line with their companions. Finally, on September 28th, 44,085km (27,393 mi.), nearly six months, and 61 stops later, the military personnel returned to the starting point.

The actual flying time was 371 hours (plus some minutes). Today, that journey would take only 67 hours, but we can’t deny those pioneers from a century ago their remarkable achievement.