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The first flight around the world.

The quest to become the first to fly around the earth

In 1924 four Douglas World Cruisers and eight American crewmen set out from Seattle, Washington, to attempt the first around-the-world airplane flight. One hundred seventy-five days later three of the aircraft and crews became the first to circumnavigate earth.

The Douglas World Cruiser biplane was a variant of the Navy’s DT-2 torpedo bomber that could be operated either with wheels or floats. The prototype was delivered 45 days after the contract was let in summer 1923. Tests were successful, and four more aircraft were ordered. Each of the aircraft was named after a US city representing a compass point: Seattle, crewed by Maj. Frederick Martin (pilot and flight commander) and SSgt. Alva Harvey (flight mechanic); Chicago, crewed by Lt. Lowell H. Smith (pilot) and 1st Lt. Leslie Arnold; Boston, with 1st Lt. Leigh P. Wade (pilot) and SSgt. Henry H. Ogden aboard; and New Orleans, with Lt. Erik Nelson (pilot) and Lt. Jack Harding in the cockpits.

The success was largely a result of extensive planning; 30 spare engines were dispatched all over the world prior to the flight; with co-operation of the Royal Air Force and the US Navy, 28 nations supplied thousands of gallons of fuel and oil along the flight path.

The airplanes left Seattle, Washington, on 6 April 1924 and headed west, equipped with the latest navigational aids. Even so, fog, blizzards, thunderstorms and sand storms took a toll. On April 30, Seattle crashed in dense fog on a mountainside near Port Moller on the Alaska Peninsula. Major Martin and Sergeant Harvey hiked out of the wilderness. The remaining crews continued, flying on to Japan, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Europe, England, and Ireland. On 3 August Boston was forced down in the North Atlantic, sinking in rough seas while being towed. A prototype was dispatched to Nova Scotia, where Lieutenant Wade and Sergeant Ogden renamed the aircraft Boston II and rejoined the flight. The crews stopped in several US cities and returned triumphantly to Seattle on 28 September.

The trip had totalled 175 days, covering 44 360 km (27,553 miles), with stops in 61 cities, the total flying time being 371 hours, 11 minutes.

Nine years later, in 1933, it took another American, Wiley Post, only 7 days to be the first to fly solo around the world. Between July 15 and 22, Post covered 25 110 km (15,596 miles) in 7 days, 18 hours and 49 minutes in one of the most remarkable displays of flying endurance of the century. Post’s single engine Lockheed Vega, the Winnie Mae was equipped with a Sperry automatic pilot, a radio direction finder, and other new devices.

Earlier, in 1931, ex-barnstormer Post and navigator Harold Gatty had thrilled the nation by dashing around the world in the Winnie Mae. The flight was not only a great technical achievement, but one which demanded extraordinary fortitude. For over 106 hours, neither Post nor Gatty had an opportunity to sleep. The flight’s elapsed time of 8 days, 15 hours and 51 minutes far surpassed the previous record of 21 days set in 1929 by the airship Graf Zeppelin.

The first non-stop flight around the world was made by, again, a team of the US Air Force flyers in 1949. Taking off from Carswell Air Force base in Fort Worth, Texas on 26 February, Captain James Gallagher and a crew of 14 headed east in a B-50 Superfortress, called Lucky Lady II. They were refuelled four times in air by KB-29 tanker planes of the 43rd Air Refuelling Squadron, over the Azores, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Hawaii. The circumnavigation was completed on 2 March, having traveled 94 hours and 1 minute, covering 37 743 km (23,452 miles) at an average 398 km/h (249 mph).

The next quest was to fly around the world, nonstop, non-refuelling.

By 1986 designer Burt Rutan and pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager had devoted over five years to building and flight-testing the Voyager. The canard wing design, or forward elevator, similar to that successfully used by the Wright brothers in 1903, provided additional lift and improved the plane’s efficiency and range. A preliminary sketch of the 1903 Wright Flyer was drawn on a brown paper bag in the Wrights’ living quarters in 1902. Coincidentally, the first sketch of the Voyager was made on a paper lunch napkin in 1980.

Constructed of graphite composites, Voyager’s total weight was 4 050 kg (9 000 pounds), including an unprecedented 3150 kg (7 000 pounds) of fuel. On 14 December 1986 Richard Rutan and Jeana Yeager took off from Edwards, California, piloting the Voyager from a cramped 2,3 m (7.5 ft) long, 1,1 m (3.3 ft) wide and 1m (3 ft) tall cockpit. Voyager’s takeoff weight was more than 10 times the structural weight, but its drag was lower than almost any other powered aircraft. Voyager’s wingtips sustained minor damage during its takeoff roll because of the massive amount of fuel. Approximately 75 cm (2.5 ft) of graphite skin was missing from the left wing’s foam core.

Traveling at an average speed of 185 km/h (115.8 mph), it took the Voyager 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds to become the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe nonstop, non-refuelling. They triumphantly landed again at the Edwards Air Force Base at 8:06 a.m. PST 23 December 1987.

VOYAGER – the first aircraft to circumnavigate earth non-stop, non-refuelling.

Douglas World Cruiser
Douglas World Cruisers –
first to circumnavigate the globe, in 1924

The Douglas World Cruiser Chicago is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C., while New Orleans is on display at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, California. The Seattle wreckage was retrieved in 1967 through the efforts of Bob Reeve to go on display in the Centennial Aviation Museum, which caught fire in 1973. It survived the fire and is now displayed at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum.

Geraldine Mock
Jerri Mock

In 1964 Geraldine “Jerri” Mock became the first woman to fly solo around the world. Her single-engine Cessna 180 was called the Spirit of Columbus. For more info, spread your wings toward the women’s pilot organisation “Ninety-Nine”

The first woman to earn a pilot’s license was Raymonde de Laroche, who got hers on 8 March 1910. (By that time many women in Europe were flying, albeit without an official licence.) Later the same year, Blanche Scott became the first woman pilot in the USA when the plane that she was allowed to taxi suddenly became airborne. In 1911, Harriet Quimby became the first licensed American female pilot. In 1912, Quimby became the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

First in-air refuelling in 1923
First in-flight refuelling 1923

The first in-flight refuelling was tackled by the US Army Air Service on 25 June 1923. In August, lieutenants Lowell H. Smith and John P. Richter set a world’s record by staying aloft for 37 hours and 15 minutes in a DH-4 over San Diego with the help of refuelling from another DH-4 (above).