With the successful crossings of the Atlantic in 1919 by the U.S. Navy's NC-4 and Alcock and Brown in a Vickers Vimy, circumnavigation of the globe by airplane was a natural next challenge. In July 1923, U.S. Army Air Service disclosed that it intended to attempt a global flight the following year. Four specially built aircraft were commissioned from the Douglas Aircraft Company. The World Cruisers, as they were called, were christened the Seattle, the Chicago, the Boston, and the New Orleans.
Only the New Orleans and the Chicago completed the arduous 44,085 km (27,553 mi) flight. It took 175 days, with a flying time of 371 hours 11 minutes. Throughout the journey the crews prevailed against an endless series of forced landings, repairs, bad weather, and other mishaps that continually threatened the success of the flight. A monumental logistical accomplishment, it was an important step toward world-wide air transport.
With the successful crossings of the Atlantic in 1919 by the U.S. Navy's NC-4 and the British flyers, Alcock and Brown, in a Vickers Vimy, the ambition to circumnavigate the globe by airplane was a natural next challenge. The British made an unsuccessful attempt in 1922. The following year a French team tried and failed, and another British effort was being organized, but was abandoned. The Italians and Portuguese were also discussing plans for a round-the-world flight at this time. In July of 1923, United States War Department disclosed that it was sending two officers on an information-gathering trip to stake out a route for a global flight to be attempted by the U.S. Army Air Service in 1924. Maj. Gen. Mason M. Patrick, Chief of the Air Service, was put in charge of planning and directing the flight.
For the flight, the Air Service commissioned specially-built aircraft from the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California. The design was a sturdy, 15-m (49-ft) span, two-place biplane powered by a single twelve-cylinder, water-cooled 400-horsepower Liberty Engine. A total of five airplanes were built, including a prototype for testing. The Douglas World Cruisers, as they were named, could be equipped with wheels or pontoons, depending on the terrain from which they were operating. The aircraft did not have radios or advanced navigational aids, only the standard rudimentary flight instrumentation of the day.
The four World Cruisers built for the round-the-world attempt were christened the Seattle, the Chicago, the Boston, and the New Orleans, to represent the regions of the United States. Four of the Air Service's top pilots were selected. Major Frederick L. Martin was designated overall flight commander and flew the Seattle. Lt. Lowell H. Smith, Lt. Leigh Wade, and Lt. Erik H. Nelson piloted the Chicago, the Boston, and the New Orleans respectively. Each pilot was permitted to select his own mechanic/co-pilot. The crews trained at Langley Field in Virginia in navigation and meteorology, and practiced with the prototype airplane while the flight aircraft were being constructed and prepared.
In the meantime, elaborate preparations were being made for fueling and repair sites at strategic locations along the route, arranging of overflight and landing clearances, and securing the cooperation of the U.S. Navy and the Royal Air Force. Because the United States did not recognize the Soviet Union at this time, flying over Siberia was prohibited, necessitating a southeast Asian route that added 11,000 km (6,875 mi) to the journey.
After practice with the four flight aircraft in Santa Monica and San Diego, the crews headed north to Seattle, the official point of departure for the round-the-world flight. Shortly after setting off on the first leg of the trip on April 6, 1924, Major Martin, piloting the lead airplane, the Seattle, fell behind. Engine trouble forced him down and the other World Cruisers continued on. After an engine replacement, Martin and his mechanic, Sgt. Alva Harvey, attempting to catch up with the others waiting at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, departed in questionable weather. The Seattle crashed into a mountainside after getting lost in fog. The airplane was destroyed, but luckily Martin and Harvey escaped with minor injuries. Lt. Smith, piloting the Chicago, took over as flight commander.
Much of the rest of the trip passed with relative good fortune. The three remaining World Cruisers continued on via the northern Pacific chain of islands en route to Japan. The three aircraft then traversed China, Indo-China, Siam (Thailand), Burma, India, Persia, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and France. From Strasbourg, they were escorted to Paris by the French Air Force, and there they received a tumultuous welcome from cheering crowds on July 14, Bastille Day. The next day they left Paris and landed in London.
Disaster occurred again, however, over the north Atlantic between the Orkney and Faroe islands, when the Boston suddenly lost oil pressure and had to alight in the ocean. Although the landing was successful, the Boston was damaged beyond repair during an attempt to hoist it on board a Navy ship. The World Cruiser fleet was thus reduced to two, but at Pictou, Nova Scotia, the prototype aircraft arrived to join the remaining two and became the Boston II. From there the planes flew on for a triumphal journey across the United States, arriving in Seattle on September 28. The 44,085 km (27,553 mi) flight was completed in 175 days-a flying time of 371 hours 11 minutes-with an average speed of 112 kph (70 mph).
The 1924 round-the-world flight remains one of the truly great achievements in aviation. It was an incredibly arduous trek. The loss of two of the airplanes and the close call for Major Martin and Sgt. Harvey in the crash of the Seattle were hardly the only setbacks. Throughout the journey the crews prevailed against an endless series of forced landings, repairs, bad weather, and other mishaps that continually threatened the success of the flight. Further, it was a monumental logistical accomplishment. More than just an aviation milestone, the flight was an important step toward the goal of world-wide air transport in the decades to come.
Two weeks before the Douglas World Cruisers completed their flight around the world, a young museum aide named Paul E. Garber recommended that the Smithsonian Institution should acquire one of the aircraft for its collection. Eleven months later, the Secretary of War approved the transfer of the Chicago to the Smithsonian. On September 25, 1925, this aircraft made its final flight from McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio, to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. Later that fall, the airplane was placed on public display in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building.
The Chicago was restored in 1971-1974 and moved into the new National Air and Space Museum building in 1976. Of the five Douglas World Cruisers built, the New Orleans is the only other survivor. It is in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.