First Flight Around the World: An Adventure for a New Generation

Posted on Thu, April 9, 2015
  • by: Tim Grove is chief of Museum Learning at the National Air and Space Museum.
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Several years ago I had the privilege of working on the core team that developed the Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight gallery. The exhibition tells fascinating stories featuring some spectacular aviation icons of the 1920s and 1930s, including Amelia Earhart’s bright red Lockheed Vega and the Lindberghs’ Lockheed Sirius Tingmissartoq.  One that I wasn’t familiar with is the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago, the first airplane to fly around the world. As I worked with curator Jeremy Kinney on digging into the story and looking for new primary sources to incorporate into our presentation, I was drawn into the plane’s amazing adventure story. I asked many friends if they knew about the first flight around the world. No one did. How does such an incredible tale escape popular history? I decided that younger generations, especially, would enjoy reading about this dramatic saga.

My new book, First Flight Around the World, written for ages 10 to 14, tells the story of the eight Army Air Service men who set out in 1924 traveling west from Seattle in four Douglas World Cruisers, each named for a U.S. city--Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, and Boston. They were attempting to be the first to circumnavigate the globe. The rest of the world was not about to sit back and let the Americans claim the glory, so the quest became a race. Crews from five other countries organized world flights and the race was on.

First Flight Around the World

First Flight Around the World: The Adventures of the American Fliers Who Won the Race

So begins a story of teamwork and problem-solving, complex logistics, and challenges to overcome related to extreme weather, tricky navigation, unfamiliar cultures, fragile planes, and scarcity of airfields.

The flight had barely begun when the Seattle crashed into a mountain in an isolated location in Alaska. The crew, the commander of the flight and his mechanic, survived and miraculously found their way to civilization.

World Cruisers on Alaskan Beach

World Cruisers pulled up on an Alaskan beach to secure them from high waves. (SI-92-17107)

The three remaining planes skipped down the Aleutian Island chain and made the hop across the dangerous North Pacific becoming the first aviators to cross the Pacific Ocean and the first Americans to reach Japan by air.

\"Chicago\" in Hong Kong

The Chicago being hoisted by crane in Hong Kong. (NASM – 9105605)

After the freezing cold, windy, isolation of America’s frontier, they now encountered rivers teeming with boat traffic and the hot sticky weather of tropical Southeast Asia. They saw sights they would remember forever, including sumo wrestlers and Geisha girls, elephants and crocodiles, and rice paddies clinging to steep hillsides. They also felt earthquakes.

And mechanical problems began to plague them. The Chicago’s engine suddenly overheated forcing the crew to land in a lonely lagoon in French Indochina (Vietnam). The two other crews immediately came up with a rescue plan which required travel through tiger-infested jungles and Yankee ingenuity.

The heat of the tropics gave way to the oven-like heat of the Middle East. The British RAF personnel took pity on them and gave them short pants and pith helmets. The Americans ended up with sunburned knees, but stayed cooler. In Calcutta, an Associated Press reporter who had been following their journey convinced them to allow him to ride along. He wedged himself into the Boston and tagged along, though against Army regulation. They continued on through the land of camels, and after almost two months traveling through Asia, they reached Constantinople (Istanbul) at the edge of Europe.

The airmen picked up their pace and arrived in Paris on Bastille Day, greeted by a large crowd. The Olympics were in progress and they pinched themselves as the President of France, Gaston Doumergue,  invited them to join him in reviewing a procession of athletes. They also dined with esteemed American General John J. Pershing.

Arrival in Paris

Crowds greet the World Cruisers at the Paris airport. (SI-79-9004)

Douglas World Cruisers in England

Crowds greeting the American airmen at Croydon, England. (NASM-9A06841)

Eager to work on their planes, they politely declined an invitation to Buckingham Palace in London but did meet the Prince of Wales, who made a friendly wager with them that he would beat them to New York. He was traveling via ocean liner.

Heading north to Scotland and the Orkney Islands, the Boston encountered mechanical problems while over the North Sea. The crew landed the plane on the open ocean and while waiting for help, the seas got rough. Help arrived, but the increasingly harsh weather forced the fliers to make a very hard decision. They abandoned the Boston and watched from the deck of a destroyer as it disappeared beneath the waves. Two planes were left.

With other world flights still in progress, the fliers knew that they must keep moving. Their old foe fog arrived again, keeping them stuck in Iceland and then Greenland for days. Finally they managed to fly to Canada and reached Boston. Marching bands and huge crowds welcomed them to the United States.

They reached their starting point, Seattle, and crossed the finish line after traveling 42,398.2 kilometers (26,345 miles) over 175 days. They had won the race, brought glory to America, and made headlines around the world.

Today the Chicago sits on display in the Pioneers of Flight gallery. The book is based on the Leslie Arnold journal and includes 100+ photos of the flight, most from the National Air and Space Museum Archives. Hopefully this grand adventure story will inspire new generations.

Try out our web activity about the flight.