Wednesday, January 12, 2011

First to fly around the world

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

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.

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