First Flight Around the World

On April 6, 1924, eight U.S. Army Air Service pilots and mechanics in four airplanes left Seattle, Washington, to carry out the first circumnavigation of the globe by air. They completed the journey 175 days later on September 28, after making 74 stops and covering about 27,550 miles.

The airplanes were named for American cities and carried a flight number: Seattle (1), Chicago (2), Boston (3), and New Orleans (4). They flew over the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans and encountered climatic extremes from arctic to tropical. Only the Chicago, flown by Lts. Lowell Smith and Leslie Arnold, and the New Orleans, flown by Lts. Erik Nelson and John Harding Jr., completed the entire journey.

The Chicago, Boston II, and New Orleans head toward Mitchel Field, Long Island, outside New York City on September 8, 1924.

The Objective
The World Flight’s goal was to evaluate the airplane as a global technology. Operating the World Cruisers in extreme environments would test the airplane’s practicality and showcase America’s aeronautical industry. Connecting the world by air routes would foster better international relations and encourage commerce. And it would create popular support for the Army Air Service and its goal of expanding its role within the U.S. military.

Planning for a World Flight
The flight of the Douglas World Cruisers was a massive undertaking. The U.S. Army Air Service, Navy, Coast Guard, and Bureau of Fisheries shared the critical task of establishing remote supply and repair depots and providing assistance on the open seas. Thousands of gallons of fuel and oil, 35 replacement engines, and numerous spare parts had to be distributed throughout the world, including places where airplanes had never before flown.

To keep their airplanes light enough to get aloft, the fliers could only take 300 pounds of supplies in each plane. They had to make tough decisions about what to include. They did not take parachutes or life preservers.

The Journey Begins
The World Flight officially began on April 6, 1924, in Seattle, Washington. The flyers flew up the coast of Canada to Alaska, where they faced freezing temperatures, thick and unpredictable fog, and sudden violent storms. The crossing from the Aleutian Islands to the Soviet Union’s Komandorski Islands on May 15 was the first flight across the Pacific Ocean.

In Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, the fliers encountered williwaws, or “woolies”—sudden, strong, destructive winds up to 75 miles per hour that rushed down from the mountains. Read how Leslie Arnold described them in his diary.

"The hop from Sitka to Seward was to prove worse than anything we had so far experienced."

- Lt. Leigh Wade

From Japan through Southeast Asia
Typhoons, disease, extreme heat and humidity, and the sometimes guarded hospitality of their foreign hosts stressed both the fliers and their airplanes as they ventured further into Asia in May and June.

Japan, excited about aviation but suspicious of the American military presence, dictated a serpentine route that protected its military secrets. The rivers and harbors of China and Burma proved to be crowded, chaotic havens for the World Flight. The jungles of French Indochina tested the flyers as they raced to make repairs to the Chicago and stay on schedule.

In Saigon, Indochina, the fliers could not get service at a restaurant because they were not wearing jackets. They tried to explain their situation—they could borrow their Navy friends’ shirts and trousers but not their uniform coats. Still, the waiter refused service.

"When we arrived at Paramushiru, it seemed as though we had descended from the clouds into a new world."

- Leigh Wade

"A great roar of “Banzai!” broke from the crowd when the American plane first appeared."

- The Atlantic Constitution

From India to the Edge of Europe
The World Flight’s journey through the Far and Middle East in June and July spanned the tropical jungles of India and the blowing sands of modern-day Iraq and Jordan. They allowed Associated Press reporter Linton Wells, to join them for part of the flight.

As the World Flight crossed into Europe, ever-larger enthusiastic crowds greeted the fliers.

Crossing the Atlantic
The World Cruiser crews faced their longest over-water flights while crossing the North Atlantic in August. The Navy stationed a series of ships along the route to rescue the fliers if they had to land in the open ocean. Dense fog and sudden storms proved to be a continual problem.

The flight from Iceland to Greenland tested the pilots’ skill and courage. They encountered heavy fog and had to fly very low and close to the waves. Flying at 90 miles per hour with little visibility, they barely avoided hitting towering icebergs. One of the pilots later admitted he was terrified.

The World Flight Arrives Home
From Ivigtut, Greenland, the Chicago and New Orleans crews made the 560-mile flight across the Atlantic to Icy Tickle, on Indian Harbor in Labrador, Canada, on August 31. Boston  pilots Wade and Ogden rejoined the flight three days later at Nova Scotia in the Douglas World Cruiser prototype, newly christened the Boston II.

After reaching the United States, the pilots soon became exhausted by the parades, receptions, speeches, and banquets given in their honor. Everyone wanted to see them, including President Calvin Coolidge. Read the secret telegram Coolidge sent to them.

“If our hospitality seems ferocious, forgive us because it comes from the heart. You will find as you proceed along the home stretch that these receptions are the first evidence of the feeling that all Americans long to show you. The world never forgets its pathfinders. Those who trod the wilderness and cross the seas filled with dangers are never forgotten by posterity.”

- New York Senator James Wadsworth

The Final Miles
Once in the United States, the World Flight faced adoring crowds eager to see America’s latest aviation heroes. The fliers flew down the East Coast to Washington, D.C., west across the Alleghenies to Dayton and Chicago, and south to Dallas. From there, they crossed the desert southwest to San Diego. Their triumphant journey up the West Coast culminated in the official conclusion of the World Flight at Seattle on September 28, 1924.